Living/Arts
July 29, 1999


Family Man

Family' man Arts patron also champions a tradition of social justice and philanthropy

By Bella English, Globe Correspondent, 07/29/99

It all started with some not-so-light beach reading. The Buttenwieser family was on vacation, and the kids were thumbing through ''Rachel and Her Children,'' Jonathan Kozol's gripping account of life in a squalid New York Citywelfare hotel.

''We were all passing the book around,'' says Paul Buttenwieser, a psychiatrist and philanthropist. ''We were horrified. We were upset. We decided we ought to do something.''

Their tans had barely started to fade when the idea for the Family-to-Family Project was born. From the beach towels to the kitchen table, the project took shape in Paul and Katie Buttenwieser's heads. They called their friends, seeking donations for a nonprofit foundation that would address the problem of homelessness.

Eleven years later, there are just as many homeless families out there, but Family-to-Family helps some of them get into permanent housing and jobs.

''The Boston housing market is no friend to the homeless,'' says Paul Buttenwieser, who is chairman of the board. Katie is a board member. ''Sadly, the booming economy doesn't reach everyone.'' He's just warming up, sitting in a sunny study in his comfortable Belmont home. He may be miles away from the poverty of Roxbury and Mattapan, but his heart isn't. He and Katie are also active donors and supporters of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a community revitalization group.

''The problem is: Poor people are always going to be poor. We don't need to have that kind of poverty and misery in this country. It's very hard to get poor people a life. Basically, a lot of them are having to work their fingers to the bone and having to give their families too little attention.'' The ''fairness issue'' - of all people having to pay their own way - is ''bogus,'' he says flatly. ''Poor people are working much too hard for much too little.''

You might think from his comments that Paul Buttenwieser is some lefty activist from the '60s. And at 61, he'd probably plead guilty to that. He comes by it honestly: His parents were active in liberal causes in New York, where he grew up. His mother, Helen, a prominent lawyer when most women were relegated to washing dishes and making meals, had a philosophy of life: ''If you see something that needs to be done, do it.''

She was an attorney for Alger Hiss, who was convicted of perjury in a celebrated case but pleaded his innocence, and their household was always open to her many causes. His father, Benjamin, an investment banker, was president of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and Lenox Hill Hospital, was a trustee of Columbia University and the New York Philharmonic, and was active in civil liberties issues.

Paul Buttenwieser says his other role models are his children, now 33, 31, and 28 old. At various times, they have worked for VISTA, with the homeless and disabled, and with people who have AIDS. ''They have done volunteer work throughout high school, college, and their adult lives,'' Buttenwieser says with pride.

The pride is mutual. Janet Buttenwieser, the youngest of the three, remembers long dinner-table discussions of current events and social issues. ''I think the same way my father's parents were role models for him, my parents were for me,'' she says, speaking from her home in Seattle. ''Certainly, their philosophy about helping less-advantaged people has been a big influence on me.'' In VISTA, she started a family resource center with parenting, language, and child-care programs for the poor.

Patron of the arts

But despite his work on behalf of the homeless, Paul Buttenwieser is known here primarily as a patron of the arts.

His social-justice work isn't as trendy, and doesn't make the society or arts pages, though he considers it every bit as important. There's an awful lot of the alphabet on his resume: chairman of the board of the ART, trustee of the MFA and the ICA, an overseer of the BSO. (A glossary: the American Repertory Theatre, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Boston Symphony Orchestra)

He also teaches at and raises money for Harvard University, sees patients in his private psychiatric practice, and writes novels.

He sees no irony in raising money for both the poor and the privileged. ''Katie and Ifeel very strongly that more people should be donating money to poor people and social justice, but essentially our government should be doing that,'' he says. ''I feel I pay my taxes for the poor.''

As for Harvard, he's emotionally attached. He graduated from the college and its medical school, where he teaches a class on doctor-patient relationships and the experience of illness. A child pianist who later became the music critic for The Crimson, he seemed headed toward a career in music. But his older sister's death from anorexia just as he was entering college led him into psychiatry.

''It was a difficult episode in my family's life,'' he says. ''I think I wanted to be a rescuer.'' In medical school, he met a fellow rescuer: his wife, Katie, who was a social worker at the New England Home for Little Wanderers. (''How could you not marry someone who worked there?'' he laughs). Katie, a pioneer in the Boston hospice movement, has also worked at Children's Hospital and remains a consultant to its parent-infant mental health clinic.

Though he has cut back on his practice to concentrate on his board work, Paul Buttenwieser still sees patients, most of them children and adolescents. Still, it's as an artist that he defines himself. He grew up with the best of the art world: His parents and grandparents took him to plays, concerts, the ballet, and opera. By age 4, he was considered a precocious pianist.

He'll still play at family functions and for friends. The writer James Carroll, an old friend, recalls the time Buttenwieser visited his home and asked his son, then 8, what he was playing on the piano. ''My son played a few notes of Beethoven's Fifth and looked up at Paul and said, `Do you know that?' So Paul sat down at the piano and proceeded to roll off the whole first movement with great panache and, to my ear, great expertise. We watched our son understand what the music he'd been playing was really all about.''

Accomplished writer

Buttenwieser has written two books, ''Free Association,'' a comic novel about psychoanalysis, and ''Their Pride and Joy,'' an autobiographical novel about a large Jewish family in New York. Carroll, who has won the National Book Award for nonfiction, says ''Their Pride and Joy'' is one of the best novels he has read. ''Paul is a really accomplished writer. He's a committed activist and doctor, too. So I think his writing hasn't been at the top of his list.''

At the MFA, Buttenwieser has been committed to opening the doors to a wider audience. ''We're doing a great job at getting school kids in there,'' he notes. ''But we have to do better with diversity at the leadership and volunteer level.''

As for the ART, he says, ''There's no reason why someone from Dudley Street shouldn't enjoy `Hamlet' as much as someone from Brattle Street. They don't get there, and if they do, they don't feel very comfortable because they don't see people like them there. It's just accessibility, accessibility, accessibility.''

As chairman of the ART board for the past seven years, Buttenwieser was instrumental in bringing playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith to Harvard. The ART fashioned a symposium on prejudice around Smith's solo performance, ''Fires in the Mirror.''

Two years ago, the ART board and Harvard's Du Bois Institute worked on a proposal for a $1.5 million Ford Foundation grant. As a result, Harvard was chosen as one of three sites in the country to host a summer institute - for three consecutive years - on the arts and civic dialogue. Last summer's debut got mixed reviews. This summer, Buttenwieser says, the institute has been reorganized and should run better, with more artists participating in front of smaller audiences.

His writing has fallen victim to his board work. For five years, he has worked on a novel about a musician. ''It's all done, but it isn't ready,'' is the way he describes it. At a recent conference on Ernest Hemingway at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, he participated in a panel discussion on creativity and despair.

''There's a myth that depression makes you a better writer,'' he says. ''But you have to have a certain level of emotional stability in order to do the job.'' The other myth is that you can't be a great writer unless you're an alcoholic - something the panelists also debunked. ''Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and O'Neill did their greatest writing before alcohol turned their brains to mush,'' Buttenwieser says. ''For the most part, their later work didn't live up to their earlier.''

At the end of this month, he will step down as chairman of the ART board, but stay on as a member. It's time for someone else to take over, and besides, there's so much else for him to do. There are all the fund-raisers for his causes, the interest-free-rent loans for the needy, the book to be polished, music to be played, and the patients to be seen. The Buttenwiesers have taken a house in the Berkshires for part of the summer, for its proximity to the arts and to their daughter and granddaughter in New York.

''With the privilege that we enjoy,'' he says of his life, ''it's hard to express adequately the anguish that many of us feel about the way many others have to live in our community. I would sort of like to rededicate myself to working on behalf and with poor people.''

This story ran on page E01 of the Boston Globe on 07/29/99. Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.