Her Father’s Daughter: The Turbulent Life of Lisa de Kooning

March 16th, 2013

Arnold Newman/Getty Images

Lisa de Kooning, with her father, Willem de Kooning, and Elaine de Kooning, rear, who stayed married to the artist while he had affairs with other women, including Lisa’s mother.

On Dec. 15, 2012, a mild early-winter day, some 250 guests filed into St. Luke’s Episcopal, a Gothic-style stone church in East Hampton, N.Y., for the memorial service of Lisa de Kooning, the only child and sole heir of Willem de Kooning, the Dutch-born Abstract Expressionist. She had died three weeks earlier, on Nov. 23, at her vacation home on St. John in the United States Virgin Islands. She was 56.

Displayed by the pulpit, and tucked into the programs, was a photograph of a painting that depicted Lisa de Kooning dancing barefoot in a bright red dress. Like many images of her (Ms. de Kooning was no stranger to the flashbulbs of paparazzi in New York and East Hampton), this one was all about her smile: a high-wattage grin that often preceded an exuberant, Liza Minnelli-ish cackle.

The first eulogy was delivered by the New York curator Klaus Kertess. He recalled Lisa de Kooning’s assistance with several exhibitions he had staged of her father’s work, praising her as the “spirit of the shows.” He was followed by Anna Moss, Ms. de Kooning’s former neighbor in East Hampton, who fought back tears as she shared a few scenes from their childhood. Finally, Ms. de Kooning’s 17-year-old daughter, Lucy de Kooning Villeneuve, rose to speak.

Ms. Villeneuve, who inherited her mother’s white blonde hair and her straightforward manner, recounted the time she and her mother painted one of their favorite sayings, “There’s always another party,” on the walls of their house on St. John, and she summed up Ms. de Kooning as “just the best mom ever.” The simple service concluded with a recording of flutist Paula Robison’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

“Lisa always told Paula Robison that she wanted her to play at her funeral,” said Priscilla Morgan, an arts patron and longtime friend of the de Kooning family who organized the service. “I’m rather famed for the interesting people in my life, and Lisa was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known. I’m having a terrible time about what happened to her.”

But what exactly had happened to Lisa de Kooning?

No one at the church that Saturday knew much about the circumstances of her death beyond the few sketchy details provided by early news reports. At 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 23, an unidentified man called 911 from Ms. de Kooning’s home overlooking Cruz Bay on St. John. He told police that he had escorted Ms. de Kooning from her living room to her bedroom after she had finished drinking some wine and left her there to lock up her home office. While he was doing so, he heard a loud noise, “like someone collapsing,” he said, and returned to find Ms. de Kooning lying on the floor outside her bedroom. When emergency medical technicians arrived, they could find no vital signs.

But if Ms. de Kooning’s death is something of a puzzle, it did not take everyone who knew her by surprise. Her life had not been without turmoil. “When I got the phone call about Lisa, the first thing I said was, ‘Is it drugs or is it alcohol?’ ” recalled a friend who asked to remain anonymous because of the family’s decision not to talk publicly about Ms. de Kooning’s death. “The answer was, ‘We don’t know.’ ”

Ms. de Kooning’s obituary in The New York Times contained a reference to a small useless cupboard her father built in the ceiling of the living room of the East Hampton cottage where she spent much of her childhood. She called it the “door that leads to nowhere.” Ms. de Kooning, who was 13 when her father installed the enigmatic cupboard, had already encountered her share of doors that lead to nowhere, and she would come across more in the decades that followed.

Johanna Lisbeth de Kooning was the product of a casual affair between Willem de Kooning and Joan Ward, an illustrator whom the artist had met at the Cedar Tavern in the Village. (At the time, Mr. de Kooning, then 51 and with a reputation as a womanizer, was separated from his wife, Elaine de Kooning.)

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