By Laura Berman
THE DETROIT NEWS, April 19, 2015
If some children are crushed by early criticism, others are sometimes inspired to prove their critics wrong, gaining strength and courage from the experience.
Alfred Taubman, a sensitive man who enjoyed being right, learned as a young Pontiac schoolboy to place the unfair criticisms of others in perspective. He was both left-handed — a distinction then considered an affliction — and dyslexic, a reading disability only later understood. “I wasn’t a problem kid. I was well-behaved, but I might have looked backward to people,” he told me and Betsey Hansell, a friend and colleague. People, he explained, “were looking at you as a kind of failure.”
At the time of that 1983 Free Press interview, Taubman was ascending to extraordinary heights. “If Victor Gruen invented the shopping mall, Alfred Taubman perfected it,” the author Malcolm Gladwell later wrote. A mall mogul then on the move, he was being lauded as the architect of a complex, expensive Orange County, California, land deal and the new owner of Sotheby Parke Bernet, the august but failing London art auction house. He quickly transformed it into Sotheby’s — a high-powered engine for international art sales.
By then, the sheer breadth of his accomplishments was taking shape. His ambition — and courage — was on full display. By then, he knew that the handicaps of his youth were gifts. They enabled his creative vision, his ability to see what was and instantly imagine what could be, while staying attuned to nuance and detail at a very particular level. He had what his attorney Jeffrey Miro once described as “a parallax view,” an ability to see in multiple dimensions.
Over the years, I had the chance to interview Taubman several times, and never failed to be impressed by his candor, humor and dynamic spirit. During our last visit, at his home a few years ago, he gently ridiculed me for failing to identify a De Kooning painting, while quizzing me relentlessly on the museum art displayed on his living room walls.
He was an entrepreneur by nature, a self-made builder and creator, and he could be spontaneous, brusque, kind, witty and imperious — all within the span of minutes.
He transcended his roots — owning homes in elite capitals, from London to New York to Palm Beach. From grade school “kind of failure,” he reigned in the 1980s and early 90s as an art world influencer, one cited (by Vanity Fair) for assembling “the swellest board of directors in business,” while cannily transferring his retail skills to Sotheby’s.
During Taubman’s reign, Sotheby’s auctioned off the estates of the Duchess of Windsor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, events that seized the public imagination while creating unprecedented profits.
What didn’t get into the headlines was Taubman’s lifelong passion for art, one that had begun when he was an art and architecture student at the University of Michigan before World War II. In the 1950s, as a young builder, he bought art from New York’s up-and-coming artists, traipsing to lofts and developing his eye.
“He really supported art in every way that he could,” said Marsha Miro, an art critic and founder of MoCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.) “It wasn’t trophy art. It wasn’t about selfies. He bought wonderful art and placed it in his malls, bringing it to people.”
But Taubman’s most graceful and illuminating moments came later, after that world crashed, with a federal conviction for colluding with Christie’s, a competitor, in 2001. He served his 10-month-sentence quietly, emerging slightly bowed but unbeaten. His witty and real autobiography, “Threshhold of Resistance,” became a bestseller. Why did he write it? “For my grandchildren,” he told me, repeatedly.
If he’d always been philanthropical, he doubled down, making extraordinary gifts to the University of Michigan, $142 million in all, and other institutions, including Lawrence Institute of Technology, Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Center for Creative Studies, in Michigan, and others across the country.
To create the U-M Taubman Medical Research Institute, led by neurologist Dr. Eva Feldman, he didn’t only donate millions for the building and operating costs. Stem cell research was illegal in Michigan then. Feldman, and other Michigan scientists, were using laboratories in other states to do research.
So Taubman bankrolled Proposal 2 in 2008, spending more millions for a successful statewide campaign that convinced Michigan voters to legalize stem cell research.
The major edifices are important, but a few of his smaller gestures best reveal his character. In 1950, as a young builder in his 20s, Taubman decided to visit a Bloomfield Township construction site. Two teachers, Sara and Melvyn Smith, were building their home, a Frank Lloyd Wright design, on a slim budget. When Taubman spoke to the couple, he learned they didn’t have enough money to install windows. Taubman wasn’t famous then, or even wealthy. Even so, he promptly ordered the windows and had them installed, saving the house and the couple’s dream.
Throughout his life, Taubman quietly paid bills and helped support people, including Rosa Parks, without recognition or ceremony. He could be bold and brusque and a tough negotiator who terrified his mild-mannered mall tenants, intimidated contractors, and scared faint-hearted reporters. He had learned early on that results matter, sometimes more than feelings.
He got results.
Taubman lived — and led — with style, curiosity, perfectionism and a generosity of spirit that will endure in art museums and universities, in lives saved by medical research, in halls of commerce. In so many places and so many hearts, including mine.