Whether she’s tackling the complexities of science or style, the medical philanthropist, fashion icon and social mover Deeda Blair approaches all facets of life with quiet but unwavering discipline.
Most scientists are astonished by Deeda Blair’s style, and the style mavens are surprised by her scientific expertise. That is obvious to even the most casual observer of her life. If one penetrates those disparate worlds, however, one soon finds that neurobiologists credit her with helping them think through difficult questions, and that fashionistas must employ metaphors from 18th-century France to describe the impeccable way she dresses and entertains. The word “elegant” is in regular use in both fashion and science; it can describe a certain understated self-assurance manifest in a choice of shoes or an arrangement of furniture — and, equally, the underlying structures of the universe or the transcription of RNA. It perfectly describes Deeda. Her couture is severe and simple, the kind that only the knowing eye can identify as couture. Her trademark bouffant has not changed in 50 years, but it does not feel dated; it feels Deeda. Her apartment, all pale gray, is like being inside a pearl; it is a study in discipline. The work she does with scientists has a similar urgent deliberateness. Pretension lies in striving to be who you are not; Deeda, rather, tries to be even more of who she is. And who she is outstrips what she says or does; her gentle way of insisting on people’s best selves enables their accomplishments.
In researching my last book, Far From the Tree, I became close to Harry and Laura Slatkin, whose work on behalf of people with autism — co-founding a charter school, establishing the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain — has set a new standard for parent activism. When I asked Laura how she came to such a vision for medical crusading, she gave credit to Deeda Blair. Four years ago, the Slatkins invited my husband and me to dinner with their muse. Deeda mixes austerity with intimacy, and at that first dinner, I found her both aloof and engaging; she seemed to offer only an impression of herself, but to see the rest of us more boldly than we’d intended. Several accomplished scientists were in the klatch that evening, and Deeda asked questions with her characteristic quiet intensity, as though she were conducting discreet but critical interviews on behalf of the Nobel committee. Her style is at once embracing and exclusive, as though it excluded most of the world but not you, whoever you might be on this particular evening.
Deeda was hardly brought up to be an activist. She grew up in Chicago, went to the Academy of the Sacred Heart for Girls to be educated and made her debut in 1949. She attended a two-year junior college, and lived a vigorously social life, traveling widely. Soon after her disastrous first marriage ended, she met her true love, William McCormick Blair Jr., at Eunice and Sargent Shriver’s house. Bill was a partner at a law firm with Adlai Stevenson at the time, and was a Kennedy intimate; Eunice was the chaperone through their courtship. Shortly after Bill was appointed Kennedy’s ambassador to Denmark, Deeda married him at Frederiksborg Castle. Bill was later Johnson’s ambassador to the Philippines. Deeda brought tremendous style to her ambassadorial posts; WWD called her “a peacock among the wrens.”
In the meanwhile, Bill had introduced her to the medical philanthropist Mary Lasker, who helped build up the National Institutes of Health and led the War on Cancer. Deeda told me that at Sacred Heart, she had worn “the world’s ugliest uniform” and had not been allowed to study biology, and she reacted against the first problem with couture and against the second with Mary Lasker. She and Lasker were soon the best of friends, summering together in the South of France at Villa Fiorentina. Lasker had a gift for leading people with power to those who could conceptualize medical quandaries; she would have Greta Garbo and Princess Grace to dinner with Michael DeBakey (the distinguished heart surgeon) or James Watson (the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA). Lasker saw that Deeda could carry that tradition forward. In 1965, Deeda became vice president of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation.
Lasker was on the National Cancer Advisory Board, so Deeda focused initially on cancer research. She met the scientists, asked them questions, read their papers. When she visited New York, she would stay with Lasker, who would introduce her to more physicians. “Mary asked a great friend, David Karnofsky, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, to take me on,” Deeda recalled. “And that was the most extraordinary learning experience — whether it was rounds, whether it was lectures, whether he was showing me how to dissect chicken embryos and look for liver damage. He made me feel that there was a role for a layperson.” Soon enough, Deeda was on the Breast Cancer Task Force treatment committee, where she was the only woman. She also served for 12 years on the board of the American Cancer Society, where she was on the research committee. She began going to jury meetings for the Lasker Awards, the most prestigious medical prize in the United States. She was a voracious learner.
Soon oncologists were talking about the sudden uptick in a previously exotic cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma, occurring mostly among gay men. Deeda was there for the initial meetings on the subject, which led her to be in the front lines of emerging AIDS research.
She joined the visiting committee at the Harvard School of Public Health and worked with the H.I.V. team there, which was led by Max Essex. “AIDS was the first time I ever really asked anyone for money,” Deeda said. “We needed to know how it was transmitted, and Max wanted to study that. And I asked Mary Lasker for $50,000. A couple of years later, I identified another foundation, asked them for lunch and behaved like the most appalling female. ‘You have been so generous, you’ve done this, you’ve done that. And I hate to ask you for one more thing.’ And I really did. I was so embarrassed that tears were going down my cheeks. I said, ‘We’ve got to have a laser cell sorter.’ And then I rattled off what a laser cell sorter was. And they said, ‘Deeda, stop. We will do everything in our power to get you your laser cell sorter.’ And they did it.”
Deeda soon established a trademark style. Who else would introduce Nobel laureates to Hubert de Givenchy? Who else would come home from the Paris couture shows with $267,000 for an automatic sequencer to identify African variants of H.I.V.? Daniel Romualdez, her Yale-educated architect and interior designer, said, “One cannot overestimate how much she has done for AIDS — she was among the first people of her stature deeply involved with fund-raising and working with researchers when people in society would not even mention the illness.” Essex once wrote that Deeda always had “an understanding of the whole interlocking process of getting things done … and sees one thing always — hope.”
Dr. Michael Gottesman at the N.I.H. once said, “Deeda Blair has incredible taste.” But he was not speaking of her stylish entertaining: he meant her “incredible taste in identifying creative science.” Maria Freire, who worked at the N.I.H. and now serves as president of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, wrote to me that long before she met Deeda, she felt the buzz on the N.I.H. campus every time Deeda arrived. “She was (and is) beautiful, elegant and a bit mysterious. Why was she there? Who was she visiting? What was she doing?” The two ultimately forged a friendship based on Deeda’s “meticulously high standards and unwavering work ethic.” Deeda has since served on the boards of the Harvard AIDS Institute, the Scripps Research Institute and numerous other research organizations. When I asked her how she seduced so many people into supporting the causes she cares about, she told me her secret: “enthusiasm.”
She has been married to Bill for 51 years. He had connections in the movie industry, and during his ambassadorships managed to get her, every year for her birthday, the latest James Bond movie — even in the Philippines. “I have the world’s most heavenly husband,” she said. “He just got me; he just got it. And always gave me tremendous independence to pursue my interests. Independence with applause.”
With that independence, Deeda began translating all the knowledge she had gleaned during her nonprofit years into a career by the early 1980s. She would set up researchers who were inventing new compounds with venture capitalists. In 1987, she became a consultant to Sandoz pharmaceuticals. Dr. Gregory Curt has said, “Biologically I think of her as an enzyme, a protein that causes reactions that would not happen without it.” She began grappling with new subjects, ever more difficult ones. Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said, “Deeda is part matchmaker, part rainmaker and part idea factory; she follows science the way others follow emerging styles or emerging leaders in art or music.”
In 1999, the writer Marie Brenner learned that her brother, an apple orchardist, had developed nonsmoker’s lung cancer. A friend suggested she call Deeda to ask for advice, explaining that Deeda was “an expert on clinical trials — and helps friends privately.” Their first conversation ran for hours. “Her voice was debutante silver, but what was behind it!” Brenner recalled. “A rush of names, hospitals, small cell, large cell, adenocarcinoma terms — who was doing what in research, what could be done. What stays with me is her last line: ‘I am overjoyed to help you but there is one rule. I cannot and will not be your psychiatrist — or your brother’s.’ What she meant was tremendously useful — no wasting time in whining, self-pity or anything that would not move the ball forward.” Over the next three years, Deeda worked to get Brenner’s brother help, but his condition proved intractable. “Deeda would often pick up the phone and talk to him about what was then his obsession: perfecting and growing Honeycrisp apples in the stony soil of Washington State. She kept him focused on what he loved — his work. It was the best therapy in the world. So, in the end, she was, in her own Deeda way, the ultimate therapist.”
In 2004, Deeda and Bill lost their only child, who was bipolar, to suicide. “The manic periods were so difficult for everyone, and for him, I think, also,” she said. “And the depressed periods he concealed. He would come over and curl up on the sofa in the downstairs rooms and just sleep. He was very unreachable. And you felt so frustrated, but you didn’t know how to do anything.” Later she added, “The thing that haunts you forever is that you can’t understand what is going on in the mind of someone you care about. That phrase, ‘the impenetrable internal world.’ You live with the thought he did not feel his life was valuable. You feel guilt that he felt a lack of alignment with what he perceived as our hopes and expectations. We all experience moments of feeling overwhelmed but to now look back and know that he felt that way almost constantly. One will always wonder if something could have been done differently. He hated being sick, loathed intrusive questioning and medications.”
After his death, she became increasingly interested in the brain. “Going back to work was very important,” she said at the time. “I went to a meeting at the National Institutes of Health and saw that I could stay all day and function. It’s a terrific distraction.”
She and Bill relocated to New York following the death of their son. She did up an apartment at River House, all in grisaille. Romualdez helped “solve every architectural problem at the house — even boring things like the kitchen.” Deeda’s clothes are often architectural in their cut, but her apartment has the luxurious drape of fashion, a Balenciaga extravagance. Her monochrome palette underscores the luxury without conjuring opulence. Harold Koda, head of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, called her “a science nerd packaged as a fashion icon,” and explained to me, “what I love about being seated next to her at a dinner is the conspiratorial breathiness of her conversation. You have to lean in to hear her describe the black steel sparkle of a Tula table she coveted in Pavlovsk, or some evolving protocol in oncology, or her preference for the spare draping of 18th-century curtains, or the diagnostic tools for P.T.S.D., or the achromatic palette embraced by Liane de Pougy, the courtesan, when she became famously religious upon her retirement. Some of Deeda’s signature pieces might at first be mistaken for clerical garb, but then an open seam reveals a flash of chiffon-veiled skin, or a silk tulle petticoat reveals a surface animated by ostrich filaments or gilt metal sequins. She would be accused of being a sybarite if it weren’t for the conceptual rigor she applies to her aesthetics.” Deeda describes her own mind as “zigzag”; she can dart from one topic to another as if conversation were a bravado act on a high wire. It’s thrilling to follow her free associations from topic to topic. Brenner said: “The art form is leaving us as these swans vanish from our lives.”
Deeda is also a co-founder of the Alexandria Summit — a series of conferences at which leading researchers in, for example, neuroscience or oncology, gather to exchange ideas. I’ve both attended and participated in these summits, and they are the best science going. In preparation, Deeda and her colleagues ask the participants what they consider the most important issues and challenges, and so build structure and an emphasis on innovation into the meetings before they even begin. Deeda helps curate the gatherings, which include a mix of academic and clinical research scientists; pharmaceutical and biotech companies; representatives from the government and advocacy groups; as well as venture capital firms and nonprofit foundations.
In her vision statement for one of the summits two years ago, Deeda wrote, “How do we do science better? The past decades have witnessed unimaginable achievements in science… Unprecedented collaborations for cancer drug development must now be created, leading the way to rationally designed combination therapies targeted to molecular pathways to accelerate predictive, individualized treatment. Going forward, doors need to be opened widely and risks taken.” Her seriousness can be almost unsettling; it seems to come from a strict moral center. But if she holds others to high standards, she always meets them herself.
Deeda’s trademark irony is that she is a cancer expert who never stops smoking. There are few images of Deeda that don’t show a sinuous line of smoke trailing up from her lips and blending in with the calligraphy of her gray-streaked hair. “I began smoking when I was 14, for defiance and rebellion. And I really enjoy it. As I’m advancing on antiquity, I’m part of a spiral CT study, and they give you this form, ‘Are you going to consider giving it up?’ ‘Would you like us to prescribe a patch?’ I always seem to shock them when I say, ‘Well, maybe next time.’ “
It is only when you have come to know Deeda rather well that you can see that her fashion and science are not in opposition, that her glamorous side and her rigorous side fit together neatly. She doesn’t buy all new clothes every season; she intuits what clothes will look good for decades, buys sparingly and wears them accordingly. In her apartment, she pairs a delicious sofa designed for her by Billy Baldwin with Louis XVI chairs and a Jansen table. That confident restraint is echoed in her refusal to believe that new discoveries in science necessarily outclass old ones. “Real elegance is having convictions,” Deeda said to me. She has them in all areas of her life. She always has the details on couture pieces redone to suit her — sometimes multiple times over an ensemble’s lifetime. And she is always questioning the scientists whose work she supports. She customizes the world.
She once told me that she studies as if she were going to live forever and lives as if she were going to die tomorrow. She quests after abstruse knowledge she is not yet qualified to absorb, then ratchets up her qualifications with the energy and chic of the present moment. “What I’ve liked a lot about my life is being catalytic, putting people together that will work well. It sounds sort of bossy, but it just sometimes clicks. Will I leave a scratch on a rock? No. There are so many people who do magnificent, significant things, and I don’t. But what difference does it make whether you’re remembered 50 years from now? It’s this life that you’re leading. My internist said, ‘Deeda, you’ve got to cut down. Why do you work so hard?’ I don’t like to answer ‘why’ questions. Maybe what, but not why. But I mumbled, ‘Well, I’d sort of like to achieve something.’”