A Williams Life:
Denise Littlefield Sobel
Host: Gordon Earle ('75)
Producer: Jon Earle ('09)
Web production: Kathy Bogan ('75)
With additional support from Joe Bonn and Martha Coakley (co-presidents of the Class of '75), and Mark Robertson ('02) and Ryan Ford ('09) from the Williams Alumni Office.
On this episode of A Williams Life, Denise Littlefield Sobel takes us on a highly personal journey through her varied and interesting life. It starts with her decision to attend Williams and her experience as a member of the first class of women to enroll at Williams for a full four-year term. Denise talks candidly about mental health struggles that she encountered, including serious bouts of depression, toward the end of her years at the college. Continuing in this personal vein, Denise discusses her conversion to Judaism against the strong wishes of a parent, and how she has come to practice acceptance as a parent herself. Another intensely personal portion of the interview focuses on the loss of Denise’s son, Elliot, who died at a tragically early age. Denise closes the episode with a discussion of her many years of philanthropy—focusing on arts and culture—and her recent appointment as Chair of the Clark Art Institute’s Board of Trustees, the first woman to hold the position.
Click on one of the links below to listen to the podcast, or jump to the transcript below the photos.
[00:00:00] GORDON EARLE: I am Gordon Earle and I want to welcome everyone to this latest episode of “A Williams Life.” Today we'll be talking to Denise Littlefield Sobel, who is a member of the class of ‘75, was in the first class of women to graduate after spending four years of Williams. I'll be talking to Denise about what it was like to be a woman in that inaugural class, as well as a long career as a major philanthropist with a focus on arts and culture. But first I want to talk about Williams, in particularly your decision to attend Williams when you were in the first class of women that were going go all the way through and graduate. So, what prompted your decision to choose Williams based on that?
[00:00:45] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: I grew up near San Francisco, and my thought was that I would go to a medium or small college in the Northeast someplace and that was academically rigorous. So, I, we visited around Thanksgiving of my senior year of 1970. My mother and I planned a road trip to visit different schools. We visited Yale and Princeton, which had also recently gone co-ed a couple of years before.
And my mother had overheard at a dinner party, just before this road trip in November, that Williams College was going co-ed the next year and they were accepting women as freshmen. So, my mother came home and said, we should add this to your trip. I asked my high school counselor about that, because I had never heard of Williams.
I had never heard of Amherst or Wesleyan either, and they have a ski team. So, since I was an avid skier, not racer, but a good skier. Um, I said, well, what do I have to lose? It was on our way from Smith to the Albany Airport, and I also had gone to girls’ schools, so I was pretty sure I wanted a co-ed school.
I grew up with two older brothers who were four and five years ahead of me in school, and I'm the youngest and there was a certain amount of roughhousing and teasing and, I guess, typical bullying that older siblings do when their parents are not around. And I was a bit of a tomboy. I loved athletics.
I loved climbing trees and fiddling with models, and I really loved going to the library and I, some of the other girl things, I liked hopscotch, but there were other things like playing with dolls that I kind of didn't relate to. And I saw Williams and it was not a very good. weather day. There were no leaves on the trees, sort of muddy walkways in front of Chapin Hall, but I just said, this is it.
[00:02:57] GORDON EARLE: Did you feel as part of that first class in any sense of pioneer in being a woman student there? Or did you just feel like another student?
[00:03:07] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: I can't speak for others, but personally there were, there were definitely moments that I felt like a pioneer, some of my classmates and some upperclassmen weren't used to having girls around in school.
Perhaps they'd gone to an all-boys prep school and they were sometimes not used to my or somebody else in the class who was a woman raising her hand and saying, I have the answer and I'm confident about it. And your answer? I don't know if it's right. I think I, I think, let me tell you why I think I have a different take on that.
And when I graduated from high school in 1971, many girls who were in co-ed schools felt it was not a good strategy to show how smart you were if you wanted to get a date. So, I think that was a bit of a surprise.
And some of the upperclassmen, I felt would say things that were vulgar or try to gross me out, and I would look at them and roll my eyes and say, “Guys, I grew up with two older brothers. I have seen it all.”
And I found one icebreaker was to say, you know, I'm from California and I root for the San Francisco Giants baseball team. And, here, I hear some people are really Yankees fans and other people are Red Sox fans. What do you guys think? Well, all of a sudden, people were very open and eager to talk.
So, I thought that sports was a good icebreaker.
[00:04:45] GORDON EARLE: Well, it sounds as though, at least among certain male members of the class that you weren't necessarily treated as an equal. Um, maybe they weren't used to them, but, but that, that's, that's true. Right?
[00:04:56] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: That's true. And then there are others who were thrilled, both on the faculty and, uh, and students who I felt treated me like anybody else. And others I felt were very gentlemanly and rushed to the door. They opened the door for me, and I remember one time, I don't remember who the student was. The next time I saw him and he was carrying his books, I ran ahead and opened the door for him, and I said, “I'm not carrying any books, it’s my turn.” Just to acknowledge how kind he was. But that didn't have to be one way.
[00:05:33] GORDON EARLE: Did the women in the class sometimes talk among themselves about the situation being in a newly co-ed institution and what it was like? Did you share stories among each other?
[00:05:45] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: I'm embarrassed to say I don't. I should remember, but one experience I had was helping to start the women's ski team, and it was a woman two years ahead of me, Nancy Storrs, who was very athletic and strong, and so she was a junior and she and I and two or three others went to the Director of Athletics. He was less than enthusiastic. This was just before Title IX and he said, “Well, if you girls want to start a club, I guess that would be okay. We just don't think you're serious and they're not enough of you.” The next year, our sophomore year, we did have a kind of ski club or ski team.
I had never raced. I didn't know anything about racing. I could ski through powder, having grown up in the Sierras, skiing in the Sierras. And I was a terrible racer. I was always last, if I didn't fall down, I was much too timid. But I know I was very important because I had a car. I had a Dodge Dart that we could all pile into, and I, my allowance was enough that I just said, well, I'll pay for the gas, and off we went.
[00:07:10] GORDON EARLE: Now you're at Williams and you're lifting weights and you're skiing, but you also have to, uh, delve into the academic side. And I know you chose design and architecture as a major, and I'm wondering why you did that.
[00:07:26] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: As a senior in high school. I took a course in art history and. I saw an image of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Western Pennsylvania, and I said, I think that's, that would appeal to me: to combine art with something that's practical and useful.
So that's why I wanted to major in art. And the path at that time was either art history or art design or studio art. And then within studio art you could choose a specialty of sculpture, painting, architecture, printmaking, and. I don't know if they had photography, but that's what I remember. So, I was with, by my senior year, we were in a, there were about 12 or 15 of us in the architecture senior course.
[00:08:24] GORDON EARLE: We've talked privately about some personal struggles that you had, and I wonder if you'd be willing to share some of that with us now.
[00:08:32] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Thank you. I realized partway during my junior year that I was depressed. I wasn't just overwhelmed with school or upset about personal relationships. And I started to see a therapist at Williams from time to time.
And then it came to sort of a head in February of my senior year. I think part of it was I was a bit shy and was not sure what I would do after I graduated where my, where how was I was going to fall into another group of similar friends in such an easy way. So, I was a bit afraid of graduating what that was going happen.
But I couldn't, I was, I was really sick, took some time off and. I changed dorms just to have a change of scenery and ended up at Tyler Annex, which was fun. Came back and lived in California in that summer and I had several friends from Williams writing me and make, keeping check, checking up on me. But by August or September, I couldn't work.
I didn't want to get out of bed. So I was hospitalized for months and had different treatments, and this was on and off for about two years.
[00:10:01] GORDON EARLE: And so you hadn't graduated?
[00:10:02] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: No, I graduated.
[00:10:03] GORDON EARLE: You graduated?
[00:10:04] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: I did graduate, by the skin of my teeth. Okay. And so this, when I was hospitalized in California, I saw people of all backgrounds, you know, struggle with different kinds of mental illness.
And after that time, and my family was very supportive, I started to think that I had to figure out things for myself, where I was going to get my strength from and what was my purpose, what I was going to do.
And I thought about, I was raised Episcopalian, but I found it wasn't particularly inspiring. I think the music is, pardon the Episcopalians in the audience, but I think the music's extremely predictable and dull. Mm-hmm. And, but I had gone to Catholic Services at, uh, boarding school, uh, in Monterey and I thought the music there was very pretty, and it was kind of exotic because everything was in Latin and it had lots of ritual and, but I didn't, I didn't want that.
So, I looked around at different services. I went to a Christian Science service and I went to a Unitarian service. I'd been to a Presbyterian service, but nothing really resonates. So, I sort of put that aside. And then when, um, Adam Sobel, class of ‘76, and I, um, reconnected and we started dating again.
He was able to come out to California on a business trip in the spring of 1979, and by that time I was living in an apartment.
[00:11:44] GORDON EARLE: You started dating in college?
[00:11:45] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Yeah, we started dating—end of my senior year, 1975. And then, um, I was sick and I, I broke off the relationship in later that year.
But then I guess other friends said, you know, Denise isn't dating anybody, and why don't you, you should, you guys should. Anyway, so we'd seen each other a couple of times and he came out in spring of ‘79 to the Bay Area and he said, you know, I, I think it would be fun for you to come out and stay with me and, and, you know, have a relationship and I'm going to be,you know, finishing business school soon. But I have to tell you that I made a promise to myself that I would, I want to marry somebody who's Jewish. And he said, I want you to really think about that before you even come back east. So, he left to go back to school, came back to New York. I was in San, in the Bay Area.
And I sort of, I sort of gulped and said, well, what in the world does this mean? So, I talked to friends who were Jewish. I had a close friend through high school and grade school who was Jewish, and I really liked her family and. I looked into it and read some, a few books, on it and I said, you know, I think I'm really open to this.
This is a sort of religion that I think is right for me, and it involves a lot of more, more curiosity and. Intellectual involvement and interpretation of the Bible by oneself than what I had been exposed to growing up. And I loved the, and I still do love Adam's family. So, then we, I came to New York and we, we moved in and lived together and then we attended services at synagogue. And I said, I think this is really right for me.
But when I went home in, um, February of 1980, and announced to my parents that I was getting married to somebody that my father had never met, and my mother had only met once, that I was going to stay, live in New York, and that I was going to convert to Judaism; it was not well received. My father was actually very supportive and he could understand where I was coming from, but my mother was extremely hurt and. It's, it's hard when you disappoint your parents. I wasn't angry at her. I was not trying to get back at her, but that, that was very difficult. Uh, she, for whatever reason, she had her prejudices and you with your kids, I think you want to see them have more opportunities in life than you did.
And for her, my adopting Judaism was a big mistake. I don't see it that way, but that's the way she felt.
[00:14:45] GORDON EARLE: I read in an article that she was embarrassed, angry, and ashamed, um, of, of you in, in those circumstances. I can't imagine that was extremely painful.
[00:14:55] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Yes, it was. And I realized many years later that there were many people in my French family or other friends, that she'd never told them that I was Jewish.
She just, they knew I'd married somebody named Adam Sobel and they probably figured that he was Jewish, but that she was too embarrassed to say that. She very much liked, uh, my, when I had produced a granddaughter, because she didn't have any of those yet. She just had grandsons, and was very fond of my, her granddaughter.
But no, they, you know, my, it was. And I know this, it ties in a little bit my, when my daughter was 14 or 15 years old and came back from a synagogue youth retreat weekend, um, and announced she was in love with a girl. I was happy for her. It didn't strike me as, oh, this is a terrible choice for you. You shouldn't do this.
It's going to make your life trickier. And my daughter thinks that that premise that I have may come in part from knowing what it's like to have at least one parent not be able to support who you are.
[00:16:11] GORDON EARLE: Did your mother ever come to terms with your conversion?
[00:16:15] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: No. No. We just agreed not to talk about it. So, we had plenty of other things to talk about.
[00:16:24] GORDON EARLE: Did that create a schism that didn't ever really heal? Um, or were you able to maintain your relationship with your mother despite that?
[00:16:35] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: I was able to maintain a good relationship with her and spent a lot of time going back and forth when she started to, after my father died in 2001 for about a year, I was there almost every two or three weeks, back and forth and back and forth, helping her move, uh, and.
You know, sometimes I would talk with my brothers about the different things that our parents had done, for better or for worse when we were growing up. And I think many of us have done that. And so, it's, you know, I was very lucky to be able to have siblings to do that with. Um, but no, she was very humiliated.
Hmm. She never really forgave me on that, but she was proud of other things that I was doing, but she had a different, um, a different idea in mine for who was going to marry.
[00:17:23] GORDON EARLE: If I remember correctly, your father did convince your mother to attend your wedding?
[00:17:28] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Yes, a week before.
[00:17:33] GORDON EARLE: And how did that go?
[00:17:35] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: My mother cried through the whole service. It wasn't a very long service, just 15 minutes or so.
[00:17:40] GORDON EARLE: I'm just curious, what do you think the tears were? That she was sorry about what was happening or she was happy for you or some combination?
[00:17:47] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Oh, no, no. She wasn't happy for me at all. She was crying. She was upset and this was really happening and that it was, uh, a terrible idea that wasn't going to work out well.
[00:17:57] GORDON EARLE: Is the Jewish faith important to you today?
[00:17:59] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Oh, yes. Yeah, I am. In what, in what ways? Well, to be proud of you, who you are as an individual, and if you, if each of us is made in the image of the Almighty, which is sometimes hard to imagine, there are some people, I don't know what the Lord was thinking, and to be humble.
And to do good works to help out the community. And I like the music. I would often walk to the synagogue on the Upper West Side. When I lived up there, I lived on 70th and Columbus, and the synagogue was on 83rd and Central Park West. And I enjoyed going to services on Friday nights and enjoyed what my kids were learning in the Jewish nursery school there.
Yeah. So that, that I, you know, there have been different times in my life where I've been more involved in taking some classes. But yes, it's, it's, it's important. It's important for me.
[00:19:06] GORDON EARLE: I'm going to segue now, we'll return to some of your personal things in a second, but to close the loop here and get to your philanthropy, does any of your philanthropy help to address these kinds of issues?
Whether they're building bridges with people, getting people to be kinder, more sensitive? Do you see your philanthropy as playing any role in terms of making society a better place and maybe a less hateful place?
[00:19:32] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: I hope so. Some are specifically directed towards diversity in the arts because I feel that if there is a more diverse audience and a more diverse, different types of people and many, many ways of just thinking about diversity, that more a broader range of people will enjoy art and be inspired and or calmed and/or affected in a positive way, uh, about the art and learn about other people's interpretations of the world. But I do try to look for ways where people can be supported in their individual decisions, such as supporting Planned Parenthood, other organizations that protect women of color in the South who are gay.
[00:20:26] GORDON EARLE: So you have, you've established a foundation specifically around these issues.
[00:20:30] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Yes. The name of the foundation is Tikkun Olam Foundation, Inc. It was founded in the end of 2013. I chose the name and it means “repairing the world.” It's a very common phrase in Hebrew, and I felt this was a great way for my daughter to work with me to point out needs that she was more aware of as a younger person and, having worked as in nonprofits that help gay women around the world. So that's, that involves a lot of work, but it's extremely rewarding to be able to try to make a difference.
[00:21:15] GORDON EARLE: I was going to get earlier in this interview to your philanthropy, but your, personal, stories are very, very interesting, and you've talked about working with your daughter who is queer and the process you've talked about in the past, or written about, is the process of, um, accepting her identity. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that process of acceptance
[00:21:43] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: When, um, my daughter, uh, announced that she identified as gay as a, I think 15-year-old. I guess I suspected, but frankly I didn't really care. We, we live on the Upper West Side of New York, and our synagogue at that point had a gay, one of the rabbis was gay, and the sister of another rabbi was gay.
I didn't feel the threats that others might in their community, or pressure that this was something that had to be swept under the rug. So, I called her dad, Adam, and I said, well, this is what she says. And I think we sort of shrugged our shoulders and said, well, you know, she's young. This is how she identifies now.
Maybe it will change, maybe it won't. But we, we were just said, well, we love you the way you are, and we all want our children's lives to be easy and smooth. My daughter would have an easier life if she hadn't inherited being nearsighted from her mother. My daughter’s life would be a little bit easier if she hadn't inherited her father's impossibly thick hair.
And her life would probably be easier if she weren't gay, but that's who she is and I love her the way she is.
[00:23:13] GORDON EARLE: Well, um, another part of your daughter's story, as I understand it, she married a rabbi. Mm-hmm. Who was a transgender man. Mm-hmm. So that took you to another road of acceptance. And I wonder, you've talked about the acceptance of your daughter as queer, and I'm wondering if you could talk a little about the acceptance of her marriage under the circumstances I just described.
[00:23:37] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Well, my daughter sent me a photo of her and her then boyfriend when he finished, uh, divinity school at his ordination, and they were just looking into each other's eyes. And I, I looked at that and l saw the joy on my daughter's face. And I said to myself, I hope this is the man she marries because he makes her so happy. Just look at that face. Yeah. Um, so I was very happy when they announced their, their engagement.
[00:24:07] GORDON EARLE: I think I read, I read somewhere that you said you didn't have to necessarily understand it. Mm-hmm. You just had to go with the feelings of the love that they had between themselves.
[00:24:16] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Well, I think that's, isn't that true when you, you often see people, someone you know what better than the other and they bring home somebody or introduce you to some, this is my fiancé, and, at first glance, were saying, well, I, I guess I don't know that person very well, but they, I'm going to get to know them because they're making my friend very happy.
But I had, you know, had chance to be with my future son-in-law. And I mean, I think, I think transgender people are, you know, I, I can't speak for other, another person's experience, but I certainly admire the, the extra bravery that they must have to go through, especially these days with some people. Saying very derogatory things that are, that are far from the truth.
[00:25:06] GORDON EARLE: To close out the section on your family. Um, again, we talked before this interview and you talked about the loss of your son Elliot, who I believe is five at the time. And what you wrote to me is the phrase we often hear is “what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.” And I wonder, how you possibly gained strength from that experience.
[00:25:32] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Well, I gained strength from that experience in a similar way I gained experience from my illness with depression in my early twenties, in that I had at that time felt that I had a choice between seeing that there was uh, a God and that that God loved people and I was no worse or better than anybody else.
And then I just had to find a purpose of fitting into the world. Or I could say there couldn't possibly be a God, because how could He make people so sick who hadn't particularly done anything wrong? So that was when I was in my early twenties.
So, my, our daughter was born in 1983. Everything's fine, and then, in 1988, my son, Elliot, was born on his due date. No problems fully, you know, good weight and everything, and he was an average, active, stereotypical boy. My daughter would sit and read a book, and he would be, the next thing we know, he'd climbed on top of the refrigerator. And, uh, I thought this was fun. And then, uh, Adam and I separated in 1991 and I think that we, we like to think we, we didn't have a perfect marriage, but we had a pretty good divorce. And, um, I've always admired Adam and his wife, Suzi, on many levels, certainly as good parents and co-parents.
And in May of. 93, our son Elliot, started being more withdrawn. So, I took him to the pediatrician. He said, well, you know, he's due for a little booster, but I don't need to give him that now. I'll just, uh, he took he, but he looks fine.
And then two days later, I had been seeing a therapist for my own depression and he, he had an additional focus, the therapist on family therapy. So, he was used to treating children and families. So, I brought him to my therapist and he says, well, he looks fine. Maybe he's just getting used to the fact that Adam has announced that he's engaged and his wife-to-be is moving in.
So, I didn't think anything of it, but he just wasn't quite himself and his teachers at school, nursery school, were kind of aware of it and they couldn't figure it out. He wasn't quite as playful. And then, when Friday came, I picked him up at school and one of his eyes had turned inward, so I made an appointment the next week with the eye doctor,
And thenI talked to somebody else, my doctor, and he said, you know, that doesn't sound right, that's happened so quickly. I want you to take your son right away. Forget the eye doctor. Go right away to a pediatric neurologist at NYU. So, I waited hours for the neurologist to have time to able to see me at the end of the day.
And the doctor took one look at him and said, “He needs to be examined right away. This is serious.” So we walked to NYU Hospital, which is on 34th Street and the FDR. And within getting the MRI, let's say, or the, the CAT scan first, he had a brain tumor, and Adam and I were told the next day, they have no idea why these things happen.
About a hundred cases are diagnosed each year and that it was invariably fatal. And, uh, I pretty much collapsed on hearing that and that he had 12 months to live and they would do, we could do what we could to make him more comfortable, but that it was invariably fatal. So that, of course, it's a shock to any parent, any, anybody who hears about a child being ill.
And through that, he died in June of 94, when he was six years old. But my daughter and I realized as this process was going along of this year of treating him, how many advantages we had. We were in New York City and the first hospital we went to turned out to be the one of the best in the world for treating this type of pediatric brain tumor.
We had insurance. Adam and I were both available and we got along with each other. Adam's mother and father lived near NYU and we could go hang out with them in between chemo treatments. We had a lot of friends. We had our faith and a lot of people, of course, just rallied and sent gifts and sent cards, and we, we had the support of the whole community. And it was nobody's fault.
Some parents lose and we had, we had a chance to say goodbye in those 12 months. And he was young enough to be reassured if either Adam or I was, were there with him. He kept a sense of humor and he, um, he acted like a five-year-old. He wasn't aware of the concept of death. He just was afraid of being separated from his parents.
[00:31:24] GORDON EARLE: But he was aware that that separation would take place and would be permanent?
[00:31:28] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: No, I think I was told that he was too young to grasp, he was a bright, bright boy, to grasp that concept. And I personally, I compared that to the sense of shame, uh, and lack of support from my friends because I didn't reach out to them when I was depressed. And that I felt if I could get through the depression and the hospitalization with the, without the support, I hadn't converted to Judaism yet.
And, but I do, I do think that I saw the people at their best, uh, I mean, somebody chooses to be a doctor or a nurse or treat terminally ill children, you, you can imagine the, the sympathy and the patience and love they have for the kids, as well as their families. And that was, uh, very inspiring.
And it's, um, but it's a wound that never heals. It's, um, it's, it's always there. It's a scar on the inside and sometimes it gets poked, but part of what I felt with my daughter is a responsibility to put other people at ease in awkward situations when people would ask simple questions and how we could answer those questions honestly without pulling the rug out from under them.
So, people would ask my daughter, “Do you have brothers or sisters?” She would say, “well, no,” or they would ask me, “Why did you only have one child?” And I might have some people who were right next to me who knew darn well that I, that's not, wasn't the part of the plan, but I would say, “Well, you know, I have a, she's terrific. And I actually have two, uh, at that time I had re-married, I’m not married now, two adult stepchildren. So, she now has a big brother and sister, which she hadn't counted on before.”
So just to gently turn the direction of the conversation from awkward to, or especially innocently curious, to navigate that, and at what point we could confide in somebody, what Elliot had gone through and what we had gone through, without ruining their day.
[00:34:09] GORDON EARLE: Yeah. Um, I just briefly interject, I lost a stepson and I totally identify with what you're saying, including the fact that in not knowing how to necessarily handle that, you say, well, I lost one, but then it opens up a whole other conversation. The other person feels badly. So, it's, it's hard to find a good place, sometimes both within yourself, but also in dealing with others who don't know you as well. It's a very tricky situation.
Let's talk a little bit about now about your professional work and your philanthropy, and I imagine that you were encouraged in that early on by either your entire family or members of your family. Can you tell us how you got started in philanthropy, following your, your years at Williams?
[00:35:02] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: In 1978, I think it was, my parents came to me and my two older brothers and said, “We'd like you to work on a family project for the next three years. We're each going to put a sum of money into a joint kitty, and each of you is going to take a turn in giving a presentation at the end of a year on which charity or charities you think should receive this money, and why.
So, I looked into all sorts of groups that I had heard of, whether it was UNICEF or United Negro College Fund or the Red Cross or medical research. And I ended up coming up with two presentations, partly just based on how other people would feel about it. You know, do we feel good? Does it resonate personally with us?
And was the timing and size of the gift something that was important to the institution? And part of the money went to my high school, Crystal Springs School, which had just started accepting boys and they were in desperate need and they were building a gym, which they'd never really had before. They just had some space in the basement and hockey field, and the other half went to a research project at Stanford University, that was looking into, a doctor was researching, autism as well as other, as well as mental illness. And there was a certain machine that I don't even remember the name of anymore, but it was something that was a diagnostic tool that, if they had one of these, they could do much better research.
And I moved to New York a couple of years later in 1979, and then Adam and I worked together on different groups that we thought, including the Red Cross, that we thought we could support.
And I started off on a fairly modest level. And as my income grew, then I was able to think about either increasing gifts to groups I already supported or looking into newer, different, different groups. And I had started going to dance performances of ballet, as well as contemporary dance.
But Alvin Ailey, as soon as I moved to New York City, and, but I didn't know, quote, how to dance, but I ended up taking enough classes where I could be one of a group of dancers and learning the importance of teamwork and helping each other. In a group of dancers, the eye, the eye is of the audience is often notices the worst dancer so that the group is only as good as its weakest member.
So, you tried really hard, even though others might be more talented.
[00:38:19] GORDON EARLE: That explains partly your early interest in dance. Mm-hmm. You also have been very involved in opera. So how did that take place?
[00:38:27] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: The involvement in opera, partly because I was, many of my friends in the Village Light Opera were really good singers and liked to go to the opera.
I wasn't too keen on going at the beginning. It takes a lot of time and until they had subtitles, or supertitles as they called them at New York City Opera, I had no idea what was going on. The music was nice, but I would just fall asleep.
But it really took off in, after my father died in 2001 and I was spending more time in California with my mother. I would accompany her sometimes to the opera just to be with her. And by that time, they had titles, and she had been going to the opera for over 50 years by that point, and knew everything by heart, and she really loved the music. And the orchestra, not just the singers and the pageantry. And I started to develop a taste for what types of opera I like and I don't like.
And she made a very big gift to the San Francisco Opera that was unrestricted, rather than waiting till she died and then there would be in her will. And part of it was structured. And this ties into my philanthropy structure in a way. To get people who could give, she would match gifts over a certain size right away, but the other people had to give too.
Yeah. So that really inspired me on ways of encouraging matching gifts or working with a nonprofit that I got to trust about what do you really need? And what do you need that your other donors are not eager to fund? And I find that extremely rewarding. I also realized my maiden name, Littlefield, carried a lot of weight because of my mother's, generosity to the opera as well as the symphony and the San Francisco Ballet that it was if I were to continue in a less generous way, but to still continue to support the opera and to come there for a gala in September, that it was a way for me to, as I got to know the company, to try to say, these are some trends that I am seeing elsewhere in New York: having a diversity officer or trying to work on diversifying your crew backstage. So that I was very pleased when the Littlefield family was honored at an annual dinner by the Opera in San Francisco. I worked with a local news reporter to talk about my efforts to diversify the arts and how I was so pleased that the efforts the, that San Francisco Opera was, was making so that the, the feature that appeared in the Arts and their version of the Arts and Leisure section was not about somebody just getting an award. It was that the opera was moving forward and trying to diversify and think about equity and inclusion. That message is exactly what
[00:41:54] GORDON EARLE: You wanted to accomplish.
[00:41:56] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Exactly.
[00:41:58] GORDON EARLE: When I read, uh, some of your background, and, and this is something you just alluded to, is that philanthropy should, in some ways challenge and be disruptive and, I mean, challenge the status quo.
And would you agree with that that's important, especially as it comes to diversity and inclusion issues that, that you want to purposely invoke change and be disruptive?
[00:42:23] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Yes, and I, many institutions have a, a balance between keeping treasures from the past. Perhaps if it's a stage presentation to cast it in a slightly different way.
I’m hoping to go to a performance in Chicago of an adaptation in English of the opera, “The Barber of Seville.” And it's set in, an all African-American cast on the South Side of Chicago at a barber shop. So, it's opera, but it's in English and it's current day and it's a, a different neighborhood. So that, for some people, would seem disruptive.I think it just sounds like fun.
Now, there are others where the theme, such as the opera “Dead Man Walking,” which is about people on death row, can be very moving and inspiring and, for other people, they just squirm and can't wait to get out of there. So I think that's a balance that different artists will do in different ways to challenge people but still keep their interest and not insult them, but just to say we don't, and, and museums and institutions know that you don't, you can't just stay the same.
I mean, Western Union was very successful for a while, but if they didn't change, you know, not very many people are interested in the Pony Express. Exactly.
[00:43:49] GORDON EARLE: Let me go now to the Clark, because specifically in your new role is Chair of the Board of Trustees. Congratulations. The first woman in that role.
Mm-hmm. Uh, so I'll start there. Uh, was it especially meaningful you to, for you to have this role and being the first woman to hold the position?
[00:44:12] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: When I first joined the Clark board, my first meeting I think was in February, 2015. Out of the twenty, there were perhaps three or four of us women, and now we're about half.
So, I certainly feel I have allies, no matter where they are, men or women, I, I feel people want me to succeed. And, uh, I don't think at this point anyway, I have too many people on the board who are vying for my position. They may, they may, the honeymoon may end and they may think otherwise. But I've, it, it's appropriate in the sense that I've been able to support the temporary summer shows when I came to the Clark.
In part because I realized that so much money and effort and time had been spent and the addition and expansion of the Tadao Ando wing that there was a, a high level of donor fatigue and, but I didn't contribute to that. So, I said, well, I can, I think for, for a while anyway, I could fill the niche of support, helping to support the big summer shows.
[00:45:20] GORDON EARLE: Well, you, you said that you had a different style of managing. And I'm, I want to get at that through this question is why are you the right person to lead the Clark now? Is it somehow related to your style of leadership?
[00:45:35] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Well, it's important for the style of the chair to not only be, get along with all the, you know, we have a good style with the other trustees and how to run the meetings or plan things, but also to have a good relationship with the administration and staff of the museum itself.
And I think I come in with a lot of, uh, credit there because I've, in my support of the different group exhibitions or catalog, I've often asked them, well, what would be helpful, and why are you putting on this show? And just talking with them as well, one curator saying she was hoping that the trustees would approve a certain acquisition of a print.
And I said, well, look, I'm not an art expert. I don't collect, I'm that's other people's departments. But one of the things trustees have to say, well, if you buy this, then we're not buying something else, or we're we, you know, what, what are those things? And sometimes curators didn't quite figure that out.
But we have, we have a wonderful group of trustees and many of them have more experience in running a corporation or, or having been head of other boards, which I don't, but I've been a trustee at different groups before, and I think so far it's going well.
[00:47:04] GORDON EARLE: Well, it seemed to be very important to know the art.
I mean, it seems you have dived into art and dance, so you're not just showing up with your checkbook, you're showing up with a very strong opinion about what's being displayed there. And you know, I looked up before we sat down and, and the previous, uh, exhibitions you've sponsored a Rodin or Renoir, Monet, et cetera, et cetera.
So, you do know the art, and that must definitely help in terms of, uh, leading in your position.
[00:47:36] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Yes, but it's not up to the trustees to say what exhibits, what artists, the curators and the director select, but to provide guidance and to work with saying, well, we, as we have a new strategic plan, and where would we like to focus our efforts of diversity, how are we making the museum building more accessible?
How are we making the website more accessible? Um, but not saying you need to have a show on Renoir. Sometimes there is a, from time to time a blockbuster show like the Van Gogh, which will have such recognition that we know we will get a lot of sales for but we have to pay for the show as well. So, the that's the role. It's not for me as someone who knows more about 19th century, uh, French or European art than art of different of earlier or more periods. But rather to say, “Oh, I'm delighted we're having five outdoor sculptures. That'll be temporary.
And that exhibition was called Ground/work and it turned out they were five different women and the curators were women and we got a lot of, you know, kudos for that. But that's not what we set out to do. And then the Clark was able to be open with those exhibitions during, for the outdoors, during Covid. So, for people, that was really good.
[00:49:14] GORDON EARLE: You've had a long and fruitful career and I'm wondering, What are the most important things? And it could be a life experience, it could be personal, professional. What are the most important things you've learned?
[00:49:27] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: I've learned that giving back to others in a way that resonates, resonates with me personally. That gives me pleasure is, that's why I say I think that's why people give of themselves is this, that they somehow, it resonates with them and not every good group is going to have something that's going to resonate with me.
And that I, I really like a city, living in a city in a way because I love seeing different types of people do things in different ways, and I really embrace that diversity. And I think as a parent, it's good to embrace the unexpected and I think it's helpful to try to guide your children in the right way, but sort of be behind them as they're learning to walk, but not hold their hand the whole time.
[00:50:24] GORDON EARLE: So we've looked at the present, we've looked at the past. What about the future? What's the next chapter in your life right now? And I imagine that the Clark may have a big role in that, but what else would you say is in your future?
[00:50:43] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: Well, I'm hopefully going to acquire a second grandchild in about two weeks, and figuring out during the time of Covid, what is, how often I can come see them. They live in Boston.
And continuing to lead by example in my philanthropy and to be open to, to new ideas. But I don't have a, a particular agenda of things that I want to accomplish.
[00:51:18] GORDON EARLE: The palette is yet to be filled completely. Mm-hmm. So, on that note, I want to thank you for your time, um, for your honesty, for your directness, for your courtesy, and we'll leave it there.
[00:51:30] DENISE LITTLEFIELD SOBEL: And thank you again very much for everything. Thank you.