Long ago, while working as an editor of The Argus, I set out to do a profile of Bagley Wright, the notable arts leader who died last week at the age of 87. I recall the interviews as fascinating but guarded. I was thoroughly awed by this highly cultivated, rich, witty, and influential figure who was far above my social station.
I remember the headline, "Dear old, irascible Bagley Wright." The story tried to balance an account of how unpredictable and sometimes sharp he could be, along with all the affection people had for his generosity, great company, and leadership. Fortunately, one of the other editors, Roger Downey, spotted my misspelling of "irascible" just before it went to print — or else my reputation with this great man would have been doomed.
We stayed a little bit in touch, and then, in 1975 when I was trying to find investors to start Seattle Weekly (first called The Weekly of Metropolitan Seattle), I worked up the courage to ask him to invest. "Go get somebody as a partner who understands business," he said commandingly, and when I did so (hiring Darrell Oldham), he became the first (small) investor.
He soon became my indispensable mentor, and it was in those early years of getting the Weekly going that I learned just how good he was at guiding creative businesses. It turned out that he had spent a few years, right out of Princeton, working for some New York magazines, so he had an interest, often a condescending one, in journalism. Mostly, he liked business, and had a fine feel for timing, for balancing debt and equity, and for sticking to your basic goals. "Don't get daunted!" he would tell me, often adding a hilarious story about how Hunter Simpson, running Physio-Control (where Wright was chair of the board), bossed around his board and drove the company relentlessly to success. The Wright family eventually became the largest (though still a minority holding) owners of the Weekly (until it was sold to the Village Voice in 1997), but after the first five years or so, Bagley passed the board responsibilities on to his son, Charlie. He remained a shrewd reader of it, but I never got him comfortable enough with the Web to hook him on Crosscut.
Anyhow, that's how I got to know him moderately well. We would get together to talk about literature (especially T.S. Eliot) or high-toned magazines such as The New Criterion, edited by the brilliant conservative critic Hilton Kramer. We'd share gossip about the local arts scene, when Bagley — a born satirist who should have written novels about provincial society along the lines of those by Louis Begley, whom he admired — would get off some stinging lines that he would not dare utter in public, maybe hoping that they would find eventual expression somewhere in the Weekly. I'd try to explain local politics to him a bit, particularly when the Seattle Art Museum was trying to move downtown at Westlake Mall, but he would quickly grow impatient with this low form of life and Seattle's endless, dithering process.
Wright had come out here from the East Coast (he was born in Marietta, Georgia, where his father was a textiles executive), graduating from Exeter and Princeton. After school, he moved to Manhattan and began hanging out in the gallery scene, where he met (working at the hugely influential Sidney Janis Gallery) Virginia Bloedel, a Seattle timber heiress. Both were soon absorbing the modern arts gospel according to the art critic Clement Greenberg. They married, in a script taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald stories, and came out to Seattle in 1956, just in time to catch the World's Fair wave.
Both of them had in mind transforming Seattle's provincial culture by injecting New York standards. First was the creation of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where Bagley jumped right in, since he loved theater, dared to create a repertory company (the repertory idea was utter economic folly, as it turned out), and improvised his way through various artistic directors and contortions into building quite an ambitious theater in a building named for him by his friends.
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