History tells us that many great thinkers have achieved simultaneous yet independent scientific advancements. In 1958, Jack Kilby (Texas Instruments) and Robert Noyce (Fairchild) co-invented the integrated circuit. “Two separate inventors, unaware of each other’s activities, invented almost identical integrated circuits or ICs at nearly the same time,” notes Mary Bellis. “It seems that the integrated circuit was destined to be invented.”
Similarly, in 1992, two (or three depending on your view) people came up with the Breast Cancer Awareness Ribbon on opposite ends of the county. In Simi Valley, CA, Charlotte Haley, a 68-year-old housewife, started what the LA Times termed “a personal, simple effort to increase the collective consciousness about breast cancer by getting people to wear small peach-colored ribbons.” Haley’s maternal grandmother died of metastatic breast cancer and her sister and daughter had breast cancer.
Haley wondered why breast cancer remained incurable. She felt breast cancer had been put on the back burner and and dismissed as a woman’s disease. But as Times reporter Kathleen Hendrix noted “[Haley] is no rabble-rouser and frequently qualifies what may sound like a complaint with the protestation, ‘I’m not criticizing.’”
Haley, probably inspired in part by the red ribbons worn for AIDS awareness that were first seen in 1991, created her peach ribbons. She asked people to send her a SASE–each envelope was returned with five ribbons attached to cards that read: “National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 Billion. Only 5% goes for cancer prevention. Help us to wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.” She didn’t want to start a foundation or non-profit–if people offered her donations, she declined, instead urging them to emulate her work.
Meanwhile, across the country, Self magazine’s Alexandra Penney was looking for a way to pay tribute to Phyllis Starr Wilson, the publication’s founding editor of who died from metastatic breast cancer at age 60 in 1988. In October 1991, Self published its first Breast Cancer Awareness issue—Evelyn Lauder, Estée Lauder senior corporate vice president and a breast cancer survivor was the guest editor. In 1992, as Penney planned the magazine’s second Breast Cancer Awareness issue, she also took inspiration from the AIDS effort. “I was passionate about finding a symbol that would be equally influential and conspicuous as the red ribbon,” she writes in her 2010 memoir.
One of Penney’s colleague’s Nancy Smith, read about Charlotte’s Haley’s effort in Liz Smith’s syndicated column. Recalls Penney ["I said, ] ‘Let’s get her on the phone right away and tell her we want to cooperate with her and make the ribbon into a national symbol. We have the power of over two million smart and caring readers who will get behind this.’ But the peach ribbon lady wasn’t interested in our entreaties.”
In 1997, Penney told Sandy M. Fernandez a slightly different story. This version suggests a Kilby/Noyce-like independent, yet parallel, epiphany:
Penney had a flash of inspiration—she would create a ribbon, and enlist the cosmetics giant to distribute it in New York City stores. Evelyn Lauder went her one better: She promised to put the ribbon on cosmetics counters across the country.
Penney recalls the birth of the ribbon now from her office at Ziff-Davis. “You know how it is when things are in the air,” Penney says.
“A week later Liz Smith wrote about a woman who was already doing a peach-colored ribbon for breast cancer.” The woman was 68-year-old Charlotte Haley, the granddaughter, sister, and mother of women who had battled breast cancer. Her peach-colored loops were handmade in her dining room. Each set of five came with a card saying: “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”
Haley was strictly grassroots, handing the cards out at the local supermarket and writing prominent women, everyone from former First Ladies to Dear Abby. Her message spread by word of mouth. By the time Liz Smith printed her phone number, Haley had distributed thousands.
Then Self magazine called.
“We said, ‘We want to go in with you on this, we’ll give you national attention, there’s nothing in it for us,” Penney says. Even five years later, her voice still sounds startled by Haley’s answer. “She wanted nothing to do with us. Said we were too commercial.”
At the end of September 1992, Liz Smith printed a follow-up to Haley’s story. She reported that Estee Lauder had experienced “problems” trying to work with Haley, and quoted the activist claiming that Self had asked her to relinquish the concept of the ribbon. “We didn’t want to crowd her,” Penney says. “But we really wanted to do a ribbon. We asked our lawyers and they said, ‘ Come up with another color.”
They chose pink.
In Penney’s 2010 memoir, she credits Lauder as well the magazine’s publisher: “Evelyn is the one who made the pink ribbon for breast cancer a breast cancer awareness a global symbol. She is responsible for saving the lives of thousands and thousands of women…Without [publisher S.I. Newhouse] there would be no pink ribbon and he deserves credit as well. The impact and effectiveness of the pink ribbon was something that was achieved only through the activists and the power of an established publication with millions of intelligent readers.”
Where Are They Now?
Evelyn Lauder died in 2011 from nonhereditary ovarian cancer. In 1993, Lauder established The Breast Cancer Research Foundation to support clinical and genetic research on breast cancer. According to BCRF: Currently, 90 cents of every dollar donated to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) goes to directly to research and awareness programs. The Foundation is supporting over 185 researchers throughout 13 countries.
Alexandra Penney, author of the 1980s bestseller “How to Make Love to a Man,” edited Self from August 1989 to September 1995. She left her editorial job to become a full-time artist, photographing blow up sex dolls. She invested her life savings with Bernard Madoff. In 2008, Penney began grappling with her fears of being a bag lady as chronicled in three blogs for the The Daily Beast:
I began to think about my options: I’d have to sell the cottage in West Palm Beach immediately. I’d need to lay off Yolanda. I could cancel the newspaper subscriptions and read everything online. I only needed a cell phone. I’d have to stop taking taxis. And who could highlight my hair for almost no money? And how hard was it to give yourself a really good pedicure?
I’d love to know how Charlotte Haley, her husband Bob or daughter Nancy felt about what happened to Charlotte’s simple, grassroots campaign over the past two decades. I couldn’t find any recent interviews or information. In 1992, the LA Times asked Haley what her goal was. “What it says on the card–more research,” she said. “I guess the word is a cure.”
The Last Word…
Two decades ago, two (maybe three) people came up with a classy idea: pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness. One of them, Charlotte Haley, didn’t make any money from her idea and seems to have remained largely anonymous. As for Evelyn Lauder, de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est. Plus she has actually done quite a lot via The Breast Cancer Research Foundation. (The BCRF doesn’t have phone solicitors–beware of similarly named outfits banking on people’s confusion.)
I’d love to know what Alexandra Penney thinks of the pink ribbon backlash of recent years, but I suspect she’s got bigger issues on her mind.
From her blogs, Penney comes off as a combination of Lovey Howell crossed with Scarlett O’Hara after Sherman marched through Georgia. Weeks after the Madoff scandal broke, Penney marveled at taking the subway for the first time in 30 years. Then, en route to her Florida property, she stayed at a Hampton Inn for the first time: “It’s my new Ritz-Carlton!,” she enthused. ” The room is warm and comfy and inviting, with fluffy white duvet covers. There’s even a board with a pen handily tucked into a slot and you can rest a book or laptop on it.”
Self magazine’ s October 2012 Breast Cancer Awareness issue is probably locked up at this point. I would guess that the magazine probably does make quite a bit of money under the guise of creating awareness and doing good for people with breast cancer. I’d love to know if the magazine contributes all or some of the advertising profits from this issue to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation or some other worthy group.
In a video tribute to Evelyn Lauder and Self’s role in creating the Pink Ribbon, current editor in chief Lucy Danziger noted that early stage breast cancer is 98% “treatable to a cure.” She has nothing to say about metastatic breast cancer. At the end of the video, she invites viewers to take inspiration from Lauder. “What difference do YOU want to make?” she asks.
Well, as one of 150,000 U.S. people currently living with metastatic breast cancer, I want people to know that Oct. 13 is National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. In the U.S., incidence of stage IV breast cancer—the cancer that is lethal—has stayed the same over the past 20 years; screening and improved treatment has not changed this.
I am not among the millions of people who subscribe to Self. If I were, I would rip out every page of breast cancer related advertising and return it to editor in chief Lucy Danziger and tell her I support groups that support research. I would ask her to write about people with metastatic breast cancer and help readers understand why it is different from early stage breast cancer. I would ask her to do an article on recurrence. I would ask her if she thinks we have enough awareness.
I will return my pink ribbon in protest.
That is the difference I will make.
P.S. If anyone else wants to send their ribbons back, here is the address:
Editor in Chief
4 Times Square
New York, NY 10036