May 11, 1981 12:00 PM

As general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Anthony Addison Bliss has probably dealt with more characters and complications than Verdi and Wagner combined. But not all of them have been as weighty as, say, the acrimonious union dispute that kept the Met dark for more than a third of its 1980-81 season. Take, for instance, this fairly typical Bliss family drama of March 17. That evening the nation’s top opera had a premiere, so Tony Bliss had to be at Lincoln Center. But his wife, Sally, had to be with the Joffrey II, a ballet troupe for beginning dancers where, as artistic director, she is in charge of training and mothering 16 young dancers, including Ron Reagan, the President’s son. Meanwhile the Blisses’ own son, Timothy, 11, was opening in a production of Oliver! at his school. What to do?

Tony went to the Met. Sally went to Joffrey II. After midnight, they both bundled into their Chevrolet Suburban station wagon and hightailed it to their home on Long Island’s Oyster Bay. Scarcely six hours later they were up and blinking at Timothy’s school for the 8 a.m. second performance of his musical. Boasts Sally of the theatrical trifectal “Oliver! was the best.”

In the arts, at least, there may be no couple with as much mobility and clout as the wedded Blisses—or as many contrasts. Tony is a rangy (6′), wry, rich and reserved Yankee of 68 whose family has long been a pillar of culture in New York. Sally, 43, the daughter of a Canadian journalist, is an outgoing, outspoken redhead who quit high school to pursue a ballet career and now livens up the dance world with what a pal describes as “a marvelous mixture of elegance and lunacy.” But the two are well matched. “They’re both very physical,” notes Joffrey founder-director Robert Joffrey. “I figure they are the only ones who could keep up with each other.” Says Sally: “We’re just two workaholics who are mad about each other—and opera and ballet.”

Tony first saw Sally in 1962, when he focused his opera glasses on a svelte dancer playing a handmaiden in Tristan und Isolde. Bliss, then 49, had been the Met’s unpaid president for six years; he was also a Wall Street lawyer and a father of four struggling with a failing marriage to his second wife, Jo Ann Sayers, who had starred in the 1940-41 Broadway smash My Sister Eileen. Sally was 26 and estranged from Norman Tobias, a Toronto Symphony bassoonist; she was a $3-an-hour part-timer in the Met’s corps de ballet.

When a friend tried to introduce her to “the president of the Met” several months later, Sally recalls thinking, “Oh, God, what do I have to meet some gray-haired old man for?” But then she took one look, “and he was young, gorgeous, with a sense of humor. I just said to myself, ‘This is it!’ ” Tony was also smitten, but they kept their distance, seeing each other only at the opera and at parties. “It was like South Pacific,” she says. “You know, across a crowded room…It was very romantic.” Then in 1964, when the Met went on summer tour, the distance closed. Their romance continued in secret for three years. Says Nancy Zeckendorf, a dancer friend of Sally’s who is now an official of the American Ballet Theatre: “We all knew she was in love, but we had no idea with whom.”

By 1967, when Sally got her divorce, Tony’s marriage had also ended. The two wed quietly at the Halifax, Nova Scotia home of Sally’s parents, Jack and Zeversa Brayley. For a while they wondered if Bliss could handle Sally’s volatile temperament. Says Tony: “They were delighted that I just laughed when she got angry. They figured it was going to be all right.”

Sally started dancing as a child, but was 18 when she realized her dream of joining the National Ballet of Canada. By the time she was 25, both her marriage and her career had gone stale. So she fled to New York even though, she recalls, “I didn’t have a penny.”

Happily, Tony Bliss always has. His grandfather, Cornelius Bliss, made a fortune in textiles and became President William McKinley’s Interior Secretary. His father, Cornelius II, sold the firm just before the Depression, and in 1938 helped to reorganize the then flailing Met, where he had long owned a box in the house’s fashionable “Diamond Horseshoe.” He served as the Met’s chairman until 1946. Cornelius II’s sister Lillie was one of three women who founded Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, and his daughter, Eliza Parkinson, later served as the MoMA’S president. His older son, Cornelius III, became a trustee of the New York Hospital. Tony, the youngest, was the “maverick,” he says. Afflicted for a time with an intestinal disorder, he spent a solitary youth raising ducks and geese at his father’s Long Island home and summers riding horses at the Bliss ranch in Missoula, Mont. That, says Tony, is “one reason I’m not a totally social animal. The country is my life.” Indeed Bliss believes he might have been happy to be a Canadian Mountie, as his wife’s brother John is today.

Nonetheless, Tony was polished at Groton, Harvard, two law schools (Columbia and the University of Virginia) and Wall Street—with time out for World War II Navy duty in the Pacific. At 24, he married Barbara Field, daughter of Chicago merchant-publisher Marshall Field; their daughter, Barbara, 42, is an aspiring opera singer. With Jo Ann Sayers, whom he married in 1941, Bliss had three children: Eileen, 37, breeds horses; Anthony Jr., 35, an ex-Army paratrooper sergeant who came out of Vietnam with a Silver Star, is a New York Times editor; John, 32, is involved in the arts.

Bliss learned about the Met “almost by osmosis,” first from his father, who died in 1949, later by working with Vienna-born Rudolf Bing, the opera’s icy impresario who retired in 1972. But after he married Sally, Tony left the Met presidency to concentrate on the law—and the fathering of what he jokingly calls his third “litter.” Sally was eager to help. In fact, Bliss laughs, “She complained bitterly after she didn’t get pregnant on our wedding night.” Their first child, Mark, now 12, was born within a year; Tim arrived in 1970.

In 1974 the Blisses changed course again. Sally, Tony says happily, “would never fit into a life of ladies’ teas.” That was especially clear after a long period she spent caring for Tony at Oyster Bay when he was laid up with a severe virus. So she returned to work full-time at Joffrey II (where Tony is chairman of the parent Joffrey Ballet). Now she fusses over and travels with her young dancers, munching truck-stop cheeseburgers and carrying her own bags with the group. She has personally boosted Ron Reagan’s career, though she says, “When I first saw him in class, I had no idea who he was. But I could see his potential.” She is now so close to the Reagan family that when Ron suddenly married his live-in girlfriend, Doria Palmiera, a publishing house researcher, the anxious First Couple called Sally from the White House to get her impression of the wedding.

When Sally was starting with Joffrey II, Tony was drafted to run the Met full-time. Bing had retired, and debts were mounting so fast that Bliss’ own law firm would not take the Met as a client, fearing it would sink. “I had grown up with the Met,” says Bliss. “I didn’t want it to go under.” In four years he erased the deficits, which ran as high as $2.7 million a year, partly by imposing rigid cost controls and partly by recruiting small contributors. He aims to build a $100 million endowment by 1983, the Met’s centennial year.

Now the family Bliss is living up to its name. Sally is still “bullheaded,” she concedes. But she is no longer driven “to be perfect.” Tony “gave me the nice feeling I wasn’t half bad,” she says. As for him, Nancy Zeckendorf says he was a bit proper “before Sally came along. She opened him up.” Tony protests that he “wasn’t a stuffed shirt. I was just shy, more comfortable around animals than with most people. But Sally made me feel much more secure.” And settled. “His mistress? It’s the Met,” Sally laughs. To which Tony rejoins: “And her lover is the Joffrey II.”

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