my friend Bill started the Cornerstone Theater Company.
Bill had directed me in many plays in college and he offered
me a position as an actress. Reluctantly, I turned it down.
I longed for more physical and emotional stability than
the traveling company could provide-they planned to live
in very small towns for threemonth residencies and adapt
classic texts to local conditions-but I wished them well
and watched them closely during their first months.
in Cornerstone (or anywhere else) knew I was a person of
wealth. I wanted to help the struggling company, but I wasn't
ready to "come out." If I wanted to act with Bill in the
future, would others think I had bought a role? Would I
lose friends out of jealousy? Would I have to really admit
to myself that I was wealthy? Despite mixed feelings about
keeping secrets, I decided to give the group money anonymously.
Two books from my childhood helped me craft my plan. Jean
Daddy Long Legs
was a series of letters
from an orphan to the anonymous benefactor who sent her
to college. Frances Hodgson Burnett's
The Little Princess
included a secret friend who sent good food and a warm quilt
to a maligned servant girl in the garret. I loved the magic
of anonymity. I wanted to feel it myself.
end of 1986, I wrote to Charlotte at the management company
in New York where my finances were held. I asked her to
send $10,000 to Cornerstone and say it came from "a believer
in Cornerstone's work." All future correspondence with the
company went through Charlotte, so no one in the group could
recognize the postmark showing my midwestern city location
or anything else about me.
first thank-you letter from Bill and his co-founder to the
believer was a joy. I wept as I read how my money made it
possible for them to embark on their next residency. They
wrote, "We are doing everything we wanted to be doing. We
thank you from the bottom of our hearts for helping us.
Wherever we go from here, you will remain in our thanks
told a few people about my giving, including a good friend,
Joann, who was on Cornerstone's board of directors. Joann
let me know when financial crises hit the company. Several
times, the believer was "out of the country," so the contributions
came early, uncannily timed to pay actors' salaries or fund
the set when cash was low.
grew and the secret checks kept arriving. After six years
on the road, the company settled in Los Angeles, exchanging
rural residencies for urban ones. They were covered by every
major news organization in the country, were the subject
of a documentary film, and changed thousands of lives through
theater. The Believer's relative financial impact shrank,
as other, larger contributors appeared; but the thank you
letters were full of the strength that came from my consistent
contributions. Having the money gave the group stability;
being known and loved by a secret stranger gave them goosebumps.
two, then five, then eleven years of secret giving, Joann
begged me to reveal myself: "It would make them so happy
to be able to thank you," she prodded me. Charles, my financial
advisor and friend, wondered if the anonymity had served
its purpose and it was time to be a public philanthropist.
My husband suggested that "coming out" to Cornerstone was
a logical step in my personal growth. Deep down, I did want
to be thanked, I did want a new relationship with the money,
and I wanted to bring all of myself to the work of giving.
I decided to tell.
Bill and Joann and I were all together at a wedding. I started
a rambling story about Daddy Long Legs and wanting to make
a difference in the world, ending with "I'm the believer."
We all cried. Bill thanked me. He cried more. I told stories
about Joann's secrecy and Charlotte's work and the times
I was sure he knew who I was and we all cried some more.
It was a thrilling day, one of the best in my life.
out did not have the terrible consequences I feared. Although
contact with company members has been shy and awkward, the
heavens didn't fall. No one hated me for being rich. My
friendship with Bill has been strengthened by my acts of
faith and eased by the end of the secret. I will always
struggle to bring my whole self to the work of being an
actress, a philanthropist, and a human being. Having known
the magic of giving anonymously makes the struggle more
- anonymous author
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