More Than Money
Issue #28

Who Knows You're Rich?

Table of Contents

“The Magic of Anonymity”

In 1986, 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.

No one 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 Webster's 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.

At the 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.

The 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 and thoughts."

I eventually 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.

Cornerstone 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.

After 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.

In 1997, 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.

Coming 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 fun.

- anonymous author


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