Sunday, February 11, 2007

Joe and Joan Cullman

May 3, 2004 - In Memoriam. Joe Cullman has died at the age of 92. He’d been sustained for the past couple of years by his coolly vivacious wife Joan who got him out to see friends and got friends over to see him. The Cullmans were a very prominent couple in New York cultural, philanthropic, theatrical and social circles for the past more than thirty-five years. They had many many friends and really liked people too.

Then Joan died suddenly only about two months ago. Of a heart attack, in the middle of the night, at their house in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Joan was only seventy-one. This was a monumental loss for Joe, particularly at this stage of his life, and everyone mourned his loss and grieved for him.

The Cullman family, four brothers of which Joe was the eldest, were sons of a man who made a small fortune in the tobacco business. The family acquired Philip Morris about a half-century ago when it was a failing cigarette business. Joe Cullman turned it into the biggest consumer goods corporation in America. Last year Philip Morris, now called Altria, had sales of more than $80 billion. The brothers and their wives have ever since also made a profound mark on the city, its institutions and probably millions of lives with their on-going, hands-on, sensitive philanthropy, giving away untold millions for decades.

Joe loved the theatre, as did Joan who was actively producing right up until her untimely death. Two years ago, as part of a big celebration of Joe’s 90th, they had a special performance of one of his most favorite shows (which he and Joan had first produced a revival of in London) Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. At ninety Joe was in fair enough shape for a man in his tenth decade, although not as spry as a spring chicken by any means. I was seated behind him during that performance that night, and he had all he could do just to keep himself from springing down the steps onto that stage in the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre and joining the performers – including Patti LuPone and Howard Gillin. It was a joy to watch him. Joe was a joy to a lot of people.

He and Joan were a second marriage. And she was, in her day, quite a bit younger than her husband. And it was a fiery relationship from time to time. They got divorced. And remarried again. Joan was a very good looking woman with smiling eyes and a dusty, yet bright voice. Joe was a very good looking guy, with a kind of feisty bantam-ish charm. There was a bit of the kid in both of them, right to the end of their lives. You could tell that in its early days, it must have been a flashy romance. It had been some life. A good one.