Thumping Like Mildred

March 20th, 2009 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Woe to the underpaid black women or those from India if they had their underclothes at their ankles when the thumping closed in on them. At the Fight for Sight (National Council to Combat Blindness), that meant all-powerful Mildred was on the way. When she had to go, the bathroom had better be empty and unlocked!

It was in the early 1970s that I did a brief stint there working for founder Mildred Weisenfeld. We can say of her as A.A. Milne wrote of King John, “King John was not a good man — He had his little ways.”Well, Mildred had many foibles, several of which I saw and heard of in my short time with her in New York City.

AircastOddly enough, it was the sounds of walking with my Aircast (that looks like part of a Star Wars stormtrooper) on my left leg that brought it back. We have 13 uncarpeted wooden stairs between the ground and second floor here. The closest lavatory is on the second, as is bedroom. Climbing with the crutches, I suddenly recalled the thumping sounds on the way to to the john.

Mildred, it seems, was a knockout young woman. The way I heard the story from long-term employees was that she discovered she had retinitis pigmentosa, a blinding disease. It was a Hollywood script — a surgeon told her an operation might cure her or might blind her. She eagerly risked it rather than accept a slow descent into absolute darkness.

The ending, however, lacked the swelling, hopeful music. She emerged blind.

Of course, the sequel movie would have her coping with her new state. She’d use a guide dog or white cane or both, remastering the world in which she found herself.

That too wasn’t the way it worked. She married a rich man (also blinded by the same disease) and wasn’t about to use props of hoi polloi disabled folk. Instead:

  • She used servants at home to care for her all day and night.
  • Her chauffeur ferried her to and from work, leading her to and from the office, as well as waiting for her secretary’s calls.
  • She didn’t know from light or dark, but preferred to travel at low-traffic times. So, the entire office was an M.T., Mildred Time, about noon to 8 or 9 p.m.
  • There was one woman’s room down a long corridor from her office. Because she did not use a cane or dog, she simply felt her way down the hall, thumping on the wall all the way until she found the door.
  • The women took getting yelled at for using the toilet at the wrong time because Mildred liked to hire people she felt really needed jobs, ones willing to take low pay and a bunch of grief. In other words, we all were her servants too.
  • For years, she insisted on sighing all the Fight for Sight checks. That stopped when a crooked bookkeeper had her sign large amounts to him, which he diverted to his new South American home.

She did, however, found the Fight for Sight in 1946. According to her 1997 NYTimes obit, she wed in 1956, was widowed in 1967, and remained as chief fund-raiser until a year before her death.

Coincidentally, the Fight for Sight appears moribund. The state lists it as an active not-for-profit, but its website has not been updated in over two years and there is no news of it on searches. It seems to have been a middlingly effective group, which had its best years in the 1950 through 70s. It seems to have raised and distributed over $13 million for eye research by her death and paid out about $400,000 a year in grants.

That’s good, but not great, by the standards of high-powered health-based charities. Considering Mildred’s focus, this is expected. Her year focused on the annual Lights On benefit, which brought in the majority of new funds. She had been organizing these from 1949, when Milton Berle agreed to emcee the first one.

Young MildredI was not there long enough to attend one of these bashes. The long-time employees had lots of stories though. Columnist Earl Wilson loved this event and flogged it relentlessly before and after each one. There was the charity aspect, but for both Wilson and Weisenfeld, it was a stage full of stars. Most of the stars were Jewish, which I heard was Mildred’s strong preference.

The top tier of Jewish singers and comedians were fair game. The old timers there said she was brutal in cajoling or shaming them into performing.

Her methods and style aside, she did fund research. She also led to eye clinics and the like. Her organization did outlive her, by at least a decade. She also arranged eye-disease and research testimony before Congress and spoke herself (1950 in the Truman administration).

She had her little ways though.

The bookkeeper/checks story could be funny and sounds like jokes blind friends of mine might tell on themselves. The thumping to the loo tale was funny too — to everyone except the poor woman stuck in the room at the wrong time.

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One Response

  1. Mike Wilke says:

    Dear Harrumph, Fight for Sight is very much in business and still granting hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to young researchers investigating vision disease! I invite you to contact the organization and myself as the new Executive Director to update you on what we’ve been doing, our new web site, and also to learn more about your experience with our fascinating founder.

    Best wishes,
    Mike Wilke
    212-679-6060

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