No Ordinary Life

The Biography of Elizabeth J. McCormack


By Charles C. Kenney

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A member in the Society of the Sacred Heart for nearly thirty years; president of Manhattanville College in New York; recipient of a doctorate in philosophy; philanthropic advisor to the Rockefeller family; beloved wife of Jerome I. Aron; pivotal board member of some of the most generous foundations in the world, including Atlantic Philanthropies and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Today, Elizabeth McCormack is regarded by many as the very soul of philanthropy. Her unstinting practical advice and compassion have helped to inform the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars to worthy causes around the world.


To the memory of Jerome I. Aron

IT IS A PRIVILEGE and a pleasure to introduce to you this compelling, fascinating story of Elizabeth McCormack's remarkable career, which we expect will be an inspiration to all who read these pages.
What makes Elizabeth's story so compelling is her unerring internal compass, which led her to overcome the limitations that existed for a young Catholic girl growing up in the suburbs of New York City in the 1930s. After graduating from Manhattanville College, she was called to the Society of the Sacred Heart, where she became a nun. With hard work, significant talents, and an entrepreneurial spirit, she returned to Manhattanville as its president a few years later. There she quickly set about pushing through greatly needed educational reforms, often meeting stiff resistance along the way. After several years in that role she left the Society, married, and assumed leadership positions with some of the most important foundations and philanthropic families in the country. She has always pushed boundaries, becoming a force of nature in the field of philanthropy, a pioneer as a woman in fields dominated by men, and a catalyst for change to improve institutions so as to make them vibrant, relevant, and effective.
Elizabeth McCormack is now well known in the world of philanthropy, business, and higher education. She is revered by both those who hold powerful positions and those who don't. This biography provides a comprehensive picture of her personal and professional life in an intimate way that will inform even those who already know her well. By observing the arc of her life that has touched so many and even had a profound impact on so many others, one comes quickly to understand why her advice is sought in person as well as the more public settings of boards and committees.
To me, the overriding picture that emerges in this story, the secret to Elizabeth McCormack's success, is her ever-ready frankness. She honestly and clearly expresses her views, and she can even be blunt if necessary. She offers advice without regard to any personal self-interest and with a genuineness, vision, consistency, and gutsiness that provide a fulfilling dynamism to those who follow it in their own decision making. All of this is always done in a respectful and balanced manner, with humility, gentleness, and grace. She is wise; never self-righteous.
This biography was written by Charles Kenney based on important preliminary work by the late Rod Gander and Tom Mathews. It is fortunate that Peter Osnos, the founder and now Editor-at-Large of PublicAffairs, was able to recruit Mr. Kenney, who has worked hard to bring this work to completion in time for the recognition of Elizabeth's ninetieth birthday. In addition to Elizabeth's involvement in the process, there were many who willingly participated in interviews, research, and fact checking to make this book such a fine read. And of equal importance, there were several donors who made significant financial contributions, but who have asked to remain anonymous.
The origin of this work, however, goes back some years and was catalyzed by Harvey P. Dale, who had sought the advice of Elizabeth McCormack when he helped Charles Feeney shape the structure and policies of Atlantic Philanthropies. After Atlantic was launched and after Elizabeth served on the board for a number of years, Mr. Dale broached the idea of a biography, but Elizabeth would have none of it! She did not consider herself worthy of the time and effort for such a project. But Dale was persistent. And Nan Aron, the daughter of Elizabeth's late husband, Jerry Aron, kept the pressure on the development of the book and served as a critically important bridge between Elizabeth and Charles Kenney. The wise counsel, expertise, and heroic exertions of Susan Weinberg, Peter Osnos, and Robert Kimzey of PublicAffairs, combined to enable this biography to be completed in record time.
So, there were many angels, but in many ways, the life and work of Elizabeth McCormack "speaks for itself." Enjoy the story, learn from it, and be inspired to contribute to the world in ways that Elizabeth's life points us.
Joel L. Fleishman
Professor of Law and Public Policy
Faculty Chair
Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society
Duke University

AT AGE EIGHTY-NINE, Elizabeth McCormack is noticeably hunched over and stands an inch or two shy of five feet. She has a shock of gray/ white hair hastily combed and her eyes are bright and penetrating—the eyes of a much younger woman. Her crisp, authoritative voice tends toward a higher register. She carries herself with a seasoned self-assurance. Her diminutive stature notwithstanding, she is a presence. The tiny woman with piercing eyes, a mischievous grin, and a turbo-charged intellect effortlessly dominates a room.
Who is she? Who is this woman known by not a soul in the great breadth of the country but known by everyone in certain New York circles? Although it has not always been the case, she works now among the elite of the elite; among citizens of the world who are so well-educated, so successful, that they spend vastly more time and effort now giving away money than making it. But not just giving it away—doing it well, with intelligence and purpose and, it is their hope, with effect. They are people devoted both personally and professionally to trying to make the world a better place. They succeed in places, and too often fall flat—but they try; their effort is real.
The calendar is dotted through the years with events on glittering Manhattan evenings when men and women of exceptional achievement gather to honor Elizabeth Jane McCormack. She is lavished with praise by the likes of Richard Parsons, former CEO of Time-Warner, and Thornton Bradshaw, the former chair of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; by Bill Moyers and David Rockefeller; and by a dozen other members of the Rockefellers in the third and fourth generations.
As the holder of a PhD in philosophy, she is one of the planet's few experts on the somewhat obscure, but influential British philosopher F. H. Bradley. When she was twenty-one, she committed herself to God as a nun in the Society of the Sacred Heart. At twenty-two, she donned a beautiful lace wedding dress and engaged in a Roman Catholic ceremony where she gave herself as a bride of Christ. As a nun she committed to detachment from the world, purity of intention; to absolute and total obedience; to an entire surrender of self to the service of God. She shaved her head so it might more comfortably fit under the habit that covered her from head to toe. She owned nothing—had no money, no bank account, not a share of stock. She came of age in a time when opportunities for women were rarer than rare and yet she found a route to leadership and influence. She sailed into the eye of the storm of the 1960s and 1970s as president of Manhattanville College, where so much of what she stood for was under fire; where so much of everything was under fire. There was turmoil over race and gender, war and peace. A nun—a woman—committed to chastity, was surrounded by the sexual revolution.
In the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and into the twenty-first century, she became one of the most important actors in the world of philanthropy. She helped guide some of the leading foundations in the world—and, eventually, some of the leading corporations, as well. She would serve on dozens of boards of organizations and companies, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Juilliard School, the American Academy in Rome, the Asian Cultural Council, Atlantic Philanthropies, Conservation International, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, Alliance Capital, United Healthcare, Champion International, and General Foods. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Council on Foreign Relations. A corporate leader gave her a small replica of a tank to acknowledge her fierceness.
But she is also a thinker, a conscience, a dissident, a strategist, a fighter, a mentor, a guide. Eventually, she became a wife and stepmother. She was a Roman Catholic nun for three decades who married a Jewish lawyer.
On a balmy June evening in 1997, many of Manhattan's elites gathered for a tribute to Elizabeth McCormack and her role in an environmental organization called Scenic Hudson. Before she was presented with an award from her friend Steven Rockefeller, a professor at Middlebury College, she was introduced by Bill Moyers, another friend. Moyers spoke from the heart about Elizabeth:
I've come to cherish her as a friend and exemplar. She is an archetype, if you will, of how to live a life when, as Gabriel says in The Green Pastures, "Everything that's tied down is coming loose." Just think of the tumult of her times. She's lived through the Depression, the Second World War, wars in Korea and Vietnam, the revolution in civil rights, the feminist revolution, the atomic age, and the Cold War. She's outlasted the boogie-woogie, Elvis and the Beatles, Chubby Checker and the Andrew sisters. . . . Popes have come and gone, and presidents, too. She's survived Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush . . . and I'll wager you that Bill Clinton will be back in Hot Springs before Elizabeth even reaches her prime.
What's the secret of her long consistency of principle through the upheavals of the time? How to explain her leadership in education, organization, and philanthropy? Well, there are certain people for whom the world is as fresh as it was the first day, whose eyes never dim to its novelty, who see life as "wonderful, inscrutable, magical, and more" . . . because they move in the world with faith, and hope, and charity: charity as caritas, the benevolence of God and the caring we owe each other.
How else to explain the touch she brings to her work? . . .
To Elizabeth, any surplus of riches is a trust, and owners of great wealth are but agents and trustees for society. Albert Einstein thought it impossible for wealth to help move humanity forward. Can anyone . . . he asked . . . can anyone imagine Moses, Jesus, or Gandhi armed with the money-bags of an Andrew Carnegie? Well, yes—if Elizabeth had been their advisor. She would have seen to it that the fervors of the followers who organized religions in their wake would have been suffused not by the rivalry and competition which provoke crusades and jihads, create Beiruts and Belfasts, and cause bombs to explode in holy cities . . . but by the ethic of cooperation and the values of collaboration.
For this woman, our friend, knows that civilization is an unnatural act. It doesn't just happen. It's something we do together; we make it happen. For all the chest-thumping about rugged individualism and the self-made man, the building of America was a social, not a solitary, endeavor; individual initiative succeeded only when it led to strong systems of mutual support, and we moved beyond the laissez-faire philosophy of "live and let live" to the active and affirmative commitment to "live and help live." This is Elizabeth's way, the inspiration for us all to remember that "thou must live for thy neighbor if thou wouldst live for thyself" (Seneca).
She's a work of nature, our friend Elizabeth . . . just like the Hudson River. And like our river she reminds us of things that last, that transcend the tumult of the hour and the news of the day. Her life is about connections and continuities between past and present, between now and the future, between the natural world and the world we make together.

( 1 )
Called by God
WHEN THEY WERE children in Larchmont, New York, in the late 1920s, Betty McCormack and her younger brother George would ride in the backseat of their father's Ford sedan for the Sunday morning drive to Mass. Their route meandered through town, taking them past a Presbyterian church.
"Betty and I would always hold our breath as we passed it because, you know, you might get contaminated," recalls George. Elizabeth Jane McCormack—or, Betty, as she was called then—is dubious about the reliability of her brother's memory. Yet there is no doubt that they occupied a thoroughly Roman Catholic universe. Elizabeth and George attended weekly Mass with their parents, who were traditional Catholics. The family was culturally more comfortable in a Catholic world of Catholic friends and Catholic schools. Elizabeth describes her parents as "good Roman Catholics, but they were not the go-to-Mass-every-day kind."
Elizabeth Jane McCormack was born on March 7, 1922, in New York City, to Natalie (née Duffy) and George Henry McCormack. George was born nearly three years later on January 24, 1925. When she was four, her family moved to the affluent Westchester suburb of Larchmont. Elizabeth grew up in the 1920s and 1930s without television, computers, or other sources to connect a young girl with the world outside her small, Catholic circle. "All my friends were Catholics, and your friends all thought the way you did," she recalls. "I met a few people who were not Catholics because we had a summer house in Lake Placid and the Lake Placid Club was a very Protestant place, but you didn't think out of the box while you were growing up."
Elizabeth was a petite girl with crackling energy. Her sharp mind was evident early on. In the second grade at nearby St. Augustine's Academy, run by nuns of the Dominican order, Elizabeth was distressed by the idea of Hell. Her teacher described it as a place ruled by Satan, where sinners suffered for eternity. Elizabeth raised her hand.
"Do I have to believe in Hell?" she asked Sister Helen Vincent.
"Yes, you do," replied the nun.
Betty considered this, then asked, "Well, sister, do I have to believe that there are people in hell?"
Sister Helen Vincent answered wisely, "No, Elizabeth, you do not have to believe there is anyone there."
"Then I believe in Hell—but that it's empty," replied the child.
After grade school, the plan was for Elizabeth to attend the Ursuline School, a high school in nearby New Rochelle, where Ursuline nuns served as the faculty. But she was concerned. "Friends of mine had gone there and what I heard about it made me really not want to go," she recalls.
During the summer before tenth grade, she told her father she didn't want to attend Ursuline. He asked, "Well, where would you like to go?" She had heard good things about another school, Maplehurst, which had higher academic standards. It was an all-girl, five-day boarding school. The teachers belonged to the Society of the Sacred Heart, and the students were from not just Westchester County but also New Jersey and Connecticut. "What about Maplehurst?" she asked. The Society of the Sacred Heart was a distinguished congregation of teaching nuns. It was perhaps the Society's academic and intellectual rigor as well as the quality of religious instruction that persuaded Elizabeth's father that she and Maplehurst were a good fit.
And so, on a summery day, Elizabeth and her father went to the Maplehurst campus at 181st Street and University Avenue in the Bronx. The visit convinced Elizabeth that it was the right school for her. It would mean a major change in her life, since Maplehurst required five-day boarding; she would be home only on weekends. But this rule only added to the sense of adventure, and now she was sure she wanted to go.
In the fall of 1936, Elizabeth entered the tenth grade at Maplehurst. It turned out to be an awkward and disappointing transition for her. The great majority of the girls had started at Maplehurst in the ninth grade, when they established friendships. Elizabeth was an outsider, a newcomer, and teenage girls with their cliques are not always famously kind to outsiders and newcomers.
Elizabeth had never been as lonely as she was at Maplehurst. During the weekends, she told her parents she hated the school and wanted out. Her parents' reply was always the same: This was your choice, and you are going back. So back she went each Monday morning. And then as the season changed and the holidays came, Elizabeth had gotten to know some of the girls, and even made friends. Suddenly she was content in her new school.
She loved the Sacred Heart nuns who taught her. They were all college graduates, unlike nuns in some other religious orders. Many were women with powerful intellects who took great joy in discovery and learning—and the greatest joy in sharing their knowledge with students. Elizabeth studied ancient then medieval history and literature. She was happy to take on the most challenging material, and it soon became evident that she was an exceptional intellect. She had a joyful, inquisitive learning style and became a favorite with the faculty. A voracious reader, she developed a passion for the Romantic poets, Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge.
While she took the work quite seriously, Elizabeth had a sense of playfulness. She lived in a small dorm room right next to the door leading into the convent where the nuns lived. Just beyond her room, at the convent entrance, was a sign: "If you need a mistress during the night, ring this bell." She thought this was hilarious. "I was sixteen and these were cloistered nuns, and they didn't know how funny that sign was." She shared the joke with her parents, who had a good laugh too.
Her brother, George, recalls that during the summer after her junior year at Maplehurst, Elizabeth was tutored in math at Lake Placid by a teacher named Herbert Howard. The McCormack home in Lake Placid was near a boarding school, and some of the faculty lived there, including Mr. Howard. Elizabeth developed a mad crush on him. "Mr. Howard was a very good-looking guy," recalls George, "and she was nuts about him."
The tutoring was needed because Elizabeth had failed an exam in intermediate algebra. The unfortunate irony was that, near the end of the school year, the faculty had already nominated Elizabeth for a prize as best student in algebra. "I blanked on the test and failed," she says, "and my parents made me have tutoring and I retook the test in the fall, aced it, but it was too late to win a prize!"
Elizabeth's mother, Natalie, had graduated from high school, and taught for a while. But then Natalie's mother, who was still in her forties, suffered a debilitating stroke. Natalie quit working and devoted herself to her mother's care. She had all but decided that, because of her mother, she would never marry.
"When my father wanted to marry my mother, she said she couldn't because she could not leave her mother," says Elizabeth. "My father said, 'You don't have to. They will come and live with us.'"
So George and Natalie were married and moved into a large house at 10 Center Avenue in Larchmont. And Natalie's parents came with them. The home had four bedrooms on the second floor and an additional bedroom and bath in the attic.
George McCormack was president of the architectural firm of Halsey, McCormack and Helmer, which specialized in designing banks. Their most famous building is a great landmark in Brooklyn, the second tallest edifice in that borough, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which opened in 1927, next to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The business was quite successful and enabled the McCormacks to enjoy an affluent lifestyle. On some Sundays after Mass, Elizabeth's father would play golf at the prestigious Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York. The McCormacks' cook lived in the attic bedroom. One cook was with the family for some time until one of the McCormacks saw her making the Heil Hitler salute. They dismissed her.
When Elizabeth was a very young girl, her mother would read stories to her. But sometimes she stopped in mid-story to go off to prepare dinner or perform another household chore. Frustrated, Elizabeth felt she had to learn to read so she wouldn't have to depend on her mother to learn how a story ended.
Elizabeth's grandmother could do little on her own. Over time, glaucoma deprived her grandfather of his vision. As a girl, Elizabeth would read the New York Herald Tribune to him each day. She would begin by reading headlines, and he would select which stories and editorials he wanted to hear. "I became a Democrat at age seven or eight from reading the Herald Tribune," she says. When Elizabeth was in the seventh grade, her maternal grandmother died, and a few years later, her maternal grandfather died.
Elizabeth's paternal grandmother also lived in Larchmont. Each day her son would walk to the Larchmont train station for the commute to the Manhattan offices of Halsey, McCormack and Helmer. Each evening, on his way home, he would stop at her house for a visit.
After the death of her parents, Natalie suggested to her husband that his mother should come live with them. She thought this would make life easier for all concerned. When Grandmother McCormack moved in, however, quite the opposite happened. Elizabeth's maternal grandparents were sweet and kind, but Grandmother McCormack was demanding and difficult. "She thought she could run the house," says Elizabeth.
Before Grandmother McCormack moved in, Elizabeth and her brother had alternated weeks where they would have Sunday lunch at her apartment. Elizabeth remembers her grandmother listening to Father Charles Coughlin on the radio. The nature of his ugly message, which included a virulent anti-Semitism, escaped her at that time, but Elizabeth's grandmother liked what he had to say. Later, Elizabeth realized the nature of his hate-filled message.
Her grandmother McCormack was accustomed to running her own household and tried to dominate the family in every way. Elizabeth, now in her teens, would say to her mother, "The only one who can stop Grandma McCormack is Dad. You have got to tell him what is going on here." Her mother answered, "He deals with his business. This is my responsibility. I am not telling him."
In 1940, Elizabeth began to think about college. She was among Maplehurst's brightest students, and she knew she could get into just about any college. She knew about Wellesley, Smith, and Mount Holyoke, but Radcliffe appealed the most to her. Because it was connected to Harvard, Radcliffe was not an all-female environment.
And so at the dinner table one evening, Elizabeth raised the possibility of Radcliffe. Her father, quite calmly, said he found that very interesting. "Who do you think is going to pay the tuition?" he asked. And, with that, the discussion was over. Elizabeth would go to a Catholic college, and the most logical choice was Manhattanville, which was the first choice of many intelligent, affluent Catholic girls in greater New York.
"It was thought to be the strongest of the Catholic colleges for women," recalls Elizabeth. "That and Trinity College in Washington were considered the best. Manhattanville had also been founded by the same nuns—the Religious of the Sacred Heart—who ran Maplehurst."
Her father, George McCormack, had not attended college and, in fact, never finished high school. His father and brother had died when he was a teenager, so he left school to go to work to support his mother. Through the years, George educated himself, becoming, like his daughter, an insatiable reader. But the fact that he had not gone to college always bothered him.
In 1940, during Elizabeth's senior year at Maplehurst, she and her father visited Manhattanville, which was at that time in upper Manhattan, and met with the president of the college, Mother Grace Dammann. When father and daughter entered her office, Elizabeth noticed a picture on the wall of Jacques Maritain, the Catholic philosopher she knew from her studies.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Maritain was so highly regarded among Church leaders that he was asked by French bishops to write textbooks for Catholic colleges and seminaries. His work, Introduction to Philosophy, published in 1920, has been widely studied by countless Catholic students and seminarians through the years. This passage from the book is quintessential Maritain, bridging philosophy and religion:
Finally, I would say that, if the philosophy of Aristotle, as revived and enriched by St. Thomas and his school, may rightly be called the Christian philosophy, both because the church is never weary of putting it forward as the only true philosophy and because it harmonizes perfectly with the truths of faith, nevertheless it is proposed here for the reader's acceptance not because it is Christian, but because it is demonstrably true. This agreement between a philosophic system founded by a pagan and the dogmas of revelation is no doubt an external sign, an extra-philosophic guarantee of its truth; but it is not from its agreement with Faith, but from its own rational evidence, that it derives its authority as a philosophy.
Elizabeth mentioned to Mother Dammann that she had studied Maritain, and the nun was clearly pleased to hear this. Mother Dammann was a fan of Maritain's, too, and said she had attended some of his lectures.
The interview went well, and father and daughter left the building, but outside, George McCormack seemed agitated. Inside their car, he said, "I'm hearing you talk about Jacques Maritain-this and Jacques Maritain-that. Who the hell is Jacques Maritain?"
Elizabeth says, "If it had been Plato or Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas, he would have known of course. He thought he had failed some kind of test. He felt he should have known this guy." She did not want to hurt his feelings, so she replied that Maritain was "an unimportant Catholic philosopher from France."
What neither Mother Dammann nor Elizabeth nor George McCormack could have known at the time was that Maritain would soon move to New York and work throughout the war for the rescue and safe passage of Jewish intellectuals to the United States. After the war, he persuaded senior Church officials, including the pope, to speak out on the issues of anti-Semitism and the Nazi Holocaust.


On Sale
Apr 3, 2012
Page Count
272 pages

Charles C. Kenney

About the Author

Charles Kenney is the author of many books including The Best Practice: How the New Quality Movement Is Transforming Medicine.

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