Sallie Bingham: A Philosophy of Philanthropy

A question I frequently ask WOW Factor interviewees is this: If you were to give a commencement address at a women’s college, what would the gist of your message to those young graduates be?

For author and playwright Sallie Bingham, 77, who now lives in Santa Fe and whom I interviewed recently, the answer came easily:

“In fact,” she said, “I did give a commencement address a few years ago at Sweetbriar, a women’s college in Virginia. Sweetbriar College has a lot of associations with wealth and privilege, so what I said to those young women was that you must begin to use your money for good. It’s wonderful to be able to buy things and go on vacations, and so on, I said, but you must begin now to develop a philosophy of philanthropy. We need to use the power of our money for social change.”

In her own life Sallie has clearly demonstrated this philosophy. A daughter of privilege herself, from the Bingham family of Louisville, Kentucky, she has given generously, especially to causes that help women writers and artists.

In 1985, after the sale of her family’s newspaper holdings, Sallie established the Kentucky Foundation for Women, which promotes feminist art and social justice by awarding grants to deserving women artists and activists. At the time, Sallie’s philanthropic gift of $10 million was the largest endowment to any women’s fund in the United States.

Also in the ‘80s, Sallie was instrumental in creating The Women’s Project in New York City, a not-for-profit theater project designed to help women playwrights and directors see their work performed on stage.

“It was very successful,” she told me. “We did some quite amazing work and launched some careers. The main thing we did was to nurture the idea that women playwrights and directors matter.

“Unfortunately,” she added, “we’ve gone through a tumultuous period in the last few weeks. The advisory board has resigned, and the future of The Women’s Project looks uncertain. But we’ve had a great run.”

Sallie at my home in Taos, July 2014
Sallie at my home in Taos, July 2014

Next month, Sallie’s thirteenth book, The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters, will be published by Sarabande Books (www.sarabandebooks.org/nonfiction/the-blue-box-three-lives-in-letters-sallie-bingham-1). This family history details the lives of Sallie’s great-grandmother (after whom she was named), her grandmother (“Munda,”) and her mother (Mary).

“I found their letters in a box in my mother’s closet after she died,” Sallie told me. “The letters span the early 19th century in this country to about 1950.”

In prepublication praise, Library Journal called The Blue Box “a colorful snapshot of Bingham’s family,” adding, “Fans of women’s history and devotees of Southern family sagas will enjoy taking this detour into nonfiction territory.”

Sallie is now working on her fourteenth book, a biography of the American philanthropist Doris Duke, due to be published by Farrar Strauss in early 2016.

“Doris Duke was one of the greatest philanthropists of the 20th century,” Sallie said, “yet few people know who she was or that she even existed. I’ve been fascinated by her since the late 1950s, when I met her at a luncheon in Paris. Now, at last, I hope to make her life – and her accomplishments – known.”

(For more on Sallie and her work, visit her website: www.salliebingham.com.)

 

 

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