Nancy Brinker: The steely force in the Susan G. Komen foundation

Correction: The article incorrectly described Andrea Mitchell’s news program as a CNN show. The program is on MSNBC. This version has been corrected.


Nancy G. Brinker is the founder and CEO of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Her sister, Susan G. Komen, died of breast cancer at the age of 36, as seen in the framed photo. (Matt McClain/For The Washington Post)
February 14, 2012

The benefactor who gave the Susan G. Komen Foundation one of its first six-figure infusions in the 1980s remembers when she met Nancy Brinker, the organization’s founder. It was 30-plus years ago at a Dallas society ball. As Ruth Altshuler recalls, the British aristocrat Lord Mountbatten “was all but stopped blind” when he saw Brinker floating across the room. He turned to Altshuler and asked, “ ‘Who is that?’ because she was so beautiful” and charming.

For three decades, the relentless force of Nancy Brinker’s personality has been inextricably tied to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the behemoth she created in memory of her elder sister, who died of cancer at age 36. She has dedicated her life to it. She has pinned her ambitions on it.

She’s now in the news for it. Monday, amid the Planned Parenthood funding controversy that arose this month, the editor of industry publication the NonProfit Times called for Brinker’s resignation. Last week, a former board member of a Komen New York affiliate requested the same, illustrating the symbiosis between woman and mission. It’s not clear what role Brinker played in the initial choice to defund Planned Parenthood and the reversal of that decision. Komen board members, including Brinker’s son, have not returned calls for comment. One thing is clear: There would be no foundation — no pinking, no power walking, no sisterhood-of-survivors culture — if Brinker hadn’t willed it into existence.

Brinker, 65, declined, through a publicist, to comment for this article.

“Decline” is an odd verb to follow “Nancy Brinker.” In the past, the woman who turned her philanthropy into a household brand hasn’t seemed inclined to decline much of anything.

You want her to walk? She’ll walk. She’ll walk 60 miles in three days and get millions of other pavement beaters to do it, too, racing for that elusive cure. You want her to talk? She’ll write memoirs, she’ll give speeches, she’ll accept presidential appointments. She’ll pen a tribute to her sister, describing herself as the chubby one. You want her to decorate? She’ll paint the town pink, all of it, the NFL players and the great pyramids in Egypt, and the White House, too, bathed in the soft glow of a rosy lightbulb to raise breast cancer awareness. She’ll stump for women’s health in Eastern Europe, hobnob at the Kennedy Center, dally with the doyennes of Dallas.

Everybody seems to know her or know someone who does. Acquaintances describe her as savvy and driven — some in the best sense of those words, and some not.

Two sisters, disparate fates

“When I think of Nancy Brinker, I think of one woman who changed the world,” says Anita McBride, Laura Bush’s former chief of staff, who knows Brinker from Brinker’s posting as ambassador to Hungary from 2001 to 2003 and a subsequent stint as chief protocol officer during George W. Bush’s administration.

Brinker is a longtime GOP supporter and contributor. She was a “pioneer,” the term used to describe donors who gathered more than $100,000 for Bush’s presidential campaign. Her politics have been a subject of conversation in recent weeks, as critics question whether her ties to the Republican Party played into the Planned Parenthood discussions. After decades living in Dallas, she maintains residences in the District and Palm Beach, Fla.

“She’s funny. She’s a wonderful person to be around — very much attuned to the people around her,” McBride says. “She’s never at a loss for words, and the right words.”

In recent weeks, Brinker has been comparatively silent. She appeared once on Andrea Mitchell’s MSNBC show, trim and towering as ever, hair sleeked back in a closer-to-God pompadour.

“I come to you today . . . expressing the anger of a lot of people,” Mitchell said sternly, citing angry messages on the foundation’s Facebook page.

“Sure,” Brinker replied, vowels pronounced in the flat, crimped way particular to the middle of the Midwest, where Brinker was raised.

Peoria, Ill., is a town so ordinary that it has became shorthand — Will it play in Peoria? — for the opinions of mainstream America. Brinker lived in the flatlands of central Illinois until she graduated from the University of Illinois, at which point she moved to Dallas with big dreams. As Brinker recounts in her memoir, “Promise Me,” she applied for a position at Neiman Marcus, in part because the department store promised to advance women.

Her beloved only sister, a fashion model who appreciated beauty and aesthetics, was even more giddy about the job than Nancy was. Suzy would visit her sister in Dallas; they’d get dressed up and go to Neiman parties. When Suzy was home in Peoria, Brinker writes, the sisters spoke almost every day, about everything.

One day, “everything” was a hard lump in Suzy’s breast. She died three years later.

Nancy, who had been married once before to a Neiman Marcus employee, began dating the ­casual-dining impresario Norman Brinker. His first wife had died of cancer, and they bonded over grief.

(While Norman Brinker once described himself as pro-choice in an interview, Nancy’s personal views about abortion — a subject of speculation — are less known).

After they married, she raided his Rolodex for contacts.

“And the next thing I know,” says Altshuler, who became a friend and supporter of Brinker’s, “she was calling people up and trying to get us involved in breast cancer.”

Ladder to success

It’s a story that has become legend in the philanthropic world — the tenacious Midwesterner who had suffered personal loss and was determined to use the tragedy to change women’s health. “Breast cancer” wasn’t talked about then — it was too impolite for a society that preferred the euphemistic “women’s cancer.”

The foundation grew (it now disperses millions to community centers and research), and with it grew an entire cancer culture. Shame was replaced with pride. “Victims” became “survivors.” Over the years, the Komen foundation has partnered with Yoplait, with American Airlines, with KFC, each company donating portions of their profits. Some people worried that the greasy, junk-food-y “Buckets for the Cure” was a dubious product tie-in.

In recent days, questions have surfaced about Brinker and the organization over issues more serious than chicken. Eyebrows have been raised about Brinker’s salary — more than $400,000 in 2010, according to tax filings — and propensity to fly first class for business travel.

One longtime acquaintance of Brinker’s answered the phone for an interview but immediately asked to speak anonymously, wanting to say some not-nice things. “She’s driven, she’s ambitious — and that’s all fine,” the acquaintance said. “But what’s that saying about going up the ladder?” Brinker’s ambition, the acquaintance said, could supercede her concerns for those around her.

It’s a sentiment that was echoed more than once, as acquaintances declined on-the-record conversations.

Brinker’s memoir often comes across as self-congratulation disguised as self-deprecation. Her hair might look “like a sea urchin,” but it only looks that way because she’s tramping through the damp on her way to a wildly successful benefit that she has organized.

Everyone interviewed for this article stresses that Komen is to be applauded for its mission. It’s hard to publicly fault Brinker when she’s the driving force behind the mission.

Other friends stress that Brinker’s chutzpah is precisely what has made Komen what it is. “She’s determined, but she doesn’t bulldoze,” McBride says. “She’s invested in her life” in saving other people’s lives, “so why wouldn’t she put every interest in success?”

“Nancy never went native, not anywhere she’s been,” says Wayne Berman, who has known Brinker for 25 years, and whose wife, Lea, is Laura Bush’s former social secretary. He attended Brinker’s birthday party at Cafe Milano a few months ago and says the guest list was full of old friends and new. “She’s always who she is. She didn’t take on any of the airs or grandness or any of the things that come from wealth and prominence.”

Berman says that when he has found himself “bumping into controversy” — he’s a lobbyist — Brinker has been one of the first friends he calls. “Not just a call, but follow-ups . . . just to say, ‘I’m thinking of you, and you’re great.’ She has a great quality that is not in oversupply in Washington: She’s your friend through thick and thin.”

‘I made some mistakes’

At this crucial moment for the Komen foundation, Brinker may need some reciprocal grace. Her most recent “appearance” in the public eye was an e-mail of apology she’d sent to The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn last week. She was responding to an open letter of admonition that Quinn had written for The Post’s Web site.

“I made some mistakes,” Brinker wrote to Quinn, whom she has known for several decades. “In retrospect, we have learned a lot and must now rebuild the trust that so many want to have in us, and respond to the many thousands who continue to believe in our mission and do what we do best.”

Her friends say that rebuilding, moving on, determined forward motion is what she does best.

“She’s very mission-oriented,” says Berman, who has spoken with Brinker recently. “She’s not wallowing in regret, self-pity or doubt. She’s just focusing on the task at hand.”

“I told her, ‘Let’s just get on with it,’ ” Altshuler says. The foundation’s first big donor adds that she’s hoping the controversy doesn’t overshadow the important work to be done for breast cancer survivors.

Another acquaintance, who has corresponded with her recently, says: “She’s a trouper. She’s resolute in her convictions. She’s going to be fine.”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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