The Life & Legacy of Evelyn Kelly Lambert

Nasher Sculpture Center
May 28, 2015 6:17PM

In 2014, the Nasher Sculpture Center and Peggy Guggenheim Collection launched a collaborative internship program named in honor of collector and philanthropist Evelyn Kelly Lambert, who called both Dallas and Venice home. Inaugural Evelyn Kelly Lambert Intern Melinda McVay reports on the local and international impact of the legendary Mrs. Lambert.

“If I were ever to write a book, I would start with this: 'The Truth is mighty and I respect it. Therefore I will use it sparingly.’” Although Evelyn Kelly Lambert never wrote that book, she lived a life that was worthy of one. Those who knew Mrs. Lambert remember her as one of the last true grandes dames, a woman who organized lavish parties that supported numerous cultural events and institutions, spearheaded campaigns and even founded organizations to accomplish her goals. Born and raised in Tennessee, Evelyn became a citizen of the globe whose adventurous spirit led her to far-flung locales. She worked as a reporter in Cuba during Prohibition and after, transported produce in Baja, lived on a houseboat in Kashmir, sailed the seas of South America, set out to explore Asia, and traveled around the world on numerous occasions throughout her lifetime. 

It was opportunity that brought Evelyn to Dallas when, in 1948, she took a position as the Director of Advertising for Neiman Marcus. Here, she quickly became a force in the fashion and art world and was reported to have been “one of the highest paid women executives in the nation” during her time with the company. Evelyn recalled her time at Neiman Marcus fondly, especially because it was there that she first met her husband, prominent Dallas landscaper Joe Lambert Jr., who is remembered for introducing azaleas to Dallas. Evelyn and Joe were the quintessential couple. “They complemented each other,” an old friend told The Dallas Morning News. “Joe was private and taciturn. Evelyn was flamboyant. But I’ve never known two people of such style and taste.” Another friend remarked: “Joe and Evelyn were not just a couple. They were a force, a miraculous, energizing, enhancing force.” Their extravagant parties soon became the talk of the town. 

Evelyn loved the collaborative, can-do spirit of Dallas and became a dynamic advocate in the community. “The thing that impressed me about Dallas,” she once said, “was that, for the first time, I identified with the pulse of a community. In New York and California, it was always ‘they did this’ and ‘they did that’. But in Dallas, it was ‘we did this’.” To give back to the city she called home, Evelyn worked to shape the art and cultural world of Dallas. According to Texas Monthly, she “was one of the most influential forces on the Dallas social scene through much of the fifties and sixties. Smart and dynamic, Lambert was a woman whose imprimatur could immediately put any cause in the social limelight.” Evelyn devoted her time and energy to many causes, serving on the boards of the Dallas Civic Opera, Dallas Theater Center, Dallas Contemporary Arts Museum, Dallas Fashion Group, and Northwood Institute. She was the Volunteer Coordinator for the women’s section of the Red Cross Membership and Fund Campaign, and she served on the founding committee of the Dallas Boys Club and the Dallas Girls Club. In 1966, Evelyn co-founded TACA (Theater Arts Center Auction) with her friends Jane Murchison and Betty Blake. Fellow TACA founder Virgina Nick told a Dallas Morning News reporter that Evelyn deserved “99 percent of the credit” for establishing TACA’s role as an arts builder in Dallas: “She had always thought of fabulous things to do. No one had ever heard of an auction to raise money.”

 Evelyn’s cultural advocacy grew out of her lifelong belief in the value of art: “I have lived by and with the visual arts all my life. My mother had an iron will, she was determined that I would be a vulture for culture, if it killed me.” She began to collect art when she was in her 20s while living in Cuba. Her first purchase was a small abstract painting by Wilfredo Lam in 1930; later, she would acquire artworks by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Jean Arp, and Alexander Calder. Her main interest was abstract art: “Abstraction to me is very revealing because abstraction can be one thing one day and another thing the next. That’s why abstract paintings are called abstract! It’s in the eye of the beholder, in color and form. They don’t have to be objects. It’s a departure from objects. It is the same with memory. It’s how you train your reflections. You can train them when they are objective and positive, or you can change them when they are pessimistic and sad and dramatic. The same event can be both sublime and beautiful.” 

Although Dallas always remained home, Evelyn and Joe retired to Venice in 1968, where Evelyn continued to dazzle. “She has done a great deal to promote American goodwill in Italy,” said one arts supporter. “She’s a strong, powerful woman. In Italy, they call her the female Pope because she could easily run the Vatican.” Evelyn and her husband restored a 16th-century villa and garden in the Venuto, which the government of Italy has declared a national monument and now serves as a music conservatory. 

Determined to continue her charitable work in Italy, Evelyn co-founded Friends of Venice, which was loosely related to the International Fund for Restoration of National Monuments. “Many people are crusading for the physical restoration of Venice,” Evelyn noted in an interview with The Dallas Morning News, “but what we want is to keep the great creative life of the city going.” In true Dallas fashion, Evelyn raised money for her cause “through such fascinating events as an auction that offered a weekend in Evelyn Lambert’s Italian villa or a French picnic, Texas-style, with caviar, champagne and a complete symphony orchestra playing in a garden during the meal.”

Evelyn Kelly Lambert left Venice in 1990, seeking the climatic health benefits of Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she lived until her death in 2004. In her new home, she continued to support various art organizations and laid the groundwork for a yet-unrealized Guggenheim Guadalajara.

“ I think I’ve had a very good life. I’ve had highs and lows. The highs are accomplishing the things I set out to do, like bringing contemporary art to Dallas. To be the wife of the man who beautified Dallas. To bring as many Texans to Venice as there are Venetians,” she said, but when it comes to regrets in life, Evelyn claimed, “I have a very bad memory for regrets.” 

Nasher Sculpture Center