This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
She was Indiana Jones in a miniskirt, a celebrity archaeologist hatched out of old New York aristocracy. Iris Love, art historian, champion dog breeder and the longtime romantic partner of the gossip columnist Liz Smith, was just as comfortable in the ancient world as in the society pages.
Ms. Love died of the novel coronavirus on April 17 at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, a friend, Carri Lyon, said. She was 86.
Sunburned, leggy and with a mop of cropped blonde hair, Ms. Love was catnip to the press. When, in 1971, The New York Times wrote about her for the third time, she was 38 and several years into what would become an 11-year dig at Knidos, an ancient Greek city that is now part of Turkey. There she discovered a temple to Aphrodite on the same summer day in 1969 that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
“A previous reporter from a woman’s magazine has been disappointed to learn that Miss Love can’t wear skin creams at Knidos because the dust would cling to her face,” the Times reporter wrote on a visit to her Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan. “A grocery carton bulging with the week’s fan mail occupies the center of the carpet like an icon.”
Ms. Love had already made headlines when she was a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, for outing as forgeries a prized group of Etruscan warriors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She made headlines again when, on a visit to the British Museum’s collection of antiquities, she identified a crumbling marble head stashed in its basement as being a remnant of Praxiteles’ lost statue of Aphrodite.
Neither storied institution was pleased. Chalk it up perhaps to the sexism of the time, and the parochialism of her field. Also, though she had completed the course work for a doctorate, Ms. Love never wrote a thesis, and as The New Yorker noted in a profile of her in 1978, her degree-less status further irritated jealous peers, who had derided her for her skill at fund-raising, not to mention her gender.
“Amazons,” one archaeologist scoffed, referring to Ms. Love’s mostly female crew at Knidos. “Beautiful girls in bikinis,” said another.
Ms. Love’s Turkish workers, however, called her Mister Director.
“She had a formidable energy and enthusiasm that separated her from the more cautious of her peers,” said Maxwell Anderson, a past curator of the department of Greek and Roman Art at the Met. “Archaeology relies on facts, and Iris was given to informed and colorful speculation, which added coloratura to the discipline. She was a public intellectual in a way that was not typical of archaeology.”
Iris Cornelia Love was born on Aug. 1, 1933, in New York City. Her father, Cornelius Ruxton Love Jr., was a diplomat, an investment banker employed by his father-in-law, a collector and a descendant of Alexander Hamilton. Her mother, Audrey B. (Josephthal) Love, was an heiress and arts patron, the daughter of Edyth Guggenheim and Louis Josephthal, an admiral and the founder of a brokerage firm.
Her parents were remote figures, as was the custom of the time for her demographic, but luckily she had a British governess, Katie Wray, who happened to be a classicist. Iris learned Latin before first grade and would grow up to be a polylinguist. She spoke Greek, French, German, Italian and Turkish and could make her way in Mandarin, Russian and Arabic. At her death she was studying Portuguese.
She was famously loquacious in English, too. Ms. Smith used to chastise Ms. Love, as she noted in her memoir, “Natural Blonde” (2000): “Don’t begin the story back when they invented language. Get to the bottom line.”
Ms. Love attended the Brearley School in Manhattan and the Madeira School in Virginia, where classmates taunted her for being Jewish, a lineage she had not understood was hers until then.
She graduated from Smith College in 1955; Sylvia Plath was a classmate. She earned a master’s degree from N.Y.U.’s Institute of Fine Arts and had finished Ph.D. classes there, but not her thesis, because as she often said, she was too busy with Knidos, overseeing the dig each summer and fund-raising most winters, to write it.
“She brought archaeology and ancient art to a whole new strata of society,” Carlos Picon, an antiquities expert who was curator of Greek and Roman art at the Met for 28 years, said in a phone interview. “She popularized it and warmed it up, and it seemed like everybody knew her name. You could go to the middle of the most faraway city and they would have heard of Iris. There are enough Ph.D.s, and whether we gained another book or not doesn’t matter in the long run. More than once Iris helped me secure objects and funding for the museum.”
In her memoir, Ms. Smith recalled falling for Ms. Love — “a Givenchy-clad scientist with a name like a movie star” — at a dinner party in 1977. She said she had been taken by Ms. Love’s guilelessness and energy, her complete lack of interest in pop culture, her intellect and her love of a good party.
They traveled the world together, and Ms. Love and her many dachshunds moved into Ms. Smith’s apartment. By the late 1980s, she had begun to breed dogs in earnest from her property in Vermont, including a number of Westminster Kennel Club champions. She liked to name the dogs for figures in Greek mythology, like Achilles and Tyche.
Ms. Smith was proud of her companion’s new métier, though it came with complications. Ms. Love, always peripatetic, spent months in Italy, often with another longtime partner, Bice Brichetto, an Italian baroness, artist and costume designer, leaving Ms. Smith, as she wrote, to take care of “Iris business” and the dogs. After 15 years, Ms. Smith had had enough, she wrote, though they remained friends until Ms. Smith’s death in 2017. Ms. Love left no immediate survivors.
“I had lovely times with Iris, who might have been a headache, but literally never was a bore to me,” Ms. Smith wrote.
Their annual Westminster dog party at Tavern on the Green in Manhattan, with a guest list typically exceeding 500 people, was a canine extravaganza. There were pate molds shaped like dachshunds, ice sculptures shaped like fire hydrants and everyone, including the dogs, in costume. Ms. Love appeared, variously, as Alexander Hamilton, Cleopatra and a Viking.
“She rose every morning convinced she could move the world if only she had a lever,” Ms. Smith wrote of her friend.