Friday, August 12, 2011

David Bowie - My Hero

I've just read that if it weren't for David Bowie, the son of the late Marc Bolan would have been in fairly dire straits. When Bolan died in 1977, his finances were in the middle of a rehaul and in trust so Rolan and his mother (not married to Bolan) were unintentionally not provided for. Rolan Bolan has recently revealed that his godfather David Bowie, quietly stepped in and paid for his education and other expenses. 

"David’s generosity helped my mother and me to survive. It wasn’t just the financial help, but the time and kindness. He never came to see us in California because he lives in New York and hates to travel. But he kept in regular touch by phone and his first and last words every time were: “Don’t hesitate to tell me if there is anything I can do.”


I've always liked Bowie - not just his music, but the sense of humour that comes through, his intelligence, and his fab sense of style. And now this! I know the money he has spent on Bolan is a drop in the ocean compared to his total wealth, but the fact that he reached out at all, and kept the whole thing quiet is really impresses me.

There's something about conspicuous philanthropy that just makes me squirm. Yes, I know Angelina Jolie does a lot of good work, but do we have to hear about every million that she and Brad donate? Does Oprah have to tell us that her ridiculously lavish school in South Africa cost $40 million. 

Here in the States, where taxes fund a lot less "stuff", there's a lot of fund-raising and philanthropy. I live near a free zoo, that is totally funded by private donations. There's a big ball every year to raise money, and a lot of Chicago's big wigs make huge donations - in exchange for having their names writ large on the side of an enclosure. Yes, folks. When you give big bucks over here, everyone gets to hear about it.

As a fund-raiser for a small school in Ghana, don't get me wrong, if you gave me large sums of money I'd willingly have your name tattoo-ed across my forehead or wherever else you demanded, - but the whole "Look how much I gave this year" approach nevertheless strikes me as somewhat tacky. 

Most of the big charities here publish a report every year, listing their donors and how much they have donated. They are generally grouped by amount, so that the few who donate a million (and yes, there are people who do) are listed in the top group, then those who gave $100,000 etc, right down to the people who give $500 or less. Even private schools (most of whom are registered charities) do it, so everyone knows how much you gave to your kids' own school. At my kids' school we have whole wings of buildings names after the families who paid for the construction - a permanent reminder of their generosity. 

I understand that charities will do whatever it takes (legally) to raise money and I can't really blame them for pandering to the egos of big donors, but when I hear about someone doing good without making a big fuss,  - it warms the cockles of my heart.


  1. Well, maybe Ms. Vansickle was only trying to raise money for charity in Nigeria. I'm sure she wouldn't have made your name public if you had given. And now she still doesn't even know if you are alive or dead. Pity.

    I think that bird has flown, though. :)

    [I do agree with your sentiments in your post, though it seems too obvious to say so. There. I'm obvious.]

  2. You're right - there is a lot of philanthropy over here (and it's great) but part of the deal is you get your name on a plaque or in a speech. Mind you, if that's what it takes to get people to donated money, I guess it's a good thing. Perhaps the Brits are too reserved about it!

    I like Bowie as well -there's still an air of mystique about him, after all these years.

  3. I love David Bowie's 1970s music. i was aware of the legal wrangles that have gone on for decades with Bolan's legacy, but didn't know about Bowie's help.

    There is a hilarious episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm that involves donations to charity, where Larry David donates and gets his name put on on a plaque, but then discovers that his friend has donated as "anonymous" but told everyone he is the anonymous donor. I can't really explain it in writing.

    The charity culture in the US is a bit of a shock to the system for me.

  4. Ah, David Bowie...such lovely memories associated with his music, and so refreshing to hear about a truly selfless good deed!
    Couldn't agree with you more about the name/donation culture in the US. I do, however, like it that people can make the donation in the name of a loved one. I had an aunt who died at 34 of a heart attack due to complications of diabetes. Her parents donated money to fund a dialysis center in her name at a local hospital. It's nice in a bittersweet way to see her name now and again, and encouraging to know that others are being helped through the donations. I think I would be a bit embarrassed, though, to have a big library wing or foundation named after me (at least while I was still alive.)

  5. Funny, haven't heard about him in years. He is so understated and low-key for such a stylish and talented person...

  6. Definitely a class act, Bowie is. He also looks pretty good for his age ... I know, I know ... shallow. As for the naming of buildings, a more disturbing trend is the naming/renaming of buildings because of corporate sponsorship: Staples Center, TD Banknorth Garden, Gillette Field, etc., ad nauseum. Imagine renaming Wimbledon "The Cadbury Court" all because of multimillion # refurbishment. Yuk.

  7. Yes, in Chicago we now have US Cellular Field where the White Sox play. How ugly a name is that?

  8. Interesting points. In my field of medial research I take it for granted that our buildings are named after donors, names like Johns Hopkins and Dana Faber are permanently memorialized thanks to their philanthropy. At UCSF I used the Fischer gym and the Schwab swimming pool without a thought, and go to lectures in genentech hall. The pirate public partnerships have been very important for medical research and I think have contributed greatly to the US being a world leader. But it is pretty narcissistic to want your name on the building!

    Lovely photo of Bowie. My teenage bedroom was plastered with his image!

  9. I meant private public. Though pirates would be cooler. Damn iPhone autocorrect

  10. Yeah, the 'look how much I care' or 'how wonderful I am' stuff is distasteful, on the part of the donor not the charity. It makes a little sense for companies who want increased name recog in general. It isn't horrible, but certainly heartwarming when done without fanfare.
    You can opt for anon donation, or donation in another's name whenever you like, though. Loads do it, especially in things like USO donations. Donate in the name of a fallen family member.

  11. i love david bowie too. i have a good story about him actually. i may blog about it and let you know!! xx


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