In August 2001, the day after her mother died at the age of 97, Anne d'Harnoncourt sat on the stoop of her grand, bohemian stone townhouse in Fitler Square, momentarily at a loss for words.
It was a rare silence for d'Harnoncourt, a woman who savored words as if they were chocolate truffles, luxuriating in their sounds and the complexity - or simplicity - of their meaning.
I had spent three months that year working on a profile of her, researching her life and observing her among colleagues and students, the museum's staff and wealthy donors, with her husband and the public.
D'Harnoncourt was acknowledged by everyone - from her colleagues at the Louvre to Phillippe de Montebello, the long-time director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art - as one of the consummate art administrators and historians in the world. And while the woman I came to know was unquestionably, impossibly, unreachably sophisticated and accomplished, she was also startlingly sweet and unpretentious.
Admiring one of her favorite paintings - a 14th-century rendering of a poison-breathing dragon - she squealed "Yeehee!" in delight like a little girl. But to hear her expound on the works of Marcel Duchamp was to hear the throaty voice of a profound intellect.
D'Harnoncourt delivered polished addresses, infused with French - "
!" She took obvious joy in the increasingly important job of playfully, but purposefully, courting the favor of Philadelphia's monied art patrons. And although she grew up in the salons of New York, accustomed to the company of her parents' friends - all writers and intellectuals and artists - her ultimate goal, she said, was to make art accessible to everyone.
She once said, "There's no point in being snobbish or standoffish. The whole point is to bring people in. . . . Museums are magical. People need magic in their lives. They're eager to spend time getting out of themselves, out of your own thoughts and preoccupations. . . . Everybody needs to slow down sometimes. To have an encounter with a work of art slows you down, like a book."
At six feet, d'Harnoncourt had a physical grandeur that she celebrated with flowing silks and bold, artistic jewelry. She cut her own long gray hair, and her funky antique of a house was cluttered and exuberantly filled with art. Greeting museum supporters or friends, she gave real hugs. Returning from her many trips, she would always bring gifts - sometimes extravagant, but often something she liked for its simplicity. She brought me a large red paper fan from Japan.
"What's lovely about it is that it works so well," she said.
How unexpected, and how kind, I thought, that she would bring me anything at all.
There was a part of her that regretted never having children. In a vulnerable moment, holding back tears, she said, "You roar along, get caught up in life. ... It's not always inevitable."
At 64, d'Harnoncourt seemed to be happily traveling the crest of her life.
Death, at any age, is hard to fathom. So it was that even though her old, old mother's passing was hardly unexpected, it nevertheless left d'Harnoncourt in shock.
As she sat on the step, holding the miniature rose plant that she'd been offered in sympathy, she spent a few minutes just being a daughter, wordlessly bereft.
I was not her relative, nor her friend. And I was only briefly a part of her world. But in those three months, I came to know her well enough, I think, to see that she was one of those rare people who achieve greatness without feeling - or behaving - as if they were God's gift to man.
Only, she was.