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Why can't anyone say no to Dede Wilsey?
Julian Guthrie | December 28, 2007
She’s gotten more bad press than Ivana Trump, and even those charmed into giving millions for her causes fear her sharp tongue. As the now exceedingly wealthy widow embarks on an even bigger philanthropic gamble than the de Young, Julian Guthrie explores what really drives Wilsey’s boundless civic ambition.
On a late January day at the Legion of Honor, the afternoon sun fell like a spotlight on Dede Wilsey. Her disciples were before her. Her son Trevor Traina was seated nearby. The petite 62-year-old smiled girlishly, coquettishly even—an interesting mien for the most powerful person in a room full of heavy hitters. This was, after all, the woman who had made everyone else at the table look good, the one who went out and raised $200 million to build the new de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park while others formed committees and waited for her updates.
No one on the board of trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco knew what Wilsey planned to say, but she could have talked for an hour about her fluffy white lapdogs and everyone would have listened attentively.
Standing at the microphone in a taupe Oscar de la Renta suit, Wilsey, a diplomat’s daughter, was careful not to turn her back to anyone—not to the museum curators behind her or the trustees before her. She said she wanted to discuss the museum’s future. She proceeded to talk about herself.
“I’m a builder,” Wilsey said, smiling. “That’s what I really like to do. I helped build a Catholic girls’ school in the Mission, then Grace Cathedral, then the de Young. The de Young will always be my great love. But I’m getting itchy fingers.”
She paused for effect. All eyes were on her, and the audience was mesmerized, having no idea what was coming next.
“I have agreed,” she continued, “to take on a new project. What I’m talking about is building a new hospital for children, women, and cancer at Mission Bay. It’s a $1.2 billion project that would open in 2014. I agreed to raise $500 million.”
Nods of approval were followed by a round of applause.
The über-fund-raiser made her way back to her seat at the center of a long, U-shaped table, pausing briefly to squeeze her son Trevor’s shoulder. Former city attorney Louise Renne was a few seats over. Penny Coulter, whose husband Jim Coulter cofounded Texas Pacific Group, the private equity investment firm, was across the room.
Board member Barnaby Conrad III, a writer and man-about-town seated at the end of the long table, remarked later, “With Dede, it’s ‘All hail Caesar.’”
For anyone suffering from Dede Wilsey overload after the past two years of talk and headlines about her exploits, the next few years could be hard sledding. Because Wilsey is back, sure to be as much a topic of news and conversation as ever. In January, just over a year after her grand success in opening the de Young—which people immediately took to calling the Dede Young—Wilsey announced that she would be tackling an even more ambitious project. Unlike other well-heeled Pacific Heights women, she would not be hosting designer trunk shows at Neiman Marcus or luncheons at Villa Taverna.
In late 2006 she had been approached by Mark Laret, CEO of the UCSF Medical Center, about working on the new hospital at Mission Bay. Because she had corralled $200 million for the de Young—and donated another $10 million for Wilsey Court, with its two-story Gerhard Richter installation—Wilsey already topped the list of the greatest philanthropists and fund-raisers in San Francisco history. And the project appealed to her. Her Los Angeles film-producer son Todd had just given her a grandchild, Daisy, whom she lavished with 200 pink dresses and dubbed “G-baby”; suddenly, she said, she was “into this children situation.”
Still, $500 million is an absurd amount of money for one person to raise. Taking on that challenge would make her perhaps the nation’s leading arm-twister of wealthy donors. Her response, though, was typical Wilsey. “I’ve been thinking about how this is a great city, but one that is missing a couple of things that would make it better. I thought, I can do that.”
But even as she embarks on her biggest campaign yet, Wilsey’s persona of tough-minded saint remains colored by a deeply personal attack. A year before, she had endured the assault of stepson Sean Wilsey’s scathing memoir, Oh the Glory of It All. Wilsey was depicted as the clichéd evil stepmother, a Cruella De Vil with a pack of Maltese. The book received enviable reviews and publicity, with juicy excerpts in publications from coast to coast, from the New Yorker to the San Francisco Chronicle. Though Wilsey dismissed the voyeuristic page-turner as a pack of lies, and friends and family circled protectively around her, the media coverage turned her into a bauble-hungry caricature.
Then, this past January, the barbs were out again when W magazine published a story on San Francisco’s social scene that portrayed Wilsey as self-absorbed and flighty. She was photographed for the article at home, flanked by a servant and clad in an emerald green dress and jaw-dropping jewels. “My mother read it and told me not to,” says Wilsey of Kevin West’s piece, which included a painful scene in which Wilsey gives a toast to her son Trevor and his new wife Alexis at their wedding ball, but talks mostly about herself. “If your mother says not to read it, you know it must be bad.”
What’s interesting about Wilsey, though, is that neither the censure nor the acclaim seems to have much effect on her at this point. Her friends and foes alike remark how single-minded she is, and in interviews she comes across as funny and chatty but also ferociously determined and blunt—definitely not a lady who lunches—someone with zero self-doubt and no problem talking about herself or saying things an image consultant would have tried to halt midsentence.
What’s also clear is that she’s come a long way from the privileged young woman who arrived in San Francisco in 1965 knowing no one and fearing her social debutante life was over. Reared to be the wife of a president, Wilsey says she would have preferred to be president herself. Now, for the first time in her life, she is without a man—and she has never had more power. Her reputation is mammoth, her coterie a mix of the city’s business and social elite.
Some see that as good news: with her debutante smile and disarming chatter, she strikes them as a kind of charming pickpocket, slightly kooky but astoundingly effective. Yet there are others who see only selfishness in her approach. A prominent arts patron told me with great certitude that Wilsey is more Dede-minded than civic-minded, driven solely by ego and hubris. “Everything she does is to bring attention to Dede.”
In a series of interviews over the course of several months, Wilsey showed herself to be both civic-minded and Dede-minded, and much more. Preternaturally vivacious, and very, very watchful, Wilsey came across as a complex woman—someone who can be kind and generous but also assertive and astringent. She’ll give a Cistercian monk practical advice right before recounting how she bought those 200 pink dresses or calling her beloved deceased dog Serena her “soul mate” and “the daughter I should have had.” She is out most nights of the week but has few close friends. She is a bold-name staple in social columns but dismisses the socialite tag as frivolous, saying she counts the guards at the museum as pals. She loves “plebeian American food” like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches but doesn’t allow herself even a nibble, fearing an insidious slide into the next dress size.
Before you see Wilsey at home, you see her dogs. Before you see the dogs, you see Wilsey’s dark-haired, sad-eyed butler, Renato, who welcomes you to her Jackson Street mansion in Pacific Heights. As you are ushered in, two Maltese scurry around. One carries a squeaky toy of a nun in habit. Renato offers a libation.
You pass the Wayne Thiebaud cupcakes with pink icing, the Degas dancer, and the Renoir girl in a pink hat before entering the grand “white room,” with the Picasso, Magritte, Monet, and Cassatt. Pink azaleas are artfully placed, and pink and green objects dot tabletops. Even the snow-white dogs have a single streak of pink in their fur, along the neckline.
Then there is the sound of Wilsey. It starts with the heels, Christian Louboutin, and then you hear her talking, asking where the dogs are and apologizing for being late.
Wilsey smiles and settles her 5-foot-3-inch, size 4 frame into a large white sofa, next to a throw pillow embroidered with the declarative, “No outfit is complete without dog hairs.” With dark hazel eyes that seem to demand and inquire all at once, she calls to her housekeeper, Delia, whom she describes as the dogs’ nanny. It’s time for Sparkle and Twinkle to have their baths. The pink streaks in their fur, it turns out, are from Wilsey kisses: Chanel praline lipstick, to be specific.
Wilsey maintains perfect posture, legs angled to the side, one ankle crossed over the other. The furniture, designed by Michael Taylor, was made to fit her proportions—she didn’t want to look like a little girl in an overstuffed chair. On a table nearby is a photo of Wilsey at Christmas with sons Trevor and Todd and Serena, who died in February 2005. Not surprisingly, there are no traces of Sean Wilsey in the room.
Wilsey says she always knew what Serena was thinking and could feel the force of her devotion. Sparkle, on the other hand, “is a weirdo,” she says. She was adopted from a shelter and has some “issues,” such as a tendency to stare into space. Asked Sparkle’s age, Wilsey quips, “I was told two or three, but being a woman, I chose the younger age.”
She continues, “I now have Eliza, Sparkle, and Twinkle. Really, it’s like children: you only have two arms, you should probably only have two children.” The remark is made lightly but seems loaded when you consider her stepson’s allegations.
There are other photos of Wilsey with her family and with Alfred Wilsey, her husband who died five years ago, leaving her the fortune he made selling butter and buying up real estate, estimated at well over $300 million.
Wilsey herself comes from money—and a family that encouraged noblesse oblige. Her maternal great-grandfather was Dow Chemical founder Herbert Henry Dow, known in the family as “Papa Dow.” Her father, Wiley Buchanan, was a prominent businessman who in 1953 became ambassador to Luxembourg under President Eisenhower. During Eisenhower’s second term, Buchanan was the chief of protocol, and he became ambassador to Austria under President Ford.
While the Dow side of the family, from Michigan, prided itself on modest displays of wealth—nice gardens and linens—the Buchanan side embraced the lavish. The family had a retinue of butlers and maids and a palatial home in Newport, Rhode Island. Instead of going to camp, the kids spent their holidays visiting kings and queens in Europe.
Her mother, Ruth Buchanan, who lives in Washington, D.C., and is sharp and energetic at 89, says that Wilsey, the middle child, “probably had to work harder to get her fair share of praise, but she always came out ahead. She always had an ability to get along with people, and she loved dogs and pretty clothes.” Even then, Wilsey insisted on being perfectly turned out. “If there was a spot on her little pinafore, we had to change,” Buchanan says.
But Wilsey wasn’t exactly spoiled. In fact, “sink or swim” is how she describes her childhood. She and her older sister, Bonnie, and her younger brother, Wiley, were always expected to pull their own weight. Wilsey was 9 when the family moved to Luxembourg, where, she recalls, the family put on a constant stream of high-profile parties for which she was given clearly defined duties and expected to act like a grown-up. “I was told that if I wanted to come down during a party, these 100 people were my job,” Wilsey recalls.
When the family returned to Washington, Wilsey attended a private girls’ school and then Connecticut College for Women. At the end of her first year, she came home and “bopped around Washington,” as she puts it, landing on the cover of Town & Country as the debutante of the year.
Then, in February 1963, she met John Traina, a man 13 years her senior who worked for American President Lines, a steamship company based in San Francisco. Their first date was forgettable, but on the second, “something just clicked,” Wilsey says. She never made it back to college, as the two were caught up in a “hot romance.”
They were married in the summer of 1965, after which they settled in San Francisco in a home on Filbert Street, where their age difference soon became an issue (she was 21; he, 33). “I was miserable and lonely,” Dede recalls. “John’s friends were all older. I was calling them Mr. and Mrs. I would go downtown and see everyone walking with someone and think, ‘Oh this is just awful.’ I would often wonder if my phone was out of order because no one would call. I thought my life was just over.”
Not one to wallow in self-pity, Wilsey told herself, “OK, I’m here in San Francisco. Let’s see if I can make my way.”
Slowly she began to make friends and get involved in a time-honored avocation of women of her class: charity work. But that didn’t save the marriage, and by the late 1970s, she was in love with Al Wilsey, a man 25 years her senior whom friends nevertheless describe as a much better match for her.
“Dede really respected Al,” says longtime friend Sally Debenham, who is prominent in San Francisco’s fashion and social circles. “He was firm and quiet; my impression was that he would admonish her when she was sharp.” Longtime friend Anne Lawrence, a former society scribe who now works in commercial real estate, describes a softer side. “Al Wilsey was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. A love bug.”
The two married in 1981, and a year later Wilsey led her first capital campaign: she raised $3.2 million to build a chapel and gymnasium for Immaculate Conception Academy, a girls’ Catholic high school in the Mission district. After that it was $16.6 million to rebuild parts of the earthquake-damaged Grace Cathedral. And in 1995 she became chair of the committee to build a new de Young. No matter that her knowledge of art was limited or that she had no idea before she started what a bond measure was. “I knew enough about art,” she says, “and I know what I don’t know.”
She, perhaps alone, saw an opportunity to raise money privately after San Francisco voters twice failed to approve bond measures to fund the construction. And it was she who led the selection of the prize-winning Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, which had recently completed the widely acclaimed Tate Modern in London.
“The key was that I didn’t really think about what I had to do,” Wilsey says. “It had all the components of what I like. It was a new building that had to be built. And it had the political aspect—I like to have to connive and think about how I am going to get politicians to do this.”
The initial fund-raising goal, before the bond measures failed, was $25 million. She thought, no problem. That figure went to $44.1 million, then, after the bond measures failed, to $135 million before topping off at $165 million, which Wilsey exceeded by $35 million. Once she jumped in, she just kept going, she says. “It was kind of unusual, because the trustees never once asked me how much money I had raised. Here I was, beating my brains out, and no one ever asked. So, I would come home and bounce ideas off Serena.”
Over the next five years, Wilsey attended endless meetings—54 public meetings were held to discuss the tower alone. And she sat through at least 50 sessions with members of the Board of Supervisors, including some that lasted well past midnight.
With the successful campaign for the de Young, Wilsey went from a society wife who dabbled in donations to a one-woman force capable of raising major money; dealing with lawsuits, public outcry, and political machinations; and making decisions in everything from the choice of architects to the wood for the museum benches and floorboards.
“There is no question in my mind that had Dede not been born, the de Young would not have been born,” says Conrad.
Today, Wilsey has scheduled back-to-back appointments with people wanting to discuss fund-raising, collaborations, donations—or, preferably, all three. In the course of these tête à têtes, her accumulated fund-raising wisdom unfolds.
Eliza, Sparkle, and Twinkle bark to announce the first visitor of the day, Abbot Thomas Davis, a Cistercian monk from a monastery in Vina, north of Chico. He explains that he is raising money to build a medieval-Spanish-style chapter house using 800-year-old stones brought to California by William Randolph Hearst. The abbot knew Wilsey’s husband Al, who was Catholic and had taken an interest in the stones, which had languished in storage in San Francisco.
Wilsey smiles engagingly as Father Thomas, as he’s known, explains that the monks need $6 million to finish the chapter house, which would be architecturally and historically significant.
“First, you have to remember that people look for reasons not to give,” Wilsey says. “And the problem with fund-raising is that it’s competitive. It’s hard to raise money for churches. And Vina is not a high-traffic place.”
But, she says, “people really like their names on things. (Nancy Hamon, Nan McEvoy, and Bernard and Barbara Osher are some of the names that ended up on prominent parts of the de Young.) And the monastery is a good place for scholars. We just need to find someone who wants his name to survive for centuries. Maybe the answer is someone in the movie business. Not a movie star, but a director. A da Vinci Code type.”
Father Thomas mentions that he tried to interest the legendary quarterback Joe Montana. Wilsey shakes her head. “No, it has to be someone very Machiavellian, but not Machiavellian. We just need to think of who would be the right person. This is what makes it fun. It’s a riddle. Not a Magritte, but a Dalí.”
Then she throws out another fund-raising tidbit. “You should never do things because you think anyone will care. Do it because you enjoy it. Once you’re dead, you’re dead.” Then, with a devilish smile, she says, “What you need is someone scared to death they are going to hell and is about to move on up.”
Father Thomas laughs, and Wilsey promises to work on coming up with some good contacts. “You know, Napa has some weird characters,” she says with a gleam in her eye. “Let me give this some thought.”
The dogs bark to announce the next visitor, Denise Bradley, executive director of MoAD, the city’s Museum of the African Diaspora. She’s here to discuss possible collaborations, but mostly the two talk about some of Wilsey’s paintings: the Renoir of the girl in the pink hat, the Cassatt of a woman holding a Maltese. Then, as Bradley is ushered out, Chris Bratton, the new president of the San Francisco Art Institute, is ushered in.
Bratton gives her background materials on the Art Institute and notes that it was the first fine arts photography program in the United States, started by Ansel Adams. Bratton is proposing a curatorial partnership between the institute and the de Young. “You could try for sponsors of the curatorial chairs and underwriters of shows,” she says. And always be strong and direct, she tells Bratton. “If you want money, tell me how much you want, and never write a letter with more than one page. Tell me where the envelope is so I can put the money in.”
Then she laughs, recalling a solicitation letter she recently received from the Asian Art Museum. “It was a nice letter, except that it was written to Al Wilsey. I wrote back, saying, ‘Thank you for your note, but Alfred hasn’t been giving anything since he died in 2002.’ And if Al is sending money from somewhere, then I want to know.” When people call at home to say they’d like to speak to Mr. Wilsey, she replies, “I know, I’d give anything to talk to Al.”
You could say Wilsey’s longing for Al is where her negative press got started. When Wilsey fell in love with him in the late ’70s, Al was married to Pat Montandon, a beautiful, flamboyant socialite and society columnist—and according to Sean and Pat, one of Wilsey’s best friends (Dede says she was just an acquaintance). As Wilsey and Montandon’s bitter divorce was reported with fervor by Herb Caen and splashed across the National Enquirer (because of the eye-popping amount of money Montandon was seeking), Wilsey was accused in some circles of being a husband stealer.
Wilsey’s relationship with Al’s son Sean—or at least Sean’s account of it in Oh the Glory of It All years later—revived that perception and added to the image problem. The memoir, which portrays a world of high-society soap opera meets Survivor, singles Wilsey out as the object of Sean’s great loathing—and adolescent lust.
As Sean tells it, Wilsey was the younger woman who befriended Sean’s mother to steal his father. But he had also convinced himself that she moved in on Al to be closer to him (Sean and Wilsey had been very close before the marriage). “Dede married Dad so she could be with me,” he wrote. In the meantime, he took to pilfering her lace panties and fantasized about her in a garter belt and stockings.
She was also depicted as the bejeweled harpy who belittled her stepson—who lived with the family only every other week—while lavishing gifts on her own sons. Wilsey “remains pleasant and charming, even as she pierces you with a javelin,” Sean wrote. And, he claimed, he was a prime target of her duplicity, which he describes in exhaustive detail.
But Wilsey, in her first public interview about the book, is having none of it. “Frankly, it’s bull,” she says. She hasn’t read the book herself; she’s only heard about it from her attorneys. But she remains convinced that Sean made the whole thing up. “Al told me Sean was a congenital liar when he was young. He was incapable of telling the truth and was under psychiatric care from age 5.” (In the book, Sean says that he saw several therapists throughout his youth.)
Wilsey maintains that she and Sean actually got along well, and she can’t understand why he wrote what he did. It wasn’t for the money, she implied, since according to her, Al settled with his kids in the late 1970s, giving them huge financial gifts. She estimates that Sean is worth well over $10 million, thanks to his father. (In the book, Sean says he ended up with virtually nothing after his father’s death, largely thanks to Wilsey’s machinations.)
She says she never admonished Sean for calling her Mom, as he charges, and insists she would have loved it if he had: “I have two stepdaughters who call me Mom.” She wonders, too, how it was possible that Sean “could remember quotes verbatim from the time he was a child, when at that same time he couldn’t remember to take his lunch to school.” As for Sean’s erotic fantasies about her: “I’ve never owned a garter belt in my life,” Wilsey says with a halfhearted laugh.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Wilsey claims the book’s publication was not a personal low for her. “It’s Sean’s problem. If he wanted to come over here now and have lunch, fine. He created something he needed to write, but he knows the book is full of lies.” She didn’t sue, she says, because she didn’t want to give the book any more publicity.
As in most family dramas, probably no one will ever get to the bottom of all this. But Sean is not the only source of Wilsey’s reputation for steely resolve and a desire to get her own way, though most of the sniping is not for attribution. “No one would dare to criticize Wilsey in public,” says one person connected with the Fine Arts Museums.
But everyone with money in San Francisco has a story of how she goes about extracting it, from a benign trading of favors to something a bit more uncomfortable. “It’s always convivial until the teeth lock in and the victim has nowhere to run,” former Fine Arts Museums director Harry Parker once said.
San Francisco businessman Warren Hellman thinks the key to Wilsey’s fund-raising ability is her own willingness to give. “She’ll call you and say, ‘Here’s my project, and I’m putting in such and such amount. What are you putting in?’ And she’s one of the few people who decides in her own mind what she thinks other people are capable of giving. If you come back with less, she’ll say, ‘I think you ought to rethink that.’”
For Hellman, he needed money to build the garage for the de Young; she wanted money for the museum, so the two set to bargaining and eventually gave each other a million dollars. “It’s expensive to be chair of these campaigns!” Wilsey says.
Real estate developer George Marcus wanted a coveted spot on the de Young building committee, so she told him how much he needed to give to get it. He agreed to $2 million, but when she threw a large gallery and the museum’s “enchanted garden”—to be named after him—into the deal, he ended up donating $7 million.
Even Wilsey’s friends note her bluntness and her hard-nosed tactics. When a potential donor once asked her if she was following what’s called a pyramid approach to fund-raising, she shot back, “What are you talking about? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” At her annual Christmas party this year, guests formed a line to talk to Wilsey, who stood on the same spot all night, receiving each and every person like royalty. Former mayor Willie Brown said someone at the party told him, “If you don’t stand in line, you don’t get invited back.” Or, as one local art collector put it, “Cross her and you’ll never have a canape in this town again.”
Hellman ran into her one night after they’d had a huge political fight over the proposed Saturday closure of Golden Gate Park. “There had been some harsh words between us, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’ll never speak to me again.’ But the thing about Dede is that it doesn’t last. You agree and move on.”
One way or another, she usually gets what she wants. Hardly anyone she solicited for money in the de Young campaign said no.
Then there are the jewels. On top of the dogs, the pink, and now the 200 baby dresses, Wilsey’s over-the-top jewelry collection has always raised eyebrows—and envy—in this understated town. “I’m buying you all this shit so the next poor guy doesn’t have to!” Al once told her.
Debenham talks about the days when she and Wilsey would ogle the jewels. Debenham would arrive at the mansion, and the girls would head upstairs. The jewels would come out and be displayed on the bed. “It was like Ali Baba’s treasure chest,” Debenham says. “It was such fun. Of course, Dede’s fingers are about a fourth of the size of mine, but it was just delightful.”
All that is changing, Wilsey says. She still loves her baubles, of course. “But,” she says, “when you start to have loss in your life—your dogs, your husband—it changes, becomes less important.” More than a year has passed since the doors to the de Young opened, and by all accounts the museum is a great success. But Wilsey is not about to rest. She has not taken a real vacation in 10 years and has no intention of slowing down.
At the museum, she is in her third three-year term as president of the board and is scheduled to finally step down in 2010. An observer of the San Francisco art scene told me some museum employees and donors are scared that Dede wants to stay in the position indefinitely until she decides to hand it over to Trevor. (Hellman says people worry she wants to be “empress for life.”) But Wilsey denies that Trevor, who is a member of the board and an avid art collector, is next in line. “I don’t think it’s appropriate,” she says. “I don’t think that you go from a mother to a son.” In fact, she says she deliberately kept him off the board for several years but was finally asked by the nominating committee to “stop blackballing him.”
Trevor, a technology entrepreneur, says there has never been any talk of his taking over after his mother. “As far as my opinion on how long she should stay, it is up to her,” he says.
Whenever she does step down, Wilsey’s next project is already underway. “I don’t want to do just one hospital. I want to follow up with building a western medical center that will be a kind of Mayo Clinic of San Francisco.” Says Anne Lawrence, “This idea some people have that Dede is a wicked stepmother is totally wrong. She is a woman who gives back. She’s incredibly hardworking. She doesn’t have to do any of the things she does.”
“My mother has chosen to be a very busy woman,” says her son Todd. “I think it began in part because she wanted to make Al proud. And he was proud of her. He knew she would pull this off.” Indeed, one of her reasons for choosing a hospital as her next project is to create a tribute to Al. Wilsey figures her husband was in the hospital 10 times for serious conditions over the last 21 years of their marriage, and she was right there with him.
“When we first went in, it was for a hernia,” she says. But over the years, he would have another hernia, a heart bypass, emphysema, pneumonia, and, finally, neurological problems. “In the end, though, I think it was the flu that killed him,” she says.
She still misses Al terribly. For nine months, she kept an urn with his ashes on his side of the bed. When the maid entered the room in the morning, she would say, “Good morning, Mr. Wilsey.” One day Wilsey was driving around her vineyard with Al—his ashes, that is—on the passenger seat. Her son Todd happened to call and ask what she was doing. When she told him, he thought she’d really lost it.
“I couldn’t let go,” she says. “I remember three days before Al died, I still felt that sparkle with him. He said that to me, too, that he still felt it when I walked into the room. Even when he was in a wheelchair, I felt the same way. Al always had this Irish gleam in his eye. I remember once he had lipstick on his face, and when I tried to wipe it off, he said, ‘Let ’em see it.’ Now he is in our garden. There’s an urn for Melissa [Al’s beloved Jack Russell], an urn for Serena, and Al’s urn—which is the most prominent.”
Wilsey is not opposed to the idea of dating, and in fact is seeing a man from an old San Francisco family. (She once said she never plans to remarry, but she’s backed off that now.) Friends have told her she may be intimidating to men. She scoffs at the idea, saying, “I’m simple. I don’t like fancy restaurants. I’m delighted with anything—a bowl of spaghetti at a restaurant down the street. I spend time with my kids. With my mother.”
She says that her view of love and romance have changed over the years. “When I was little, I thought there was one person you fell for. Now I think you meet the person you do at the right time. If I’d met Al when I was 20, I would have never been attracted to him. We both realized we would never have liked each other earlier. Now, when I think about dating, I think, ‘I don’t want to be a nurse or a purse.’”
Talking from her second home in Napa, where she has a vineyard with 260 acres, the chatty Wilsey turns reflective. “I want to make myself a better person. I see this last phase of my life as one of personal development. I intend to learn words like delegate and balance. I need to learn gentle things like that. I should improve myself and not be so domineering.”
As an example of how she’ll do that, she says, “I have a committee already for the hospital project. At the de Young, I did everything myself, but this time I’ll be working with a group. And the donor list, which is spectacular, has lots of people I don’t know,” she adds.
She says she can’t worry about how people who don’t know her view her. She is, however, thinking about her legacy. If all goes according to plan, there will be no mention of her as socialite, no lasting talk of wicked stepmother. There will be her family—and her fund-raising successes.
“A school. A cathedral. A museum. A hospital. Not a bad résumé.”
Julian Guthrie is a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. Her last story for San Francisco was on Larry Ellison’s bid for the America’s cup race.