By Georgette Gouveia
When Roy R. Neuberger died at his Manhattan home on Christmas Eve, the loss could be felt from Wall Street to museums around the country. For Neuberger, who lived to the grand old age of 107, didn’t merely have a footing in both the financial and artistic worlds. He inextricably linked them, using the wealth that he amassed first as a stockbroker and then as co-founder of the investment firm Neuberger Berman to create a collection that ultimately became the basis for Purchase College’s Neuberger Museum of Art and also nurtured 70 institutions around the United States.
In a sense, Neuberger inherited both his business acumen and his artistic passion. He was born on July 21, 1903 in Bridgeport, Conn. to Louis Neuberger, a businessman with an interest in the stock market, and his wife, the former Bertha Rothschild, who played the piano. Orphaned at age 12, Neuberger was raised by an older sister, Ruth, whom he would later fondly recall as a real mother to him.
After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in Manhattan, where the family had moved, and attending New York University briefly, Neuberger took a job as an upholstery fabrics buyer at the now-defunct B. Altman & Co., honing his eye for shape, line and color. Neuberger’s next move would transform his life. He took a comfortable inheritance and set sail in the spring of 1924 for Paris, then the center of the art world. In the City of Lights, he once told this reporter, he refined his tennis game and his connoisseurship of women. He also read Floret Fels’ biography of Vincent Van Gogh, whose impoverished neglect so moved him that he decided to become a collector of living artists.
To do this, however, he would have to make real money. He headed to Wall Street in the spring of 1929, becoming first a runner and ultimately a broker for the firm Halle & Stieglitz. Almost immediately, he demonstrated the intuitive skills that would define his career as an investment specialist, selling short shares of RCA as a hedge against the fall he sensed was coming. Ten years later, he and Robert Berman founded Neuberger Berman, where Neuberger worked until he was 99. (The firm was sold to Lehman Brothers in 2003 for roughly $2.63 billion in cash and securities. Five years later, it was resold to its own management as part of Lehman’s liquidation.)
The same year Neuberger started his investment company, he began collecting painters and sculptors who today make up a Who’s Who of American Art – Alexander Calder; Nyack native Edward Hopper; Jacob Lawrence; Georgia O’Keeffe; David Smith, a onetime sculpture teacher at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers; and especially Milton Avery, whose use of flat, colorful shapes led him to be dubbed “the American Matisse.”
In 1969, Neuberger donated a significant portion of his collection, more than 900 works, to found the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, spurred by his good friend Nelson A. Rockefeller, then governor of New York. Today the Neuberger has more than 7,000 modern, contemporary and African works.
The man who gave his name to both an investment firm and a museum was always wry and spry, as evinced by the title of his autobiography, written at age 94, “So Far, So Good” (John Wiley & Sons). Speaking of his pal Rocky’s ancestral home in Pocantico Hills, Neuberger once observed, “Kykuit is what God would’ve built had he had the money.” (His own woodsy weekend retreat in northern Westchester, with its views of undulating verdure, wasn’t too shabby, either.)
Neuberger also possessed a courtly appreciation of women that is all but lost in our vulgar age. Whenever you’d interview him, he’d speak with profound respect of his late wife, the former Marie Salant, who shared his foothold in both the investment and museum worlds for almost 65 years. (Neuberger is survived by their three children – Ann Neuberger Aceves, Roy S. Neuberger and James A. Neuberger, as well as eight grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren.)
Later Neuberger formed an attachment with another vibrant brunette, the late singer and arts advocate Kitty Carlisle Hart. He liked to tell the story of how they met cute at a Metropolitan Museum of Art board of trustees meeting, where he switched the place-cards so that he could sit next to her.
That was vintage Neuberger, a man who believed in making his own luck.
How fortunate we are that he chose to share it with others.
Georgette Gouveia is a reporter for the Westchester County Business Journal. Follow the Journal online at westfairinc.com.