Culture

A Couple of Givers: Bruce & Suzie Kovner, Part II

Suzie Kovner
The Upper East Side, the lure of theater, Harvard in the ’60s, an encounter with Ben-Gurion, and more

Editor’s Note: Bruce and Suzie Kovner have won the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership. It is given by the Philanthropy Roundtable. The Kovners are celebrated in the current issue of Philanthropy magazine. The article about them is based on reporting by our Jay Nordlinger. In a series this week, he is writing about the Kovners himself, in a kind of amplification. For Part I, which appeared yesterday, go here.

Suzie Kovner has always been “Suzie,” though it says “Suzanne” on her birth certificate. Here is how she tells it: “I have never been called ‘Suzanne’ except by my mother, when I was in trouble. I much prefer ‘Suzie,’ because then I know I’m not in trouble.”

Her birth certificate is French, by the way. She was born in Paris in 1968 — the year of the soixante-huitards, the ’68-ers, such as Danny the Red (Daniel Marc Cohn-Bendit). Their goal was to turn France, well, red.

Suzie’s father was working over there, but soon returned to the United States. With three sisters, Suzie grew up in New York. “What neighborhood?” I ask. “The Upper East Side?” (This is known as an upper-crust quarter of the city.) Smiling, Suzie says, “Guilty.” But she doesn’t really mean it. She does not feel guilty at all. She belonged to a prominent business family, which worked hard and did much good in the world, and she has nothing but appreciation for it.

Her great-grandfather, Louis E. Fairchild, and his brother Edmund founded Fairchild Publications. Her grandfather, Edgar W. B. Fairchild, built up the company, which published Women’s Wear Daily, among other magazines. Her father, Robert, worked for the company, and then became a wine importer.

Her grandfather did not go to college — he went straight to work — but he was a great believer in education and a benefactor of Colgate University, in Hamilton, N.Y. How did he happen to hit on Colgate? He had friends who had gone there, and he took an interest in the place. Suzie went there, the only one of the four Fairchild daughters to do so.

Edgar Fairchild also did some quiet philanthropy. Somehow, his family found out that he had started a fund for another family: the family of a policeman or fireman who died, leaving four children behind. The money put the children through college.

Suzie’s parents, Robert and Eileen, were keen philanthropists. “They served on boards and volunteered for this and that, so it was perfectly normal for me, when I turned 21, to volunteer at Sloan Kettering,” the well-known hospital in Manhattan. Philanthropy and service were “just part of the air that we breathed, which was so lucky and wonderful for us.” Suzie serves Sloan Kettering to this day.

Her family, like her husband’s, was political. There was regular political conversation. Unlike the Kovners, the Fairchilds were Republicans, being particularly strong advocates of free enterprise. Suzie confesses that, in 1992, she voted for Bill Clinton, the youthful, talented “Man from Hope.” “My mother was so disappointed in me,” she says. “The day after the election, she called me and said, ‘See what you’ve done!’” Suzie did not vote for that president’s reelection in 1996.

If she had one big enthusiasm when she was a kid, it was theater. The key experience occurred in 1981, when she was 13: Her mother took her to see The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (an adaptation of the Dickens novel). “It set my world on fire,” says Suzie. It was also eight and a half hours long. There was a dinner break after the first four hours or so. Suzie was reluctant to leave. “I was probably afraid that somebody would take my seat.”

Flash-forward to 2002. The National Theatre in London asked her to be a fundraiser. “I said, ‘I don’t like development. I can’t ask people for money. It’s awful.’” But the National Theatre had brought Oklahoma! to New York, and it was directed by Trevor Nunn, who was also the artistic director of the company at the time — and who had co-directed Nicholas Nickleby, more than 20 years before. Suzie went to Oklahoma! “I was on my feet, giving them a standing ovation, and I accepted the job the next day. I was such an easy sell!”

She is still with the National Theatre. She is also a founding member of the Juilliard School’s drama council (Juilliard being the performing-arts school at New York’s Lincoln Center).

***

Let’s return to Bruce, who has just gone off to Harvard, as you’ll recall. He went on scholarship. And to supplement that scholarship, he worked at different jobs, including at Harvard Law School, where, very early in the morning, he made breakfast. He learned how to crack eggs two at a time: one in each hand. “Can you still do it?” I ask. As Bruce thinks about it, Suzie says, “We crack his eggs for him now.”

He was a Young Democrat, and with other Young Democrats, he went to Washington, early in his freshman year: the fall of 1962. They did not meet their hero, President Kennedy, but they met most of the cabinet, including the attorney general, the president’s brother. “I had a certain amount of chutzpah,” says Bruce, “and I decided to ask the attorney general a question. It was not a very well informed question, though it pretended to be.” He asked Kennedy how he could explain his personal support, and the Justice Department’s support, of IG Farben, the German chemical giant, which was instrumental to the Third Reich. “Kennedy,” reports Bruce, “was perfectly at ease answering the question, which he had been asked many times before.”

I ask Bruce a question, oddly worded: “Were you alive to the Holocaust? Had it made a big impression on you by then?” Bruce answers, “I can hardly talk about it.” When he was a kid in Brooklyn, he went to Hebrew school, and his teacher had had his eye burned out and refused to wear a patch. Also, he had a tattoo on his arm. “I remember sitting there looking at it. It was beyond comprehension.” Bruce had a friend whose cousins had all been murdered. “I grew up with a slightly obsessive fascination about how this could happen. I would say that the Holocaust was formative with me. It has never left me.”

That’s one of the reasons he wanted to study international politics, with Henry Kissinger, which he did, his freshman year. “Whatever one may say about Kissinger’s practice, he is a very, very deep thinker, and a wonderful teacher, and he exposed me to a world of thinking that was extremely helpful.”

Among Bruce’s classmates at Harvard was William Weld, who would give the Latin Oration at their commencement. Weld became governor of Massachusetts, and is at this moment the vice-presidential nominee of the Libertarian party. Also studying at Harvard in those days was Donald Graham, of the Washington Post family. And Robert Samuelson, the famous journalist (who writes for the Post). And Christopher DeMuth, the policy analyst and think-tank leader, who will play a part later in this story. And William Christie, the conductor, the specialist in the French Baroque, who will also play a part in our story.

One of Bruce’s professors was a relatively young one, James Q. Wilson, the brilliant political scientist. Bruce and he would become lifelong friends. Above all, there was Edward C. Banfield, another brilliant political scientist, a generation older than Wilson. Banfield was a mentor to Bruce, and indeed a kind of foster father. Banfield treated both Bruce and Wilson as members of the family. Banfield and Wilson were conservatives, incidentally. Bruce would be too.

He majored in government, but he took a lot of economics. And he found something: classical economics, classical liberalism. “I was knocked over by this,” says Bruce. Owing to his family background — left or leftish — “I had zero appreciation as a kid for the nature of markets or the political philosophy that underpins the American experience.” This man, remember, would go on to buy a first edition of The Wealth of Nations. And a first edition of John Locke and many similar volumes.

After graduating from college in 1966, he entered a Ph.D. program, also at Harvard, and in government. One of his professors was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who, after the election of 1968, was recruited into the White House, by Richard Nixon. Moynihan did some recruiting himself, among his students. Chris DeMuth went to the White House. Bruce Kovner did not. “Banfield and Wilson said to me, ‘No, finish your Ph.D. You can always go into government later.’” Kovner never did finish his Ph.D., deciding to go off and do other things. Wilson liked to quip, “Poor Bruce, he never got to be an assistant professor somewhere.”

***

In the early 1970s, Bruce kicked around a little bit. This kicking around included political work. John Deardourff, the famous Republican consultant, invited him to serve as research director to a Senate candidate in New Jersey. That was Nelson Gross — a lawyer and pol whose gifts did not include knowledge of policy, domestic or foreign. Bruce was to be a kind of tutor.

With the help of the Nixon White House, Gross went on a world-affairs tour, with his young aide from Harvard at his side. They went to Japan, they went to Vietnam, where the war was on. They also went to Israel. There, they met everyone, including the prime minister, Golda Meir, and her foreign-affairs minister, Abba Eban. They also met the retired prime minister and father of the state, David Ben-Gurion. A story goes with that.

Gross and Kovner were at Ben-Gurion’s home, a small, modest place in the desert. By then, the great man was a widower, and maybe a little lonely. Kovner engaged in a couple of hours’ conversation with him; Gross had nothing to say. At one point, Ben-Gurion said, “Gentlemen, I’m a little tired and would like to take a nap. Would you please stay for dinner, so we can continue the conversation?” Gross said, “Sorry, Mr. Prime Minister, we have to get back to Tel Aviv” — where he had nothing at all to do. This did not please young Kovner.

Gross went on to lose the election to the Democratic incumbent, Harrison “Pete” Williams — who would have to resign in 1982, snared in the Abscam operation. (Williams was one of many politicians who took bribes.) Gross, too, went to jail — for financial misconduct committed in the New Jersey gubernatorial campaign of 1969. In that one, he was not a candidate, just an operative. After his prison term, he became a businessman, and he met a terrible end: kidnapped and murdered by employees in 1997.

Back to Kovner’s kicking around — which he was doing in New York. Legend has it that he drove a cab. Is it true? It is. In 1973, he was engaged, and his fiancée, Sarah Peter, was studying in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Bruce wanted to join her there for a few months. And he needed money. So, he did a variety of things. He wrote reports for a congressman on tariffs and trade (and their effect on the congressman’s district). He sold memberships in a singles club that his brother had started. And he drove a cab. It was the graveyard shift, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

“Did you learn things?” I ask. “Oh, yes,” Kovner answers. “It was so much fun. Every ride was an experience. There was always a saga in the backseat, some of them hilarious, some of them unrepeatable. And the places you wound up . . . I was apparently fearless. It was wonderful.”

Kovner continues, “I have to say, though this reflects very badly on my character, that I loved starting every evening with about $20 in change and having, at the end of my shift, three or four hundred dollars.” A nice wad. Bruce appreciated the money, of course. But just as much, he appreciated what he calls the “autonomy.” And this relates to his future career. “One of the things I loved about the financial markets is that they grant you total autonomy. I’m not an organization guy. I’ve never worked for a big organization, except momentarily. I felt very comfortable in the marketplace, because, if you do it well, it gives you autonomy in life.”

What Bruce wanted was “an activity in which my own intellectual work had an immediate outcome and freed me from the organizational constraints that I wasn’t ready to submit to.” And he found it.

I’ll tell you a lot more tomorrow, in Part III. See you then.

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