Love Among the Ruins

Romantic archeologist, prizewinning dog breeder, energetic socialite, and full-time free spirit—heiress Iris Love remains a true New York original.

One of the stock characters of the 1930s screwball comedy was the madcap heiress—the daring, dauntless debutante who kept a leopard as a pet, led a scavenger hunt in search of The Forgotten Man, or jilted an upstanding fiancé in favor of a former, less reputable beau. Freed from the financial concerns that constrain most people's behavior, those indulged and irrepressible daughters of the upper class acted out a shared national fantasy during the Great Depression, their giddy but good-natured misadventures giving the public a lift during a decade of economic woe and global menace.

If there is anyone who today personifies that same blithe and daffy spirit, it is surely Iris Love, for decades a lively presence in New York and international society. Born to great wealth and privilege during the depths of the Depression, Love improbably became a celebrated archeologist, rising to professional prominence unsought by the glamour-girl debs of her youth. Yet all the while she has retained the freewheeling love of a good time undreamed of by the career-obsessed generation that followed her. She insists that the only two criteria for her easily bestowed friendship are that you like to drink (Grey Goose vodka for her, because, she says, that bird is sacred to Aphrodite) and that her dogs like you.

At 69, the trim, blond Love still possesses the gamine charm and tomboyish self-assurance reminiscent of that pluperfect portrayer of the madcap heiress, Katharine Hepburn. Love can be found seemingly everywhere that the rich, famous, accomplished, and enlightened gather, from Chinese New Year's with Eileen and I.M. Pei to an audience with the teenage Tibetan-born Living Buddha in India to cruising the Turkish coast with Evelyn and Leonard Lauder. Indeed, she can be said to suffer from what Andy Warhol called "social disease," and is mentioned no fewer than nine times in the artist's candid diaries, the definitive chronicle of seventies and eighties café society.

Often Warhol records Love showing up at parties in costume—matching cowgirl outfits with her then steady companion, gossip columnist Liz Smith, at the Houston premiere of Urban Cowboy, a kilt at C.Z. Guest's Christmas Eve dinner on Long Island, and on other occasions wearing a toga in which she performed Greek dances. And not long after the attack on the World Trade Center, Love attended a birthday party near Ground Zero dressed as Uncle Sam and was waved through by security guards when they saw her patriotic getup.

The most improbable encounters seem to occur regularly in Love's broadband magnetic field. Among the many jet-set visitors in the early seventies to her reputation-making Knidos dig in Turkey were Mick and Bianca Jagger. During a 1989 visit to Poland with Johnson & Johnson heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson, Love successfully urged her friend to invest in the faltering Gdansk shipyard, to the delight of another Polish friend, Lech Walesa.

As a prizewinning dog breeder, Love is the first to acknowledge that the spectacular genes in her own pedigree have decisively shaped her life. A direct descendant of both the explorer Captain James Cook and founding father Alexander Hamilton on her English and Scotch-Irish father's side, and of the "Our Crowd" Guggenheim and Josephthal dynasties on her German-Jewish mother's side, she displays many of the traits that brought those forebears to prominence. From Capt. Cook, Love says, she derives her peripatetic nature and dogged urge for discovery, and from her Guggenheim antecedents an uncanny instinct for digging profitably in the earth.

And from both branches of her family Love has inherited a buoyant positivism that endears her to a wide and wildly varied circle of friends. According to her longtime pal Laura Maioglio, owner of New York's landmark Barbetta restaurant and wife of Nobel Prize biologist Günter Blobel, "Iris has such an incredible enthusiasm and love of life that everyone around her begins to feel the same way."

"I'm very optimistic and always have been," Love admits. "I follow Greek philosophy in that you have to have a balance—in order to combat evil you must have good, to recognize that someone is tall, someone must be short, to understand sweet, there must be sour." Although she was raised as an Episcopalian, this superstitious, amulet-toting pantheist is perhaps best described as an equal-opportunity pagan.

Love's greatest claim to fame came more than 30 years ago, when she scored one of the most dramatic coups in 20th-century archeology, a science known for a glacially slow pace only rarely punctuated by stupendous finds such as King Tut's tomb. She and her international team of archeologists rediscovered the long-lost Temple of Aphrodite at Knidos, on the Anatolian coast of southwest Turkey. Love, who cherishes a deep personal identification with the Greek goddess of love, views the enterprise with religious fervor.

The remains of the ruined sanctuary, which once held the famous white Parian marble statue of Aphrodite sculpted by Praxiteles in the fifth century b.c., had been among the most elusive of ancient sites, and one of the most renowned. By the first century A.D., Pliny the Elder was able to write, "With this statue Praxiteles made Knidos a famous city." In our own time, however, some scholars have proposed that the temple might not have been located in Knidos at all. But Love felt otherwise, based on her characteristic blend of sound scholarship and quasi-mystical intuition.

"I knew, having read the ancient literary sources, that the Temple of Aphrodite must be circular, which was unique for the Greeks," Love explains. "I based it on what Pliny the Elder says, that 'Aphrodite stands in her temple in such a way that she is equally admirable from every angle.' To be equally admirable from every angle, it'd have to be circular."

With the Turkish archeologist Askidil Akarca, a granddaughter of the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Love sailed from Bodrum (ancient Halicarnassus) down the coast of Asia Minor to Knidos, now called Tekir by the Turks. "I was sitting on the prow of the caïque," Love recalls, "and suddenly a school of dolphins—which are sacred to Aphrodite—appeared and escorted us into the Bay of Knidos. It was August third, two days after my birthday, and I thought, This is a great present. And when I saw Knidos itself, somehow I knew that this was part of my destiny."

Love got permits from the Turkish government for the dig, raised the money for the operation, and began excavating on a promising site atop a bluff overlooking the Aegean. There she worked over the next three summers, teaching at various colleges during the academic year. Her great breakthrough came on July 20, 1969, an epochal day she sees as a preordained conjunction of the cosmic and the familial— which is very much how she views the world as a whole.

"On Sunday the rest of my team was in camp listening on the transistor radio to man taking his first steps on the moon," she reminisces. "I set off with a Swiss archeologist named Rolf Stucky, who was also a mountain climber, to try to see the site literally as the crow flies. Rolf pulled me up the side of a terrace and from there I was able to look down, and to my astonishment I saw a circular spill of foundation fill, which I knew had to be the Temple of Aphrodite as Pliny described it."

Descending to the site itself, Love and her team began excavating and, as she recalls, "We set the trench, and within two hours the first course of the temple came up—it was marble and circular." Subsequently they found the base of the statue as well as fragments of a hand, a finger, and drapery that could well have come from the legendary statue. News of the discovery quickly made international headlines, but Love saw the timing of the simultaneous events as far from coincidental.

"My great-uncle, Daniel Guggenheim, and his brothers—including Uncle Solomon, who founded the museum—had made their money digging in the earth for minerals, mining copper in Colorado and developing Alaska during the Gold Rush," Love relates. "Uncle Daniel was also very interested in aeronautics. He met a young physicist named Robert Goddard and financed all of his experiments. It was the rocket Goddard developed that put man on the Moon. The wonderful connection is that my ancestors dug for the riches of the earth and used some of that money to finance research for the future. And I've dug in the earth for the riches of the past.

"Archeologists and literati had searched for the Temple of Aphrodite at Knidos for over two hundred and fifty years," she continues. "That it should be discovered by a woman whose last name was Love, and that Aphrodite, goddess of love, was worshiped in conjunction with the Moon, and that it happened on the very same day that man landed on the Moon—isn't that too much of an amazing coincidence?"

Having made her great find, however, Love no longer pursued her work with such single-minded passion. "Iris put Knidos on the map and trained a number of students," says one archeologist friend summing up Love's accomplishments and her standing in the profession today. "We all like her, but she's been so inactive in archeology for so many years now that she's had no impact on the field since the seventies."

Love's current great passion is dachshunds, and she is regarded as the country's foremost breeder and trainer of the German "badger hounds." Her standard smooth-coated dachshunds won the best-of-breed category at New York City's Westminster Dog Show in 1996 and 1999. She is also known for the celebrity-packed dog party she throws before the event each February at Tavern on the Green for her fellow fanciers and the dachshunds that own them.

Canines have always been a part of Love's life, and as she puts it, "I was raised by a Scottie, a boxer, and twelve Skye terriers, perhaps because the Loves originally came from the Isle of Skye. The boxer was my second governess. If I went swimming she went swimming, if I went canoeing she would swim out to the canoe."

Love's mother, who was on the board of the ASPCA, adopted a dachshund which she named the Baron Heinrich Schultz von Kraut. "I was in Italy," Love recalls, "And I thought, 'Of all the breeds, how could Mummy possibly adopt a dachshund?' They are so strange-looking, and from an engineering standpoint they're almost impossible. And when I came back from Italy, it took exactly twenty minutes for the Baron Heinrich to totally enchant me, and I have been a dachshund fancier ever since." For the sake of her dogs, Love divides her time between her Upper East Side apartment and a house in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where most of her 42 dachshunds live full time.

Iris Cornelia Love was born in 1933 at 713 Park Avenue, a townhouse just a few blocks from where she now lives. Her parents—the stockbroker Cornelius Ruxton Love Jr. and Audrey Barbara Josephthal, an heiress to the New York private securities firm Josephthal & Co., and to the Guggenheim fortune—met on a proverbial slow boat to China and married after a long courtship. The Love house was loaded with superb works of art, many of which her father acquired in China. "I grew up eating at a table Daddy had made from a Coromandel screen from the Summer Palace, which he had turned on its side and covered with glass," Love remembers.

Ruxton and Audrey Love were voracious and discerning art lovers who amassed Italian bronzes, Duncan Phyfe furniture, and fine collections of Napoleonic vermeil and early-19th-century Paul Storr silver. Ruxton Love developed a passion for Napoleonic relics—including a suite of chairs from Malmaison, the emperor's campaign desk by Odiot, and the nécessaires of Joséphine and her daughter Hortense, by Biennais—many of which Iris found for him during her travels in Europe. The couple were also pioneering collectors of Benin bronzes and Gandharan sculpture, decades before those esoteric treasures became fashionable, and many of their best pieces have been given to museums in his memory. Audrey Love, who is now 97, still lives on Park Avenue, a few blocks away from the younger of her two daughters.

Apart from her parents' love of beautiful objets, another formative influence on Iris was her childhood caretaker. "I had a wonderful English governess, Katie Wray, who had also brought up my mother, and she had had a classical education," Love says. "Although she read me the usual children's stories, I hated them, so she turned to tales from classical Greek and Roman mythology, which I loved. Sometimes she would read them to me in Latin, so when I began to study it in school I was already several steps ahead." Wray also took her young charge to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Iris fell in love with the Etruscan Warriors, a trio of monumental terra cottas collected by the museum between 1915 and 1921 and long among its most striking treasures.

Love's education was both exceedingly proper and intellectually stimulating: "First I went to a kindergarten whose name I now question. It was called The Yard." Later on she attended the academically demanding Brearley School on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and at 15 she was sent off to the tony Madeira School in the Washington, D.C., suburb of McLean, Virginia. Then came Smith College, where her professors included the redoubtable Phyllis Williams Lehmann, an expert in ancient Greek art of whom Love still speaks with reverence.

Among Love's contemporaries at Smith was the young and very troubled Sylvia Plath. "I knew her quite well," she recalls, "because she kept trying to commit suicide and was kept back until she wound up in my class. In truth, neither her poetry nor her ideas were acceptable to me at that time because I was very much interested in classical literature and art. But she absolutely fascinated me as a person, because I have never understood why anyone would wish to kill herself, especially at such a young age. Suicide to me is the easy way out."

Her junior year abroad in Italy, where she studied at the University of Florence with the eminent archeologist Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli and frequented the city's Museo Archeologico, was a revelation. She became even more fascinated by the Etruscans, on weekends visiting archeological sites of that mysterious pre-Roman civilization and other cities with major Etruscan collections. In the process she developed a sharp eye for the real thing, and after returning to New York, went to the Metropolitan to revisit her beloved Etruscan Warriors, on which she was writing her bachelor's thesis.

With her new expertise in Etruscan art, Love was horrified to realize "there was something terribly wrong" with the statues, and was proved right in 1961 when the pieces were exposed as fakes manufactured in an Orvieto workshop by the forger Alfredo Adolfo Fioravanti, who proudly confirmed his fraudulent authorship. Love claims she told the Met's director, James Rorimer, of her impending exposé, but he beat her to the punch by giving The New York Times the story—which did not mention Love—the day before her paper was to be published.

After graduating with honors from Smith, Love went on to study classical archeology at New York University's postgraduate Institute of Fine Arts. She stopped just short of her doctorate because, although having completed her coursework, she felt unable to write the dissertation. ("I can barely write my own name," she ruefully admits.)

Certainly her lack of scholarly publications has been an impediment to her being taken seriously in some professional circles. But "publish or perish" held no real terror for the financially independent heiress. "God bless my grandmother," Love declares, referring to the trust fund from Edyth Guggenheim Josephthal that has largely underwritten her unorthodox career, "because I probably could never have become an archeologist without her."

To a great extent, Love is a spiritual descendant of the trailblazing 19th-century German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, the rediscoverer of Troy, who used his own considerable fortune to finance his digs. Schliemann was also an incurable romantic and inveterate fabulist who felt compelled to associate every site he worked on and every object he found with a famous mythical figure.

"Though I am not an admirer of Schliemann, who probably destroyed more evidence than he discovered in his excavations," Love says, "I believe, as he did, that within every legend or myth is a seed of truth. For the last twelve years I've been working on a book about the Odyssey, roughly titled—to steal a line from Frank Sinatra— 'The Odyssey, My Way.' What I have been trying to do is demonstrate from a factual point of view what it might have been that Odysseus encountered. I'm trying to find that seed of truth."

Undiscovered Country

We asked Iris Love what she would consider the five most important discoveries yet to be made (not ranked in order of importance):

1 The statue of APHRODITE EUPLOIA, by the great fourth-century sculptor Praxiteles; also known as the Aphrodite of Knidos or the Knidia. She dates from circa 350 b.c., was considered the most beautiful work of art in antiquity, and at one time was counted among the seven wonders of the ancient world.

2 The Opening of the MAUSOLEUM OF THE QIN EMPEROR SHIH HUANG-TI. Located near the ancient capital of Xianyang, the mausoleum was sealed when the Emperor died in 210 b.c. Ancient Chinese literary sources say that the ceiling is adorned with diamonds of greater and lesser brilliance, to represent the stars and constellations. Flowing quicksilver represents the two great rivers of China: the Huang, or Yellow River, and the Yangtze. Only a small part of the surrounding area has been excavated, and Chinese archeologists have recovered life-sized ceramic figures of courtiers and soldiers. The Emperor believed if he didn't kill his army, (as emperors often did) they'd serve his son and preserve his dynasty, so he replicated the army and the magistrates and courtiers in pottery and bronze.

3 Finding AN ANCIENT GREEK OR ROMAN LIBRARY would be one of the most spectacular discoveries in the world. We have very little ancient literature and yet it influenced the entire Western world. There is a Greek and Roman library—at Herculaneum, near Pompeii, in the villa of the Papyri. This was discovered in the late 18th century and some of the papers were deciphered. Pompeii, which was buried under pumice and volcanic ash, is relatively easy to excavate, but Herculaneum's ash mixed with rain and steam and became somewhat solidified—it's a very difficult excavation.

4 AN INTACT EGYPTIAN TOMB OF ANY OF THE GREAT PHARAOHS OF THE NEW KINGDOM (1650-1085 B.C.). This would be a spectacular discovery. If you think of what came from a very small tomb from a very insignificant boy pharaoh, Tutankamen, imagine what we would find from a great pharaoh—it truly boggles the imagination.

5 A GREEK MONUMENTAL WALL PAINTING FROM THE SEVENTH TO FOURTH CENTURIES B.C. It would be exceptional to find a painting by a great fourth-century master like Apelles, court painter to Alexander the Great; or Nessos, from the seventh century. Although there are Minoan and Mycenean wall paintings, not one Greek wall painting that we know of survives. The only clues are the reflections we see in vase painting or Etruscan tomb painting. Zeuxis, a fourth-century b.c. painter, was known for his highlighting and shading. The literature says he painted grapes that could deceive birds.

Martin Filler wrote about London architecture and antiques shops in the last issue of Departures.