Mary Lasker was surprised when, in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson called her at home and asked whether she would accept the job of U.S. ambassador to Finland.
“She’s shocked. Finland abuts Russia. There was no way she wanted to go to Russia. We were at the height of the Cold War. This was not on her list of things to do,” Judith L. Pearson, author of “Crusade to Heal America: The Remarkable Life of Mary Lasker,” and founder of A 2nd Act, said to The Cancer Letter.
“I want to get the answer to the different kinds of cancer there are,” Lasker told Johnson.
In their next phone call, when Lasker declined Johnson’s repeated offer to become an ambassador to Finland, she made an appointment to meet with the president at the White House to pitch a different plan: creating a commission on heart disease, cancer, and stroke.
“She wasn’t afraid or standoffish to walk up to a man, even a man in tremendous power, and just launch into a conversation, join a conversation, turn the conversation,” Pearson said. “She was very comfortable and adept at doing that.”
Pearson’s book, “Crusade to Heal America: The Remarkable Life of Mary Lasker,” was published Sept. 19. The book tells the story of Mary Lasker’s quest to cure cancer.
An excerpt from the book appears on the Cancer History Project.
Unabashedly using her immense wealth, social connections, and PR acumen, Mary Lasker spearheaded the passage of the National Cancer Act, which President Richard Nixon signed into law in 1971.
“She wanted to light the fire and then wanted everybody else to go to work to make it happen,” Pearson said. “She would give them whatever resources were necessary, including some of her own money, to make sure that the right congressmen and senators held positions got reelected, or got elected, and then went into the appropriate committees.”
The moon landing in 1969 inspired Lasker.
“That got Mary to thinking about how that success came together,” Pearson said. “It was a government agency that was solely responsible for aeronautics. It was NASA. They weren’t part of the Air Force. They weren’t part of anything. They were their own thing.”
How do you create a NASA-like organization for cancer research?
“She started thinking that the important thing in cancer research was to have a group of researchers whose sole responsibility was researching cancer,” Pearson said. “While we had the National Cancer Institute, it didn’t seem that they were doing that.”
Lasker believed bipartisanship would help her create her cancer moonshot.
“Cancer doesn’t care whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, young or old, famous or not. If you’re going to get cancer, you’re going to get cancer,” Pearson said. “She used that strategy with all of her lobbying.”
Lasker considered herself to be a “catalytic agent” who worked behind the scenes through proxies to accomplish the goal of curing cancer. Before the National Cancer Act was signed, she met with a prominent New Yorker, Elmer Bobst, whom Nixon considered a second father.
“Bobst was instrumental in the entire quest for a cure for cancer—her entire crusade,” Pearson said. “When Mary mentioned her interest in curing cancer, Nixon said, ‘Oh yeah, Elmer mentioned that to me too. I had a birthday party for him last month, and he mentioned that to me too.’”
Lasker hosted dinner parties to advance the cause. At each table, she would seat a politician, a celebrity, a journalist, and a scientist.
“The politician was interested in the celebrity. The celebrity was interested in the journalist writing something glowing on the front page about him or her. The scientist wanted the politician’s interest to fund whatever research they were working on,” Pearson said. “She repeated that over decades, and it never failed in getting the right people together.”
Lasker instructed the scientists: “OK, these people don’t know anything about what you’re doing. Just tell them how you’re going to cure cancer.”
The passing of the National Cancer Act in 1971 revolutionized the landscape of funding for cancer research. It also wasn’t exactly what Lasker wanted.
“It wasn’t necessarily her way or the highway, but a little bit it was,” Pearson said.
Rather than act as its own organization, NCI remained a part of NIH.
“The National Cancer Act saw to it that the National Cancer Institute stayed within NIH, but that the director reported directly to the president, and that there was a council that had to be made up of at least a third laypeople,” Pearson said. “It couldn’t be all scientists and doctors because the lay people bring a different vision to everything she made.”
After the visionary bill was signed into law, money and ideas followed.
“At the end of the day, it’s the money that’s going to carry this thing over the goal line,” Pearson said. “It wasn’t exactly as she had hoped, but boy, the things that did happen really fast-tracked the research that went on afterwards.”
Pearson spoke with Alexandria Carolan, associate editor with the Cancer History Project. Listen to the conversation on the Cancer History Project podcast above.
Judy Pearson: Whenever you read that an ordinary citizen is able to strongarm a president into doing something—that’s kind of a boss babe I want to know. I truly had only heard about her one other time, and that was actually doing another podcast to promote my previous book.
The host of that podcast talked about her a little bit as well, and that was a series. He talked about her in one of the series. I thought, yeah, this is someone I want to know more about. As a cancer survivor myself, I’m always really interested in how my life was saved, basically.
JP: The cancer interest actually started when she was a child. She grew up in rural Wisconsin in a small Wisconsin town. Her father was a successful and wealthy banker in Watertown, and her mother was an Irish immigrant whom Mary really adored.
She adored both of her parents, but her mother really sort of set the bar. Sarah was her name. She was very keen on making sure that Mary and her younger sister were educated. She inspired in them a civic duty, a love for beauty, and that transcends into not only Mary’s interest in art, but also in beautification of the world around her.
She was just a highly passionate individual. When Mary was about five, Sarah took her to visit the family laundress who—the story doesn’t tell whether it’s a single or a double mastectomy, but in any event, as they’re walking to this little house, Sarah says to Mary, that this woman’s breasts had been removed.
And Mary looks at her and says, “You mean cut off?” And Sarah confirmed that that was indeed what she meant. The scene that Mary encountered just stuck with her forever, this woman lying on a low cot in a small stuffy house surrounded by her children.
She looked so ill and so pitiful, and there’s no accounting as to whether or not she survived. It just really stuck with Mary that this was something horrible that had to be stopped. And then Mary herself survived the 1918 Spanish flu. And during that experience, she decided that if she ever had the ability, she was going to eliminate human suffering.
Oh, if it was only that simple!
That really stuck with her. And in the thirties, Margaret Sanger was a very prominent New York advocate for birth control. She had been one of 17 children. Her mother died in childbirth.
Margaret was charged with caring for her younger siblings and then became a nurse and was called often to tend to women who had tried to self abort, and were bleeding to death. She created the Birth Control Federation of America, which made the newspapers because birth control was a very taboo word, and the newspaper was something Mary devoured every day of her life.
That was how she got to know about that cause. She too thought it was very important because when the federation was originally created, their one and only interest was in educating women on birth control.
She also read articles about a movement called the Mental Hygiene Movement. Hygiene of course, is the act of staying clean and of being clean. This movement had kind of flipped mental illness on its head and said, well, look, instead of worrying about people when they are suffering from mental illness, what if we could teach people?
That, of course, would take away any genetic or congenital illnesses, but what if we could teach people how to prevent mental illness? They had conferences, and they were very prominent in schools, and it’s really a great idea.
I mean, a hygiene movement overall, the word has a different connotation today, but we should be able to pay very little to go for annual physicals and all the preventative medicine that can keep us healthy.
That’s way less expensive than having to run around being treated for stuff. Those were kind of the things that—and mental illness like birth control and cancer, were taboo words in much of the first half of the 20th century.
JP: Well, in the first place, she was convinced that it could be conquered and could be cured. There had been other successful movements and cures and treatments for diseases. In the thirties and forties, we thought cancer was a single disease. Particularly, then after the polio vaccine, which came much later—but still the idea that you take a pill or some kind of inoculation and the disease is gone.
Of course, polio has a much smaller family, just a couple of cousins—unlike cancer, which is vast. That was one thing. She was convinced it could be cured.
The second thing, and she repeated this in her oral history so many times—so many people believed that heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes—and then cancer—were just God’s will. Since it was God’s will, there was really nothing that could be done. So, why worry about it?
That mentality permeated the old guard of research as well. We’re not coming up with any new ideas. There doesn’t seem to be anything promising on the horizon. It’s the will of God. And Mary absolutely refused that. Her famous line is, it’s just a simple pill that a simple doctor can give to a suffering patient.
JP: They almost didn’t happen.
Mary was having lunch with a friend at the 21 Club, or just 21, and at a table nearby, Albert was having lunch with a couple of other men whom Mary knew.
As you would, you kind of smile, and one of the gentlemen came over, and just as an aside—I think this is so funny. The gentleman who walked over was William J. Donovan.
Bill Donovan, called Wild Bill, was the head of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, which is the organization that became the CIA. And one of the OSS’s most celebrated women spies was the subject of my second book. Donovan comes over, says hello to the ladies, then points to his table and says—that’s Albert Lasker.
Mary didn’t know him, and Albert paid no attention. He had been deep in conversation. He had just gotten out of a very ill-advised, ill-fated short marriage with a young starlet, and he was unloading himself to his buddies at lunch. He had no time for another woman.
Then lunch went on and they finished at the same time. And as they were all exiting, they again had a chance to be reintroduced by someone else. And again, Albert was not terribly interested. Mary thought to herself, “That man is making a great mistake”—which is just so Mary.
Finally, they’re back out on the street. It was her eyes that Albert noticed first. She had these gorgeous sapphire eyes, and all of a sudden he came to and realized what a woman she was. She and her friend got in a cab and he asked his buddies, “Who’s going to set me up with this woman? Somehow I have to get to know her.”
They did indeed meet again for cocktails at another person’s house. And then he got Mrs. Gimbel, whose husband owned the famous Gimbels department store. She invited both of them to lunch at their summer home in Connecticut.
That was when they really got to know each other. And as they spoke, they realized that they had similarities, but they also had interests that the other wasn’t aware of. Throughout their marriage, both or each was willing to learn from the others. It is this perfect match made in heaven. They were like teenagers in love.
JP: Correct. In June.
JP: Well, the irony was that Albert’s younger brother had died of cancer before he met Mary. And so, he had donated to what was then called the American Society for the Control of Cancer, now known as the American Cancer Society.
He also was aware of both the Birth Control Federation of America and the mental hygiene movement. He had donated to both of those as Mary had. Their health interests were very paralleled. She came at it from this position that if you throw enough money at it, something will happen. He had been, at that time, the father of modern advertising.
He realized that you needed to create public awareness, number one. The second thing he taught her was that even their vast wealth, which was incredibly vast at the time, and would’ve been in today’s dollars as well—their vast wealth could not cure cancer.
He had been on the shipping board and understood how federal government funding went. So, that was where he told her she needed to go. They, interestingly enough, went to some congressional hearings on American health that were occurring early on in our involvement in World War II.
What they learned was that 40% of all of the enlistees, because a lot of men flew to enlist after Pearl Harbor, 40% of them were turned away for really not very serious health concerns. They realized that American’s health just wasn’t a priority—and that needed to change.
They started looking for who’s researching cancer and heart disease? Because those two diseases connected were killing 75% of the population. They went to first the Roosevelt Institute, now Roosevelt University, and spoke with a director who said, “We really aren’t working on cancer research.”
When they asked him why, he said what I had said earlier, that there just weren’t any great ideas. Then, Mary individually with a friend, went to the American Society for the Control of Cancer to ask the same question and heard the same response. They were happy to take her $5,000 donation, which today is more akin to nearing $100,000—no small potatoes.
As Mary put it, they weren’t interested in curing cancer. They were just interested in controlling it. She and Albert staged a coup, renamed the society the American Cancer Society, started a fundraising campaign that year, sort of overtook the fundraising campaign that year and absolutely quintupled its previous intake.
At the same time, they agreed that there must be some answers for cancer, and Albert said he was looking for research bargains. They started the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, which is still very much in existence today. And in fact, I’ll be at the luncheon in New York. At the end of September.
They began by giving $1,000 prizes, not grants, but prizes to researchers who had promising research projects. At the luncheon at the end of September, they’ll be doing the same thing, but
to the tune of $250,000. And many of the awardees have gone on to become Nobel Prize winners as well. It’s really the American Nobels.
JP: He did, sadly, and it was pretty much the status quo. It’s not even in any of the research that I saw, clearly identified. It’s called abdominal cancer, and intestinal cancer, and a malignancy in his abdomen. It was most probably colon cancer when it was treated.
He was pronounced having been cured, because that’s what they called it in 1950. And then it returned, and further investigation showed that it had gone to his lymph nodes, which is why I think it was probably colon cancer. And most patients, or many patients at the time, he was not told that he had cancer.
The medical feeling was that since there was nothing that could be done, many patients would just throw up their hands and give up the ghost and die. They figured using other euphemisms, like, oh, you have a malignancy, or you have an illness in your abdomen. They were giving him medications that were going to control it, and he really never left the hospital.
JP: By this time, she had already added to her address book many congressmen and many senators. She was good friends with the Kennedy family, but before that, with the Franklin Roosevelts and then the Trumans. Truman was president at the time of Albert’s death, and she had seen to it that the National Institute of Health became plural by adding institutes for individual research.
The Cancer Institute was just sort of an appendage of NIH until Mary came along, and then it became its own freestanding institute as well. She just doubled down. She was now really intent on doing absolutely everything she could to cure cancer.
Although she continued her active social life and her visits to France and Italy every summer with Albert gone, she had more time, quite frankly. She woke up reading newspapers and pamphlets and congressional transcripts and research papers, and she went to bed doing the same.
JP: The really cool thing is that the transcript for that and the actual audio is available on the LBJ Library website. I actually heard this transpiring.
When President Kennedy was elected, as I said, Mary was friends with the family, friends with Rose, his mother—and after his father had had a stroke, Mary was keen on her cancer crusade. After Kennedy’s father had had a stroke, talking with some of her other crusaders, they said, what if you expanded the program that you want to present to the president to include heart disease and stroke?
They separated those two out at the time because then it would be more personal. Kennedy liked the idea—that project kept getting backburnered as happened so frequently in the White House because they’re bombarded with things. He was keen to get it off the ground and was actually going to do so when he returned from Dallas in 1963.
When Johnson then became president, he had said to her, to everyone, “I want to keep in place everything that President Kennedy was working on.” So, Mary presented him with this idea of a commission, and he liked that as well, but he said, “I really want to wait until I’m reelected and then I can take it forward.”
He is reelected by a landslide. That’s where he got the name landslide Lyndon. She thought, “This is going to be great.”
He calls her up, and Mary had such a social stature that she actually had an operator in her home, an assistant who would answer the calls and then say, “The president’s on the phone for you.”
He starts in that Texas drawl, “Listen, I got something I want you to do for me.”
She in her society voice says “Oh, Lyndon, I’ll do whatever I can for you.”
And then he says, “I want you to be ambassador to Finland. I need somebody smart, and you’re it. You can charm anyone.”
She’s shocked. Finland abuts Russia. There was no way she wanted to go to Russia. We were at the height of the Cold War. This was not on her list of things to do.
She says to him, “Give up my home, give up my social engagements?” And then she really got her wits about her and said, “Besides, I’ve got to find answers to this cancer question. There’s just no way I could do that, but speaking of the cancer question, I’d like to come see you to talk to you about that.”
So, he told her not to say no yet, to wait for 24 hours to rethink it, which was moot. She called him back and said, “I’m still not doing it, but I’m still coming to see you.”
In a lot of the promotional material and descriptions of this book, we use the term—she was a feminist who used her femininity wisely. She wasn’t a flirt as we think about it today.
But she wasn’t afraid or standoffish to walk up to a man, even a man in tremendous power, and just launch into a conversation, join a conversation, turn the conversation. She was very comfortable and adept at doing that.
JP: Well, so he did indeed move forward on the idea of a commission. It was really interesting because during the campaign in 1964, he was asked to speak at The Ohio State University—and he was the sitting president at the time. He was asked to speak at their graduation.
His speechwriter was Richard Goodwin, who is the husband of a now very prominent historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin. And Goodwin wrote into this speech a throwaway phrase about how Johnson wanted to create a society, a great society where all Americans could prosper.
Well, the press really grabbed this great society idea. And when he went to speak at the University of Michigan’s graduation—it’s kind of funny because they’re such rivals—he really pegged the whole speech on his Great Society view and the war on poverty and the war on lack of education.
It just fit in this whole idea of a war on cancer, although they didn’t say it quite yet, and of making America healthy—and in a great society, there’s healthcare for all.
She really just launched into that. He did create this commission that she was looking for on heart disease, stroke, and cancer. It didn’t quite pan out the way she had hoped.
A part of it was to build centers where people with these three diseases could go to be treated, which was all well and good, but she wanted the research to be done. It got cancer into headlines, but it didn’t quite pan out the way she was hoping.
JP: To sort of set the stage a little bit, Mary said to Johnson, “Listen, we’ve explored outer space and been successful. And of course we were still exploring it because we hadn’t landed on the moon yet. Why don’t we explore inner space as in the human body?”
President Kennedy said he wanted a moonshot. He wanted to land a man on the moon before the decade was out. Let’s take this on. Everyone thinks that a more current president has said that. Clinton was noted as saying it was his moonshot. Certainly, Obama said it, and President Biden is now talking about it, but it was Mary Lasker.
Nixon was elected in 1968, and when he was inaugurated in ‘69, he wanted to make good on Kennedy’s promise of landing a man on the moon, which America did successfully in July of ’69.
That got Mary to thinking about how that success came together. It was a government agency that was solely responsible for aeronautics. It was NASA. They weren’t part of the Air Force. They weren’t part of anything. They were their own thing.
She started thinking that the important thing in cancer research was to have a group of researchers whose sole responsibility was researching cancer. While we had the National Cancer Institute, it didn’t seem that they were doing that.
They were bogged down in bureaucracy, and she wanted fast-tracking just like NASA had done with space.
The interesting thing was that Nixon was also troubled by so many demons. He felt that no one liked him. He didn’t trust anyone even in his own White House. And the most terrifying thing of all was having to face another Kennedy on a ballot. Good news for Nixon in 1969 was that just before we landed on the moon, Ted Kennedy was involved in the Chappaquiddick incident.
When 1970 dawned, Kennedy wanted redemption, the president was already worried about reelection. All Mary wanted was a cure for cancer. And the three quests converged amid much political intrigue and backroom dealings, and it was absolutely wonderful.
Mary was actually invited to the Nixon White House to view an exhibit by Andrew Wyeth, the American painter.
By that time, Mary had realized the importance of marshaling people from both sides of the aisle.
I mean, let’s face it, everybody gets cancer. Cancer doesn’t care whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, young or old, famous or not. If you’re going to get cancer, you’re going to get cancer.
She used that strategy with all of her lobbying. There was no point in alienating one side against the other—bring ’em all in and let’s get the job done.
She wisely enlisted the help of a very prominent fellow, New Yorker Elmer Bobst, whom Nixon considered his second father, and Bobst was instrumental in the entire quest for a cure for cancer—her entire crusade.
When Mary mentioned her interest in curing cancer, Nixon said, “Oh yeah, Elmer mentioned that to me too. I had a birthday party for him last month, and he mentioned that to me too.”
Other than that one occasion, she never spoke to him about this again. She had her emissaries and proxies do it for her, but she was very communicative with Ted Kennedy. And in fact, he told this famous story when he first entered the Senate, and President Kennedy said to him, “If you want to know what’s going on in medical research, or really anywhere outside of Washington, and maybe somewhat inside of Washington, you better get to know Mary Lasker pretty well.”
She wasn’t afraid or standoffish to walk up to a man, even a man in tremendous power, and just launch into a conversation, join a conversation, turn the conversation. She was very comfortable and adept at doing that.
— Judith L. Pearson
And Ted Kennedy took that as a thing to do, particularly because again, she was such good friends with his mother.
I researched to understand how bills are brought before each body of Congress, how they pass Congress, how then the whole Congress has to pass them, how things are funded, which is very different than simply being approved. Each body of Congress has committees, each committee has subcommittees, and Ted Kennedy was the chair of the very important health subcommittee in Congress—and he had really wanted to be on a different committee.
He was disappointed that he didn’t get that. At the end of the day, it was the perfect place for him to really do more. I mean, he might’ve aggrandized his resume if he’d held the other position, but he changed lives by being chairman of the Senate Health Committee.
They held hearings, they came up with a bill, and the bill was to simply create a commission to study what could best be done to cure cancer.
The bill passed, and they were off and running into the House, and the House passed the bill, and it looked great. Unfortunately, the person who was going to be the most help was not reelected.
They had to scramble a little bit. Then in the following year, in 1971, when Kennedy was able to get this bill passed—there were some grumblers in the Senate—but when it came time for the Congress, that was when the gloves came off and the fight really was on.
The bargaining and the wrangling and the whole thing just was absolutely astounding—that these kinds of things, we wonder today what holds up bills. This was long before they ever did all the pork barreling that they do now on bills—piling on all these other things. This was just simply trying to get agreement.
The biggest sticking point was this independent NASA-like organization that Mary and the commission that she helped create felt would really make things move faster without the bureaucracy.
The telling point, this is pretty funny. Picture the hearing room. There were congressmen sitting up at the table asking the questions, and then directly in front of them was a table with three microphones.
It was the head of National Institutes of Health and a couple of other people that were important, but not the head of the National Cancer Institute, the director of the National Cancer Institute. He was sitting behind in a chair, and there was a doctor being questioned at the time.
And when the congressman said, “That fellow behind you the other day, he said something important. Do you believe what he said?” And the doctor being questioned said, “This is the point. The fellow sitting behind me whose name you can’t remember, he should be sitting at this table. He should be leading the research.” And that was why, because there was so much bureaucracy—why they felt it should be an independent agency.
JP: She was interested in that it wasn’t necessarily her way or the highway, but a little bit it was.
Not for self aggrandizement. She wasn’t doing any of this for the attention, nor was it for the money. She had oodles of her own money. That was why she always stayed in the background. She called herself a catalytic agent.
She just wanted to light the fire and then wanted everybody else to go to work to make it happen.
She would give them whatever resources were necessary, including some of her own money, to make sure that the right congressmen and senators held positions got reelected, or got elected, and then went into the appropriate committees.
At the end of the day, the National Cancer Act saw to it that the National Cancer Institute stayed within NIH, but that the director reported directly to the president, and that there was a council that had to be made up of at least a third laypeople. It couldn’t be all scientists and doctors because the lay people bring a different vision to everything she made. That existed.
They also made sure to put in ample money, historic levels of money, $1.8 billion, which in today’s money is over 11 billion. That was, I mean, at the end of the day, it’s the money that’s going to carry this thing over the goal line. It wasn’t exactly as she had hoped, but boy, the things that did happen really fast-tracked the research that went on afterwards.
JP: She said one time someone asked her in a magazine interview how she could justify or reconcile these long days spent arduously reading all the material that she did, and all the days she spent pounding the halls of Congress—how she could reconcile that with this love of art and flowers.
She said, “I kind of think that beautiful things lift our hearts. No matter what you can afford, you should be able to at least see beautiful things, whether it’s flowers outside or art in a museum. I know that at the end of the day, I can have those things.”
Apart from the perfect quotes, she got her love for flowers from her mother who had created several parks in their little hometown of Watertown. And then after Mary’s father died, her mother came to live with her in New York and proclaimed at the dirtiest city she’d ever seen.
Mary, one day driving down Park Avenue in her limousine, got to thinking there’s this big space in between the two sides of the avenue. Why not fill that with flowers?
She donated, I don’t know how many tulip bulbs. Albert had sold his big estate north of Chicago
to the University of Chicago, and they were using it for horticultural experiments, and she got them to work on a chrysanthemum that would bloom long after all the other blooms had stopped, that could survive the cold a little bit better.
Then she scattered those not only all over the country, but even made them available to other countries. She and her sister sent packets of seeds to Queen Elizabeth for her gardens. Then she took on the UN Plaza and planted a series of cherry trees in front of it, dedicating them to Albert.
Then, because she was such good friends with Lady Bird, who asked her, “What projects do you think I should work on as First Lady?” Mary said, “Beautification. You love flowers, I’ll help you.”
The two of them went to work planting more cherry trees, and planting daffodils all over Washington, DC.
The art interest came from her major in college. She was an art history major, and her first job right out of college was working in a gallery in New York, and then went to work in a second gallery owned by a man who ultimately became her first husband.
They would go on buying trips to Europe and save a few of the smaller paintings, but the bigger ones, the big masters, they would sell in the gallery. And then little by little, she divorced her first husband. He suffered from alcoholism, and she just realized that she wouldn’t survive if she stayed.
When she was single, she continued buying pieces she could afford. But then with Albert’s money, the doors were opened. Albert knew nothing about art. He had the same opinion that many people do—my own husband included, although he’s changed his tune some—that you have to know things in order to appreciate art.
And she said, “That’s not true at all!” You look at something, if it speaks to you, if you think it’s pretty, then you should buy it, otherwise move on. And so there were some cute incidences that happened where they found things together and fell in love with them.
There were other times where Mary bought pieces and Albert hated them, and he would put a note on the back that said, “This is not to be part of the Albert Lasker collection. This is Mary’s and I don’t like it.”
Their art collection was one of the largest private collections in the country, probably even in the top 20 in the world. And there are pieces scattered all over our country on exhibit that we can go see as well.
JP: I think one of the most interesting things that I discovered, and it’s so smart, and someday I hope I have the opportunity to use it—it was her recipe for successful dinner parties.
And I don’t mean a recipe in the kitchen, and I don’t mean success as in everyone has a good time. She only threw parties with a purpose. She realized that at a dinner table—imagine a very large space where you have, maybe 50 people dining, or 48, because it needed to be divisible by four.
You set up tables of four, and at each table there was a politician, a celebrity, a journalist, and a scientist. The politician was interested in the celebrity. The celebrity was interested in the journalist writing something glowing on the front page about him or her.
The scientist wanted the politician’s interest to fund whatever research they were working on. She repeated that over decades, and it never failed in getting the right people together.
Not to mention, wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall listening to these conversations? She had Jennifer Jones, she had any number of celebrities at the table, and lots of politicians. And then these bespectacled scientists, and she’d always instruct them and say, “OK, these people don’t know anything about what you’re doing. Just tell them how you’re going to cure cancer.”
JP: My favorite quote comes from the cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
And that’s true on all levels. We don’t have to have Mary’s level of money or her level of contacts. If a cause speaks to you, jump on it, because every little candle that you light builds a bigger flame, and a bigger fire.
And if you can light fires under people, that’s really exciting.