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Betty Freeman

Carl Stone in conversation with Betty Freeman


Composer John Adams called her a “modern-day Medici” and dedicated “Nixon in China” to her. Born Betty Wishnick in Chicago on June 2, 1921, Freeman moved with her family to Brooklyn and then to New Rochelle, N.Y., where she grew up. She learned the art of philanthropy from her father, Robert I. Wishnick, who was a successful chemical engineer and often donated to hospitals and educational institutions. At Wellesley College, she studied English and music and became a capable pianist. Upon graduation, she married Stanley Freeman, who ran an electronics company and was later an investor. They moved to Los Angeles in 1950, where she raised their four children. During the 1950s she became a collector of Abstract Expressionist art and became close to painters Sam Francis and Clyfford Still, eventually writing books about them. She would later divorce Stanley Freeman and marry Italian sculptor and painter Franco Assetto. Her association with the art world eventually led her to music, and she became an avid commissioner of new works from such major composers as Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Harrison Birtwistle, and Steve Reich, to name a few. In 1964 she met Harry Partch, the eclectic American composer and inventor of unconventional instruments, who, at the time, was nearly destitute. Freeman housed him and provided support for his work until his death in 1974. It was through her financing of a 1973 film about Partch, “The Dreamer That Remains,” that Ms. Freeman started her career as a photographer. When no one from the film crew was available to take still shots, Freeman was enlisted. Beginning in 1981, she gave renowned musical salons at her home. Composers would discuss and perform their works, either live or from recordings, for an invited audience of about 100, among them conductors, managers, impresarios and artists. Freeman said, “I’ve always been interested in the new, and don’t understand why everybody isn’t. Old music is fine. But I like complexity, challenge, ambiguity, abstraction.”

Interview Recorded on 3/5/1988

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