Over the course of three lunchtime interviews in recent months, Mary Boone stays resolutely on message: She insists she has been no more aggressive than the male art dealers who came before or after her. Unlike some of her male counterparts, namely Larry Gagosian and Matthew Marks, she says, she did not just swoop in and scoop up name artists developed by other gallerists—she went out and discovered new talent. And if you think sexism doesn’t exist in the art world, she asks, why is it that virtually every story written about her in the past 30 years has fixated on her (sexy, sky-high, expensive) shoes? Then, at our third lunch together, as Manhattan is emptying out for Labor Day weekend, Boone arrives at Michael’s, not far from her Fifth Avenue gallery, with her skin tanned from two weeks spent hiking, doing yoga and eating vegan at the Ashram retreat near Santa Monica. After her usual abundant niceties—she is generous with compliments—she dives right in. “I think I lost my way,” she announces, unprompted. “It was the Eighties. I got too involved with fame and fortune.”
Meet the new Mary Boone. The dealer who epitomized the hard-charging excesses of the Eighties art market, whose dragon-lady reputation made her a convenient scapegoat for its devastating crash, now improbably says that her mission in life is “helping other people.” Today the pint-size (five feet one, 105 pounds) pit bull of yore donates her thick, tar black hair to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for sick children, and delights in feel-good movies like Wall-E. The woman who could sell a Hummer to Al Gore insists, “I’ve always been more interested in making history than in making money.” But fear not. The new Boone, who puts her age at 57, hasn’t gone all soft and boring. She remains an intriguingly complex, paradoxical figure—the same woman who took one day of maternity leave when her son, Max, was born (take that, Sarah Palin) but who always wore two watches so she could have one set to the time zone Max was in when he was visiting his father (and her ex-husband), art dealer Michael Werner, in Europe.
The story of Boone’s ascendancy could be scripted for Hollywood: She grew up in Michigan and Los Angeles, and later enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design. After realizing she couldn’t cut it as a painter, she came to New York to study art history at Hunter College. Sculptor Lynda Benglis, who was teaching at Hunter, helped Boone land a job as a secretary for her boyfriend, Klaus Kertess, at Bykert Gallery, his influential East 81st Street space with a roster that included Chuck Close, Brice Marden, Richard Tuttle and Dorothea Rockburne. “I was a complete nobody from no place,” Boone says while picking at her salad. “That was the job that changed my life.”