Crafting a better marriage

The Menlo Park home of Dorothy and George Saxe is an unobtrusive setting for great works of contemporary crafts. Three sculptures by Robert Arneson casually rest on shelves in the den off the living room. Plates by Viola Frey are mounted above the bathtub. In the entryway is a bronze sculpture by Deborah Butterfield.

“We consider ourselves very, very lucky to be living with these wonderful works,” says Dorothy.

“But you won’t find a single painting in the house,” says George. Nor will you find many antiques. Since 1980, when the couple decided to become collectors, they chose to focus their retirement years in three areas: contemporary craft, family and their continuing involvement in Jewish community.

Celebrating their 60th anniversary on Oct. 19, the Saxes were honored by their congregation as well as their family. Festivities began Friday night, with a special blessing at Congregation Beth Am, followed by Shabbat dinner, a Saturday matinee of “Golda’s Balcony” with their three children, six grandchildren and a grandson-in-law, dinner at a French restaurant, where family members sang a song in their honor, and Sunday brunch. “The children were very thoughtful and generous,” Dorothy said.

While family and Judaism have always been primary, their love of craft enabled their relationship to continue to blossom after their children left home.

They also enjoy sharing their collection not only with their family, but with the public. In addition to the works in their homes in Menlo Park and San Francisco, the Saxe collection of contemporary craft has its own permanent gallery at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco and has been exhibited at six other museums nationwide, including the Smithsonian and the Oakland Museum. One of the couple’s favorite things to do is visit the de Young anonymously, relishing the enjoyment of the spectators.

It wasn’t art that brought Dorothy and George Saxe together 60 years ago. While she was at Northwestern, he was dating one of her sorority sisters. But the couple broke up shortly after graduation and the sorority sister married someone else.

One day Dorothy got an invitation from a friend to spend the weekend in Indianapolis. George, who lived in Pennsylvania, was visiting. That’s when they had their first date. They married four months later: She was 21; he was 26.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” George says.

They set up house in Michigan City, Ind., Dorothy’s hometown, where their children were born. Today daughter Ellen Saliman lives in Hillsborough and is a social worker at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City; son Loren of Palo Alto is a Jewish community activist; and Joel lives in Portland, Ore.

During the first years of their marriage, George worked in the men’s slacks business, but he had bigger plans. He had visited California several times on business and saw opportunities in the burgeoning Golden State.

In 1959, they moved to Palo Alto and he became a real estate developer. He “knew nothing about real estate,” but figured that if 1,000 people a day were moving to California, they certainly would need a place to live.

The couple also got involved in the growing Jewish community. They joined Congregation Beth Am, where George has served as president, and became active in a number of organizations. George was a board member at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, and also served on the boards of the Jewish Home and Rhoda Goldman Plaza. Dorothy is a trustee with the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and has served on the boards of AIPAC and Jewish Family and Children’s Services. She was also involved in sisterhood activities at Beth Am.

But besides Jewish involvement and family, the Saxes admit that back then, they didn’t have many common interests. George played golf and enjoyed sporting events. Dorothy preferred theater, ballet, museums and opera. As they approached midlife and their children left home, they began looking for something they could enjoy together.

“We looked at each other one day and said we’ve been married for many years and we don’t do the same things,” George says. “We made a special point of looking for something neither of us knew anything about. And whatever it was, it would require a lot of discussion and decision-making. We would have to learn it together. But we had no idea what it would be.”

Sometime later, they found it — through a Corning Museum of Glass catalogue on a friend’s coffee table.

“I said to Dorothy, ‘This is beautiful. I have never seen anything like this. Maybe this is what we’re looking for,'” George recalls. “We decided we would declare ourselves as collectors and if at all possible, we would put together the best collection of contemporary glass that existed.”

It was certainly a departure. “We had never collected anything as children, not even stamps, not even baseball cards,” says Dorothy, “so collecting was

a very alien concept to us.”

The Saxes began in 1980 by focusing only on glass, housing it in an apartment in San Francisco they had bought the year before. Then a year and a half later, they expanded into ceramics, fiber, metal and wood, which they display in their Menlo Park home. Later their glass collection outgrew their city apartment, so they bought a larger one in the same building. When the collection outgrew that apartment, they bought an adjoining apartment.

For the Saxes, art has never been a moneymaking enterprise. They rarely sell anything. Instead, they give it away, donating it to museums, such as the de Young, or lending it for exhibitions.

“We thought it was very unfair to the art and the artists to just squirrel it away,” says Dorothy.

Beyond the works are the human connections: He serves as a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the Saxes travel around the world with museum groups.

“Some of our best friends are people we’ve met through collecting,” she adds. “It has really enriched our lives.”

More to the point, their collecting has enriched their 60-year marriage.

The Saxes are the first to admit they barely knew each other in 1947. “We didn’t even know what each other liked,” says Dorothy.

“The most important thing in this whole collecting business,” says George, “is that it has completely changed our lives.”

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent is a writer and editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.