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Ralph Gardner Jr: Partying For A Good Cause With Joan Davidson

Joan K. Davidson, President Emeritus of the J.M. Kaplan Fund
J.M. Kaplan Fund

The first goal of being a philanthropist should be to do good. But there’s a second, perhaps undervalued side of giving away your cash – having fun while doing so.

I don’t make this observation based on personal experience. Since the bulk of my philanthropy goes to causes such as caulking my roof. But rather by benefiting from the example of philanthropists such as Joan Davidson, the president emeritus of the J.M. Kaplan Fund.

Joan, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, is known for dispensing her fund’s money in intelligent and far-sighted ways and also for throwing excellent parties – from intimate lunches and dinners to the birthday party recently held in her honor at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

I first met Joan in the late 90’s when I was writing a story for New York Magazine about the controversy surrounding a proposed cement plant in Hudson, NY. The plant was eventually defeated.

One of the people I interviewed suggested that if I wanted to take the pulse of the Hudson Valley, at least those who opposed the plant, and pick up a few pithy quotes, as well as a lovely backdrop to set the scene I should attend Joan’s annual shad bake.

It occurs at Midwood, her 85-acre estate overlooking the Hudson River in Germantown, NY, and typically attracts a cross-section of movers and shakers from New York City, the Hudson Valley and beyond.

I was told that Joan wasn’t thrilled with the resulting article – I’m not sure whether that’s because it attempted to be fair and balanced while employing subtle, perhaps too subtle, irony to suggest that the viewshed of Olana, Hudson River School painter Frederic Church’s home and a national historic landmark, probably wasn’t the best place to locate a cement plant with a 400-foot smokestack.

Or perhaps just because I led the piece with her party and touches such as Bill Cunningham, the New York Times legendary society photographer, scurrying around snapping pictures of all the swells.

But Joan is one of those people who doesn’t let a journalist’s indiscretion get in the way of her larger goal – which is to make the world, and New York City and the Hudson Valley in particular – a better, more environmentally-conscious place to live, work and play.

Here’s just a few of the causes Joan and the Kaplan Fund have championed over the years. (By the way, the fund was started by her father Jacob Kaplan in the 1950’s from the sale of the Welch Grape Juice Company, which he headed.)

New York City’s vest pocket parks in the 1960’s.

Greenmarkets in the 1970’s.

Riverkeeper, the Hudson River advocacy group, in the 1980’s.

The Highline in the late 1990’s.

And immigration initiatives throughout the 2000’s.

In all, the fund has given away a quarter of a billion dollars since its inception.

Joan also served as Governor Mario Cuomo’s Commissioner of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. And founded Furthermore, a publishing enterprise that since its start in 1995 has helped fund more than 1,000 non-fiction books in the area of art, history and the environment. One of her latest projects is The Alice Award, a prize named after her mother and given annually for an illustrated book.

But perhaps Joan’s greatest achievement is the model she sets for tough-minded philanthropy.

It goes without saying that the weather almost always cooperates during her May shad bake, even though, over the years the shad have been replaced by more plentiful fish as well as by burgers and hot dogs as shad populations in the Hudson have waxed and waned.

The party is also a rite of passage for political candidates, whether local or statewide.

In keeping with tradition, the light couldn’t have been more crystalline on the evening of her birthday party in the garden at the Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum. The Kaplan Fund has supported that institution for over five decades.

The general assumption is that it’s not a coincidence that the heavens tend to be cloudless during one of Joan’s events and that even the Hudson Valley’s mercurial meteorology shapes up and the rain ships out before her guests arrive.

It’s a symptom of the same force of personality that has made shrewd, strategically placed investments in organizations ranging from the Public Theater and Poets House to Human Rights Watch, the Coalition for the Homeless, and the New York Coat Drive.

Joan gives little indication of slowing down. But she’s turned over the day-to-day running of the J.M. Kaplan Fund to her children and grandchildren, led by Peter Davidson, one of her son’s.

There’s no doubt that Peter, who oversaw the Department of Energy’s $30 billion clean energy portfolio during the Obama Administration, can run an organization.

The question is whether he knows how to throw a party as well as his mother, and can he make the sun shine on command? 

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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