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Remembering Joan Davidson

Joan Davidson at her 90th birthday celebration at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.
J.M.Kaplan Fund
Joan Davidson at her 90th birthday celebration at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.

The first time I attended philanthropist Joan Davidson’s “Shad Bake,” an annual springtime ritual at Midwood, her estate overlooking the Hudson River in Germantown, NY, I wasn’t invited. I’d been working on a story for New York magazine about a proposed, controversial hulking cement plant promised to mar views for miles around and it was suggested that if I wanted to get a sense of the opposition to the project, as well as some lively local color, I attend the party.

So a guest snuck me in to the shad bake, attended by several hundred of Joan’s friends, family members, politicians, artists, writers, historic preservationists, environmentalists and just about everybody who was anybody in the Hudson Valley and beyond. Snuck me in should be in quotes because I came to realize, years later, that Joan must have known I was there and probably gave my presence her cautious blessing.

I learned that at a subsequent dinner party she referred to the story, which led with the shad bake, as “ghastly”. But I like to think that’s because it was ostensibly neutral and also because it would have been crass for Joan to admit that she wasn’t entirely averse to having the party showcased in the press. She was arguably the Hudson Valley’s most prominent philanthropist and far from allergic to the spotlight.

She died on Friday, August 11th, after a characteristic run of social events, as my WAMC colleague Jesse King reported, concluding with a family dinner Wednesday evening on the front porch at Midwood overlooking her beloved Hudson River. She was ninety-six years old.

When I say that I’m convinced Joan knew I crashed her 2002 shad bake that’s because she orchestrated her parties like the grand dame that she was. (Upon arrival one was handed a pamphlet listing every guest.) I vividly recall Joan making her entrance at New York City social galas – with her sensibly coiffed white hair, lithe physique and penchant for bold colors she knew how to command attention – and Bill Cunningham, the New York Times photographer and social arbiter, scampering over, cameras raised, to document her arrival. It was as if Cunningham understood that Joan, with the likes of Brooke Astor gone, was the last of a dying breed.

When I say I believe Joan knew I was attending my first shad bake undercover – by the way the party’s ostensible excuse was to celebrate the annual return of the shad to spawn in the Hudson; and the fish was served alongside hamburgers and hot dogs – that’s because many years later, by now a good friend, she examined me with a look of mock, or perhaps authentic incredulity, when I presented myself at the party.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded, reluctantly accepting a kiss on the cheek.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“You didn’t RSVP,” she said.

Perhaps I’d forgotten. Maybe I’d dropped the ball. In any case, with hundreds of people I didn’t think she’d have noticed. Joan noticed everything. She may have been best known as the leader of the J.M. Kaplan foundation, a strategic non-profit started by her father, a wealthy businessman, that helped save Carnegie Hall, create the Westbeth artist’s housing complex in Greenwich Village, supported New York City’s green markets, and restored Gracie Mansion. But that constitutes only a fraction of his daughter’s career and legacy.

Joan served as chairwoman of the New York State Council of the Arts in the 1970’s and as New York State Parks Commissioner in the 1990’s. She also started Furthermore, a prestigious publishing program that provides grants to books about history, the arts and the environment. Furthermore also awards The Alice, an annual $25,000 prize, named after Joan’s mother, to richly illustrated and beautifully published books. And for years she was involved in an effort to restore the S.S. Columbia, a 1902 steamboat that she hoped would one day ply the Hudson again. Joan was also a longtime supporter of WAMC.

But my most vivid memories of her are less as a philanthropist than a party animal. In fact, the last event my wife and I attended before the Covid pandemic closed the nation down in March, 2020 was an intimate dinner at Midwood. We got cold feet and tried to cancel but Joan wouldn’t hear of it. Or rather she claimed not to have received my emails sending our regrets.

There were about a half dozen of us sitting around a table that could have comfortably fit twenty or more with Joan motioning us to draw closer since there were understandably several panicked no-shows. Fortunately, none of us caught the disease, to the best of my knowledge.

There are ever more studies that suggest that that one of the secrets to longevity is having an active social life. Joan was Exhibit A. Above all else, she served as a role model. She didn’t just embrace life. She squeezed every last ounce from it. I doubt she was ever happier than being at the center of her large family’s life or hosting a lunch or dinner party, soliciting her guests’ opinions of whatever and whomever happened to be in the news, and never pulling her own punches.

If the point of life, at least one of them, is to connect and hopefully to do some good in the process, Joan could safely leave it with few regrets.

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

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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