Interviews

The Interview: Cissie Swig, Trailblazer

By Janet Reilly

Five, maybe ten, minutes into my conversation with RoselyneCissie” Swig, a funny thing happened. I began to exhale. Maybe it was the effect of the hot tea on a chilly December afternoon or watching the sunlit sky fade to gray through the picture windows in Swig’s Presidio Heights home. But, more likely, it was the Cissie effect, where the world just seems to slow down and become a bit more genteel and thoughtful in her presence. That’s the way it was on a recent afternoon when I sat down with the philanthropist, businesswoman, art lover and adventurer. Swig, known for her quiet elegance and joie de vivre, shows no sign of slowing down. She clearly loves her life and the family, friends and many passions that fill it. Our conversation ran the gamut from fine art to feminism, and Swig’s recent stint at Harvard to her decidedly unlikely fly fishing hobby.

Roselyne “Cissie” Swig poses alongside a light installation by artist Jim Campbell that hangs in her elegant, art-filled Presidio Heights home. Photo by Spencer Brown.

You grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in the Hyde Park neighborhood. What brought you to California? My father and his brothers decided that California was opening up and it would be a good idea, so they moved us, literally, lock, stock, and barrel to Los Angeles. I was 16. After graduating from high school, I went to UCLA and then Berkeley. And that’s how I met Dick. On a blind date. He was not a student at Berkeley. He was already working.

Tell me about meeting your husband [Richard Swig]. It’s a very cute story. My sorority sister fixed us up, but when he came to pick me up, he couldn’t remember my last name. I was running for treasurer of my class — I think — and so I had a banner in front of the sorority house that had my name on it. He was saved. And then, he liked me. We had another date, and another date. We got married a year later.

And, you two were married for 47 years, during which time, the Swig family owned the Fairmont Hotel. That must have been so much fun. Are there any distinguished guests who stand out in your memory? Well, you’re right, it was so much fun. Dick loved what he did and I was his hostess and I enjoyed it as well because I love people … We hosted dignitaries from all over the world, and they were wonderful guests. We entertained a lot, both in our house and at the hotel. And we were raising four children at the same time — my kids were very tolerant.

Where did you get your commitment to and passion for philanthropy? It came from my family — and particularly my mother, who had wonderful values that she shared with me and my sisters. I came from a very large family, not of siblings, but just a broad [family]. And she was sort of the anchor.

You’re a tireless supporter of the arts and have been for more than 50 years. Where did your love of art come from? When I lived in Chicago, my parents allowed my older sister and me to take the el [train] to the Art Institute. They had a live drawing salon and we would sit there with our pads. We loved it. We just loved it. So that could have been what generated it.

In the late 1960s, you became head of the women’s group at the San Francisco Art Institute, where you later served as the chair of its board of directors. What about the school inspired you? In the ’70s, the Art Institute was very much a forward-thinking institution. It was the fine arts, and they were using some very interesting materials. They were early to use digital and whatever materials were coming on board. I started listening out of one ear to some of the neighbors and some of the people that I knew. They were sort of questioning — “What are [those artists] doing at the institute?” And it bothered me that there was this parochial feeling of the arts. I just loved the individual artists and thought, “These guys and these women are really hanging themselves out there and they’re not being appreciated, and they want to be successful, they want to have families, they want to show that they are making their way — and somebody else is suspicious of them for the materials they’re using.” So I decided that I would start a consulting company.

I said to Dick, “I’m starting this consulting company.” He said, “What?” And I said, “Yes, and I’m starting it tomorrow.” I started what was called “Roselyne C. Swig Artsource.”

And the purpose and mission of the company was to help people find fine art, but also to educate my clients to the fact these artists are human beings. It went beyond the art piece.

Who were some of the artists you worked with? William WileyTom HollandPeter GutkinBob Hudson. … I was very lucky early on to get two major corporate clients and I loved that. They were very receptive to the ideas that I had as far as really looking for local artists, and then beyond.

In launching Artsource, a for-profit business, were you looking to distinguish yourself in some way? Yes. When I turned 30, it was a very defining moment for me, because I suddenly realized that I was very much involved with the hotel industry — but I didn’t have my own identity. And I said, “I’ve got four children, and I’d like to have my own identity.” And I think that’s what led me to make a decision to start this business, because this was something that was very important to me.

Photo by Spencer Brown

Women’s empowerment is also near and dear to your heart. It was always very important to me. I got involved with politics early on and I eventually became chair of [the Board of the Jewish Community Federation]. But first, I was involved with the women’s division. That would have been either in the early ’80s or the late ’70s. Women were sort of feeling their oats and they decided they wanted some say into the annual giving that was requested of them and their spouses. So we developed what started out as a “dollar a day” [program], where a woman could easily give $365 a year. All she had to do was go into her change purse, take out her change after a day, and put that aside and she had probably more than a dollar. You showed them that they could indeed empower themselves, and that was fun.

As a result, the women’s division became very strong, and it is still very strong. And the women play a very important role in the entire federation system. It’s changed. Today, a woman does count.

It sounds like you’re really a teacher at heart. You want to show you just don’t talk the talk, you walk the walk. There’s an organization I started called Partners Ending Domestic Abuse, which really turned into a very significant movement. David Chiu and Wilkes Bashford started it with me. The purpose was to alert the community to domestic abuse and to bring it out of the closet into the cocktail circle — so that when you went to an event, you could talk about a situation that was happening.

What got you interested in raising awareness about domestic violence? I knew that it was important, and I got sort of annoyed with the fact that it was so closeted. Not too many years ago, you enrolled in a leadership program at Harvard. How’d that come about? Somebody nominated me. It’s called the Advanced Leadership Initiative, ALI, the idea being that these are individuals who have held leadership positions — whether in corporations, or in the general community, or even in government — and have this experience and information that should be shared. So you were part of a cohort. In my case there were 24 fellows from all over the world and very diverse businesses, or academics, but primarily business. … I decided that I was really interested in public policy, so most of my classes were in the Kennedy school.

I know you love the outdoors and that you fly fish. How did you acquire that hobby? Well, it came about in a very interesting way. Some of my kids and I went to the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch up in Montana. They had horseback riding, hiking, fishing and so on. I decided I didn’t want to go horseback riding anymore, so this woman named Sally Gillespie said, “Cissie, next time you go to visit your kids in Wyoming, why don’t you stop at Henry’s Fork Lodge and sign up to go fishing there for a week?” And, I said, “Sally!” She said, “Cissie, you should do it.”

So, I sort of laughed. But when I finished my time at the guest ranch, I drove right down Highway 20 and saw a sign that said “Henry’s Fork Lodge.” I turned left, went up half a mile, went up the stairs, and I said to this wonderful gal, “You know, Sally told me I should sign up for a week next year. Can you take me?” She said, “Sure.”

And, every year the same people keep coming back [to Henry’s Fork Lodge]. So now we go there in July and a little bit in August, and then in January, we go to Patagonia.

Your curiosity, your adventurous spirit, this youthfulness of yours, is really quite lovely. I think all of us women aspire to it. To what do you attribute that? If that’s the case, then I’m lucky.

THE LIGHTNING ROUND

I’m happiest when … I feel that I’m being productive.

If I had a magic wand, I would … Bring peace to the world.

My biggest regret … That my husband left too soon.

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