Stuart Duncan Preston, Jr. ( 1915-2005 )
Art critic, writer, and society darling, Stuart Duncan Preston, Jr. was born in Long Island, New York on October 22, 1915. The son of a rich New York City banker, his well-connected ancestors included a New York Supreme Court Justice. Preston’s studies in art began at Yale University, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in 1937, followed by graduate studies at Harvard University, Columbia University, and New York University. He traveled extensively throughout France, Germany, Italy, and England, becoming fluent in French and ingratiating himself into the inner circle of the European intelligentsia. In London, he established lasting friendships with such notable literary figures as Raymond Mortimer and James Lees-Milne. In March 1941 Preston was appointed Junior Museum Aide at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Two months later, Preston was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps. In December 1942 he received orders to report to the intelligence section of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff in London. Preston visited the clubs and houses of the intellectual aristocracy, reconnecting with his illustrious contacts. His charm and handsome looks bewitched London society, who affectionately named him “the Sergeant” and invited him to every party, performance, and luncheon. With his encyclopedic knowledge of British and French history, knowledge of arts and literature, and impeccable English manners, he was a fascinating antithesis of the stereotypical image of the American soldier. When Preston was hospitalized for jaundice in March 1943, admirers flocked to his bedside. His friend, the writer James Lees-Milne, remarked that, “Instead of meeting now at Heywood Hill’s shop, society congregates in public ward No. 3 at St. George’s Hospital.” It is also said that King George VI brushed off a late visitor, saying, “Never mind, I expect you’ve been to St. George’s hospital to see the Sergeant.”
Preston landed at Normandy in July 1944 and progressed through France with 12th Army Group. For his participation in the liberation of France, the French government awarded him the Croix du Guerre. In March 1945 the MFAA recruited Preston for service in Germany. Stationed in Berlin, he inspected German museums, archives, and private collections in the U.S. Zone of Occupation, most notably the Prussian State Archives. At the beginning of the war, the collections of the Historical Archives (records and documents of the central Prussia-Brandenburg Administration), the Central Archives (documents from the Prussian ministries and highest government agencies), and the State Archives for the Brandenburg Province (records of the classified agencies) were removed to safekeeping at repositories throughout Germany. Together, these collections represented more than nine centuries of German administrative history. In August 1945 Preston assisted Monuments Men Capt. Calvin S. Hathaway and Lt. Doda Conrad with the effort to restore these collections to the German ministries. The Monuments Men located the archives in salt mines, storage buildings, and private estates near Stassfurt and Schönebeck, Germany. Efforts to evacuate the repositories were stopped when the Soviet Army advanced into East Prussia, placing the archives within Russian jurisdiction. After extensive negotiations, the archives were eventually restored to Berlin.
Following his return to New York City in September 1945, Preston began working as a reporter for Art News. In 1949 he joined the staff of the New York Times as an Associate Art Critic. Preston reported on art events, gallery openings, and exhibitions, coming into contact with such notable artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. His close friendships with the art world’s elite, including William Lieberman (curator of modern art at the Museum of Modern Art) and Joan Payson (daughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney), secured him invitations to the most sought-after events. In 1958, Andy Warhol created a portrait of Preston in ink and gold leaf, Untitled (Stuart Preston), which is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Preston remained at the New York Times until 1965, when he resigned in order to concentrate on writing. Relocating to London, he was unable to recreate his wartime intellectual haven. Preston eventually settled in Paris in the 1970s, writing occasionally for Apollo and The Burlington Magazine and publishing a monograph on Post-Impressionist artist Edouard Vuillard.
Stuart Preston died in Paris on February 9, 2005.