De Menil’s rapport with the art world started as a child surrounded by masterpieces but began in earnest after her divorce from Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman (father of Uma), with whom she had her only child, daughter Taya. Newly single, de Menil enrolled at Columbia University in 1963 to study religion and organized a series of “happenings” in the Hamptons. The program, called Midsummer, featured such artists as Robert Whitman, Twyla Tharp and La Monte Young. Whitman, known for his performance pieces, remembers doing one in, quite literally, a swamp. “[Christophe] dealt with the baloney—the bureaucrats and permits and people who don’t want something that’s out of their range of experience,” he explains.
“The Hamptons were very different then,” says de Menil, who now has a house in Sag Harbor. “It was like a big family of artists.” She got to know de Kooning while working as a sound coordinator on Hans Namuth’s documentary of him. “I never talked to him about [Midsummer], but he knew of it. He said, ‘You think you’re hot potatoes? I’m hot potatoes.’” She laughs. “He was very sweet, and we became friends.” De Menil later bought his work, although these days she eschews collecting masters, preferring to befriend young artists, some of whom she met through Dash. “I try to place young artists in a gallery,” she says, noting that she introduced painter Ry Fyan to New York’s Half Gallery, a collaboration that resulted in a sold-out show last October. “People trust me—I have no ulteriors. I’m not trying to make [the galleries] rich or the artists rich or anything.”
In 1980 de Menil teamed up with avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson and served as his costume designer for the next 20 years. Four years later she started making clothes for private clients (she also launched a short-lived retail line in 1990). Although de Menil now admits that her collection was overambitious, many admired her work. “She was always around artists but [she was] not necessarily the artist, and then when she launched her line, it was unequivocal that she had great capability,” says choreographer Trisha Brown, who recalls a dress de Menil crafted for her. “She asked, ‘What color will it be?’ I said, ‘Dawn,’” Brown says dreamily. “And she did it.”
During this time de Menil was living in a spacious carriage house on East 69th Street, which she bought in 1976; she tapped Frank Gehry to start its renovation and hired artist Doug Wheeler to design the lighting. She says she still misses the house (and its lap pool). “My daughter got married and left, and I was divorced, so I was there by myself,” says de Menil, who married for a second time in 1971, to Chilean artist Enrique Castro-Cid, before divorcing three years later. “I would walk around with an emergency panic button—it was so stupid. I felt uncomfortable in this huge box with a lot of windows.” De Menil moved into an apartment in 1987 and sold the house to power art dealer Larry Gagosian, who redid it. “I’m heartbroken that it was completely destroyed by Gagosian, totally,” she says. “There’s nothing left of Doug.”