The Park Avenue philanthropist talks about her passion for literature and her work on behalf of Casita Maria.
By Laz More
Jacqueline Weld Drake, one of the most recognized faces in New York society circles, is an author and attorney, but she has found her true calling in philanthropy. More than a social butterfly, I like to think of her as a hummingbird: petite, colorful, never at rest and efficient; moving with ease across a crowded room, memorizing every name and winning adepts for the causes she supports.
Jackie Weld accepts Lizzie Award from Literacy Partners.
As Chairman of the Board of Casita Maria, New York City’s oldest settlement house for the Latino community, Jackie dedicates her life’s work to make sure the organization is on sound financial footing to continue helping children and adolescents from their South Bronx headquarters. No easy task in these times of economic crises.
She was born in New York City by happenstance while her parents were ending their two-year honeymoon. Both sides of her family have witnessed important events in the history of Latin America. Her maternal great grandfather, Juan Idiarte Borda, was the 17th constitutional president of Uruguay, and the only one to be assassinated in office. The fascinating tale of his murder was the subject of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges titled Avelino Arredondo, which was the name of the assassin. Her other maternal grandparents came to Montevideo from Scotland. On the other side, her paternal grandparents immigrated to South America, particularly Venezuela, from Bukovina, an enchanting place along the border between Romania and Ukraine, where different cultures coexisted and flourished for centuries. In his book Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, Gregor von Rezzori describes this exotic land, and the decline of the European aristocracy between the world wars of the 20th century. Her parents met in Montevideo, and the rest is history. Jackie has three sisters: Mercedes Levin, Estrellita Brodsky and Martha Bograd.
1. Four generations: Jackie with her mother, grandmother and great grandmother.
2. Jackie with her mother, Beatriz Sheppard Idiarte Borda Bograd.
3. Little Jackie with sisters Mercedes and Martha.
4. Martha and Estrellita as little girls.
Jackie remembers being, as a child, the leader of the pack, always curious and energetic, leading her sisters in every game and in school activities. Since neither parent wanted to live in their respective countries of origin, the family spent years traveling between Venezuela, Uruguay and New York, until the arrival of the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship in Venezuela in the 1950’s, when they decided it would be better to settle in New York City. She has lived in New York since the age of 7. Her father’s philosophy was that the girls would learn more with him than at school, so he hired a governess and tutors for the girls to be home schooled. She excelled in her studies, and her parents made up for the girls’ lack of social interaction with other school children, by taking them around the world and exposing them to art and culture.
The four sisters: Jackie Weld, Mercedes Levin, Estrellita Brodsky and Martha Bograd.
After earning a law degree from New York’s Columbia University, she moved to Alamosa, Colorado, to work with underserved Chicano communities and indigent clients. She remembers her first client walking into her office and saying: “I just killed a man”. Eventually Jackie came back to New York and continued to practice law, until it was time to move on and become an author. She is admitted to the bar in two states.
In 1994, Ms. Weld met the love of her life, Rodman Drake, during an uncharacteristic, adventurous, white-water rafting trip to Colorado, a place she adores. She recalls that it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. Rod (as his close friends call him) had started to grow a beard, and they both had been married before, but “this kind of trip brings out the true nature of human beings. I saw what a wonderful man he was”, says Jackie about her first encounter with her current husband, before adding, “second marriages are better only if you've learned the lessons form the first. It is a more mature experience”. On December 18th, 1998 the couple wed in a civil ceremony in New York City.
1. Jackie and Rod at home in Palm Beach.
2. Jackie and Rod hiking in Aspen, Colorado.
They share their lives between Manhattan, Aspen, Palm Beach and Pound Ridge, NY, where they own residences. “For some reason, life in Palm Beach is easier”, she says. “During the season I get to have house guests and catch up with dear friends around the breakfast table.” The Drake also enjoy skiing and hiking in Aspen, but “there is also the intellectual side”, adds Jackie, “…the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Ideas Festival, provocative lectures, music festivals... Aspen is wonderful because it touches all aspects of my life”. And then, right before autumn, they come to quiet Pound Ridge before returning to New York, the city that feeds her curiosity and energizes her.
Life in the Big Apple is busy, but she organizes well. Her position as Chairman of the Board of Casita Maria demands a complicated schedule of meetings, events, fundraisers, and time for Casita’s children. “The busy schedule doesn’t bother me because we have an eternity to rest, so I go, go, go until I’m tired.” Her personal schedule is a different story. Jackie tries not to go out on weekends while in New York, so she can spend quality time with Rod. She has recently taken up golf, and quotes Mark Twain when she praises the benefits of this sport: “it is a beautiful walk interrupted”.
1. Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, Grace Meigher, Michael Douglas, Jackie Weld and Christopher Mason on the set of Wall Street II.
2. Julio Larraz, Jacqueline Weld Drake, Mikhail Baryshnikov.
3. Jackie Weld, Ana B. Remos, Adrienne Vittadini, Gian Luigi Vittadini.
4. Jackie Weld and Judy Collins attend author’s dinner for PEN.
Jackie recently received the second Lizzie Award from Literacy Partners. “This particular award was interesting because I think literature and literacy are very important components of my life, and this organization teaches adults to read and write.” Another award she cherishes is the one she received from the hands of her friend Maria Eugenia Maury Haseltine for her continued support of the organization Aid for AIDS. “That one I received in memory of Alfredo Ortíz-Murias, my predecessor at Casita Maria, who died of AIDS.”
1. Rodman Drake and his wife Jacqueline Weld Drake attend Literacy Partners Gala 2013
2. Diane von Furstenberg, Tatiana von Furstenberg, Elizabeth Strout, Liz Smith,
Jackie Weld Drake and Alina Cho at Literacy Partners Gala 2013
Ortíz-Murias was the president of Casita Maria until his untimely death, and is responsible for her involvement with the organization, which has become the center and passion of her life. “He called me and Anne Eisenhower to his deathbed and asked us to keep his dream alive, so I do it for him.” She understands firsthand the difficulties of raising funds for an organization in the South Bronx that reaches not only Latinos, but all children from this underserved multicultural community. She dedicates countless hours to Casita Maria to make sure the organization thrives and accomplishes its goals. “My biggest rewards are seeing the children succeed, and the sense of wellbeing that comes when you know you are doing something positive”, said the philanthropist.
She has authored two books: Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim, a biography of Peggy Guggenheim; and Rara Avis, a hysterical, surreal novel set in South America, starring a group of eccentric characters, including a foul-mouth parrot. She is currently working on a tome about the golden age of American illustration, another of her passions. She and Rodman have one of the best collections of illustrations in the country. Her reading list this year includes, among other titles: Wade Davis's The Conquest of Everest; Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle; Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga, Edward St. Aubyn’s sordid The Patrick Melrose Novels, The Biography of Rin Tin Tin, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Kelt, and the list goes on.
1. Jackie in Aspen, CO
2. Jackie's table in Palm Beach.
3. Jackie Weld celebrates her birthday with close friends, Jeannette Watson Sanger and Fran Lebowitz.
When we met in New York, she had just flown in from Palm Beach, where she hosts the annual Author’s Breakfast Series at the Brazilian Court hotel. This year she interviewed Tony Mendez, author of Argo; Rebecca Miller, daughter of Henry Miller, who had just written Jacob’s Folly, about a Jewish peddler from the 19th century reincarnated 200 years later as a fly; and Susan Isaacs, who has written 12 best-seller in a row.
Before we parted, I asked Jackie about the lessons she’s learned in life. She paused, and then burst into laughter. Her reply: “if you want to live life, you have to laugh a lot, dance a lot and let it go. Don’t sweat the small stuff, because most obstacles are usually small stuff”. ■
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