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My Klee collection


The Pill and Paul Klee
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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On July 30, 1985, a San Francisco Chronicle front page article bore the headline, Six Stolen San Francisco Museum Drawings Found. At that time, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, commonly known as SFMOMA, had not yet moved to its elegant new quarters, south of Market Street. It still occupied the top two floors of the War Memorial Building, next door to the San Francisco Opera. Its main entrance facing Golden Dome City Hall, across Van Ness Avenue. The War Memorial’s ground floor entrance hall is a rather grand space, and is occasionally rented out for anniversary celebrations, weddings, and other private functions. On the less fashionable side of the street, SFMOMA faces some apartment buildings, one of them the abode of a 19 year old psychology student, attending San Francisco State University. When an art student friend from out of town paid him a visit, his host suggested they crash a private party, then in progress, in the War Memorial’s foyer. 'You know, being a student with no money, it’s an easy way to get food and drink', the newspaper quoted him, 'so me and my friend went over'. According to the thief, the reception was saving the champagne and food until later, so they started to get drunk on vodka and grapefruit juice. Some people get sleepy when drunk, others belligerent, but some art lovers evidently turn curious. 'We wanted to see what the museum looked like in a different light', the instigator confessed, so they climbed the rear steps to the top floor, and pulled on the door until 'it just popped open'.

Even now 15 years later, I get weak-kneed when I visualise that scene. 'I hadn’t seen Paul Klee'... quote again. This is this... in the newspaper, quoting the art student. 'I hadn’t seen Paul Klee for a long time, so we went over to where his paintings are', said the discriminating burglar, 'but it was dark, pitch dark. So we took four off the wall, to the hallway, so we could look at them. On the way out we passed some Picasso's. Oh my God', he said, 'Picasso, let’s take two of them'. Unbeknown to the drunks, they’d set off a silent alarm, but by the time the private security personnel had come to check, the thieves were gone with six drawings under their coats. The Keystone Cops working for the firm, who I trust has since fired them, found nothing amiss.

Around 3 am the two Klee kleptomaniacs had started to sober up and panicked. Deciding to return the stolen drawings, they made the return trip across the street with the four Klee's and two Picasso's under their coats, but found the front doors hermetically locked. Upon reading in the morning newspaper about the value of their loot, and the magnitude of the sentence they were facing, the younger of the now cold sober pair, left the artworks in a cardboard box, on the third level of a downtown parking garage, and called the police.

The story was rather funny, in a slapstick sort of way, except to the embarrassed museum officials, and the pained owner of the purloined art. The owner is me, and what has the pill to do with all this? The answer is simple. The money that made possible the purchase of those Klee drawings, and well over 100 hundred others that have been shown in numerous Klee exhibitions at SFMOMA, all came from the pill. Not directly of course', and then, etc. But it was a very amusing story, and it was an actually quite superb one, and he had good taste the man who... who stole these.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Pablo Ruiz Picasso, Paul Klee

Duration: 4 minutes

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008