Frances Ronshausen Dittmer
Frances “Frannie” Ronshausen Dittmer died February 5 in Mexico when the small charter plane on which she was sole passenger crashed en route from Puerto Vallarta to Careyes, where she owned a house and visited often. She was 72. The pilot, Alberto Navarro, also perished. A longtime former resident of Chicago and latterly of Aspen, Colorado, Mrs. Dittmer was a philanthropist and collector admired in preeminent art circles and beloved by family and friends of all stripes.
“She was a force behind some of the most important institutions in this country,” said Philippe Vergne, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “Frannie’s impact on our museum and museums across the country has been profound,” said Aspen Art Museum Co-Presidents John Phelan and Paul Schoor. “We could count on Frannie to speak her mind and make sure we took the right direction. Her leadership, vision, and friendship will always be treasured, and we already miss her and her infectious laugh.” And said James Rondeau, Dittmer Chair and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, “She was incisive and discerning, generous and glamorous, a radiant personality with a devilish sense of humor.” Blonde and statuesque, Frannie was stylishly self-possessed, plainspoken, and prone to call a spade a shovel. She talked-and laughed-with a lilting twang that she never tried to lose, but it was the laugh that was her trademark. An exuberant and unmistakable chortle, it was audible from astonishing distances and once heard, was not forgotten.
Born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, she was a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and a Kappa Kappa Gamma. From 1964 to ‘66 she worked on Capitol Hill as personal secretary to Democratic Texas Senator “Smilin’” Ralph Yarborough, an extraordinary responsibility for someone in her early 20s. In Washington she caught the eye of Thomas Dittmer, a young lieutenant in the fabled Third Infantry and a White House Social Aide.
In 1966, Frannie and Tom married and moved to Chicago, where they raised a family, built a business, and collected art. When Tom and stepfather founded R.E. Friedman commodities firm Refco in 1969, Frannie became one of the company’s first five employees. Refco’s success grew exponentially, and Frannie cultivated her passion and keen eye for art. In 1979 she met Sotheby’s Vice Chairman Anthony Grant, then a young associate in contemporary art, and the two began a lifelong journey. Through the years the collection evolved and changed from Modern masters such as Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger, to post war giants Willem DeKooning and Jackson Pollock, to the art of our time by Cy Twombly, Brice Marden, and Christoper Wool. Concurrently Frannie also built a world class portfolio at Refco, with Adam Brooks as curator. Grounded in contemporary photography and in the works of master printmakers such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, the collection was preserved after Tom sold the company to private shareholders in 1999.
The Dittmers were involved in numerous Chicago civic and arts organizations, including the Chicago Lyric Opera and Providence St. Mel School, but Frannie’s heart lay most fondly with the visual arts. In addition to her AIC trusteeship, she and Tom endowed there the Frances and Thomas Dittmer Chair of Modern and Contemporary Art. She was also a life trustee at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago where, together with Tom, she was one of six board members seminal to fundraising for that institution’s expansion in 1991, leading to the first major museum building in Chicago in 65 years. Throughout her life, Frannie participated substantively in many of the nation’s most prestigious arts organizations, including in New York the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Drawing Center, Dia Art Foundation, the Menil collection in Houston, and the Aspen Art Museum. Her magnanimity extended to animals, dogs in particular, and she supported a number of shelters and rescue organizations. Her cherished Chihuahuas once graced the cover of the Aspen Animal Shelter calendar, which made her immensely proud.
Generous as well in their spirited entertaining of friends and associates, the Dittmers hosted famously creative and occasionally lavish parties. Her houses were always comfortable and beautifully designed, befitting her longtime collaboration and friendship and with designer David Easton.
Not everyone knew she had her pilot’s license and played the piano by ear, but her reputation as a football aficionado and Bears fan was well established. In the early days she and Tom played flag football with friends, and she was invariably the first one picked. “She was a master of the quick kick,” Tom boasts. “And hell, she could throw the ball 50 yards.” More recently her children recall their fashionably clad mother loping across the lawn in Hermès sandals, manicured nails rasping on the pigskin as she threw perfectly spiraling passes to her grandsons.
In 1994, as winds of business and finance shifted, the Dittmers left Chicago for New York, and after 33 years of marriage the formidable couple went their separate ways, divorcing amicably in 1999. Frannie moved permanently to Aspen, where they had long had a second home and where she was, not surprisingly, active in the community. The family nonetheless remained close and often spent holidays together. Surviving are son Jason and his wife Allison of Park City, Utah; grandsons Casey and Jesse; daughter Alexis Gaughan and her husband Chris of Santa Monica, California; and Chris’s daughters Casey and Peyton. A sister, Marilyn, and her husband Warren “Dutch” Holland, live in Durango, Colorado. Frannie also counted as family Matthew Morris, who for 25 years faithfully headed her household staff.
The family respectfully suggests that gifts in Frannie’s memory go to a charity of the giver’s choice. Afternoon services will be held both in Aspen on Wednesday, February 19, in Aspen, and in Chicago on Friday, February 21, details to be announced.
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