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The Divine Mrs. Peabody: Remembering the Women Behind the Diamonds

July 28, 2010

I usually try to limit my remembrances; however, in yesterday's New York Times, it was reported that my friend and mentor, Judy Peabody, died. The Divine Mrs. Peabody transformed my life and the lives of all the people she touched.

It's hard to explain the impact Judy had on my life. When you are a little Queen from a hick town (OK kind of hick -- Seattle), I didn't believe that people like Judy existed except on TV shows like Dynasty. Judy was famous for her big hair, her big jewelry and her big heart.

The crazy thing about the early of years in the fight against HIV/AIDS is that it brought together folks who would never have known each other, let alone socialized, let alone become dear friends. Judy was Auntie Mame to me and so many others struggling to fight AIDS. We would travel the world, she showed me Vienna, Stockholm, Montreal and Omaha.

I met Judy at a benefit by the Alvin Alley dance company for Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC). She was a vision in black tulle and lace with beautiful diamonds. I remember telling her how much I liked her necklace. She said it was from Harry. Well being the hick that I was, I asked "Harry?" She responded "Harry Winston of course darling." She then grabbed by hand, kissed my cheeks and took me under her wings.

Legend has it that we got our first government funding for AIDS research because Judy had lunch with Mrs. Pat Buckley and Mrs. Buckley had lunch with Mrs. Nancy Reagan and Mrs. Reagan put a note on someone's desk and we got our first $15 million.

Judy would never confirm that story, but this I do know is true. I got my first million dollar grant from the Ford Foundation because of Michael Seltzer and Judy Peabody. Michael did all the leg work with the Ford Foundation, I made the "ask" and Judy closed the deal. She had Franklin Thomas, the then President of the Ford Foundation over for a small dinner party. During dinner, she casually mentioned how much she would appreciate his support of our request. Soon after, we got a million dollars.

We were in Stockholm for the International AIDS Conference and someone had arranged for Judy and me to have dinner with Dr. Robert Windom and his wife. Dr. Windom was then the Assistant Secretary for Health in the senior Bush administration. Judy orchestrated a dinner on a boat that was the favorite of Bill Blass. I know, could you just ... At the end of dinner, Dr. Windom says "thank you for the lovely dinner; I would like to help if I can." I responded by saying "thank you very much" and proceeded to get up from the table. Well Judy shot me the look. At that time, I didn't understand the language of this world. In my world, that was a simple thank you; but in Judy's world it was the opening for the ask. So with Judy's encouragement, I made a pitch to Dr. Windom. Soon after, we received our first government funding.

Beneath the veneer of big hair, designer dresses, and diamonds, Judy was like so many of us, a care giver to hundreds of people with AIDS (PWA). For more then two decades, she facilitated a care givers support group at GMHC that she stared with her beloved Luis. She would come to meetings dressed to the nines. She would let all the guys at client services try on her fur coat, and she would take care of us. Judy was Judy wherever she went, be it with youth gangs in Harlem, PWAs in Chelsea or a black tie dinner at the Met.

We would speak several times a week going over our lists of who was in the hospital, which memorials we could attend, and who was having a benefit that we should support. She was my strength during some of the darkest moments of the AIDS epidemic in New York City in the late 80s and early 90s.

Recently I talked about being with my friend Michael Hirsch as he passed. What I didn't tell you was what I did after they pulled the plug. I went to Judy's for dinner. She was having a small dinner party for some famous Russian composer, I don't recall his name. All I remember was sitting at the table in a complete daze. Afterwards, Judy held my hand while I sobbed into her new Oscar de la Renta dress. She stroked my hair, told me she loved me and said that we would be OK. This became our ritual every time someone we loved ... died.

Judy got me through more hospital visits, more funerals, and more memorials then I can remember. If you are very very lucky, you get to have a Judy in your life. Someone who will show you worlds that you never knew existed. I love you Judy, I will miss you, and I will never forget what you did for me, the HIV/AIDS community and hundreds of people with AIDS.

To read more about Mrs. Peabody, please go to

Paul Kawata is the executive director of the National Minority AIDS Council.

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This article was provided by National Minority AIDS Council. Visit NMAC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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