Alumni Award for Mike Wallace by
100
(145 Stories)

Prompted By Fame

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

August, 1996. Committee reports were given before the National Alumni Board meeting at the Interlochen Center for the Arts summer meeting could adjourn. The Awards Committee decided to give the Distinguished Alumni Award to famed broadcaster Mike Wallace that year. His first job out of University of Michigan was working in the broadcast booth at Interlochen for camp founder, Joe Maddy. They knew each other from U. of M. When Mike graduated in 1939, he was desperate for a job. He stayed only the summer, then moved on to a radio job in Grand Rapids, MI, so the connection was tenuous, but valid. The committee head turned to me, as Corresponding Secretary of the Board and said, “Betsy, you contact him and make arrangements.”

I was flabbergasted. This had never been done before. The administration always took over from here. I couldn’t speak for the organization, nor make any arrangements. Yet, that’s how things were left.

I went back to my home in Newton after the meeting and thought about it, did some research and planned an approach. This was before email or much Internet. I went to the library. I knew Mike was proudly from Brookline, MA. So were my in-laws and I live in Chestnut Hill, which is a zip code construct; part in Newton, part in Brookline, part in Boston. When Mike saw my Chestnut hill address, he had no way to know that I didn’t live in the Brookline part. I also learned that Mike was the only person to have been interviewed by Playboy twice, once alone, once part of the 60 Minutes team. And Christie Hefner is a camp alumna and close personal friend. Also at the time we were renting and looking to buy on Martha’s Vineyard, where he owned a home. So I put all of these things in a letter to him to establish rapport, told him of his award, and that we’d like to present it to him either at camp in Interlochen, MI, or in Detroit. I sent it, in care of CBS. I signed it, as I did all my Interlochen correspondence, “Betsy Sarason Pfau”. I didn’t think much of it after that.

One early September evening, I returned home after taking my older child to soccer practice. I answered the phone and heard a very familiar voice, “Is this Betsy Sarason Pfau?” I started sweating…HOLY SHIT! I managed to contain myself and not verbalize those thoughts. I affirmed that this was Betsy on the phone.  Of course, I was speaking to Mike Wallace. I could tell that he read my letter as we spoke. He told me he was flattered to receive the award, would not travel to either of the locations suggested, would only receive the award in Boston or New York City (where he lived). I thanked him for responding, got his office phone number and told him I’d get back to him with further arrangements. I was an alumnus volunteer and couldn’t speak for the administration of Interlochen (which is why it was folly for me to be the point person in the first place, but never mind). He was quite gracious. The call went well. I told him we were currently looking to buy a home on Martha’s Vineyard. He told me to let him know how that proceeded and, of course, what arrangements would be made for his award presentation. I promised to follow up on all. My follow-up is always excellent.

By the end of the year we did buy a home on Martha’s Vineyard; in elegant Edgartown. I was excited to share the news with Mike and called to tell him, though we still didn’t have news about a date or location for his award ceremony. He lived in Vineyard Haven with an ocean view, and had for years. He was famous for being part of the “Depressed Three”, celebrated figures in the community (William Styron and Art Buchwald were the others) who wrote and spoke openly about their struggles with depression, were all great friends and lived close to each other, playing tennis by day, dining by night. It was an erudite scene over in Vineyard Haven. Edgartown, when we bought about 22 years ago, was known as a WASP-y enclave (it has diversified in the ensuing years). Mike tweaked me when I called with my exciting  news. “I didn’t know you were so tight-jawed”, was his response. I assured him I was part of his tribe!

Early in 1997, I finally got word from the Director of Development at Interlochen that a location and plan had been secured. A wealthy alum, Jeffrey Epstein, owned an entire townhouse on the upper east side of Manhattan, one block north of the Fisk Museum. He would lend it to Interlochen and underwrite a posh dinner party to honor Mike Wallace. Jeffrey probably wouldn’t be there, but his girlfriend/major domo, Ghislaine Maxwell, worldly daughter of deceased British billionaire Robert Maxwell, would serve as hostess. Interlochen hoped to attract major donors to such an impressive event. Though there was no fee to attend, they planned a lovely evening of food and entertainment meant to show off their accomplishments. It wasn’t clear that low-level people like myself would be included, even though at the time I was and had for years been instrumental in funding a half scholarship to the camp.

I contacted Mike again. This proposal met with his approval and we looked for appropriate dates, finally settling on May 9, his 79th birthday. I asked if he really wanted to spend his birthday with us. He said he did. I asked who he’d like to invite. He said his wife, Mary, would be out of town, as would all his children. He asked only to invite fellow TV journalist Paula Zahn. He asked if I would be there. I told him I wasn’t sure if in fact I would receive an invitation. He said he wouldn’t attend if I didn’t attend, a point I conveyed back to the Development Director at Interlochen. Mike was very kind to me during all of our interactions.

Interlochen had a difficult time finding “the right” kind of people to fill the tables at their exclusive soiree. For whatever reason, they just didn’t know enough fancy donors in the metro-NYC area to fill the room, so I invited my dear friend Emily and her husband, reassuring her that there was no financial requirement to attend. I just begged her to come to lend me moral support, as I wouldn’t know anyone else there, besides the Interlochen administration and Mike. And I couldn’t properly claim to know Mike Wallace all that well.

A lovely evening was planned, with alumni performing musical numbers when Mike first arrived during the cocktail hour, then a beautiful, seated dinner, followed by the award ceremony and more alumni entertainment. The townhouse was gorgeous, well-appointed. A formal space to enter, up a gracious, curved staircase to a large hallway where the drinks were served. Mike was doing an interview in one of the outer boroughs and was the last to arrive. I had my photo taken with Emily in the hallway at the top of the stairs, then put my camera down on a little bench in the hallway, waiting for Mike. It had disappeared by the time he arrived. Ghislaine didn’t like things to be out of place.

With Interlochen friend Emily at Wallace event 5/9/97

I greeted Mike at the top of the stairs, “Hi, I’m Betsy”. He pulled me into a big hug, put his arms around my waist, “Your’e a little one, aren’t you?” He was whisked away to talk with others, but first said, “Call me when you get to the Vineyard”, “I will”, I promised. Though there were no large donors there, the evening went off as planned. Mike came late and left early. He kept a busy schedule, but seemed truly touched that Interlochen would honor him. He sat one table away from me and I could see him in animated conversation throughout the evening.

I don’t think Interlochen got much glory from the evening. I did call Mike when I got to the Vineyard in a few weeks (all numbers were listed in the phone book, no one bothered celebrities in those days). First time I was told he wasn’t home. I left a message, but he didn’t return my call. I tried once more. The message was clear this time. He didn’t really want to see me. He was just being polite. Never mind. He had shown up and played his part. That was all that was required. He was a gentleman and there was no need for him to do more.

After his death, his home was purchased by Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.  We see him bicycling around the Vineyard. He is friends with one of my neighbors and is also quite approachable (though I did flub up once and call him John Warner…he reminded me that John was one of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands; I was very embarrassed).

Jeffrey Epstein wound up in the news some years later. In the early 2000s he got into legal trouble for soliciting (and having) sex with under-age girls. He supposedly procured young girls for Prince Andrew and Alan Dershowitz as well. Both deny these allegations. Epstein served time for the offense. Many lawsuits later, one can only say that large sums of money can silence lots of legal troubles. Donald Trump’s name even came up in one case, but went no where. The cult of celebrity and money; a toxic brew.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Tags: Mike Wallace, Interlochen Center for the Arts, Distinguished Alumni
Characterizations: funny, moving, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    What a terrific story, Betsy. And so refreshing to hear about one celebrity who seemed to remain humble and behave himself. (I sort of had a hint of that myself years ago when we coincidentally shared a No. 7 subway car coming back from the US Open into Manhattan; no limo for Mike.)

    More broadly, you nicely addressed the cult of celebrity, which you properly refer to as “a toxic mix,” with a few good examples thrown in. And there could not be a more timely observation as the Trumpian excesses become more and more apparent and (hopefully) lead to his ultimate downfall.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. Mike was very nice and pleasant to me throughout the process, but as I made clear, did not want to be my friend when all was said and done. That was fine. He behaved appropriately. Yet isn’t it interesting that certain names come back, like bad pennies (as the saying goes), to haunt us anew. As you say, hopefully leading to ultimate downfall. Quite Shakespearean, really.

  2. John Zussman says:

    What an interesting experience and perfect for this prompt. I think that most truly famous people are surrounded by a perimeter (often maintained voraciously by publicists, agents, assistants, or security), but once you get inside it, they assume you’re worthy and become gracious and even friendly (which, as you found, is not the same as taking you on as a friend). You did your part by respecting them and their privacy.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, John. Mike granted me the appearance of friendliness, but later made it clear he did not need an additional friend. I’m sure if I had run into him on the Vineyard, he would have been pleasant, but no more than correct. You do make an interesting distinction. I was drawn in by his warmth and charm, but learned that this was his professional front. I will also share that at some point throughout the process, someone close to me started on the same anti-depressant that he was on (he was quite open about that). My friend had negative sexual side effects. I contacted Mike who was quite forthcoming with advise on how he handled the problem and what to do. He was VERY generous to me throughout the process. I have no complaints.

  3. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, Betsy, thanks so much for giving us this glimpse into Mike Wallace’s life. As you say, his warmth and charm were part of his professional demeanor and no more. Still, it must have been nice to have him talking to you on a relatively personal level. And the excitement of that first phone call must have been amazing! I DO think it was wrong of him to say “call me when you get to the Vineyard” if he had no intention of seeing you. I guess it was an automatic pleasantry on his part but led to unnecessary disappointment for you. Oh well. . . .

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      As I think about the MV thing with Mike, I have a feeling that in the moment, he really did want me to reach out to him, given how really pleasant and responsive he’d been to me (see my response to John Z. He was always willing to talk from his office and share his thoughts about non-Interlochen topics with me). In retrospect, I think it was the people around him who wouldn’t let me in. That would explain the lack of follow through. I wasn’t going to pester him.

Leave a Reply