John de Menil, oil executive and art patron, was born in Paris, France, the son of Georges Menu and Madeleine (Rougier) de Menil, on January 4, 1904. After dropping out of school at the age of seventeen and working as a bank messenger, he attended the University of Paris and graduated there in 1922. In 1925 he received an advanced degree in political science from the university, and in 1935 he completed a law degree. He was employed as a banker in Paris from 1932 to 1938. In 1931 he married Dominique Schlumberger. They had five children. Menil served in the French army and volunteered for duty in Africa during the Moroccan tribal wars. In 1938 he joined the Schlumberger family company, which developed a highly successful-oil prospecting device. In 1939 he was sent to Romania to settle tax problems. When World War II started he was drafted by the French army to do intelligence work in Bucharest. After the collapse of France he traveled to America via the East to avoid being trapped in France. His intention was to join Charles de Gaulle, but he did not succeed. His presence was required in New York, Houston, Venezuela, and Trinidad to help restructure the company, whose headquarters had been in Paris, now occupied by the Germans. His wife joined him in June 1941. They moved to the United States that year and settled in Houston in 1942. They became United States citizens in 1962. By the time he retired in 1969, Menil was both president of Schlumberger Overseas and chairman of the board of Schlumberger, Limited.
His business success allowed him to indulge his passion for art, and he and Dominique amassed one of the largest and most wide-ranging private art collections in the United States. He was an early participant in the work of both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Contemporary Arts Museum, a founder of the Institute for the Arts at Rice University and the Black Arts Center, and a benefactor of the University of St. Thomas. He and his wife provided the inspiration for and funding to construct the Rothko Chapel and support its ongoing ecumenical programs. To facilitate this vast array of cultural endeavors, they established the Menil Foundation in 1958, and Menil devoted most of his time after 1970 to the work of this foundation. The scope of his benefaction was not limited to Houston. He also served as a fund-raiser for the Institute of International Education and the Institute for Religion. He was a member of the board of trustees of the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Primitive Art, and Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Though he was Catholic, he traveled the world in the cause of ecumenism and worked tirelessly for increased understanding among the diverse peoples of the globe. He was a member of the Ramada Club, the River Oaks Country Club, and the Petroleum Club. He was a supporter of the Democratic party and an outspoken advocate of civil rights and higher education for blacks. He died on June 1, 1973, at his home in Houston and was buried in that city.