Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Has More Than a Few Stories to Tell
The longtime U.S. diplomat and scion of one of America’s most elite lineages is a funny and smart conversationalist and a good teller of tales.
Ambassador Loeb and wife Sharon Handler Loeb in the sitting room of their 68-acre estate in Purchase.
photo by stefan radtke
Using trophy real estate as a barometer of success, there is no conclusion to draw other than Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. has fared well. In addition to a five-story townhouse on East 61st Street, a 150-acre wine-country spread in Sonoma County, a stylish flat in London, and a small place in Aspen, there is, perhaps best of all, Ridgeleigh, his serene, beautifully landscaped estate in Purchase.
The 68-acre compound on Anderson Hill Road has been in his family since the 1920s, and it’s where he grew up, except for long stints at boarding schools, beginning at age 9.
“I just love it here, and I’m so happy,” says Loeb, who is descended from the founders of two iconic Wall Street firms: Lehman Brothers and Loeb, Rhoades & Co. “It’s [Ridgeleigh] the best thing my family left me.”
He and his wife, Sharon Handler Loeb, sold the Upper East Side townhouse earlier this year and now, except for a Park Avenue pied-à-terre she is fixing up, have mostly retired to Purchase.
Loeb, now 89, is perhaps best-known as the former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, appointed by President Reagan in 1981. From there, he went on to serve as a public delegate to the United Nations General Assembly.
While he was ambassador to Denmark, he started his collection of Danish art. Now, he has amassed what is considered the largest and most important collection of Danish art outside of Denmark.
Loeb has worn enough different hats over the years to keep even the most manic milliner glutted with work, including investment banker, winemaker (Sonoma-Loeb label), genealogist (tracing his American roots to the 1600s), politician (he weighed runs for state comptroller and U.S. Congress), and philanthropist. And let’s not leave out dog lover, Harvard man, and doting father and grandfather (he has a son, Nicholas Loeb, and a daughter, Alexandra Driscoll, by two former wives).
In his dining room, under the gaze of well-painted ancestors on the walls, he talked thoughtfully and easily about a long life, lived well. Much of the discourse centered around the engaging memoir he published last year, John L. Loeb Jr.: Reflections, Memories and Confessions.
Weighing in at six pounds and 710 pages, with a fantastic collection of photos of family and boldfaced names, the book has been in his head for 20 years, not including the two years he spent writing it.
As one might expect from a longtime diplomat, he is a funny and smart conversationalist and a good teller of tales. Yes, that was his strong-minded mother, the former Frances Lehman, who got into a spirited public argument over abortion with Nancy Reagan at a fundraiser Loeb was throwing for the Reagans. Loeb also remembers fondly the three days he’d hosted his boss at the time, then-secretary of state Al Haig, at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Denmark. Loeb recalls having enjoyed every minute of the onetime NATO supreme commander’s visit, even into the wee hours of the morning, as the notoriously blunt Haig regaled Loeb with tales of his extraordinary career and behind-the-scenes contretemps in the Reagan White House.
It’s worth noting that Loeb says much of history misunderstood what Haig meant when famously he asserted that he was in control following the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan. According to Loeb, Haig never meant to imply that “I am in control here”; instead, he meant “I am in control here,” referring only to the White House, not the government as a whole, until Vice President George H.W. Bush alit from Marine Two onto the White House lawn.
Loeb (right) was appointed ambassador to Denmark by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
photo courtesy of John Loeb
Other anecdotes covered the imperious style of legendary decorator Sister Parish, who did his townhouse in the early 1960s, and great big bear hugs and sky-high job promises from Governor (and later U.S. vice president) Nelson Rockefeller.
Loeb’s lineage reads like a Who’s Who of dynastic New York families. They include the Bronfmans, Lehmans, Morgenthaus, Lewisohns, Kempners, Moseses, and Emma Lazarus (of Statue of Liberty fame). In 1850, Loeb’s maternal great-grandfather, Mayer Lehman, founded Lehman Brothers with siblings Henry and Emmanuel. His uncles included New York governor Herbert Lehman and Irving Lehman, chief justice of the New York Court of Appeals. His grandfather Carl M. Loeb and father, John L. Loeb Sr., founded the famed financial firm Loeb, Rhoades in 1931, and John Jr. worked there for nearly 20 years, beginning in 1957, after a stint in the Air Force. His brother Arthur founded the beloved Madison Avenue Bookshop in Manhattan.
Moreover, the list of New York institutions for which his family is the eponym is daunting. They include the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park, the Lehman Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Loeb Student Center at NYU, and the Lewisohn Collection at the Brooklyn Museum.
As a longtime GOP activist, Loeb is troubled by the current state of his party. Asked whether he still considers himself a Republican, he answers with a heartfelt “I don’t know.” In the 2016 election, “I actually voted for Hillary Clinton, whom I think very highly of,” he says. “I figured the worst that would happen [if she were elected] was that we’d know the way things would go for the next four or perhaps eight years.
“The Republican Party is Mr. Trump,” Loeb continues, “and I think there are some very good things about Mr. Trump and some not very good things. One thing that really bothers me about Mr. Trump is that he is rude to people unnecessarily.”
Well outside the realm of diplomacy and banking, Loeb says that he is proudest of his work fighting anti-Semitism. He comes from a family of secular Jews and never considered himself religious. “I was never bar mitzvahed; my father was never bar mitzvahed.”
A life-changing moment came in 1945, toward the end of World War II, when the 14-year-old Loeb was a student at Hotchkiss, a large Connecticut boarding school. He was one of two Jewish students. It was a Saturday movie night, which the whole student body attended. A Movietone newsreel showed the first horrific footage of dead and emaciated men and women from German concentration camps. To Loeb’s shock, a chorus of cheers erupted from the students. A group of boys approached him later to say, “Well, we don’t like Hitler, but at least he’s killed the Jews.”
In his memoir, in a chapter titled “Coping with Anti-Semitism: Hotchkiss, 1944-1948,” Loeb writes, “It arguably set me on the course for what I think of as my life’s work.”
“What I’m most proud of is everything I’ve done in trying to encourage people to learn about — and even more importantly, understand — religion,” he says.
To that end, 10 years ago, he created the Loeb Visitors Center at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, the oldest surviving Jewish house of worship in the country. Loeb is also the founder and chairman of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom.
“If I leave anything to the world of any meaning, I think it will be in that area, of trying to understand other people’s religions,” he says, adding:
“I think every generation will have to renew [the spirit of religious tolerance and understanding]. There is no way that this anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim feeling will ever really be cured.”
Bill Cary is a freelance writer who splits his time between a Hell’s Kitchen apartment in Manhattan and a former chicken farm in the Ulster County hamlet of Stone Ridge.