UPDATED: ‘End of an Era’: David Copley left behind legacy of giving

David Copley (1952-2012)

By Pat Sherman

La Jollan David Copley, one of San Diego’s premier art patrons, died last week, just hours after attending a board meeting at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego on Prospect Street, for which he served as board president.

He was 60 years old.

The former San Diego Union-Tribune publisher died of an apparent heart attack the evening of Nov. 20, hours after crashing his Aston Martin into a parked car on Silverado Street, near Eads Avenue. Copley passed away at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, where he was taken after the crash. He underwent heart transplant surgery in 2005.

Copley had lunched with MCASD Director Hugh Davies and Assistant Director Charles Castle the day before the board meeting, during which he said he wasn’t feeling well enough to attend a post-meeting reception the following day.

“David was engaged, but was clearly fatigued,” said Davies, whose position Copley endowed in perpetuity in the early 1990s. “He had a cough; we were concerned. … He said. ‘I think I might have a bit of bronchitis.’ ”
Though Davies and Castle told Copley not to feel obliged to attend the board meeting, Davies said Copley was “quite insistent” on attending.

“He got there early,” Davies said. “He was quite animated (and) led a terrific board meeting … with a lot of good discussion. He gaveled the meeting to an end at 6:06 … and crashed his car nine minutes later.”

Police monitoring the peace rally event at MCASD (see page A5) heard the crash and discovered Copley alone in his car and unconscious around 6:15 p.m., fire department spokesman Maurice Luque said.

The heir to the Copley publishing empire — who made Forbes magazine’s 2005 list of the 400 richest Americans — was notoriously private and shy. However, Robert Singer, M.D. and other members of Copley’s inner circle remember him as gregarious, funny and well-read on a wide variety of topics, including French cinema and costume design.

“He had a zest for life; he was curious,” said Dr. Singer, a close friend who met Copley in the 1960s. “He had a depth of knowledge about many subjects that most people never saw. He never flaunted it.”

Copley was well known for his philanthropy as an individual and as a representative of the James S. Copley Foundation, particularly favoring local arts organizations such as MCASD, La Jolla Playhouse, the Old Globe Theatre, and the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.

Copley was also a major contributor to the new downtown San Diego library ($2 million), and pledged $5 million to Sharp Healthcare following his heart transplant, and $6 million to endow UCLA’s David C. Copley Chair for the Study of Costume Design and for the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design in Brentwood.

Friend Sheri Jamieson, who attended La Jolla Playhouse’s presentation of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” with Copley Nov. 18 said he seemed to be in good health and spirits that night.

Jamieson traveled to London with Copley in October for the opening of the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which Copley underwrote.

Margo Schwab with longtime friend David Copley. (Courtesy of Margo Schwab)

“It was a great achievement for him; we were having a great week,” recalled Jamieson, who said Copley hosted many of the designers featured in the exhibition on his yacht, “Happy Days,” which was docked on the River Thames.

“He was recognized by so many people in so many areas of the arts as being kind of a fundamental pillar and cornerstone of their work and their future,” added Jamieson.

Social reporter Margo Schwab met Copley at an MCASD event and became fast friends.

“I was instantly drawn to how approachable and personable he was; I found him intriguing and smart,” said Schwab, who recalled attending a Lady Gaga concert with Copley and friends a few years ago, in a custom Volkswagen bus.

“(The) engine couldn’t take it and slowed down immensely going up La Jolla Parkway,” she said. “We were all laughing that one of us would have to get out and walk.”

Schwab said Copley also took her to a Tina Turner concert. “Yet he had a passion for the San Diego Symphony, and the opera too,” she said.

Schwab last saw Copley in October at the San Diego Symphony gala, where they shared memories of his mother, Helen Copley. She was scheduled to photograph the family of five rescue cats Copley adopted from the Humane Society last year.

Davies said Copley cultivated enduring friendships with artists such painter and printmaker David Hockney and environmental artists Christo and, wife, Jeanne-Claude (the later of whom Copley met through La Jollans Barbara and Karl ZoBell).

“He loved being with creative people and got along with them really well and I think he could draw them out,” Davies said, noting that Copley was “indispensable” as a patron and consultant on many of Christo’s projects, such as 2005’s “The Gates” in Central Park.

“He would fly in early for tests of Christo’s fabrics,” Davies said. “He was intimately involved with Christo until the day he died. … They were very colorful, articulate, worldly, well-connected, elegant people. … I also think David was drawn to the ambitious scale of their projects, their sheer beauty and the fact that they were ephemeral and fleeting.”

Davies recalled Copley having lunch with Hockney during a Francis Bacon exhibition at MCASD.

“They really hit it off,” Davies recalled. “They were both smokers (then) and they laughed a lot. David Copley has always admired, not only David Hockney’s art, which he collected as well, but I think his courageous lifestyle as an openly gay man in the art world at a time when it wasn’t necessarily comfortable or fashionable.”

Copley’s largesse always extended to his friends, who often accompanied him on his yacht at destinations around the globe.

“David was very inclusive with his friends,” Jamieson said. “He had an interesting life and he had a lot of interests — and he included his friends in many events that he took part in. He honored friendships.”

Robert Singer and his wife, Judith Harris, traveled with Copley several times to the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Singer said Copley was largely a “creature of habit” at home and abroad, always returning to his favorite spots.

Schwab said he enjoyed simple foods, such as Margherita pizza, and enjoyed an annual splurge at In-N-Out burger.

However, since undergoing heart transplant surgery Copley worked hard at exercising and maintaining a healthy diet, Singer said.

“He had certainly lost a significant amount of weight and felt better about himself,” Singer said. “He walked farther, he could be more active.”

Born David Hunt in San Diego in 1952, Copley took on the surname of his adoptive father, former publisher of the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune newspapers, James Copley, who wed Copley’s mother in 1965. The Union and Tribune merged in 1992.

David Copley became publisher of the Union-Tribune in 2001. His mother, Helen Copley, transferred leadership of the paper to him before she died.

In 2009, Copley sold the paper to a Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity, and it was purchased last year by La Jolla real estate investor Doug Manchester, who changed the name to U-T San Diego.

“It was a difficult time for the media and I think David thought it (the sale) was the best thing to do for the paper and the community and his employees,” Singer said. “It’s the end of an era for this community, which has had a history of the Copleys being very generous.”

Davies noted Copley’s more than 25-year involvement with MCASD, and the numerous exhibitions he underwrote.

“I think he spent his final hours doing something that he was really good at and that he loved,” Davies said. “He was taken from us much too young.”

A representative for the James S. Copley Foundation said a private memorial service is planned for Dec. 16.

Christo plans to give a lecture in honor of Copley at MCASD La Jolla in the future, Davies said.

— City News Service contributed to this report

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  3. Former U-T publisher, La Jollan David Copley dead at 60
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Posted by Pat Sherman on Nov 25, 2012. Filed under A & E, Featured Story, La Jolla, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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