Cynthia Lufkin, privileged though she may be, has not been exempt from some of the toughest trials of life: In 2005, a breast cancer diagnosis at 32 weeks pregnant that precluded chemo. As the cancer spread, it was decided that her baby was to be prematurely delivered by Caesarian section so that Cynthia could begin some kind of treatment. Within the first 24 hours her baby daughter, Aster Lee, was given a 50-50 chance of survival. Having emerged from that particular kind of hell, she has dedicated much fundraising and consciousness-raising energy to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, driven largely by a need to show women who are recently diagnosed that they can get through it and that life does go on. She’s clearly never been a ‘whiner’ in her life and though she was very courteous throughout our interview, she was also rather private, deflecting questions with a laugh and short, neutral statement. It was quite artful, really, because it never detracted from her likeability or her sincerity, especially when it came to talking about her cause.
I was going to ask you what you thought of the New York Times article by Joyce Wadler [March 6 2008] about you.
Well I called Joyce afterwards and I said that I thought the article was great—however, I said, there was one thing you got wrong. She said that I postured or did something unnatural for her benefit when I walked in, and I said, that was wrong!
She said you were carrying a little white shopping bag, which you handed to a driver—it was partly to create the depiction of a rich lady. What did you think of that?
I didn’t think about it so much. I thought the pictures looked great.
One of the things I was also interested in is that you did a Bachelors degree in chemistry. I was wondering what drew you to that as a subject?
Biochemistry. Good question. When I was about five years old I remember reading a little kids book on chemistry and the periodic table, and that was it. Total nerd. I had the periodic table on my bedroom wall. Instead of doing sport I was the chemistry lab nerd.
Do you still find that really interesting?
Well, I had gotten away from it for many years and now getting back into it, slightly—things have changed dramatically since when I was at school, but getting involved with Memorial Sloan-Kettering and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation…
That’s a scary way to understand biochemistry, through the prism of cancer.
I had an understanding before, but biochemistry helps a lot with what we are trying to do with Memorial with the nutrition and fitness aspects of integrated medicine. The science of biochemistry is whatever you put into your body makes a difference, good or bad.
You have a cook that just makes natural [organic] food, right?
We are a strict organic household and green cleaning products, and yes, we are very strict about that. Do I still love to eat a hot dog and potato chips? Yes absolutely! But I watch what I eat.
Do you drink alcohol at all?
I have a glass [of wine] a week maybe.
How have the tough things you have been through changed you?
I would stay definitely a new sense of appreciation … maybe a compassion. And for me [to move] in a direction of philanthropy which is very gratifying and I feel a need to do it to show women who have been recently diagnosed that you do get through it and life does go on. It doesn’t last forever.
In a way it’s the ones on the outside, your loved ones who suffer almost as much.
Yes, it’s torture.
What did you like about your husband when you first met him?
[Laughs loudly] Extremely romantic.
How is he romantic? We want an example!
He’s full of surprises. He likes to do the little things. It doesn’t have to be my birthday or our anniversary to get something sweet.
I read somewhere that you won Anne Hathaway as a babysitter for a night in a charity auction. Did she really come?
Yeah! She is such a star. She did speak to us for a little bit and then Schuyler [Cynthia’s ten-year old daughter] came and she said call me ‘Annie’. And Schuyler asked her to play Sardines, and she said, sure, I’m ready. And I will show you the spot where Schuyler kidnapped her and stowed her away … I don’t know how she survived. She was terrific.
What kinds of things do you like to read?
I’m a voracious reader. I have a biochemistry major but my minor was in literature. And actually Dan’s degree from college is in Romantic poetry, Romantic literature.
Who are your favorite authors?
Well, three great friends: Calvin Trillin, and Harlan Coben—I’ve just finished his new book. I finished it yesterday—and Linda Fairstein. I love biographies, I love history. I just finished a book ‘Islamic Influence in the Making of Europe’, which was terrific. Terrific!
Where do you like to travel?
I love to travel. After school I was working for a publisher for about nine months … and then I just had to go! I went to Italy for a while, and then to Tokyo.
What was that like, living in Tokyo?
Actually very lonely. But a very fascinating place.
And being a tall, blonde girl there? Were you working?
I was a model. At the time, it might not be like this now, but especially out of the city proper, [there was] a fascination [with me as a Westerner]. I love travel, but I love home.
Where do you have homes?
Here, and Washington, Connecticut. And that’s where the kids are. Dan’s four older daughters grew up in Connecticut and he loves animals and he has worked as a rancher and dairy farmer and environmentalist. (If he had to do it all over again he would be a veterinarian.) And we just didn’t find the right community but it came together when his daughter suggested a great school in Connecticut, and we fell in love with the area. This [New York] apartment, we’ve just put on the market. We don’t spend enough time here.
So that’s your real home, where the kids are.
I feel totally half-and-half, and I think Dan and I both feel like that. Most of our friends and our work is here. But then Dan and I have had constant construction projects since we met.
Why is that?
I think we like it! Two months ago I carried the last piece of furniture [in the New York apartment], the chair to my vanity table and I called him and I said, Dan, it’s done! and he said, Oh that’s interesting … how would you feel about living in the Plaza?
— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge; photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch