Making an Impression
In San Francisco, Dede Wilsey’s passion for the arts also endures in her own picturesque home.
Clad in a gray Chanel jacket and skirt and Louboutin kitten heels, Dede Wilsey is quickly climbing the stairs as she gives me the run of her home. She may cut a trim figure, but she lives large. Her spacious house is perched atop Pacific Heights, with sweeping views of the bay. Then there’s her art, a formidable collection of names usually found in museums or textbooks: Picasso, Cassat, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Magritte, Rodin. It seems that the only diminutive elements of the home are her three beloved dogs (Twinkle and Dazzle, immaculately white Malteses, and Eliza, a feisty Norwich terrier).
To talk with Wilsey is to be in thrall not only to her elocution—a warm trill with crisp enunciation and declarative sentences—but also her self-assuredness. Her father was an Eisenhower-appointed U.S. ambassador; her great-grandfather, the founder of Dow Chemical. Wilsey’s late second husband was the food and real estate magnate Al Wilsey. She retains the air of the debutante she once was, but behind her cultivated speech is a strategic mind with a gift for raising money—big money—for the causes she believes in.
She gets the job done. In 1996, she became chairman of the capital campaign to rebuild the city’s ailing art attraction, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, which had been irreparably earthquake damaged in 1989. By 1998, two bond measures to fund the museum failed to pass with the city’s voters. So, Wilsey got to work finding private donors. “I went down to the director’s office and said, ‘Don’t worry. I will raise the money. I promise you, I will do this,’” she says. “I don’t think a single person believed me.” Leading by example, Wilsey herself gave $10 million of the more than $210 million raised in support of the institution. In 2005, the bold, copper-encased structure designed by the Pritzker Award-winning architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron opened and instantly became a city landmark. Last year, the de Young welcomed more than two million visitors, making it the fourth most frequented museum in the U.S.
“I spend a lot of time figuring out who could give us something and what would motivate them,” says Wilsey, a fixture on social circuits in San Francisco and Napa Valley (where she also has a home). If one cause doesn’t move her peers, she’ll pitch another, like the massive new UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay, or the Immaculate Conception Academy. “I get to go to interesting places and meet wonderful people. I’m really good at parties. I’ll go up to anyone. Once I was with my son, and I said, ‘Dance me next to that person, double cut in.’ And he said, ‘Don’t tell me, you’re after that poor guy.’”
Wilsey spends most of her over-scheduled days in her strategy-cum-dressing room, clothes lined up on aisles three-deep. There, she attends to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s board of trustees (of which she’s president) as well as commitments to various charities. “I don’t really have leisure time. There’s no way I could retire. When do you stop being interested in things?” Wilsey asks. She also knows her audience. In the video mock-up for potential de Young patrons, Wilsey noticed that the Basel-based firm used young, thin, black-clad city dwellers from their hometown to represent museum-goers. “I told them we had to redo it. We’re looking for a huge cross-section of donors, and I needed some old and some fat people in there. The young and the thin can’t afford it yet.”
“A city supervisor came to meet me here—a wonderful young woman. She asked, ‘I wonder what it feels like to be you—to have power, to have financial independence, to know everybody, but then to have everyone come and ask you for a favor?’ And I said, ‘That’s the funniest question…I mean, who cares what I feel like?’ But I realized it feels great.”
Written and edited by Gloria M. Wong.
PHOTO: Lisa Romerein.