Program Co-Founder Carl Djerassi 1923-2015
Dr. Carl Djerassi passed away on Friday, January 30, 2015. He was 91. Dr. Djerassi led a life immersed in both science and the arts. A renowned chemist whose many achievements included the oral contraceptive and antihistamines, to name a few, was also a Stanford professor as well as a noted author, playwright and poet. A bibliography follows.
The Program’s friends, benefactors and former residents all appreciated Dr. Djerassi’s foresight in founding the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. After the tragic suicide of his artist daughter Pamela in 1978, Dr. Djerassi and his soon-to-be wife Diane Middlebrook, were in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy, by the Uffizi. There they decided, as a tribute to Pamela, they would convert his ranch in the hills over the Pacific into a place to nurture living artists.
He is survived by his son, Dale Djerassi, grandson Alexander Djerassi and stepdaughter Leah Middlebrook.
If you would like to send condolences to Dr. Djerassi’s family, address email firstname.lastname@example.org; ground mail to 1101 Green Street, #1501 San Francisco, CA 94109
From the Executive Director
Founders loom large in the evolution of nonprofit organizations. As hundreds of worldwide obituaries and news stories attest, Carl Djerassi loomed large in the world. Carl was more than “The Pill,” more than his patents, more than a scientist. He was a playwright, a poet, a professor and a philosopher. He was a father and a grandfather. He loved art and he respected artists. No small thing in this transactional world.
Past trustees gathered earlier this month for the annual Founder’s Dinner, the first without Carl in 21 years. In a moving tribute to his father, Dale Djerassi noted that, “Death is, in fact at the very root of the Program,” a reference to the suicide of his sister, Pamela (the Program’s namesake) in 1978. “I think we all thought Carl would live to be a centenarian,” he continued. “He wanted that extra digit, but cancer intervened.”
Because Carl had a reputation for being difficult, I met him with some trepidation when I was first hired. He was blunt and direct — I responded in kind. He loved dark jokes and wordplay. We enjoyed a good relationship that included a new understanding on his part about the Program’s fragile finances and buildings. He graciously funded improvements to the Artists’ House and a new roof for the Administrative Offices. He corrected my grammar, sent ideas for potential donors and, just within the past few months, shared his vision for the Program’s future.
Several artists and donors have asked if residencies will continue now that Carl has died, unaware that the Program has been an independent nonprofit for the past 20 years. (The Program supports itself via a wide array of foundations and individual donors.) The answer is a resounding, “ABSOLUTELY!” We matter too much to fail.
The family has created the Carl Djerassi Memorial Fund to honor his legacy. As you read the scores of testimonies that follow, please allow the enormity of Carl and co-founder Diane Middlebrook’s work to sink in. Thousands of paintings, poems, symphonies, dances, films and plays exist because of their shared commitment to living artists. The lives and careers of artists were transformed because of them.
Our mission is as simple as it is timeless. Artists need time and space to take risks. To nourish themselves. To JUST BE. The best way to honor Carl is to harness ourselves to his vision. To see what he saw. Artists and the artistic process matter.
Care & Respect,
Margot H. Knight
There are countless news stories about the man and his life. Here is a representative collection:
Audio/Video: From the BBC: Choose the Djerassi story on the menu http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02hw1qn
From BBC Inside Science: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05126zf
Praise and condolences have streamed in from friends of the Program and former residents. Here is a sampling of entries to Dale Djerassi’s and the D.R.A.P. Alumni Facebook pages:
Mauro Staccioli ( 1987, ’89, ’90, ’99) “I feel a huge sadness that makes it hard to say anything. I remember Carl with immense affection and esteem.”
Jerome Kitzke (2009) “I am sad to hear this news. Carl and my father were contemporaries, and when I was in residence my dad asked me if I got to meet him, which I was happy to report I did!”
Claudia Borgna (2009) “My deepest condolences as well as my sincere gratitude. My residency at Djerassi gave me the opportunity to create one of my best works and has become a foundational experience in my life.”
Leslie Hirst (2002) “I am touched and honored to have met Carl. His vision and legacy allowed me to have one of the most meaningful experiences of my life at Djerassi.”
Alicia Escott (2012) “…Take solace in knowing that someone who touched so many lives possesses the only sort of immortality we have in this world…”
Kay Sprinkel Grace, past trustee, “I feel so extraordinarily fortunate to have known Carl and been able to help in even small ways to keep his vision for Djerassi Resident Artists Program moving forward. He was, as they say, ‘one off’ and it is up to all of us to keep this dream alive and well.”
Ronee Blakley (2010) “…it is difficult to imagine him [Carl] resting, as now he is, after a life of action, caring and loving.”
Brian Goggin (1994, 2006) “[Carl] deeply affected my artistic practice and introduced me to a creative family I cherish. I am ever grateful. Never forget Carl Djerassi.”
Paul Payton (2014) “A towering polymath is felled. We are all diminished by his passing.”
Teri Tico “What a remarkable man. So ruggedly handsome and deeply thoughtful. So sorry for your loss.”
Cheryl Tan (2012) “… I felt so honored to have met him (and to have heard him read his play!).”
Julie Buelteman “The passing of an amazing and powerful man and father.”
Allie Light “He made the world better.”
Jose Valente (2012) “I’m grateful I got the chance to meet him and to be inspired by his generosity and wisdom.”
Sue Lopez “…he leaves a legacy that most men could only dream of.”
Ernst Nolte and Gabriele Braun, Hamburg, Germany: “It is a grievous loss to the art world and especially to all who knew him. His curiosity and openness, his extraordinarily wide knowledge, his intensity of life, and last, but not least, his charm made him a very special personality.”
Ken Aptekar (1991, 1994) “Carl’s fierce energy and belief in artists touched me personally.”
Max Evjen “It was an incredible opportunity to work with him on the NYC productions of Phallacy and Taboos. He will surely be missed.”
James Mazzeo “…hundreds of years from now when people read of this past amazing one-hundred years of our planet, your father will be amongst the great men of our time.”
Cynthia Taylor “I appreciate all [Carl] did to advance science, art with D.R.A.P., and so much more.”
Arian Ardie “The energy lives on.”
Chris Black (1999, 2003, 2008, 2011) “My time at the Resident Artists Program literally changed my life’s trajectory. Thank you, Dr. Djerassi. Rest in Peace.”
Aleksandra Vrebalov (2014) “What an amazing life and legacy!”
Mary Clare Griffin “As one of the Program’s chefs, I had the pleasure of having many late-night thoughtful and provocative conversations with both Dr. Djerassi and Diane Middlebrook. It was a rich and unparalleled time in my young life.”
Richard Einhorn (2013, 2014) “An extraordinary person in many, many ways.”
Clayton Campbell, artist/Campbell Consulting Group, “[Carl] led an interesting life and was a leader in the residency field in his own way. The Program remains an inspirational place, and Dr. Djerassi’s legacy is an important one.”
Jayson Smart, Rasmuson Foundation, “What an incredible legacy he left behind. This is a good moment to recall that legacy and extend our appreciation for the partnership we have with your artists program.”
Members of the private D.R.A.P. Alumni website can view the complete extent of gratitude, respect and condolences sent from alumni throughout the world.
The family has established a memorial fund in honor of Carl Djerassi.
ART///SKY Special Edition, February 2015.
Banner Art: Torii, Bruce Johnson, 1983. Photo N. Walsh.