On the living room floor of Anne Anka’s West Hollywood house, half-hiddenbehind a 19th-century marble-top commode,is a photograph by Slim Aarons. In it, a fresh-faced, glamorous blondein a crisp button-down shirt leansagainst the hood of a Mercedes-Benz parked outside thepristine white fence of the Pebble Beach EquestrianCenter, while young girls in riding caps and their ponies gather around her. The lovely blonde is, of course, Anka, the girls are her daughters, and the photograph suggeststhe pure, patrician pleasures that, under different circumstances, might have circumscribed her life. But onthe living room mantel, just a few feet away, a double-headed bronze dildo by the artist Lynda Benglis tells asomewhat different story.
For the better part of 50 years, Anka, an Egyptian-born model and the ex-wife of the Rat Pack–era crooner Paul Anka, has been quietly building—then dismantling andbuilding again—an astonishing collection of contemporary art. “I was never a lady who lunched,” says Anka, her smooth, still-blonde hair framing the face that graced so many Vogue covers. “That’s just not me. Never had any interest.”
And yet Anka stumbled into collecting much the way any other young mother living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the 1960s might have stumbled into membership at the Colony Club. One day, she was walking through Central Park when she met the art dealer Paula Cooper, who had children around the same age. The two women became friends, and Anka started buying pieces by some of the minimalist and conceptualist artists that Cooper, the very firstgallerist in SoHo, was famously championing. “I didn’t know anything about contemporary art at the time,” Anka recalls. “Paula got me going.” A few of the early purchases—Mark di Suvero and Joel Shapiro bronzes, works by Sol LeWitt and Robert Rauschenberg—can still be found among Anka’streasures, but nowadays she thrills to emerging artists like Pamela Rosenkranz, Will Boone, and Josh Smith, and to mature, midcareer figures such as Glenn Ligon and Kelley Walker. Large canvases by canonized painters Christopher Wool and Albert Oehlen anchor her collection. “I still respond to abstraction,” she says. “I’ve never been afraid of it, and by now I’m just so accustomed to living with it.”
Anka was born Anne de Zogheb to an English mother and a Lebanese father. Her grandfather, who had been educated in France and knighted by the king of Italy, had inherited vast swaths of land in Alexandria, which was where the de Zoghebs were living when revolution wracked Egypt in 1952. The family moved to England, and Anne was placed in a convent school. By the time she graduated, there was no money left for university. “I was sent to a finishing school instead, which to me was a disaster,” she says. “Manners and all that. My parents had moved to Paris, and I called them and said, ‘I can’t stand this place. I’m not staying.’”
So she moved to Paris, too, where she took a job at a small fashion house and, emboldened by a boyfriend, decided to visit the offices of Dorian Leigh, the famous model who by then owned a major modeling agency. Within a couple of weeks, Anne had booked the cover of French Elle. She was 17.
Soon thereafter, she drew the notice of the legendary modeling agent Eileen Ford, who asked Anne’s parents for permission to relocate her to New York. They agreed, on the condition that Ford take her in. And so in 1959, she moved into Ford’s Upper East Side townhouse. “I worked hard,” Anka remembers. “I wasn’t the type to date photographers and that sort of thing. I was serious, I think,because my family had lost everything. My father had tried to do the stock market a bit, but he was in his 50s when we came to Europe. He was an elegant and sophisticated person, but you couldn’t just land and find a job.” Anne’s was one of the most photographed faces of the early ’60s—Richard Avedon, Bert Stern, and Helmut Newton were among the lensmen who captured her—and she supported her family with her earnings.
In 1960, while in Puerto Rico for a shoot, she met Paul Anka, who was amazed to learn that the golden-haired creature who had caused such a sensation on the beach was of Lebanese extraction, just like he was. “Paul was very famous,” Anka remembers. “The nuns would not allow us to listen to Elvis Presley—and I was so madly in love with Elvis—because he was too suggestive. But Paul’s musicthey allowed, so I knew all his songs.” They began a relationship back in New York, to the chagrin of Ford, who was wary of show business and protective of her charge. “She didn’t approve. He’d come to the house, and Eileen would say, ‘Keep him waiting!’ I moved out soon after that.”
Anne and Paul married in 1963 and spent several years in New York before his career drew them to Las Vegas. There they moved in the exalted orbit of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr., and Anne bounced from one Elvis concert to the next. (By then, she could count on Presley to lean down from the stage and give her a peck on the cheek at the start of a show.) But Anne didn’t want to raise her growing family there, and in the mid-’70s the Ankas moved to Carmel, California, for no reason other than that they liked the idea of it. They hired the architecture firm Buff & Hensman to design a big modernist house overlooking Monterey Bay, and Anne bought major works by Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and other midcentury giants to fill its walls. “I was buying what I loved,” Anka says. “People who visited the house didn’t really know what to think.”
The Ankas moved to Los Angeles around 1990 and divorced, amicably, in 2001. “When we split up, Paul said, ‘I’ll take the house, you take the art,’” Anne remembers. “I said, ‘Fine, fine.’” At that point, Anne, whose collecting never waned even during the years when she was busy raising five daughters, began to work with Lisa Schiff, a New York art adviser who had been a college classmate of one of the Anka girls. Anne had a museum-quality Cy Twombly that was incredibly fragile, and her pleasure in it had given way to worry. Schiff’s first job for Anka was to place the painting in a European collection.
The two started going to galleries, and Anka fell hard for the new generation of abstract painters. Her taste for large-scale, vividly colored, often dense and frenetic canvases surprised Schiff for its boldness. Anka knew instantly whether she would buy something or not. She could never be persuaded to love an artist she didn’t, nor to reject an artist she loved.
“I recall feeling kind of frightened of her when we first met,” Schiff says. “I was only 18, and she was so elegant and proper. But Anne has an edge. I remember going to the house and seeing the double-headed dildo by Lynda Benglis, and I thought, Okay, this woman is cool.”
Like their owner, many of the works in Anka’s collection possess a tweaked elegance: Wool’s red whorls, Rudolf Stingel’s stylishly gaudy gold stripes, Wyatt Kahn’s chicly assembled canvases. With the exception of a Gerhard Richter painting, nothing is overly polite. Some feel deeply personal, such as a Kris Martin “self-portrait”—a white wooden shelf with a key on its side that, when turned, plays a twinkling music-box version of “My Way.” Paul Anka wrote the song for Sinatra, adapting it from a popular French tune whose lyrics Anne had translated for him.
It almost goes without saying that much has changed since Anka made her first forays into the art market. Now collectors of her caliber are offered hundreds of works each day. It falls to Schiff to sift through an in-box freighted with JPEGs. “The pace is overwhelming,” Schiff says.“And that aggressive activity is not Anne’s style.”
Nor does she care to make the rounds at gallery and museum openings. “Been there, done that,” Anka declares.“Though the other night I went to the opening of the David Kordansky Gallery. I got dressed—I wore a black dress, had my hair nicely combed, high-heel shoes, and all that, and most people—you’d think that they were going to a pool party. I looked around and thought, How odd…But I guess that’s L.A.”
And yet, given the number of young art stars who make Los Angeles their home, Anka is friendly with some of the artists whose work she collects, a treat given that she has more time since three of her daughters have dispersed far and wide (Geneva, Monte Carlo, and London). Anka is both friend and muse to Elliott Hundley and has appeared in several of his works. (A piece in which Anka plays the role of Agave was recently acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.) “I have a group of very sweet young men who will take me places,” Anka says. “Which is perfect, because it doesn’t give you all the baggage.” Among them is the artist Alex Israel, one of whose orange sunset paintings hangs in a hallway across from an iconic orange Ellsworth Kelly color-block lithograph. Together, they offer a lesson on the evolution of abstraction.
Anka’s house is small, and with its walls nearly paved in artwork, she may soon have to consider the ceilings. “Most people who come here are either intimidated by the art or not interested in it,” she says. “I don’t get a lot of ooh-aahs, which is fine. I don’t do it for that reason.” She herself is also a painter and attends classes at the Brentwood Art Center. An abstract canvas with which she is particularly pleased leans against a pair of French doors in the dining room, in the shadow of works by Garth Weiser, WaleadBeshty, and Edward Ruscha.
Though she has never bought art strictly as an investment, Anka has an eye that has made her a few fortunes over the years, and she’ll have something nice to leave to her daughters—though it’s not likely to be either of the naughty Cecily Brown drawings in her bedroom, which would have vexed the nuns far more than Elvis did. “Honestly, my daughters don’t pay much attention,” she says. “They know it’s a passion of mine. They’re glad I’m busy, and it certainly beats buying dresses at Barneys.”