Samuel P. Peabody reminisces with William M. Graves Jr. about his wife, the late philanthropist Judith Dunnington Peabody.
Courtesy of Samuel P Peabody
Will Graves (WG): Sam, tell our readers how you met your late wife, and when did you first realize the groundbreaking nature of your beloved Judy’s humanitarian efforts?
Sam Peabody (SP): Having met her at a dinner party [in New York] in mid-November 1950, I asked if I could take her home. She asked me up for a drink and I followed it up with asking for a date the next night. She agreed but said I had to pick her up on Avenue B [on Manhattan’s Lower East Side], at Youth House, where she volunteered twice a week. Youth House was where the courts sent young delinquents. As I was also a volunteer, at the request of the bank where I worked, at Broad Jump, Inc., another not-for-profit organization that worked with young Italian boys from the immediate neighborhood, not far from Avenue B, it was very easy for me to walk a couple of blocks to pick Judy up. Youth House, a detention center, had bars on all the windows and to be admitted not only did they have to expect you but, on announcing myself, many locks had to be unlocked before entering. I was immediately taken to meet Judy, who was in a large room—a former gym—that had to be unlocked as well. On entering, I found Judy surrounded by both boys and girls, her arm around one of them, singing to them in her very bluesy voice —all appeared happy and relaxed. She introduced me to her charges and I joined her and them for the next 30 or so minutes. On taking her home that evening, she asked me not to tell her mother where she had been on account of the fact that she always told her mother she was taking French lessons, when, in fact, she was at Youth House. This whole episode touched me a lot. All around, it was such a happy situation and, of course, was the first real indication for me that, indeed, this was a very special person.
WG: Can you describe the organizations Judy championed as well as the roles that you and your daughter, Elizabeth, played in assisting her?
SP: After the birth of our daughter, Judy was overcome by postpartum depression. She was unable to shake loose from this for almost a year. Then our friend Rev. Steven Chindlund came to see her, as he wanted to raise money for Exodus House, a drug rehabilitation center whose therapy consisted of co-leaders leading a group around a table in group therapy. Judy sat in on one of these groups. On leaving and returning home, she realized that this was something she could easily do herself and immediately volunteered —but not before joining the Post Graduate Center [for Mental Health] on East 28th Street to learn all she could about clinical therapy. On account of her innate talents, she excelled in this craft and was instantly accepted by addicts in their therapy. She asked me then to join her in volunteering to teach reading to those who were illiterate. Soon after, Leroy Looper, her black co-therapist and a former addict himself, asked us both to help him open Reality House, a duplicate of Exodus House, only on 160th Street in Harlem. Judy would continue as a group leader and I as chairman of the board. We did this together for 18 years (much of the time I was at Rye Country Day School). Both of us left Reality House at the same time, but she went on to work with an Hispanic gang on 119th Street and Second Avenue who, we were told, were redeeming themselves by renovating a building in which they would live and which they would own. That is another long, fascinating story, but a continuation of her humanitarian efforts.
Wherever she went, she was always beautifully dressed. ...She felt she was insulting people if she ever "dressed down" for them.
WG: How did a shy lady, who grew up at the Carlyle, invite a Harlem gang to your Fifth Avenue apartment and embrace, kiss, and hold hands with AIDS patients to the shock of her peers and, in fact, the nation? Where did that come from?
SP: Judy did not have any role models. She was an original, though, like many of us, she grew up totally protected. She was born in Richmond, VA. Her parents divorced when she was 6 years old and, with her mother, she moved to New York City. For the first few months, they lived at the Carlyle while her mother prepared herself to marry Walter G. Dunnington, who subsequently adopted her. Walter G. Dunnington was a corporate lawyer and the senior partner of Dunnington Bartholow and Miller. They all then moved into the penthouse at 812 Park Avenue. Even though she had no role model in her life, she did possess a strong, compassionate nature and identified with anyone less fortunate than she. Whenever we entertained, we always used the same caterers. At the end of the evening after they had cleaned up, they lined up at the door and each was both hugged and kissed and more than well paid before leaving. As a result they are still our friends. They would have canceled any previous commitment should Judy have called to ask them to come to us. Even today, Elizabeth considers them friends and uses them whenever she entertains. She never distinguishes among her friends, black, Hispanic, uptown, downtown, etc.
As for the Renegades—having been at Reality House together with me, all those years, she wanted a change of scene. Having heard about the Renegades from someone at St. John the Divine, a gang that was trying to redeem themselves by renovating this building on 119th Street and Second Avenue, she became curious and went up to see what they were really up to with the hope she could give them the same group therapy she had been giving at Reality House. In order to gain their trust, she spent days just “hanging out” with them, watching them work and helping where she could. Eventually, they got her message and agreed to let her practice her group therapy with them. At the day’s end she sat with them in this partly renovated building with only one light bulb at the end of a long wire while she worked with them as a group. It didn’t really take, as they would leave the group for one reason or another, come back and again wander off. However, they wanted to please her and cooperated when they could. When it was time for her to leave, it was after dusk and no taxis in that area except for these black cars picking up passengers when they could. The chief Renegade would hail one of these, check the doors and threaten the driver if he did not take her home safely.
After a year or so of this—and by then I had met the gang and their “wives” at parties to which they had invited us—we thought we should return the hospitality and invited them to a party at our home. What a great night that was! They came in the apartment as I was coming down the stairs and I was greeted by about 15 members, all with “Afros.” I had to laugh to myself —this gang invading my home! I was just very happy they were all friends. Judy had prepared a feast of sorts, set out so they could help themselves. They admired everything, clearly enjoyed being there as we enjoyed having them —lots of eating, some drinking, lots of talk. Before leaving they lined themselves up by the front door, and their leader said, “OK, guys, empty your pockets.” With that, one silver fork dropped to the floor, obviously a souvenir of the evening. Both Judy and I were so happy and pleased by the whole evening. Knowing us, especially Judy, the doormen were fascinated but very supportive.
WG: What specific projects could Social Register Observer readers champion to carry on your wife’s groundbreaking legacy? Any naming opportunities?
SP: Judy took courses to become a trained clinical counselor, which gave her the background, together with acceptance, to work as such first at Reality House, a drug rehabilitation center in Central Harlem, followed by four to five years working with the Renegades. Sad to say, the gang fell back into their former ways, selling drugs, were arrested and sentenced to prison terms. However, she attended each one of their court appearances, harassed their court-appointed lawyers to at least visit them before their court appearances, and subsequently visited them in jail. One prison being way upstate, Attica, to which she took an early morning plane, returning in time for dinner.
As for suggesting to someone, anyone, where they could help—it would have to come from the individual according to their interests and abilities. Perhaps someone could be so inspired by what Judy accomplished, they could be influenced to follow in her steps.
I neglected to add that when the AIDS horror became evident with the horrible deaths of so many individuals, Judy’s compassion zeroed in at double force. A friend of ours had a partner who became the first individual whom we knew to become so afflicted: a young boy in his early 20s. We went together to see him and we were appalled how young and innocent he was. We were in Italy when our friend called to tell us he had died. This affected Judy in a very serious way. Soon after, she turned to me, her face indicating intense determination, and said “When we return to New York, I’m going to get involved with this horrible disease affecting so many.” Again, she educated herself and learned all she could about AIDS, became intimate with doctors treating the disease and soon began having young men affected with AIDS coming to the apartment, to whom she provided counseling—not only that but advised them where they could receive the best treatment. She worked “hand in glove” with doctors whom she could trust. Dr. Jonathan Jacobs at New York Hospital became her mentor. She visited her group members in the hospital and with a few was holding their hands when they died. Realizing she could not continue doing this alone, she applied at Gay Men’s Health Crisis as a volunteer to do as she always did, become a clinical group counselor. Her groups met every Friday evening and, except when we traveled, she never missed a Friday until she became ill. Without exception, whoever attended her group became devoted to her. Some I still hear from today.
One interesting aspect: Judy, as most people knew, was a “clothes horse.” She loved clothes, beautiful clothes, and her closets were chock-full of them, nothing ever being given away. Judy made room for more by “pushing a little more to the left.” Her favorite color was, without a doubt, RED. Wherever she went, she was always beautifully dressed. Attending her groups was no exception, even in Harlem. She felt she was insulting people if she ever “dressed down” for them. She inherited from her mother a love of fine jewelry. Once when I thought she was wearing more jewelry than the situation at that time demanded, I suggested she tone it all down a bit. “Nonsense!” was her reply. “Those who have them wear them!” And indeed she did. By doing so, I realized, she did give pleasure to those who saw her. One of those qualities I most admired: she truly respected the dignity of all people, no matter to whom she was speaking—even a beggar on the street. She died three years ago, July 25, 2010. Not only do I miss her, especially when I sit down to dinner alone, but so do so many, many others who keep telling me how much she meant to them.
Will Graves is the founder of Friends of Florida's Coasts and Friends of Winter Park. Sam Peabody was the lower school principal at Rye Country Day School, where Will and his brother, Harry, received a free education thanks to their father, William M. Graves, a Rye faculty member for 17 years. Will's mother, Anne Hammond Graves; his late cousin, groundbreaking preservationist Barbara Drew Hoffstot; and Judy Peabody all attended the Ethel Walker School.
Some of Judy Peabody’s special charities: