When you first meet the impossibly petite and impeccably attired Nancy King Zeckendorf, you’d never suspect that Santa Fe’s premier arts fundraiser started her working life as a wholesale vendor of fishing worms.
In first grade, she developed a fascination with opera, thanks to a music teacher who played records by stars of the era in class. Zeckendorf wanted to earn some money to buy her own 78s, but how? She eschewed the lemonade stand in favor of collecting night crawlers to sell for a penny each to her local bait shop, and, at about 50 wigglers each night, her record collection grew accordingly.
That’s just one of the many appealing and often humorous reminiscences in her autobiography, small town Big Dreams, (Goff Books, 320 pages, $40) which will be featured at a Collected Works author interview and book signing on Friday, Nov. 18.
The small town of the title is Tidioute, a northwestern Pennsylvania enclave of about 900 residents when she was born there in 1934. She now lives in a two-bedroom townhouse in Los Miradores. The exterior is Santa Fe traditional but there’s a dramatic transformation when you step inside. The sleek, contemporary, and light-filled space feels more like it should overlook the East River from a Manhattan high-rise than nearby St. John’s College.
Zeckendorf is direct and unpretentious in conversation, qualities which are well conveyed in her autobiography, and her memory is exceptionally sharp. As she recalls, her interest in dance started even earlier than hers in opera. At about three and a half, little Nancy King was taken by her mother to watch tap dance classes given at the local cinema. As she recalls, “At the last session, I marched up front, pushed my way onto the stage, and got in line.”
Her fundraising instincts were also honed early, raising money for the March of Dimes, selling Girl Scout cookies, and peddling magazine subscriptions as a high school fundraiser. “I enjoyed raising money and was unabashedly competitive about it,” she admits in the book. “I had to bring in the largest amount. And you did.”
Zeckendorf’s immersion in opera, ballet, and philanthropy are the book’s main subjects. Her memory is exceptionally keen and the specific details she provides are notable aspects of recollections spanning almost 80 years, along with the book’s direct, unfussy narrative style.
The personality traits apparent in these and other early anecdotes served Zeckendorf well in building a dance career and in fundraising. Asked what it takes to become a successful dancer, she replied, “determination, drive, discipline, courage, ambition, chutzpah, luck, and a little talent.”
Most professional ballet dancers begin studying at a high level of instruction well before they reach their teens. Zeckendorf didn’t get that kind of training until her first year of college. “I had no idea what I didn’t know when I went to New York,” she says. “To be told I was a pre-beginner at the age of 17, hearing that was tough.”
After a year as a dance major at Juilliard, Zeckendorf enrolled at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, where her discipline and determination helped increase her skills to the point she was offered a professional position with the company’s ballet two years later.
One of her book’s most vivid recollections was a highly theatrical metaphor for Zeckendorf’s love life during her years at the Met. Inspired by seeing Mary Martin fly around the stage in Broadway’s Peter Panthe stage director of Das Rheingold wanted the same effect at the opera’s beginning, when three maidens are swimming in the river Rhine and singing. The vocalists stayed onstage while three dancers flew overhead, doing aerial versions of the breaststroke, sidestroke, and crawl.
“I loved flying over the stage, looking out at the audience,” Zeckendorf wrote. “We were 30 or 40 feet in the air.” As she swung back and forth, she could also see her current swain standing in the wings on one side of the stage and her newest suitor on the opposite side.
The aspirant was none other than Rudolf Bing, the legendary general manager of the Met for more than 20 years. In the book’s biggest surprise, Zeckendorf revealed that she and Bing had a seven-year relationship, kept almost secret until now.
“He was exciting, smart, funny, handsome, famous, and charming,” she wrote. “I was flattered by his attention. The idea he desired me was astonishing.” Bing was a happily married man — it seems, in the European style where a mistress is acceptable if the affair is managed quietly.
And his attraction to Nancy King was understandable. You can get a sense of her stage charisma, if not her dancing talents, from an The Ed Sullivan Show video in which she portrayed Jussi Björling’s love interest during a famous tenor aria. (youtube.com/watch?v=yeE33-mE98c)
“As a dancer, Nancy was, and still is, a great beauty, which shone across the stage,” says Diana Byer, founder and former artistic director of New York Ballet Theater and a long-time friend from Zeckendorf’s New York years. “Your eyes always went to her onstage.
“Plus, she has such great intelligence that showed through. She was one of those performers who could pull you into their world.”
She brought the same magnetism to her work with the Santa Fe Opera. “The day I met Nancy Zeckendorf in 1990 I told my wife, ‘I will go anywhere that woman is the chairman of the board,'” says Robert Glick, who was a candidate for the company’s development director position. “It was love at first sight. I thought, ‘Boy, could we ever have a good time and raise a lot of money.'”
Zeckendorf and Glick led a fundraising campaign that raised $21 million for a new opera house that opened in 1998, replacing the 1968 structure built after a fire destroyed the original theater a year earlier. He went on to become president and CEO of St. Vincent Hospital Foundation and she to head the board of the Lensic Performing Arts Center and lead the capital project to renovate the theater, which reopened in 2001.
For most local readers, the chronicle of her ascent to the Met and of her work with the opera and the Lensic are likely to be the most compelling parts of small town, Big Talent. Ballet fans and those who like to live vicariously in the upper echelons of New York’s social whirl will appreciate the book’s central section. It focuses on her role as a trustee of American Ballet Theatre, the country’s top ballet company, during which she became a fundraising powerhouse, especially in the realm of glittery gala events.
Her penchant for detail led to one of the book’s best anecdotes about the Santa Fe Opera. During a meeting with Phelps Dodge mining officials to raise money for the new opera house, she pulled out an old book and started reading from it, much to everyone’s surprise. In the 1800s, her husband’s great-grandfather and great-uncle had grubstaked two Arizona miners who sold their claim to two Boston gents, one named Phelps and the other Dodge. The claim turned out to contain an incredibly rich copper lode.
Turning to the current Phelps Dodge representatives, she said, “That’s the story, gentleman. Now, if you don’t mind, speaking for my husband and me, we’d like some of our money back, and we’d like it to go to the Santa Fe Opera.”
While she’s known as a meticulous planner, Zeckendorf could also improvise when circumstances demanded it. At a Santa Fe Opera VIP dinner, a staff member mucked about with the seating assignments, putting the very most important person of all, a US senator, at the staff table instead of with the major donors whose guest he was.
The donors were furious and, when advised of the situation, Zeckendorf stood up, clinked her wine glass, and announced, “There’s an old tradition at the Santa Fe Opera. Because we want everybody to get to know as many people as possible, we all change tables before the dessert course.” Everyone did, the cranky donors were reunited with their senator, and the “old tradition” that had been invented on the spot expired that night after everyone went home.