Dec. 7 2011 12:00 AM

Selma Hollander’s life in the arts is still in full swing


Selma Hollander, Lansing’s indefatigable alpha patron of the arts, talked with a friend recently about the prospect of an afterlife.

The idea appealed to her friend, who may have been angling for a better husband and a bigger house next time around, but not to Hollander.

“What I fear is being reincarnated, because life can never be better than it is now,” Hollander said.

Do yourself a favor. Go to almost any concert, art show, lecture or play in greater Lansing and look for the stunning 94-year-old lady with the red lipstick and red beret. Start a conversation. When it’s over, carefully determine what fraction of Selma Hollander you can realistically aspire to and go for it.

Just remember that only Selma Hollander can be Selma Hollander in full.

“Who cares about a number?” she shrugged. “I want everyone to know how old I am. I celebrate my life.”

When Selma Hollander moved to East Lansing in 1958 with her late husband, Michigan State University business Professor Stanley Hollander, the couple embarked on a half-century-long rampage through the city’s cultural life, attending nearly every significant concert, play, art show and lecture.

Along the way, they gave generously to dozens of arts organizations, including the Lansing Symphony, the Wharton Center, the MSU College of Music, theaters, libraries, galleries and individual artists.

“The two of them couldn’t do enough for their college and their community,” Anne Henrickson, a longtime friend, said. “He was the most wonderful man, and they were so in love.”

Michael Brand, executive director of the Wharton Center, called Selma Hollander a “role model for people in the arts.”

She’s still a big player in the arts scene, and not just to bankroll the umpteenth performance of Mozart.

Michael Rush, the founding director of MSU’s new Eli and Edythe Broad art museum, came to East Lansing last year with the daunting mission of selling cutting-edge art and architecture in the heart of Michigan. He quickly discovered an invaluable ally, a kindred spirit and a personal hero.

The gift shop/cafe at the Broad Museum will be named after the Hollanders, as will the first lecture series in the new museum, endowed by a “generous” gift from Hollander.

“What a remarkable person, to not only enjoy life, but contribute to the sources of that enjoyment,” Rush said. “In the art world and the nonprofit world, we’re so utterly dependent on people like her.”

Stanley Hollander died in 2004, but Selma carries on with a daily round of social, philanthropic and cultural doings that would exhaust people one-quarter her age. She works out at the MAC regularly, where she sometimes strikes up conversations with visiting twentysomething dancers from “The Lion King,” or some other production she’s just seen.

“Whatever the opposite of depressed is, that’s Selma,” Rush said. “She goes for it every day.”

She lives alone in her Okemos apartment,but she doesn’t lack for companionship. Friends, acquaintances and admirers swirl around her in concentric orbits. Every impending cultural event brings multiple calls offering a ride. (She drives, but only during the day.)

“I never say no to anything,” she said. “Don’t ever invite me, just to be nice, thinking I’ll say no, because I won’t.”

She doesn’t smoke, but if she were to pick up a cigarette, several people would probably materialize at her side with lit matches. She doesn’t have to depend on the kindness of strangers, because nobody is a stranger to her.

“I get invited to everything,” she said. “That’s it, that’s my life.”

“Everybody knows Selma,” Rush said.

“I could never have this life on my own,” Hollander said. “I had my parents, then Stanley. Now the university is my family.”

She spends her rare down time writing what other people would pretentiously call a diary or a journal, but she dismisses as “my notes.”

“It’s my feelings, my thoughts, my philosophy, my this, my that,” she said.

In her life and in her “notes,” she sticks to basics. She recently jotted down the words “everything has a consequence.”

“It sounds like crap but it’s not crap at all,” she argued with an imaginary skeptic. “I believe in that%u2028stuff. You just can’t go around hurting people.

It’s going to come back and hurt you.”

Hell’s bells

Recently, Hollander started going  through stacks of old papers and memorabilia, hoping to save her executors the time and trouble.
Her spacious main room is graced with her own patterned fabric art, Delft porcelain and shelves of travel and art books.

She straightened the place for City Pulse’s reporter and photographer, but she made it clear that housework isn’t her style. She is not “into equipment,” either, so she doesn’t own a dishwasher. Her garbage disposal was recently taken out because it was getting moldy from disuse.

After all, if the house were in order, she explained with a grin, she would have to entertain. “My dishes aren’t clean. You’ll never eat in my house. Simple as that.”

Her archival stuff is in the front room, forbidden to visitors.

Last week, she “attacked” a chair piled with papers three feet deep and found a transcript from one of the few difficult periods in her life — three grinding years and 68 credits earned at New York University in the mid-1930s, at the height of the Depression, at $10.50 a credit hour.

“Economics, sociology, government — it went on and on, plus stenography, typing, bookkeeping,” she said. “There wasn’t a single elective. I couldn’t bear it.”

Hollander was born in Brooklyn on June 18, 1917, into a middle-class family. Her father was a postal carrier.

When she graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in her late teens, most of her female friends were hunting for husbands. She aimed for independence, but it wasn’t easy. She quit NYU after her junior year. Years later, when Stanley Hollander became ill, he would worry that Selma couldn’t “count zeros.”

“I can count zeros, but I have to think about it,” she would tell him.

Stylishness was more her style. Her mother, a milliner, made beautiful clothes for herself and her daughter.

“I used to dream of sewing clothes and designing and things like that, but not being an artist,” she said.

In her late teens, she found pay dirt at the Post Office, acing the entrance exam and starting as a clerk, boxing mail at night, to her parents’ disapproval.

Two years later, she got a plum secretarial position and was earning as much as her father. She stayed with the Post Office 17 years.

“Three weeks’ vacation, 13 days’ sick leave — and I was never sick," she said. The years at NYU weren’t wasted after all.

Right away, she bought a car and took up golf.

“For tennis, you had to have a partner, and the girls I knew were all looking to get married. I don’t know what they were looking for,” she said, eyes rolling upward. “They put curlers in their hair.”

Instead of curlers, Hollander bought a set of Babe Didrikson golf clubs and let her inner Babe out — athletic, poised, independent, like the groundbreaking golfer and multi-skilled athlete of the 1930s.

Last week, in another stack of papers, Hollander found the stub of a check for $1,000 from the postal service — her unused sick leave. She’s still astoundingly healthy.

Hollander’s sartorial slam, powered largely by splashes of red and killer accessories, came naturally. “My mother wanted me to dress beautifully. She made all these hats for me. I always had a hat for everything.”

In Hollander’s junior year of high school, her mother laboriously crafted a dress for weeks, only to throw it away, deeming it unfit, and buy her daughter something better.

Now, with her Post Office gig, Selma could buy her own clothes.

“I was earning a man’s salary, giving nothing at home. Come on!” she shouted, as if she still couldn’t believe it. “My mother said, ‘Put it on your back.’”

When it came to men, she was proud, shy and picky.

“I guess I wanted to marry up,” she shrugged. “My sister said, ‘The guy wasn’t born. She’ll never get married.’”

The prediction was put to the test when she started going to Camp Tamiment, a summer resort in upstate New York popular among middle-class Jewish workers. “A boy-meets-girl place,” she described it dismissively.

At the camp, Hollander was more interested in golf than men, but she ended up with a package deal. One Saturday afternoon during Rosh Hashanah of 1956, she was thrown into a threesome with two men. One was a young professor and specialist in marketing at University of Pennsylvania’s business-focused Wharton School named Stanley Hollander. Stanley was at Camp Tamiment by chance — his first-choice hotel in New York had a fire that week.

That night, back at the camp, another man kept asking Selma to dance. “I didn’t like this guy,” she recalled. “I couldn’t get rid of him. I thought, ‘Hell’s bells, I’m not going to stay here all night.’” (“Hell’s bells” is her favorite expletive.)

Fed up with the scene, she started to walk out, with the intention of making it her last trip to Tamiment.

But Stanley stood near the door. He turned her around, asked her to dance and invited her for a drink.

“Of course, nobody can get away from me when I start talking,” she said.
‘Where my life really started’

The next morning at breakfast, Stanley was seen heading purposefully toward Hollander’s usual solitary cafeteria seat at breakfast.

“Here he comes,” murmured several voices. Camp visitors noticed the couple’s chemistry the night before and expected a follow-up.

He asked for Hollander’s phone number, but didn’t get it.

“I didn’t fall in love at first sight,” she recalled, with a shrug. “Sorry, but he did — I didn’t.”

Later that week, the doorbell rang at the two-story Brooklyn flat where Hollander and her parents were living upstairs.

“Flowers for Selma Jacobs,” someone shouted.

Hollander thought the flowers must be for her sick cousin, who lived next door.
Stanley left his phone number on the card, but responding to male attentions wasn’t Selma’s favorite game.

“Look, I worked in the post office. You can imagine how many guys were there. I’d find so many boxes of candy on my desk, you know what I mean.”

But Stanley put her on the spot with the flowers.

“I thought, he did send me something, I guess I’m supposed to thank him.”

She called, and they went to a ballet the next night (a light, fanciful ballet by Delibes, “Coppelia,” with a wedding scene.)

“I can’t figure it out,” she mused. “He knew I didn’t have a college degree. I can never understand — I don’t know what he was looking for, seriously. That always puzzled me.”

Stanley proposed to Selma about a month after they met. She found the whole idea “incredible.”

“What if the marriage didn’t work? I’d be giving up my security. I’d be out of luck.”

But Stanley was urbane, intellectually voracious and doggedly in pursuit of his passions — Selma foremost.

“He was the last Renaissance man,” she said. “He was brilliant as a scholar and had the most incredible sense of humor. He had everything.”

A brief autumn of weekend visits broke down her resistance.

“It was dinner in the best hotels,” she said. “He always got me a gift from the university bookstore or the museum.”

Stanley’s last visit included a trip to Manhattan’s jewelry district to fit Selma out with a diamond ring. The couple married Dec. 16, 1956, and went to Bermuda on their honeymoon. 

They came to East Lansing in 1958, when Stanley came to MSU’s Marketing Department as an associate professor.

Some people felt he should have held out for a full professorship, but he was eager to make the move.

“Apparently, he wanted to get away from his mother,” Hollander said.

The Hollanders quickly became fixtures of the Lansing area’s cultural scene.

“This is where my life really started,” she declared. “I was working before, I had money, but I didn’t have friends. I made a world for myself here.”

They traveled to Europe and soaked up every exhausting minute of the Chautauqua Music Festival in New York. During a stay in London, Selma learned lacemaking, yarn spinning and ceramics. One summer, Stanley did research at the United Nations while Selma enrolled in Rutgers University. They avoided high Manhattan rent by living in Selma’s dorm room as student and spouse.

Most important, they treated their new home town as if it were Chautauqua or London, absorbing the local culture to the fullest and pushing the envelope where it fell short.

“The university is here,” she said. “How do you have a university here and not take advantage?”

To her surprise, Hollander started taking art classes at MSU and ended up with a bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She taught weaving and fabric design at MSU in between cultural binges.

“Whoever thought I would be teaching at the university?” she marveled. “Whoever thought I would get married? It must have all been chosen for me.”

’Creepy little purse’

Tales of timely intervention from Stanley and Selma Hollander, or Selma solo, are legion in Lansing’s art community. In 2004, Hollander’s friend Anne Henrickson and former Kresge Art Museum director Susan Bandes were desperate for a major donor to help launch the cramped museum’s planned expansion.

They took Hollander out for dinner and told her how hard it was to raise money for the arts in a sports town. One large donation, she told Hollander, would open the possibility of matching funds and get the ball rolling.

Henrickson had already gone to dozens of big potential donors to little benefit.

“She pulled a little checkbook out of this creepy little purse she had and wrote us a check for $25,000,” Henrickson said.

When the expansion plan ballooned into a new museum, designed by cutting-edge architect Zaha Hadid, Hollander was skeptical at first, but a recent tour of the building helped change her mind.

“It’s fantastic,” she said. “I’m just sorry I’m not going to be around for a long time, because I would enjoy the art very much.”

“She’ll be around to see what the museum blossoms into,” Rush countered. “I don’t see her going too far too soon.”

Although Hollander was a frequent donor to Kresge and a docent there for 15 years, she doesn’t sympathize with Kresge donors who are upset about the transition to Broad.

“Some of them even want their gifts back,” she said. “They give a gift for a write-off, then they want it back. A gift is a gift.”

It’s no secret that art patrons often fund public art and music for private reasons.

“I found out very soon that (some of them) mostly wanted to have the artists in their homes to entertain their friends,” Kenneth Beachler said.

Beachler, director of the Wharton Center from 1982 to 1992, has a favorite patron-poser story. When operatic soprano Martina Arroyo showed up at a party at a local donor couple’s home after a Wharton Center recital, the clueless wife walked up to Arroyo and asked, “What do you do, my dear?”
“She hadn’t been to the recital,” Beachler said, cackling with scorn. “The Hollanders were the opposite of that.”

The Hollanders’ checkbook followed their hearts and minds. In their most active heyday, they went to almost every Wharton production. As the audience cleared and the scenery was hauled off, they sat in the front row, chatting. “They processed everything they saw and heard,” Beachler said.

Hollander still takes her time getting out of a theater, unless her ride has an itch to go.

At the Wharton Center, she chills in the Green Room.

“I sit there and wave to people, talk to people. Everyone rushes to get out. I don’t get it. I just hang out.”

Whenever possible, the Hollanders stretched their tastes. When the Wharton Center hosted the Kathakali Dance Theater of India, Beachler sat with Dolores Wharton, watching the Hollanders take in a long program that had a “tendency to drone on,” in Beachler’s description.

“When the second half began, almost everybody had drifted away, but Stanley and Selma were sitting there, rapt,” Beachler said.

It soon got to the point that Beachler and his Wharton Center colleagues would keep the Hollanders in mind when planning a season.

“I would think of them: There should be something for the Hollanders, something that’s going to stretch,” Beachler said.

In 1991, Beachler started “New Traditions,” a series of contemporary music concerts at the Wharton Center featuring the Kronos Quartet and other on-the-fringe performers, naming the series after the Hollanders. Later in the 1990s, Beachler started a chamber music series, including two complete cycles of Beethoven string quartets with the Juilliard Quartet, with the Hollanders in mind.

Hollander doesn’t expound much on her musical taste. She grew up listening to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts coming through the floorboards of her parents’ house from a radio owned by an upstairs boarder. She danced to swing records played on a Victrola.

“I continue to support the music school, so many endowments and whatever, and neither of us could read a note,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

She could paper a house with the programs from all the concerts and plays she’s been to, but she doesn’t like to read them or be told what to think.
“I just don’t bother,” she said. “Beethoven’s Sixth, Fifth, Ninth — I just go and I enjoy the evening, or I don’t enjoy it. But most of the time it’s good.”

“I rarely heard Selma say she was disappointed in anything,” Beachler said.
To be sure, there are things she doesn’t like — almost anything by Bela Bartok, for example. She’s not into art songs, either. (“I just don’t like that sound.”)

She found 27-year Lansing Symphony maestro Gustav Meier pompous and high-handed.

“He thought he was God,” she said, with another eye-roll. “That’s the one thing about that man I couldn’t take, but I still went to the symphony for the music.” (She’s an unqualified fan of the present maestro, Timothy Muffitt.)

Several years ago, Hollander went to MSU’s “Home for the Holidays” concert and was “disgusted.”

“Everything was so Christian, with Jesus, Jesus. It was so boring, I’m sorry.” She didn’t complain about it, but somebody must have, because “a year after that, there was hardly any of the real Jesus stuff,” she said with relief. She plans, without dread, to attend this year’s “Home for the Holidays” Saturday.

Last Saturday, she went to a holiday concert at Charlotte’s Performing Arts Center with some friends, but reluctantly. “It’s going to be real Christmas-y, but so be it,” she said on Thursday. “I’ll survive it.”

The concert was part of her usual 10-hour Saturday arts regimen, beginning with a Metropolitan Opera high-definition simulcast at Celebration Cinema, dinner with friends and whichever local concert looks most promising in the evening.

Monday, Hollander reported that the concert in Charlotte surpassed her expectations. To her surprise, Beachler was master of ceremonies.
“Have you ever heard him sing?” she asked. “It was great. Some Christmas song or whatever.”

At the Charlotte concert, a woman who had been a Hospice caretaker for Stanley spotted Selma and said hello.

“Can you believe it?” Hollander said. “I haven’t seen her for seven years.”
She even participated in the singalong. “Well, everybody else was singing,” she said. “I’m not going to sit there with a poker face.”