Tell us about your journey from a small-town girl to the Metropolitan Opera Ballet?
I came from a very small town of 1,000 people, but I knew the minute I was born, I was going to get out of there. My mother brought me a little record player, and I fell in love with music, and started to dance. We spent our winters St. Petersburg, Florida, to get out of the cold of Pennsylvania where I started my dance lessons. Back in Pennsylvania the closest ballet school was in a nearby town and the mailman drove would drive me up there every Saturday morning and back at night for 25 cents for the round trip. I had to collect nightcrawlers to pay the fare. And that’s how I got my first ballet lessons. From there I met some mentors who helped me get out of this small town in Pennsylvania to New York City, where I was given two weeks to prove to my parents, I could probably make it as a dancer.
But when I got to New York City, and auditioned I was told that I was a pre beginner and needed three lessons a week with no point work. I was very lucky because I then got into Juilliard and had my picture on the cover of Colliers which proved to my parents more than anything else that I was probably going to make it. After Juilliard, I auditioned for a Broadway show, my first show and was made the understudy to the lead, though it was only around for three months. Following that, I got into the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company, which was a divine place to be for nine years. And every year the entire company went on tour across the country by train, with lots of wonderful parties, and entertainment. After the Metropolitan Opera I well, I also was in dancing in the Santa Fe Opera, where Igor Stravinsky was conducting his opera that we were in. I met my husband’s mother in Santa Fe where she was in the audience as her husband was a music critic. When I returned to New York, she introduced me to her son, Bill Zeckendorf.
That was the beginning of a new life. I stopped dancing because my husband said wanted me to be with him at night. I started raising money for the American Ballet Theater before there were fundraisers. I was doing this just as a volunteer. I chaired 19 galas for them and raised money for them for 15 years. I seem to have a talent for seating the right people together as well.
Also view and read about this photo and a few others illustrating this interview here!
How did you begin in fundraising?
I’ve been a fundraiser since I was a little girl, I brought home the most money from Girl Scout Cookie Drives, raised money for the March of Dimes and had the most subscription sales from the high school. I guess it was in my blood. After I left the opera, we moved to Santa Fe where my husband was building a townhouse project. I was the project manager for about two years and came to love construction and architecture. I later joined the board of the Santa Fe Opera and became President of the opera and Chairman and launched a campaign to raise $21 million for our new opera house here.
My husband put together a deal to acquire a theater downtown, which he and I have turned into a Performing Arts Center, because there wasn’t one previously. I raised $9 million for the construction of the theater, which has become very successful and loved by the community.
What are some of the biggest life lessons you’ve learned along the way?
The fact that I was brought up Catholic in a conservative small town gave me a lot of determination and ambition to succeed. Be the best. It’s part of my personality, I’m an Aries. One thing I learned about life is that having a really great marriage is when you stop expecting things from each other. Then you have a really good relationship, and I was married for 50 years to my husband before he died.
Who have you met that you have been most impressed by?
There was a very famous ballerina, Vera Zarina who was married to George Balanchine. She was in NYC when I was dancing in the opera and was my very best friend. Joan Fontaine was another friend that I met in New York. Being in the opera, we got to meet a lot of wonderful people. The founder of the Santa Fe Opera was John Crosby, and supposedly a very difficult person to work with. But I enjoyed my work with him more than anything else, I learned so much. I also have a lot of conductor and composer friends including Francesca Zambello, who was an opera director who just left Glimmerglass, and of course all of my ballet teachers.
When you first met your husband, did you realize that he was the love of your life?
No. When I first met him, he thought I was like a nun, his mother told him to call me because they had tickets for the Bolshoi when they came to New York. She also didn’t like some of his other girlfriends. It wasn’t instant, but I really cared a lot about him, and I thought he needed me. Doesn’t every woman feel that about the man she married? It took him a while to decide, so I went on a vacation to let him think about it for a while. He came back, made up his mind, then we got married. And the rest is history.
Was it a natural progression to go into real estate and design?
This had something to do with living and working in the ballet Studios, which were very spacious. I really love architecture and I’m happier when I have plans in my hand. I.M. Pei, the iconic architect, was a great family friend and was a big influence on me too. Because we moved into an apartment that I.M. Pei had created for Bill’s father, and it was the first contemporary apartment that I had lived in which changed my life. When my husband bought the Delmonico Hotel, they were turning it into rental apartments in the 70s and I took all the furniture that was left over from the hotel, and I furnished 27 apartments with the leftover furniture and just bought new rugs. I like putting things together and making things work, but I’m not a designer. I love construction, it’s all about line, design and space which is similar to dance.
When you look back at your life is there anything you would’ve done differently?
I have had a wonderful life with opportunities to do so many things and work with so many exciting people. Being in the Metropolitan Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, the American Ballet Theatre, with Baryshnikov and having great friends who were former ballerinas I had a very blessed life. The most important thing in my life was getting out of the small town I grew up in. I was lucky to do it because of these people who took me under their wing. He was a psychiatrist. She was an artist. They helped me have the courage to tell my family that I really had to do this and not go to college. Luckily, Juilliard was offering a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in dance.
I’m just very fortunate that I got to do what I never thought or believed that I would ever get to do. When I was a little girl that somebody told me, I’m going to be in the Metropolitan Opera, with Risa Stevens, I’m listening to her recording on my little record player. I could never have believed that. That was a miracle. I also started dancing so late and very mediocre. When I was in New York, I was 17 and was really a beginner. Now the dancers who are 17 are probably doing principal roles in a ballet company. Having started so late, I was really lucky that I got to do what I did.
How do you think ballet is different today than when you started?
In dance, the technique has gone beyond what anybody would have done 30 years ago and they couldn’t touch what’s going on today. I think in some ways athleticism has taken over in some respects. Now the emphasis is on contemporary dance, because a lot of the companies that do classical works think the public is more interested in seeing contemporary dance, which doesn’t make me thrilled. I still like classical ballet such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker, because that’s what I grew up with. For a long time, we had a lot of wonderful Russian dancers here which we don’t have any more. But everything changes, a lot of people who are directing operas today like to take a new look at it, set it in a different realm, and sometimes it’s very successful and sometimes it is not.
Grand opera is supposed to be full of wonderful, exciting scenery and costumes.But I think a lot of contemporary directors prefer to do something that’s a little less exuberant in its production. A lot of dance has been cut, which makes me sad. The thing that makes me really sad is we had 40 dancers when I was in the Metropolitan Opera for nine years and now they don’t have any permanent dancers, they just have an audition whenever something comes up. When we were there, they were doing grand Verdi operas with lots of big ballet scenes and we got to dance and perform a lot, which was terrific. It was incredible being onstage with Maria Callas. Being on the stage in the Metropolitan Opera doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a solo, or whether you’re just standing in the back being a priestess or a prostitute. It is very meaningful and was special to have been in that company at that time.
Are there any principles that you’ve learned in ballet that you’ve applied to your life?
Discipline, discipline, discipline. I learned a very good lesson from somebody who was Martha Graham’s early mentor. He was not a dancer but a musician. He was teaching at Julliard and composed some scores for her. We became friends and he was a much older gentleman. One day he took me to dinner, and he told me the problem between Martha Graham and him, was that two toothbrushes can’t stay on the same counter. Don’t push over. Don’t make waves. My husband had been married before, but luckily; I didn’t have to encroach upon his space. But it’s more than just space, and this was a very interesting lesson to me.
When you take a ballet class everything else goes out of your mind. It’s like doing yoga or meditating. You put your arm on the bar, the music starts, and you do what you have. It’s automatic. It’s very therapeutic. It’s the same thing when you go on stage, you can’t think about anything else. It just becomes part of you. But you must learn in order for it to become automatic.
If there was anyone that could play you in a memoir of your life, who would it be?
A long time ago everybody thought I looked like Audrey Hepburn, and she studied dance. If we could go back in time, that would be my choice.