Donald Blinken, Ambassador, Financier and Art Patron, Dies at 96

Donald Blinken, a financier, patron of the arts and Democratic Party donor who became an ambassador to Hungary, helping to inspire the career in politics and diplomacy of his son, Antony, the current secretary of state, died on Thursday at his home in East Hampton, N.Y. He was 96.

Secretary Blinken confirmed the death.

In November 2020, when Antony Blinken spoke about his nomination to be secretary of state in the Biden administration, he called his father “my role model and hero.”

In a phone interview on Friday, Secretary Blinken described sharing meals with his father while he was growing up, during which they discussed the news and life in foreign countries. He recalled the energy with which his father pursued public service — for example, visiting every one of the dozens of campuses of the State University of New York while he was chairman of its board.

“He was of a generation and of a temperament where you didn’t necessarily communicate everything or share everything — you just did,” Mr. Blinken said.

Donald Blinken was appointed ambassador to Hungary by President Bill Clinton in 1994. It was not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Mr. Blinken promoted democracy, integration with the West and the construction of a market economy. Secretary Blinken said his father’s achievements included helping to set up, in Taszar, Hungary, “the largest staging base in Europe since World War II.” The United States used the base during its military intervention in Bosnia.

In a 2009 article about “well-heeled political supporters” receiving ambassadorships, The Wall Street Journal commended Mr. Blinken as an outlier, an example of a financial donor who also worked hard “to serve one’s country.”

In 1999, shortly after his tenure ended, he contributed an opinion article to The New York Times boosting the post-Cold War trajectory of NATO. “The principal argument opposing NATO enlargement (Don’t upset Russia) now seems greatly exaggerated,” he wrote.

But over time, he came to describe foreign affairs during his tenure less muscularly and more wistfully. In 2018, when The Times interviewed him for an article about Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s turn against liberal politics in Hungary, Mr. Blinken recalled the 1990s, saying, “Everyone loved us, the Cold War was won, and we thought it was this great period of peace and prosperity.”

Before Mr. Blinken became ambassador, his government postings, all arranged by Democrats, included membership in a judicial nominating panel named by President Jimmy Carter and appointments to the State University of New York’s board by the Gov. Hugh L. Carey and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

Mr. Blinken’s career took off in 1966, when he co-founded the investment group E.M. Warburg, Pincus & Company. He remained associated with the company until being appointed ambassador in 1994. That year, The Times described Warburg, Pincus as “the nation’s largest venture capital firm,” reporting that it had $4 billion under management from “blue-chip corporations, state pension funds and college endowments.”

Mr. Blinken had further impact as a hobbyist with an interest in the arts.

It began with a dispute over the custodianship of hundreds of paintings by Mark Rothko after his suicide in 1970 — “the biggest, most publicized and most protracted legal wrangle in art-world history,” The Times wrote in 1986. The contretemps inspired “Legal Eagles,” a movie starring Robert Redford that was released the same year.

In the mid-1970s, the executor’s of Rothko’s estate were dismissed, and Mr. Blinken — who had begun collecting Rothko’s paintings in the 1950s — became president of the Mark Rothko Foundation. He oversaw the donation of about 1,000 Rothko artworks to museums and dissolved the foundation he ran, sacrificing a potential source of personal power and avoiding any atmosphere of scandal that sometimes surrounds foundations with control over the work of canonical modern artists.

Kate Rothko, the artist’s daughter, pronounced the donations “a very happy ending.”

Donald Mayer Blinken was born on Nov. 11, 1925, in Yonkers, N.Y. His father, Maurice, was a lawyer who was credited with helping to persuade the U.S. government to support the establishment of Israel as a state. His mother, Ethel (Horowitz) Blinken, was a homemaker.

Mr. Blinken left Harvard College and joined the Army Air Corps in 1944, but the war ended before he could be sent into combat. In 1948, he graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He then worked in retail, including at the British company Marks & Spencer, which his father represented as a lawyer.

He married Judith Frehm, who was also from Yonkers, in 1958. Antony was born in 1962. In 1971, Donald and his wife divorced, and Antony and his mother moved to Paris. Mr. Blinken met Vera Ermer on a blind date, and they married in 1975.

Mr. Blinken saw his son during school holidays and summers, and he was able to give the future secretary of state a highly cultivated upbringing. When a colleague visited a young Antony Blinken’s apartment in Washington, he found a Rothko hanging on the wall, Politico reported in a profile last year.

In addition to his son, Donald Blinken is survived by his wife; his brother, Alan; and two grandchildren. Besides his home in East Hampton, he lived in Manhattan at the exclusive River House.

In his early 30s, Mr. Blinken experienced a remarkable stroke of luck, entering a scene of emerging artists before they became inaccessibly famous.

He and Rothko listened to a recording of “The Marriage of Figaro” while hanging Rothko’s paintings in Mr. Blinken’s apartment. He soothed Philip Guston over a negative review during a joint family birthday lunch.

“These important artists actually enjoyed sharing their ideas with a beginning collector,” he wrote in a 2017 article for The Financial Times. “Living with their art for six decades has been a pleasure, but the experience of visiting artists’ studios and talking about art — that was an enriching, privileged education, briefly available then, perhaps impossible now.”

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