The Sculls Go Pop to the Top
Jay Gatsby would have eaten his heart out at the real-life saga of Robert and Ethel Scull. For years it appeared that Bob Scull would be remembered, if at all, as the Aristotle Onassis of New York taxicabs, and his wife would be, at best, the Jackie No when the best invitations were sent out. But then through his prescience and her persistence (friends don’t call her Ethel but “Spike”), the Sculls became the modern-day Medicis of Pop Art. Even status critic Tom Wolfe had to proclaim them as “the folk heroes of every social climber who ever hit New York.”
Andy Warhol sent Spike wildflowers (signed “Andy-pie”) and did a portrait of her now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum. Jasper Johns sculpted a fountain pen (that now must be worth thousands) as a Bar Mitzvah present for the Sculls’ son Jonathan. At their 11-room Fifth Avenue apartment, across from Central Park and the museum, and at their chic summer place in East Hampton, L.I., they have run a salon where George Segal, the actor, meets George Segal, the artist, and the male chauvinist Porcellians are juxtaposed with Ethel’s best friend, feminist writer Betty Friedan.
The Sculls were born in Manhattan—he 58 years ago on the Lower East Side, she about 10 years later on the Upper West Side. Their first meeting, a blind date, bombed when she ordered a bottle of champagne he couldn’t afford. But five months later they were honeymooning in Miami Beach. At the time, he was a struggling industrial designer going to City College of New York, and she was an art student at Parsons College, determined not to become “just a housewife.” They slept in a Murphy bed in a one-and-a-half-room flat. It was a few blocks from the Museum of Modern Art, which, because of its cut-rate cafeteria, was their favorite dining place.
It was not until 1952—after he joined his father-in-law’s small taxicab business—that Scull bought his first painting: a fake Utrillo, for $245. “I wanted to know what it was like to own a painting with the name Utrillo on it,” he says. “But I soon realized that a fake was not what I wanted.” Ever the shrewd businessman, Scull unloaded the phony with a $55 profit. But he was hooked. From then on the Sculls spent every spare penny on art, venturesomely specializing in the avant-garde of the day before it had been legitimatized with the name “Pop.” There was inevitable antagonism in those early loft confrontations between bourgeois benefactor and starving genius. Established collectors chortled when Scull returned uptown with, for example, those now-famous bronzed Ballantine ale cans by Jasper Johns. In 1961, Scull bought The Spam Sandwich by James Rosenquist, his first Pop painting, and worried what Spike would say. “When I first brought it home, she was a good sport, but she didn’t really dig it very much. But after a few weeks,” Scull recalls, “she got the message.”
It was then that the Sculls made a second decision in their brave new life, returning from the suburbs where they had moved briefly to raise their family. “It had been the biggest mistake of my life,” reflects Ethel. “People were only interested in playing golf or playing cards.” The game the Sculls were interested in playing was social. As Bob says, collecting “gave me a way to meet people I otherwise would never have a chance to meet.” Spike, though, was in charge. “I drove the car,” he explains in a taximan’s metaphor, “but she told me where to go.” Spike, a bit wistfully, remembers the frenzy of their rise. “We were invited out six nights a week. I loved it.”
Then, three years ago, the socializing slowed somewhat when they began to tire of playing Ma and Pa to Pop, and particularly after Spike fell and broke her back while gathering seashells in Barbados. She is now finally recovering, under the therapy of the orthopedist who treated both President Kennedy and his brother Ted. She makes her weekly visits to Kenneth’s to have her hair done, maintains her smashing a la mode wardrobe and still pretty much looks as she did when featured in Warhol’s film The 13 Most Beautiful Women in the World. But wherever she goes, Spike carries an ultrasuede cushion to support her back, and sometimes she has to stretch out across the family’s new Checker limousine. The Sculls are now redoing their digs, which is a sign they are entering a new period. For his bedroom, Bob is in an ornate, romantic Delacroix mood. Hers will have a more outdoorsy House & Garden look. But the separate sleeping arrangements signify nothing. “We fight like hell. We irritate each other,” reports Bob. “But I think I love her more after 30 years than I did when I married her.”
The Sculls seem to be approaching peace with themselves. Their kids are grown. The youngest, Adam, 20, is a senior at Boston University. Stephen, 23, is a rock musician in L.A. And Jonathan, 25, is in the family business—which they no longer seem to be ashamed of. Their 135-cab radio fleet for the first time bears their name—Scull’s Angels—and Spike even had its emblem emblazoned on the front of one of her new Halston evening dresses. Right now, the Sculls are weathering another storm of criticism for auctioning off one-fifth of their collection at Sotheby Parke Bernet and picking up $2.2 million for works for which they paid the artists a paltry $150,000. “I’d like the world to approve of us,” Bob Scull muses. “But I don’t care if they don’t. I’m having a ball.”