Washington — He is the mogul of the Potomac, the man who made the $80 million Kennedy Center happen, and who keeps it happening. She is the duchess of the defenseless, the president of the Animal Welfare League, who lobbies against steel-jawed traps and factory farming.
They are Roger and Christine Stevens, one of the most celebrated but enigmatic couples in Washington. And they have one of the longest-running marriages in show biz: 42 years.
Their daughter, Christabel Gough, says, "They used to laugh about it, given the theater world in which they live. Someone once said to my father, 'You mean she's your firstm
There is a "togetherness," to use the women's magazine phrase, about their marriage that might surprise those who think being the cultural czar of Kennedy Center is enough of a career for one family. Here are two of dozens of examples:
Last May the Stevenses together gave an "animals in the '80s" party. "Express your support for the mammal, bird, or other creature or ecosystem you believe to be most in need of help -- by wearing a mask, a button, a sign, a headdress or even a full costume" said the invitation.
More than 100 people, many of them the movers and shakers of Washington, showed up dressed as golden lion marmosets, otters, beavers, krill, rhinoceroses , sea turtles, black-footed ferrets, prairie dogs, even a kangaroo (an environmentalist complete with her own three-month-old child in the marsupial pouch).
Christine Stevens wore a raccoon mask and a limp paw draped in black, signifying her protest against the steel-jawed trap; Roger Stevens wore a huge papier-mache cat mask and a dark suit.
At another event, on Mr. Steven's home turf at Kennedy Center, Mrs. Stevens wore purple chiffon and Mr. Stevens black tie for a benefit concert and party that meshed their interests: National Symphony Orchestra musical director Mstislav Rostropovich conducting an evening of music dedicated to saving the whales, (also one of Slava's interests). In Washington it is understood that party giving is a form of power broking.
Former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, a long-time friend of the Stevenses, says the two are "quite similar in temperament. She has done with respect to animals something analogous to what he has done in the arts. They have the same qualities of persistence, dedication, courage, and ingenuity."
Roger Stevens pretty much runs the cultural show in Washington as chairman of the Kennedy Center, which dishes up most of the theater, concert, ballet, and opera in the nation's capital. He is the former owner of the Empire State Building, a man who had a fabulously successful career in real estate before launching into a show-business career dazzling in its critical and financial success.
In the past 30 years Mr. Stevens has produced or coproduced close to 200 plays, including the 65 to 70 that have been done at Kennedy Center. He is responsible for putting up in lights the plays of Tom Stoppard, Eugene O'Neill, Jean Anouilh, Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward, T. S. Eliot, William Inge, Preston Jones, and Peter Schaffer, and for subsidizing Harold Pinter at the start of his career.
Among the shows he has backed with his uncanny genius for hits: the musicals "Annie," and Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story"; Robert Bolt's "A Man for all Seasons," Robert Anderson's "Tea and Sympathy," Harold Pinter's "Old Times" and "Betrayal," Stoppard's "Jumpers" and "Night and Day," Gore Vidal's "The Best Man ," Jean Kerr's "Mary, Mary," and her current comedy, "Lunch Hour."
But his favorites, the ones that have satisfied him most as a producer, are two plays by Frenchman Jean Giraudoux, "Ondine," starring Audrey Hepburn, and "Duel of Angels," starring Vivian Leigh and Mary Ure. In fact, his first venture into theater was as an angel sinking money into a Giraudoux Drama Critics Award as the year's best play.
Mr. Stevens denies that he has any special talent or intuition for choosing winners. But he admits, "I've always been able, if I think it's a good play, to raise the money to go ahead and do it." He once said that "Nobody ever loses on my deals" is his motto, one he'd like to see inscribed on his coat of arms.
"And I've always summed up the result over the 30 years by saying a quarter of the time I have big hits, a quarter of the time artistic successes, not natural successes, a quarter of the time the critics were crazy, and a quarter of the time I'm crazy. It figures out pretty well that way."
His long, lanky frame is folded up like a wooden clothes dryer as he sits across from his wife in the living room of their Georgetown home. A gray suit hangs rather absent-mindedly on him; he has to be forced to buy new clothes occasionally.
He is an extremely tall, balding man who in a crowded room stands out like a lighthouse because of his height and the fixed, measured look in his blue searchlight eyes. When he smiles, the rather austere set of his eagle features relaxes and his face takes on the handsomeness of an actor.
At home with his wife present, he is a mild, almost musing man, a little shy, a little bored with having to talk about himself. In the business he has a reputation for being sometimes distant, aloof, difficult. At one Kennedy Center press conference he exploded like hot lava from a volcano at a reporter who had the temerity to ask why there weren't more than a few blacks in the center's audiences, in a city more than 75 percent black.
He is a quietly fierce man, who has mellowed somewhat recently following his recuperation from an apparently severe illness. But he has plowed so much of himself into Kennedy Center that he is as sensitive to suggestions or criticisms of it as if it were his family.
For Roger Stevens has built, like some Kublai Khan in a business suit, a stately pleasure dome on the Potomac. The center began as an act of Congress in 1958 but languished until he went to work with architect Edward Durrell Stone to dream up a single arts center housing a theater, concert hall, and opera house which Washington badly needed. He raised the initial $13,500,000.
Then, when the project was renamed the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts after President Kennedy's assassination, Stevens went on raising millions, first as chairman of the National Council of Arts, later as Center chairman, matching congressional funds. Delays and inflation sent the cost spiraling so that by 1971, when it opened, Stevens estimates it had gone from $ 35 million to close to $80 million "with the extras."
For his job as culture czar of the Kennedy Center, Stevens takes not a penny in pay. But there has been occasional flak over the fact that Stevens and hos longtime partner, Robert Whitehead, are sometimes involved in their Broadway producing firm with plays which Stevens has first scouted and booked into Kennedy Center. The Jean Kerr comedy "Lunch Hour," starring Gilda Radner and Sam Waterston, is a current example.
Mr. Whitehead, who could not be reached for comment, has described Stevens in the past to interviewers as an old-time American frontier gambler. Stevens nods when asked about that, agrees "I've always been regarded as a great gambler."
Perhaps his highest stakes were involved in 1951 when he formed a syndicate to buy the Empire State Building for $51.5 million, selling it three years later for a profit of $10 million. When you talk to Roger Stevens about that, his eyes glaze over as if you were talking about ancient Thebes, fossils, dreary history. "I've gotten a lot of publicitiy for it, still eating out on it 30 years later," he says.
For Roger Stevens, apparently the guest is in the pursuit of a play or a dream, not the money itself. Which is not to say he is unaware of its value. He learned about money the hard way, in the depression, when his father, an affluent real estate broker, lost everything and Choate-educated Roger Stevens found his enrollment at Harvard canceled. He then lived at home, entered the University of Michigan, dropped out after a year to take odd jobs pumping gas days at $12 a week, working on a Ford assembly line nights removing steel burrs from newly cast gears.
"For five years I had absolutely no money, just worked at those odd jobs. From 1930 to 1934 my total income was probably around a couple of thousand dollars. I used to spend most of my [free] time in libraries. I've always been very partial to libraries because that was the way to get an education."
The effect of the depression on his life?
"I might not have some money now if I hadn't grown up being so poor." But it didn't make him cautious about his wealth: "It had the opposite effect. . . . In all my business life I've always taken chances."
Between the library and the gas pump and the steel burrs he worked in a real estate office where he earned nothing but learned enough to launch himself into a successful career when the depression lifted. Finding backing to buy failed hotels and offices, he sold them at a profit until at the age of 26 he had a $50 ,000 nest egg.
It was about this time (1937) that at a party he met a pretty sophomore named Christine Gesell, daughter of the chairman of Michigan's physiology department and niece of child psychologist Arnold Gesell. She told Steven she wanted to leave school and find a job as a secretary; he promised to find her one and delivered on the promise by hiring her himself. They were married on New Year's Day 1938 and left for a six-month honeymoon trip around the world.
He says the secret of their happy marriage is "We very, very seldom quarrel. . . ." She adds, "And of course [having] mutual interests without having them be mutually strong."
Then he prompts, "Christine was responsible for getting me into the theater. She didn't think it civilized that we didn't go to the theater. . . . So we started going, when we'd go to New York, quite often."
Stevens, still a real estate magnate, then joined the Detroit Theater Guild, and encouraged by his venture with Giraudoux's "Madwoman," backed an Ann Arbor production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" on Broadway. It lost $40,000 but was applauded in print by New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson. Stevens was hooked and began mixing real estate with theater by backing two more productions: Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" and J. M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" with music by Leonard Bernstein.
For a while the Stevens shuttled between Ann Arbor and New York, eventually settling in Manhattan, until the continuing involvement with Kennedy Center brought them to Washington permanently 15 years ago. They still maintain a New York apartment but their real home now is in Georgetown, where they live on a hill in a tall, sprawling, red brick farmhouse with a white veranda and black shutters.
We talked there one morning in the Stevens living room, where a magnificent Monet of Rouen Cathedral, full of pearly light, dominates one wall.
It is a large, comfortable room with a lived-in mellowness, full of quiet colors and priceless paintings: Chagall, Utrillo, Bemelmans, in addition to Monet. The Stevenses picked them up years ago, he says, at auctions, when he was "buying stuff for the Ann Arbor museum." Their daughter Christabel points out that they were bought long before the art market soared, that the Monet for instance, was "somewhere between $500 and $5,000," she wasn't sure. Today it would fetch millions.
Speaking of her parents, Mrs. Gough says, "They're not materialistic. . . . They really don't go in for owning things very much."
She tells about the time years ago when they came from a trip to the apartment in New York "and the place was in a shabby state. He looked around and said, "You know, nobody would ever believe I earned $1 million last year. We've got to do something about this place. . . ." So mother and I went out and bought some carpets so there'd be no holes in the rugs. . . ."
Abe Fortas says, "Roger is one of the few people who has arrived at a point in life where he's gone past the pursuit of money; he's so successful he doesn't have to waste time on it. But most people never finish thinking about it, no matter how much they have. They [the Stevenses] are unique."
When asked to talk about himself, Roger Stevens is distinctly uncomfortable. But suddenly in a burst of frankness he offers an insight: "The only thing i think I've ever been able to do very well in the world, and it sounds terribly arrogant, is to think up new ideas and solve problems. That's been the reason I've been able to get along in the world. Plus the thing that Christine has just mentioned, persistence to see that the things get done."
Mrs. Stevens had been using the word "persistent" to describe herself, and he had chimed in, talking of her hard work. "She works harder than anybody I know. She's -- what's an adjective for not being afraid of a fight? -- fearless. She's fearless. We were up in the Northwest somewhere and there was a huge man maltreating a dog. I could see that I was going to end up being chewed. But she beat [the man] down with her really stricken look, and he said, 'You women are always interfering!'"
At one point in the conversation he says, "Mrs. Stevens has accomplished a lot more than I have. . . . As I've frequently said, when a lobbyist has clients that have neither votes nor money, and you can get [the legislation] through, then, you're really a good lobbyist. And all her clients have been moneyless, although many of her opponents have money. . . ."
Christine Stevens has the sort of lovely, serene face da Vinci gave his madonnas. She is tall and slender, like a white iris, with a long stem of a neck and white hair piled high over an oval face. This day she wears a creamy silk print dress. Her eyes are as blue and candid as a child's. There is an abstract warmth about her that welcomes people but does not envelop them. She seems to be thinking of something always just beyond the room. For 31 years now she has been head of the Animal Welfare Institute, which she founded; the plight of animals seems to be a constant concern to her.
"She's very calm and has tremendous energy, you've never seen such energy, although she looks fraily, as though a wind would blow her away," says longtime friend Ceci Carusi. Mrs. Carusi is now involved in the Society for Animal Protection Legislation, one of Mrs. Stevens's projects. She underscores the mutual involvements of the Stevens. "Both of them are very vital in their way of life, yet very vital to each other. . . . He goes on her trips with her, she goes on his trips with him. They don't go off and leave each other. . . ."
Mrs. Stevens talks quietly about why the league was founded: because existing organizations, even antivivisection societies, "weren't doing anything for animals that were in the laboratories by the millions. . . . Now, of course, there are many more organizations, it's become more of a popular activity, both with respect to the humane treatment of animals and also conservation of wildlife and prevention of extinction of the species."
There are some basic things that have to be fought against, she says, things like factory farming, a method of raising animals in confinement. "A terrible thing, not well enough understood," she says. "People should just refuse to eat eggs from battery hens [as opposed to eggs laid by "free hens"]. . . . And everyone should boycott white veal until it's more economic to raise calves in the proper manner . . . instead of locking them in small boxes. . . .
"And as for hogs, that's really the worst of all. Nobody should really touch a ham sandwich until they change the system. You see, the pregnant sows are put into barred [pens] where they can't move. They cannot turn around, it's so tight, and there are bars in front of them, and they become really frenzied, so they grab hold of the bars and gnash their teeth, back and forth. We have films of this. There's no question it's a form of insanity. And they stay there for months.
"Then when they have the piglets, they're also shut up so that they can't make nests or do anything for fear they may lie on one of the piglets or crush it. . . . About 60 percent of pig farming is done like that. . . .
"I believe that if people knew what is happening, which is far worse than inhumane slaughter, if they knew what's happening to animals during the full course of their lives, they'll demand a change, and the change is not difficult to make. . . . But all the research and all the loans and all the tax advantages have gone into making farming an industry. And that's why it's called factory farming. So big business is now controlling the vast majority of animal and egg production. . . ." And the Stevenses put their mouths where their money is: they refuse to buy or use white veal, pork, or pork products in their home, and they buy their eggs right from the farmer -- no battery eggs allowed.
The heroes at the Stevens house are Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Rachel Carson (hers) and Adlai Stevenson Ii (his). Roger Stevens, an active Democrat, was chairman of the finance committee for the National Democratic Party from 1956 to 1960, chairman of the National Cultural Center under President Kennedy, special assistant to the president on the arts under Lyndon Johnson, and chairman of the National Council on the Arts from 1964 to 1969.
He has also been a one-man cultural renaissance as former president of the National Opera Institute, director of the Metropolitan Opera Association, former chairman of the advisory commitee of the National Book Awards, trustee and cofounder of the Board of the American Film Institute, former treasurer of the American National Theater and Academy, a member of the Council for the Arts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, director of the Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center, and a member of the Royal Society of Arts.
Mr. Stevens, who has extended hands across the sea to produce works by a series of British dramatists, from Stoppard to Pinter, was recently knighted by the British. Sir Roger says he doesn't have he faintest idea why he was dubbed that, but he's delighted with it, although of course he points out, Americans are not allowed to use the "Sir" when it's bestowed on them. It's simply not done.
Stevens is asked if he has hopes for Kennedy Center becoming the main national cultural center.
"Well, it could, of course. It's growing so fast here. In both England and France the capitals are the artistic center, the govenment center, and the financial center. Washington has been just a governmental center. . . . But whenever new ambassadors come here, most of whom . . . spent a few years here in the '50s and '60s on their way up to the top posts, they're the ones who say 'You can't imagine how it's changed. . . .'"
But he adds dryly, "I still have trouble with the New York Times. They don't like to admit that Washington exists."