From ‘Wonder Woman’ to Warhol

Douglas Cramer’s route to the Cincinnati Art Award

May 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Just before our phone interview, Cincinnati-raised collector Douglas S. Cramer — who will be given the Cincinnati Art Museum’s second annual Cincinnati Art Award at a Thursday gala — was talking with Wonder Woman.

Actually, it was actress Lynda Carter, who starred in Wonder Woman, the late-1970s hit TV series that Cramer produced. She was inviting Cramer, who lives in Connecticut, to attend her cabaret performance in New York.

“She was saying she couldn’t believe that Jazz at Lincoln Center, where she’s performing, had all this Wonder Woman memorabilia,” Cramer says, adding that Carter has always loved to sing.

Cramer’s life encompasses both Wonder Woman and Warhol, a pretty impressive span. He has also known and collected the work of key contemporary artists like Jim Dine and Richard Prince. Plus, in addition to Wonder Woman, he has been involved with such hit TV series as Peyton Place, Dynasty, Hotel and The Love Boat. The latter three were with his business partner in the 1980s, Aaron Spelling.

Cramer is considered one of the world’s great collectors of contemporary art and has donated to many major museums, including CAM, which will display his recent gifts along with the Warhol portraits in a show on view through Aug. 21. (Cramer has also loaned the museum paintings over the years.) When Cramer auctioned 30 of his artworks off in 2001, part of a move from California to the East Coast, the $20 million his work netted made worldwide headlines. Some individual pieces (by artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra) sold for over $2 million. A Jasper Johns painting garnered over $3 million.

The CAM show features photographs, graphite drawings and eight acrylic-and-silkscreen-ink-on-linen portraits of Cramer by Warhol, all from 1985. Plus, there’s a portrait of Cramer and his longtime partner Hubert Bush by Bush, as well as eight recent gifts to CAM from Cramer.

Cincinnati played a key role in shaping Cramer’s career. His family moved here from Louisville when he was 8 and he graduated from Walnut Hills High School in 1949. (A school friend, painter Jim Dine, was in Walnut’s Class of ’53 and received the first Cincinnati Art Award.) Early on, he became interested in community theater and show business in general. He dropped out of Northwestern University to usher at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall, but re-enrolled at the University of Cincinnati to avoid the Korean War.

Cramer went on to get an advanced degree at Columbia, but he returned to Cincinnati in the mid-’50s to participate in an unusual enterprise called Cincinnati Summer Theater, a professional summer theater located in a tent on Winton Road.

“On the recommendation of the drama critic of The Enquirer, they brought me in,” Cramer says of his relationship with CST. “We brought in people from Geraldine Page to Maureen Stapleton to Eva Gabor. We brought productions from New York.”

At a certain point, Cramer decided he wanted to work at one of the television networks, but was told he first needed outside experience with advertisers, whose influence was especially huge in TV’s early days. Using local connections and scoring well on a personnel test, he was hired by Procter & Gamble to work on its daytime TV serials. He left for a New York ad agency, then finally got to ABC to become programming head in the 1960s.

“Coming out of P&G and daytime serials, I convinced the network to put the first nighttime serial on the air — Peyton Place,” he says. “At its peak, it was on three times a week. That was Mia Farrow’s first show; she was 18 or 19 when we cast her.”

He moved on to other production jobs, becoming an independent producer and then teaming with Spelling. The taste for soap operas stayed with Cramer, eventually resulting in the super hit Dynasty. His shows had a taste for interior design, an influence he assigns to his mother, Polly Cramer, who wrote household hints for Cincinnati Post and syndicated outlets.

He started collecting art in phases as his career developed. He credits a Walnut Hills art teacher named Edward Dauterich with stoking his interest. While working in New York, he starting buying prints by 20th-century Modernists, then by the younger artists there who were friends with Dine (who was also in New York, building his reputation), Johns, Lichtenstein, Kelly, Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse and others.

In Los Angeles, once he married the celebrity columnist Joyce Haber, Cramer started collecting Californian artists. After selling those upon his divorce, he slowly started over as money came in from his hit shows.

He also came to know Warhol during this period. Cramer wanted Warhol to do The Love Boat, a guest-star-driven romantic comedy series set on a luxurious cruise ship.

“He agreed he’d come do Love Boat if he could help choose the 1,000th guest star,” Cramer says. “We commissioned him to do a portrait of that star and I agreed to buy two and have Aaron Spelling buy two.”

Eventually, Warhol did two portraits each of Cramer and Candy Spelling (Aaron’s wife), plus one of the show’s 1,000th guest star, Lana Turner.

When Cramer received his two portraits, he found them too dark and asked Warhol to lighten them up. The artist did and that was that, Cramer thought. But about five years ago, he learned Warhol did a total of nine portraits of him while working to get it right. For its current show, CAM found eight of those portraits, plus seven Warhol drawings of Cramer. He says he intends to give one of them to Cincinnati.

That means that, from now through August, at least, Cramer shares pride of place with another Warhol portrait of a famous Cincinnatian — Pete Rose.

Cramer laughs at the thought.

“That will be nice,” he says. “I hate baseball.”

GIFTS AND WARHOL PORTRAIT OF DOUGLAS S. CRAMER is on display through Aug. 21. For more on the show and Thursday’s Cincinnati Art Award ceremonies, visit