ST. PETERSBURG — Eleanor Morse, who with her husband, Reynolds, changed the cultural landscape of the Tampa Bay area, died at her home Thursday after a long illness. She was 97.
The Morses founded the Salvador Dali Museum in 1982 on St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront, donating their vast collection of works by the Spanish surrealist to the institution, making it the most comprehensive Dali archive in the world. Today, it is a respected member of the international museum community, a destination for about 200,000 tourists annually and an important research facility for scholars.
That they became the greatest private collectors of Dali's works, and, even more, became friends with the eccentric artist and his wife, Gala, seemed improbable in the 1940s when they were a young, newly married couple. Their interest in such controversial art scandalized their family and friends in conservative Cleveland.
Their unshakable commitment to each other perhaps allowed them to care little about other people's judgments. As Marshall Rousseau, director emeritus of the Dali Museum once said, "Ren and Eleanor have two passions: each other and Dali's art."
So her story, for the most part, can be told only in conjunction with that of her husband, who died in 2000 at 85.
Eleanor Reese, born on Oct. 21, 1912, was the sheltered daughter of a Cleveland pharmaceuticals manufacturer. She majored in music at Rollins College in Winter Park, studied music in Italy and received a master's degree in French and Spanish from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
She met her future husband at a concert in Cleveland. He was from Colorado, a graduate of Harvard Business School, and starting a company in Cleveland that manufactured plastics.
"He asked me to come up and see his etchings and I did," she said in a 2002 interview. "And he really did have etchings."
Their mutual love of Dali's art was part of their enduring romance from the beginning. They were introduced to it shortly before their wedding March 21, 1942, at a Cleveland Museum of Art show. They bought their first Dali painting, Daddy Longlegs of the Evening, Hope! exactly one year later for about $1,200.
"We called it our wedding present to ourselves," Mrs. Morse said.
They met Dali for the first time in 1943 and began joining the artist and his wife in New York, Paris and the Dalis' home in northeastern Spain.
"They were wonderful fun," said Mrs. Morse. "But we knew also that Dali wanted us to buy his paintings. He would become irritated if we bought older ones from a gallery instead of a new one from him."
By 1979 they had 94 oil paintings, 150 watercolors and drawings and more than 1,000 prints and objects that were valued at about $50 million. To avoid the collection's dispersal for tax reasons when they died, the Morses decided to give it to a museum with the promise that it would be kept intact. Every major institution they approached wanted the right to sell some of it.
The Wall Street Journal wrote a story in January 1980 about their dilemma that caught the eye of Jim Martin, a St. Petersburg lawyer. He and a city official called on them in Cleveland to pitch the idea of a Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.
"We didn't for a moment take that seriously," she said.
They agreed to visit and throughout remained unimpressed. Until they saw, from a distance, an old building that seemed to perch near an outcropping of rocks on Bayboro Harbor. That, Reynolds Morse said, reminded him of Dali's childhood home on the northeast coast of Spain. And it would be a perfect spot for their museum. The rest has become history.
Many people assume Eleanor Morse was the more passive partner in their relationship because she publicly deferred to her husband.
"That would be a mistaken assumption," said Hank Hine III, director of the museum since 2001.
"She had an independent streak," said Tom James, chairman of Raymond James Financial and longtime board president of the Dali, "and her own views."
It was she, for example, who persuaded Reynolds Morse to loan paintings to other museums, a practice that burnishes a museum's reputation and establishes reciprocal relationships major museums need.
And, says James, "After Ren's death, she brought a lot of stability to the board."
Until her health began seriously deteriorating three years ago, she was closely involved with the design of the new Dali Museum a few blocks north of its current location. It is scheduled to open in January.
One major contribution that was singularly hers was her translation of Dali's writings, mostly in French and Spanish, for wider dissemination. For that she was twice decorated by the French government for spreading French culture abroad. In 1989 King Juan Carlos of Spain awarded her the Cross of the Officer of the Order of Isabella the Catholic, the highest honor the Spanish government can bestow on a non-Spanish citizen, for her scholarship.
She was a delightful raconteur, able to move effortlessly from a learned discussion of Dali's art to a racy anecdote about their adventures with Dali and Gala, delivered in a Midwestern accent that emphasized her drollness.
As Hine said of her, "She was both correct — in that she was always beautifully dressed and had lovely manners — and also really quite wild, quite flexible, in her thinking. She had to have had that to come from her background and embrace all that Dali was. She had a broad, generous, encompassing spirit."
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.