The Many Faces of Celebrity Philanthropy

Joseph Epstein | Posted on 04/01/06

An old joke – you will see how old by the names it invokes – has a young Hollywood star, seeking to ornament and thereby solidify his rising fame, instruct his agent to find a charity for him to associate his name with. “Morty,” he says to the agent, “you gotta get me my own charity. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby have their charity golf tournaments. Doris Day works for protecting animals. Danny Thomas has St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Jerry Lewis has Muscular Dystrophy. It works for them, Morty, it’ll work for me. Get on it right away.” A week later the agent calls back. “You’ve found my charity?” the young star asks. “It wasn’t easy, Rick,” the agent replies, “just about everything was taken.” “What was left for me?” the star asks, hope in his voice. A brief silence, a clearing of the throat, finally the agent says, “Acne.”

The point of the joke, of course, is the artificiality of celebrity giving, the emptiness of it all, reducing it to the low status of little more than a good career move. Is this unfair? Of course it is. I, for one, am certainly not prepared to say that Doris Day doesn’t truly love stray dogs. Nor am I ready to quip, as the comedian Lenny Bruce did, that Jerry Lewis damn well ought to work for muscular dystrophy, since he caused it. (Bruce would here make a claw of his fist and go, “Gnang, gnang.”)

Yet if you ever wish to see celebrity charity at its most creepy you cannot do better than tune in to Jerry Lewis’s annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, or, as I believe Mr. Lewis himself calls it, for “Jerry’s Kids.” There you will discover on exhibition the sloppiest bath of public self-congratulation perhaps known to history. One has to imagine Lourdes, with Mr. Lewis taking the place of God. Something, too, prevails of the atmosphere of Nero reciting one of his latest poems while accompanying himself on the lyre before an audience of terrified courtiers. Meanwhile, more hugging takes place than in a sumo wrestling tournament.

One of the dangers of celebrity charity, at least to the celebrity, is that he steps out of his role as entertainer or athlete to become concerned citizen, or virtuous Christian or Jew, and in doing so loses some of his cachet in glamour. I used to describe myself as old enough to remember Danny Thomas, whose identification with St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis became the chief thing about him, when he was still funny. Once he became the patron saint of the hospital he founded, he wasn’t funny any longer. He was chiefly virtuous in a public way.

And yet, I hear a voice of reasonableness speaking on behalf of simple efficacy as the only genuine criterion for judging charity. What, really, is so wrong about an already famous man or woman taking a little ego-bath as the price for doing much good in the world? I was with an oncologist the other day, who told me that St. Jude’s is a splendid hospital that has saved countless lives – and done it, moreover, at no charge to the patients’ families. According to Danny Thomas’s daughter Marlo, who spoke on the Larry King Show, the reason that Thomas built the hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, is that he heard about a black child in the South being refused treatment in a segregated southern hospital, and so he deliberately built his free hospital where care would be made available without racial qualification.

Would it have been better had Danny Thomas, and now his daughter, simply donated their money to this indubitably good cause, without promoting their splendid works with television ads and other personal promotions? One answer would be that their personal endorsements have helped bring in even more money. Marlo Thomas now does a television promotion for St. Jude’s that brings in other show business figures whose presence attests to the worthiness of the cause. What’s wrong with that?

Some might say that any lingering objections I offer to celebrity promotions of good causes, with my suggestion that there is something vulgar and self-serving about them, is itself vulgar and more than a little snobbish. And yet am I wrong to feel that there is something askew whenever anyone, celebrity or not, lets people know about his good works in a public way, thereby advertising, however indirectly, his own large-heartedness? Is there something to this, or is it merely my own idiosyncratic view? If I were sufficiently famous, I would like to begin a drive to help wipe out the mental disease of solipsism, though I suspect it would be difficult to find anyone to help me in this cause.

The best model of celebrity philanthropy is perhaps that practiced by Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward. Newman is said to devote half his time to his food company, Newman’s Own, Inc., and charitable giving. Newman and Woodward established the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang Camp for terminally ill children, and the anti-drug Scott Newman Foundation, named in memory of Newman’s only son, who died of an accidental drug overdose in 1978. Through his, Newman’s own line of food products, he has donated more than $100 million to countless charities. What’s more, the food products are good: I speak as a regular purchaser of Newman’s Own Balsamic Vinaigrette.

Paul Newman’s politics, insofar as he has revealed them over the years, are standard liberal, maybe even a bit to the left of that: he has let his name be associated with the Nation magazine, he and his wife are often signatories on petitions for the usual left-wing causes. Some of Newman’s charitable giving may well be politically motivated, but that seems to me his business.

Although he may have done so, I have never seen Newman go on television to tell you how much good he has done through his charitable work. I even doubt that his name on his various food products does much to sell them. If the salad dressings and pasta sauces and the rest weren’t respectably good to start with, no one would buy them. What his famous name is likely to have done is aid in putting these products on the shelves, which, in the realm of marketing, seems fair enough. Somehow the word has leaked out that much of the profit of Newman’s Own products goes to charity, and this probably makes some people who buy them feel a little better about themselves: a spoonful of philanthropy makes the noodles go down, to paraphrase Mary Poppins.

Judging the moral element in charity is never easy, and adding the element of fame to the judgment makes it even more complicated. An old test for charity held that the amount that a person gives to charity is not the true measure of a person’s generosity; a truer measure can only be derived when one knows, after the giving, how much the person has left: $100,000 to Ted Turner may well be less than $1.50 to me. With movie stars, contemporary athletes, billionaires, and other celebrities this becomes impossible to compute. Besides, this old test may now be irrelevant; all that matters, finally, being the amount of money given and the amount of good it does. Again: efficacy is the only criterion.

Elizabeth Taylor is well known for her ardor on behalf of medical research to cure AIDS. She speaks of it whenever she is interviewed on television. She does ads on its behalf. She recently appeared in the middle of a photograph with, among others, Richard Gere (who is also keen on saving Tibetan culture), Natasha Richardson, Harry Belafonte, Nelson Mandela, David Baltimore (the biologist), Greg Louganis (the Olympic diver), Ashley Judd, Eric McCormack, Whoopi Goldberg, Sharon Stone, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Rosie O’Donnell, Kenneth Cole, Desmond Tutu, Elton John, Alicia Keys, and others. The ad, which appears in recent magazines, reads, “We all have AIDS if one of us does.”

But what has it cost these people to have posed for this photograph, in which they all (apart from Mr. Mandela) appear barefoot with their trousers cuffs rolled up? Perhaps a few hours’ time. For all I know, many of them may give six-figure and even larger sums for medical research to find a cure for AIDS. But there is an element of the virtucratic about this advertisement. By virtucratic I mean that it is an ad propelled by the need to demonstrate caring concern on the part of the men and women who posed for it. “We, all of us famous, care deeply about this killing disease,” the ad’s not-very-secret subtext reads. “What about you? Don’t you care? If you do, prove it. Ante up. Show that you are just as caring, just as wonderful, as we.” Why do I look at the people in this ad and to myself mutter, “Ah, the usual suspects, once again proclaiming their goodness.”

Because AIDS has affected so many people in the arts and show business, it has become one of the central charitable causes for celebrities. Here the charitable can sometimes shade off into the political, with the disease and the gay liberation movement melting into one cause. The singer Bono, in his efforts to help the people of Africa, where AIDS is most widespread, seems to me simultaneously doing charity and politics. “I have made it my personal crusade to see every African child with at least a CD-Walkman within the next twenty years,” he has said, “and I expect world leaders to offer their full support. If they don’t, I’m going to go round there and talk them into submission. Failing that, I’ll record a scathing attack on globalization with my mate Sting. That’ll teach ’em.”

Nowadays one hears the phrase “the leveraging capital of celebrity,” which means that celebrities can bring in money not only to sell products but enlist the support of other celebrities for good causes. Thus Andre Agassi stages a benefit for his Andre Agassi Charitable Trust and calls in Celine Dion and Dennis Miller to help fill the tables. The Andre Agassi Charitable Trust, which has begun a college preparatory school for kids in Las Vegas, from third grade through high school, is thought to be, by USA Today, the “gold standard for celebrity sports foundations.” Agassi is reported to have spent as much as $14 million on charities for children, including this college preparatory school named after himself.

Why does Andre Agassi do it? Let us begin with what seems to me the obvious reason: that he is a nice man with a good heart who realizes that he has made more money than he is likely to be able to spend on himself and his family. One could move on from here to adduce the reason that professional tennis has had, since the on-court ugliness of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, a dreary reputation as the sport of spoiled children who have been lucky enough to break the bank. Agassi is not like that, neither on the court nor, his charitable giving suggests, off. Yet the publicity for Agassi’s good works is close to unrelenting. The USA Today piece, from which I quoted, derived from an award that the paper gives to Most Caring Athletes, which Agassi recently won. The publicity is good for Andre Agassi, though I’m not sure it matters much to his charitable foundation, most of the work of which is done in his hometown of Las Vegas.

A deeply cynical view might hold that all his charity isn’t really costing Andre Agassi and other athletes who go in for it all that much. If they didn’t do it, their money would only be eaten up by taxes. Tax write-offs have given lots of charitable giving a qualification it didn’t previously have. Members of the so-called Robber Baron generation in America, whatever the quality of their business ethics, were exemplary in donating to, indeed in many instances founding, universities and cultural institutions – exemplary because they did so before the time when one could gain a tax benefit from one’s generosity. Some argue they gave out of guilt. My own belief is that they gave because it pleased them to do so. Often they were without the pushing egotism that many of today’s high-rolling givers display. John D. Rockefeller, when he donated the money that established the University of Chicago, asked that no buildings or anything else at the school be named after him. A devout Baptist, Rockefeller perhaps felt so assured of going to heaven that he had no need to be remembered by anything so trivial as a mere building or two on earth. (Has the loss of religious certitude in American culture at large made the wealthy want to insure their immortality here on earth through charitable giving?) After his death, the University of Chicago named the Rockefeller Chapel after him.

The wealthy in Rockefeller’s generation used to hire early public-relations men to keep their names out of the papers, while the extremely wealthy in our day tend to hire them to get their names in the papers. This is a reminder that there is celebrity philanthropy and then there is philanthropy which, through careful public relations, can turn one into a celebrity. For some years now I have noticed the frequency of the names and small photos of Sid and Mercedes Bass in The Evening Hours portion of the “Sunday Styles” section of the New York Times. The people who appear in Evening Hours are at parties for the benefit of one charity or another. Sid Bass is the great-nephew of the vastly wealthy Texas oilman Sid Richardson. As the New York Times recently noted in an article about the couple giving a $25 million, no-strings-attached gift to the New York Metropolitan Opera, “Mrs. Bass is a fixture at glittery Met opening nights and in social columns. She and her husband are known for giving lavish parties in Fort Worth and Manhattan, where they spend much of their time.”

The New York Times article in which I learned this made plain how wealthy a man Sid Bass is, and showed a photograph of Mrs. Bass, bedizened and begowned, at what is described as a “Met gala.” Not that there is anything wrong with it, as Jerry Seinfeld might say, but without the parties, without the publicity, would the Basses be as generous? No way of knowing, of course. They may well continue to give at the same clip, but the notion of all that partying, all that publicity, puts an odd smudge on the sheen of what might otherwise seem the most elegant and bountiful generosity.

Such have been the incursions of celebrity on charity that charity itself has become tilted toward promising all donors, in a small way, a touch of celebrity, even immortality, of their own. I don’t know the exact historical moment when serious charitable contributions carried with them the promise of (limited) immortality by having institutions, buildings, and lesser things named after the givers. Perhaps it began with the Roman emperors, who erected statues to themselves and left public buildings in their names. Now, with sufficient available cash, every man can be his own Trajan.

In his memoir Margin of Hope, the literary critic Irving Howe, an early member of the faculty at Brandeis University, recounts how the founding president of the school, Abraham Sachar, himself a famously successful fundraiser, gathered a number of wealthy Jewish donors for a meeting in which he attempted to raise funds to build a new university library. Sachar began by telling these men about the popularity and wide use to which Harvard’s Widener Library was put. He noted that faculty regularly mentioned that they had offices in “Widener,” students set up meetings with one another at “Widener,” people said that they left their gloves or scarves at “Widener.” As Sachar recounted this, Howe imagined the men he was talking to thinking: “He has an office at Ginsberg.” “They first met at Schwartz.” “I left my jacket at Rabinowitz.”

Nowadays celebrity is available in a wide variety of sizes through charitable giving. Fundraisers must have come to the view that putting a plaque with a donor’s name on a hospital chapel, elevator, or wall with scores of other plaques releases the charitable impulse and is a highly effective goad to giving. “Rarer than an unplaqued room in Long Island Jewish Hospital” may not be a standard saying but perhaps ought to be.

My father, who was a reasonably successful small businessman, was generous in his donations to the charities and causes in which he believed. The charities and causes regularly sent him certificates and plaques in recognition of his generosity. One day I noted a plaque on which they had misspelled his name Maurice as Moreese. When I pointed this out to him, he replied, “For less than a fifty-thousand-dollar donation you mustn’t expect them to spell your name right.”

Am I hinting at anything more than that charity, too, has a strong comic element? Am I saying nothing more than the strikingly unoriginal notion that human beings, mirabile dictu, tend to be vain, and charity is yet another court on which they regularly demonstrate this? Whether the charity provided is put to good purpose may be the only question worth asking. The motives for giving, along with being negligible, may also be beside the point.

Yet Maimonides, in his brief but intellectually provocative “Eight Levels of Charity,” does accord the motives for giving charity a serious place. At the highest level, according to Maimonides, is helping a co-religionist “by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent on others.”

But at the second and third levels, Maimonides judges it best that the recipient of charity not know who his or her benefactor is. Giving in this manner, says Maimonides, “is performing a mitzvah [a blessed act] for the sake of Heaven. This is like the ‘anonymous fund’ that was in the Holy Temple [in Jerusalem]. There the righteous gave in secret, and the good poor profited in secret.” (Maimonides’ last three levels are when one gives to a poor person after being asked, when one gives inadequately but gladly and with a smile, and when one gives grudgingly).

Anonymous charity seems grander because it is detached from the ego and hence from the self and from all self-advancement or even semblance of selfish motive. But celebrity is a way of life that is built on the motive of relentlessly keeping the attention on oneself, pushing ever forward, exclaiming (in louder or more hushed tones) Look at me!

Having said this, one is far from ready to say that celebrities should get out of the business of self-promoting philanthropy until such time as they acquire the good grace to give without stepping forward to take egotistical credit for doing so. Part of the complication of celebrity charity is that celebrity itself can vastly increase the sums made available to do good in the world. And that, though not the only measure of charity in the world, remains an important one.

Meanwhile, if Andre Agassi wants to have a school named after him, if a pitcher earning $12 million a year wants people to know that he has set up a charitable foundation and thus isn’t a selfish jerk, if Jerry Lewis wants his hugs and his praise delivered in full public view on television, if Marlo Thomas and her famous show-business friends want to be known publicly for their good works – surely, one has to allow, there are deeper sins than these.

Perhaps the only lesson to be learned from all such displays of celebrity virtue is that even the widest fame is not by itself sufficient. It isn’t enough to be everywhere known; one must also be known to be good. Human, as the mad philosopher Nietzsche titled one of his books of observations on human nature, All Too Human.