Barbara Lee: Wonder Woman

Since the late 1990s, ­Barbara Lee has ­wagered her fortune on building a world-class modern-art museum in Boston and trying to get a woman elected to the White House. Will this finally be her year?
barbara lee

Philanthropist Barbara Lee, photographed in her Cambridge office this spring. (Photograph by Tony Luong, hair and makeup by Maryelle O’Rourke/Team)

I did not expect a trampoline. I’d come to Barbara Lee’s office in Cambridge to talk politics and art, but quickly discovered that Boston’s most prominent activist/philanthropist is full of surprises.

“Wait until you see what happens,” says the 69-year-old Lee, pointing at the contraption in the corner. “Get on and then I’ll tell you.”

At 5-foot-2, Lee is a dynamo of energy and eye contact. Despite her height, she wears only flats, inspiring women in her office to do the same. After all, she doesn’t need to be tall to feel powerful. “I was a scrappy basketball player,” she says. “My office teases me about how I weave in and out of events and they have trouble keeping up with me.” Head of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation—a non-profit dedicated to fighting gender inequality in politics—Lee uses the trampoline to clear her head when she’s not busy getting women elected. “I don’t get a lot of time for breaks between meetings,” she says, “and so I will bounce on it for a couple of minutes.” But now, she insists, it’s my turn.

I step onto the blue rubber surface and gingerly take several trial hops, and within seconds find myself jumping and grinning. “You get on there and you smile automatically,” she says, beaming. “You feel uplifted.”

For nearly 20 years, Lee has made a career out of lifting women up from obscurity and into elected office, becoming a serious player on the national political stage through her combination of boundless energy and disarming warmth—to say nothing of the more than $2.5 million in campaign contribution checks she’s signed. A high school cheerleader, Lee still carries herself with the same athletic enthusiasm. “I am a cheerleader at heart,” she says, looking over at her office wall, where two corkboards are filled with campaign pins from some of the women she’s pushed to victory over the years—some 122 by her count. “I am a cheerleader for my mission.”

And yet, when she made headlines last December, it was not for her political work. Rather, she had announced that she would donate a significant chunk of her art collection (Lee is ranked among the top 200 collectors in America) to the Institute of Contemporary Art. Nearly a decade ago, Lee had helped turn her beloved museum around with a gleaming new home on the waterfront, spurring a contemporary-art renaissance in a city better known for its stodgy collections of Old Masters and Impressionists. Now she’s filling the museum with 43 works valued at more than $10 million.

While the high-octane worlds of modern art and bareknuckle politics may seem as opposite as cottage cheese and catsup, Lee unites them through a single mission: Every candidate and artist she supports is a woman. “I used to think art was my passion and politics was my mission,” she says with a wink. “Now I think of it as the art of politics and the politics of art.”

Lee’s life’s work has been to bring a world-class contemporary-art museum to Boston and to elect a female president of the United States. Now that the ICA is booming, and her old friend Hillary Clinton is poised to win the Democratic primary next year, Lee is finally on the verge of making both of her dreams come true.

 

Lee grew up in a middle-class Jewish home in West Orange, New Jersey—not white-picket fence, but close. The bubbly blond daughter of Sidney and Ruth Fish, a dentist and a homemaker, she traces her love of politics to her grandmother, who grew up in New York and watched the suffragists march up Fifth Avenue. “She was so inspired,” Lee says. “She went to vote that first election in 1920 and every election for 72 years after that.” She also encouraged Lee to assert herself and take leadership positions in Girl Scouts and student government, which were lessons in female empowerment Lee never forgot.

Meanwhile, Lee’s father exposed her to art, bringing her at 17 to the Museum of Modern Art for its 50th-anniversary re-creation of the Armory Show, the mythic 1913 exhibition that shocked the country with Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and officially kick-started modern art in America. When it came time for college, Lee decided to study education and French literature at Simmons. She regularly visited the old ICA as well as the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum around the corner. Just prior to graduating in 1967, Lee bought her first work of art—a Picasso print of a peace poster exhibited in the Simmons library. She paid $200 for it, all of her savings at the time. Even then, though, she displayed her business savvy, saying, “I had just gotten the offer for my first full-time, permanent job”—as a middle school French teacher—“so I knew I had an income going forward.”

Several months later, Lee’s life took a swift and unexpected turn. She fell in love with budding investment wizard Tom Lee and married him in 1968 at the age of 22. They moved to a house in Lincoln and had two children, Zach and Robbie. But Lee was hardly content to play the docile housewife. In 1972, at her first son’s first birthday party, Lee gave all the mothers the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine. She still has a copy in her office, which features the cover line “Wonder Woman for President” with a cartoon of the giant-sized superheroine striding through the city. Two years later, Lee’s husband used $150,000 in inheritance and loans to start the Thomas H. Lee Co., a private equity investment firm.

Though Lee had been dabbling in art for years, it was through her husband that she began collecting in earnest. Her mother-in-law, Mildred “Micki” Schiff Lee, was a successful print dealer and an early collector of the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. “She was a great inspiration to me,” Lee says. “The whole family was under her wing.” Subsequently, the couple started buying prints from his mother. “Every time my former husband expanded his office,” Lee says, the prints from his mother “would go into the office and we would buy more.”

And that office expanded a lot in the 1980s and early 1990s, as her husband’s company succeeded in the leveraged buyout game where others failed. Rather than busting up companies in hostile takeovers, he prospered by buying midsize firms in friendly acquisitions and restoring them to health before selling them for a wild profit. His string of successes—General Nutrition, Playtex, First Alert—was the envy of Wall Street.

For Lee, being newly wealthy meant taking part in the high-net-worth world of philanthropy and charitable organizations. She signed onto her first board when future state Treasurer Steve Grossman asked her to join the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. Others soon followed, including the Gardner Museum and the ICA.