Pages from Michael Butler's Journal
HOW AND WHY I GOT INTO HAIR
It all started in Greta Garbo's kitchen...
No, it was not because of interest in the theatre. It was politics. How I finally arrived at that important moment in my life needs some explanation. So, fasten your seat belts and trip with me.
I used to spend hours in Greta Garbo's kitchen, overlooking the East River in New York City. This was in the early fifties. My constant companion and mentor was Edmund Goulding, the great film Director of such classics as GRAND HOTEL and THE RAZOR'S EDGE. I met Edmund through my Godfather, Tyrone Power. Ty had been the star of THE RAZOR'S EDGE, arguably the best film he ever made (I would add NIGHTMARE ALLEY to that list). Greta Garbo was the star in GRAND HOTEL. Edmund would talk on a vast range of topics. I listened, soaking in the tales of this wonderful man. He looked like a large Picasso who had been a prize fighter -- it was an incongruous combination. He regaled me with stories of his two great buddies: Joseph Kennedy, the former Ambassador to Great Britain, and Serge Semenenko, the Boston banker to the Hearsts, the Kennedys and the Warners. I went with Edmund, to stay with his friends at Hyannsiport. I got along well with these men and partied with them. They liked me, so I was invited back. I began to realize that my job was to scout out the young "birds" for the three -- a lot of fun and I got a kick out of it.
Through these friends, I met the Ambassador's son, Jack. That meeting changed my life. I really fell for Jack. He was charm personified and a kindred spirit. We became fast friends. I continued to enjoy Joe, Serge, and Edmund, but a binding relationship emerged with Jack. We sailed together a lot. Later, when I had the Coradina, a large gaff-rigged schooner, we did some serious sailing. We journeyed together in the Mediterranean when he was on crutches from his back operation. On one occasion, we were fogged in for a couple of days at Newport. There, we acquired a bit of our rumored reputation for carousing. I always felt that Jackie did not approve of me -- she felt that I was leading Jack astray. Years later, we renewed our acquaintance. By then, I think she had realized that I was the acolyte, not the master.
Then I did some very serious political work for Jack while he was Senator. He needed accurate information out of the Middle East, and I was working there a lot during the late fifties. Jack wanted insights into areas into which a commercial traveler had easier access than a formal ambassador or liaison. I would be briefed in Washington, or sometimes New York City, and de-briefed upon my return. I also performed services for him in India, a country in which he had great interest. This work caused me to have increasing respect for the scope of his mind and intelligence. He became a hero to me. Naturally, when he decided to run for President, I got deeply involved, supplying money and many aircraft to the campaign (at the time, my family owned Butler Aviation).
When Jack was elected President, he asked me if I wanted to serve officially in the Middle East, Mexico (another love of mine), or India. I told Jack that I wanted to run the Bureau of Indian Affairs instead. Jack responded, "I can't believe you want to get in that snake pit." I confided to him that I wanted to disband the BIA and give the funding directly to the Indians. (You may know that the BIA spends more money on its bureaucracy than on its wards.) My grandfather is responsible for my concern about Indians. Our family ranches -- 7-11, B-K, and Rising Sun -- were in the Black Hills and the Bighorn area of Montana. I was raised on horror stories of what the palefaces had done to the redskins. But then my Father said that he needed me at home. He was embroiled in the beginning of a major family war. He proposed a bargain: if I would stay home and work with him during Jack's first term, he would pay my salary so that I could work for nothing during his second term. Naturally, I did what Father asked. But Jack did not have a second term.
Like countless others, when Jack was assassinated, I dropped out of politics. Our dream of hope was gone. I will never forget -- again like countless others -- where and when I heard the news. I was walking across the lobby of the Drake Oak Brook Hotel, on my way to a Utility Company Board meeting. One of the servants ran up to me and said, "Mr. Michael -- the President has been shot!" He was in tears. In short order, so was everyone else.
Politics died for me that day. I abandoned any notion of being involved with a system which would murder our hero. But there was plenty to do at Oak Brook, so I dug in there. One day, the phone rang. It was Bobby Kennedy. Bobby and I were never as close as I was with Jack. Bobby was a tough customer. One time we were skiing at Sugarbush and I overheard him asking, "What's Michael done for us?" Then I made absolutely certain that he knew. Thus, we achieved a grudging respect for one another. I wound up liking him, mostly for his unswerving loyalty to Jack. Anyway, it was Bobby on the phone. Without any mention of our common loss, he jumped right into it: "We are in trouble in Illinois. Otto Kerner (the Governor) is being challenged by Chuck Percy (the brilliant CEO of Bell & Howell). The odds are 8 to 1 that Kerner will lose. I need your help. Call Bailey Howard (CEO of Field Enterprises) -- he will fill you in on the details." No questions nor solicitations --just my orders. Here you have it: Bobby was a good judge of people and situations. He instinctively knew that I would help him -- if not for his own sake, then for his brothers memory. He was right.
I called Bailey,and went to see him the next day. They had it all planned out. I became Chairman of the Organization of Economic Development of Illinois (OED). I had a board of nabobs, tycoons, and mercantile princes -- quite an impressive group of power brokers. Our mission was to stimulate and bring to public awareness the foreign trade of Illinois. Ultimately, we were very successful. We received the "E" award from the U.S. Department of Commerce for being the top exporting state in the union. I was next made President of the Illinois Sports Council, a patently political event targeting every organized sport in the state. Rapidly I became directly involved in the campaign for Kerner's re-election. When his campaign manager was indicted by the Republican grand jury for fraud via a conflict of interest, I assumed major responsibilities.
Otto Kerner was re-elected Governor of Illinois. I cleaned up on bets and found a new political hero. Otto was one of the nicest, straightest humans I have ever met. To this day, I revere his memory. I was lucky to know such a man. We started the Lincoln Academy of Illinois, a body which continues to thrive. During the campaign, Robert Clarke and I put together a well-researched proposal for the formation of a body modeled on The French Academy and The Noble Institute. The mission of the Lincoln Academy was for the government to show an official honor and decoration for Laureates in many disciplines. Otto said, "This idea is too good to be used as a political device. We will put it in when I am elected." Right after the election, he ordered me to form a committee to put the Academy together. I worked with Edward Doyle, Ralph Newman, Elizabeth "Pussy" Paepke, Norman Ross, and Mary Sethness to give birth to the idea. Otto Kerner then asked me to serve as Commissioner of the Port of Chicago (the largest inland seaport in the world).
By this time, my life became utterly devoted to civic work. All my other work suffered. Finally Otto wrote: "To the Honorable Michael Butler -- I can't thank you enough and can only recognize your efforts by calling you Honorable." This is the nicest thing that ever happened in my political life.
Then I decided to run for public office myself -- State Senator, as a Democrat in DuPage County. DuPage County, a Republican stronghold, would not even elect a Democratic dog catcher. It was a joke -- the Republicans in those lily-white suburbs railed against the corrupt Democratic regime in Cook County, while having, by far, a more wicked and corrupt organization themselves. I lost the election (who's surprised?), but the campaign won all sorts of awards. I'm proudest that I racked up more votes than any Democrat in history, including Kennedy, Stevenson, or Douglas. Otto and Mayor Daley were very proud of my showing. They secured the services of Hal Evry, arguably the first and the best of the political PR campaign managers. Hal came to Illinois and did his investigations. The day before he was to report to the Governor and the Mayor, he came for breakfast at Natoma, my home in Oak Brook. Hal said, "Michael, I am going to tell them that you can beat Dirksen (the incumbent US Senator), but beforehand I must ask you why you would want to sacrifice your wonderful lifestyle for the political scene?" Undaunted, I told him that I was determined to run.
During that spring and summer (1967), I started preparations for the campaign. I was living at Natoma and putting together position papers-- particularly in support of the Vietnam war for the containment of the march of Communism, which was the classic military-industrial position of the day. I might add that it was viewpoint in keeping with the beliefs of my Father and my mentor, Governor Kerner. At Natoma, I had two gardens -- an upper and lower. During the summer, it had been my habit to hire extra help for the gardens. I usually found the help at a local college known for its pacifist leanings. This year, they sent over a young student, a tall, handsome lad who labored away, mostly in the lower garden. One day, I discovered that he was growing marijuana. Naturally, I sampled his horticulture (and I did inhale). As all the cognoscente know, grass is not a violent "killer weed" -- it is a social stimulator of discourse. If it's over-used, the reverse usually happens -- it puts one in a mellow, laid-back state of euphoria. We had many discussion over the summer. I learned firsthand what it was like to face the possibility of my new friend being drafted and sent to fight a war, to quote HAIR, "a war where the white people send the black people to fight the yellow people to defend the land they stole from the red people". My political beliefs were rapidly eroding. I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the popular "hawk" stand I had been taught as an axiom.
At the time, Otto Kerner was heading a Commission about Civil Disorders -- really a commission designed to explore violations of civil rights. He was working with John Lindsay, the mayor of New York. Otto took me with him to Washington and then New York. Sitting in one of my haunts, the Racquet and Tennis Club on Park Avenue, I idly picked up the New York Times. In the theatre section there was an ad for a show I'd never heard of: "HAIR" (The American Tribal Love Rock Musical) that included a famous photo of five Indian Chiefs I had known all my life. I thought, "My God -- the Indians have got a show together!" , of course, I bought tickets to the first preview. With my great friends, Nancy Friday and Olivier Coquelin, I went to see the play about the Indians. Did I get a surprise! What I saw was the strongest anti-war statement ever written. I realized at that moment that this show could express, to my constituents in Illinois, my new-found attitude about the war in Vietnam. I asked my close friend and associate, Roger Stevens, then head of the Kennedy Center, to arrange an introduction to Joseph Papp, impresario of the Shakespeare Festival, who produced HAIR. When I met Joe, I asked him if they would consider bringing the show to Illinois. He replied, "No -- we present something for a few weeks, then close it and go on to another."
Disappointed, I returned to Oak Brook. When I returned home, I found a message from Dr. John Bishop, who was in Springfield taking care of Helena Kerner. Dr. Bishop said, "I was in the car with Otto and Dick Daley and Daley said, 'Young Butler can win, but he must cut his hair'." And the very next day Joe Papp phoned from New York. "We have been reviewed -- and they are very good. Would you like to do a co-production with us in New York City?" I never looked back, and what followed is another story.
On to "Freedom in Peril"
Return to "Qualities For Producing"
Return to the Index