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Beatrice “Buddy” Cummings Mayer, philanthropist and art collector, dies at 97

Buddy Mayer and her husband Robert B. Mayer in one of several galleries they added onto their Winnetka home. | Sun-Times archive

When Buddy Mayer visited Mexico City in the 1950s, she and her husband Robert set out to locate the artist Diego Rivera – and found him painting while perched on the bough of a tree.

“He let down a ladder so we could climb up,” she recalled in a memoir. They bought two of his watercolors, of a little girl and boy, to represent their two children.

Mrs. Mayer donated part of her family art collection to an estimated 35 museums worldwide, as well as millions of dollars to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute, Access Living and the Chicago Lighthouse.

During the tensest days of the civil rights era, Mrs. Mayer felt that monetary and vocal support of the movement weren’t enough.

So she traveled to the South with other activists to volunteer with the “Wednesdays in Mississippi” program co-founded by Dorothy L. Height of the National Council of Negro Women. Mrs. Mayer “lived in a shack and shared a twin bed” while tutoring kids, showing slides and photos of the works of African-American artists, according to her daughter Ruth.

Mrs. Mayer died Saturday at her Chicago home at 97.

Buddy Mayer and her husband Robert B. Mayer and her father Nathan Cummings (right), look at the Mayers’ contribution to an Art Institute Renoir exhibit. | Sun-Times archive photo
Buddy Mayer and her husband Robert B. Mayer and her father Nathan Cummings (right), look at the Mayers’ contribution to an Art Institute Renoir exhibit. | Sun-Times archive photo

She was born in Montreal to Ruth and Nathan Cummings. Her father was the founder of Consolidated Foods. The company evolved into Sara Lee and brands including Ball Park Franks, Jimmy Dean Sausages, Hillshire Farm and Kiwi Shoe Polish.

Nathan Cummings nicknamed his only daughter “Buddy” because he said she was his “rosebud.”

She was empathetic but no-nonsense and practical. “Instead of walking around with a doll, she walked around with a bowler hat and a tool kit,” said her granddaughter Jaimie Mayer.

As an adult, she didn’t waste time on make-up and she washed her face with nothing fancier than Dial soap, her daughter said.

Young Buddy earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1943.

Buddy Mayer. | Sun-Times archive
Buddy Mayer. | Sun-Times archive

During World War II, she volunteered with the Red Cross, where she declared, “I didn’t come here to roll bandages, I want to work with people in need,” according to a profile by the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. She said she successfully petitioned to enter the school after being told slots were reserved for people who “would use their education to make a living.”

On a blind date at Ravinia in 1947, she met her future husband, Robert B. Mayer, head of Rothschild’s clothing stores. They married at the Drake Hotel that year.

They acquired a diverse collection of work by artists, including impressionists and Roger Brown, Marc Chagall, Jim Dine, Jean Dubuffet, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Paschke, Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg.

“They collected boldly, learning from dealers but trusting their instincts,” said Marla Hand, the family’s art curator. “Robert said they hung Warhol soup cans in the living room and enjoyed everyone’s amazement that they considered this to be art.”

The Mayers displayed art at seven gallery spaces they added onto Edgecliff, their mansion in Winnetka.

Mrs. Mayer often told her family, “With privilege comes responsibility.”

They were co-founders of the Museum of Contemporary Art, where they donated $7.5 million to create the Mayer Education Center. “They gave their time, heart and soul to ensuring the MCA’s success as a world-class museum,” said museum director Madeleine Grynsztejn. “Buddy supported our collection with many seminal works, including Andy Warhol’s ‘Jackie Frieze'” of Jacqueline Kennedy.

She was a life trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago, where “she worked tirelessly to support programming and scholarship for underserved communities at both the museum and school, leaving behind a legacy that will be felt for generations,” said James Rondeau, Art Institute president.

At The Chicago Lighthouse, “she helped us construct a senior center for older adults with visual impairments,” said Jennifer Miller, chief development officer.

And she gave generously to a new building for Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities. “She deeply believed everybody should have the right to participate in the world,” said Marca Bristow, Access Living CEO.

Her husband died in 1974, and her son Robert N. Mayer died two years ago. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by five grandchildren whom she called her “chicks.” Services are planned at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Ritz Carlton, 160 E. Pearson St.