In life, Gertrude and Murray Warner seemed inseparable. They were coupled together through thousands of miles traveled across the globe. In death, however, over four hundred miles separate them. And both rest nearly an entire continent away from the invaluable legacy they helped create in Oregon.
Resting today in the Pine Hill Cemetery, Warner’s gravestone reads: “Wife of Murray Warner… Daughter of Clara Foster and Perkins Bass”, a functional genealogy. It omits much about her life and times and leaves the viewer in peace with little to trouble their mind besides familial ties. For a woman honored as the foremost collector of Asian art in American history, the founder and first director of what would become the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, and a prominent advocate for international dialogue and cultural exchange between the U.S. and parts of Asia, the Warner headstone’s simplicity speaks volumes for the times.
Warner died in Peterborough, NH, in July of 1951 while staying with her son, Sam, from a heart attack. She was 88. After Murray’s death, she had relocated to be next to Sam, while he taught at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, OR, though she continued to travel throughout Asia for the next three decades. She donated the collection, helped to build the museum, and fostered the roots of a developing Asian Studies program. But the need to be close to Sam toward the end of her life once again drew her to him.
When she died, Eugene did not receive notice and officially announce her death until several weeks following. Seven pages into the September 10, 1951, Register Guard, Eugenians read “Art Collector’s Death Reported,” a brief biographical report that gave some context to the events in her life. The journalist made mention that “[h]er purpose was to foster on the Pacific Coast ‘a sympathetic understanding and appreciation of the people of the Orient.'” Sadly, an article just below this, “Plastic Armor to be Tested in Korean War,” demonstrates the shaky state her purpose was in at the time. The front page declared “Commies Claim Fighter Strafed City of Kaesong!” an exposition on a tense debate between UN officials at the height of the Korean War (1950-1953). These bits of daily-life journalism fanned the flames of the heating Cold War and did more to distance U.S. citizens from Korea and Warner’s desire to bridge cultural divides. The Guard’s death report misses the irony of Warner’s unrequited mission and a divide Korea. It does connect Warner’s collecting habits to Murray, though. He initiated the collection, it was her money but he put it to use, and he was the world traveler.
Three decades before, upon his untimely death, Murray was recognized with more fanfare. He died from the same affliction, October, 2, 1920, near the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, CA, (their home at the time). Murray’s funeral had all the respect due for a quartermaster major: an escort of infantrymen, a band, and a glorious service in the Presidio Chapel. It was certainly a fitting tribute to the wealthy and well-respected military man. “[H]e did important engineering and sanitary work in China,” states the announcement of his death, which Warner kept in her personal archive. He was buried
For a time, Warner seems to have retracted from society after his passing, as is indicated by the dearth of correspondence from October, 1920, to May, 1921. Warner enthusiast and amateur biographer, Ellie Orr, notes how Murray’s death “left her feeling adrift,” and that moving to Eugene to be near Sam helped her find “quiet solace in the beautiful Northwest (Orr, “Remarkable Gertrude!” (2015), 18-19.” Finding a place for herself and the collection she and Murray gathered may have alleviated the hurt of loss. Clearly, anchoring her collection in Eugene and donating it in Murray’s name brought the presence of both collectors to the Northwest.
In the end, one can never fit all the events of a person’s life on a tombstone or in a newspaper article. But the paucity of commemoration seems a disservice to Warner’s work. However, her own thoughts might be apropos on the matter of commemoration and the purpose of her collection. For instance, Warner once expressed her sentiments about naming collections and museum spaces. In telling response, dated June 24, 1929, to Irene Gerlinger, wife of Regent George Gerlinger, regarding the cost of commemoration per room at the forthcoming “Fine Arts Building” that would become the JSMA, Warner admonished the idea that a person’s name might interfere with the role of facilitating learning in a museum setting:
This is, I think, why it is the collection that is named for a person and not the walls of the room. For example, the “Brown Collection” or the “Smith Collection” indicates the things that are in the room and not the person that had the walls. The givers of large gifts to buildings are thanked in the way they are in the Woman’s Building “by having their name placed on a tablet.” If this were done it would greatly hamper the activities of the museum and would prevent people from giving money for a collection to go into a room named for somebody… (“Letter to Mrs. Irene Berlinger from Warner,” June 24, 1929, Gertrude Bass Warner Papers, UA022, Box 8, Folder 2, SCUA, UO Libraries; see also, Orr, 2015, 42.)
Warner turned a cold shoulder to distractions that might hamper interest in art and internationalism, especially by a name “placed on a tablet” or divisive naming conventions that implied ownership by “the person that had the walls.” For Warner, the purpose was of the first order and all distractions could shuffle off the mortal coil.
For more on the featured image of Gertrude Bass Warner, click here.
To read the Eugene Register-Guard on the announcement of Warner’s death, click here.
Mechanical Engineering Society announced Murray Warner’s death with a brief biography, read it here.