A supermom enlists her kids in the cancer war

WHEN CAROL BALDWIN VISITED her Syracuse, N.Y., family doctor for a routine mammogram in June 1990, she had no time for complications. The youngest of her four screen-star sons, Stephen Baldwin, was about to get married before 400 people on Long Island, and the mother of the groom had plenty to do. "They kept taking X rays, and I thought, 'This is a joke,' " recalls Baldwin, who was then 60. "I laughed and said to the doctor, 'Come on, come on, I gotta get out of here. Stephen's getting married, and I haven't got time for this nonsense!' " But when the X rays were developed, doctors saw a small shadow in her right breast. Biopsies determined that she had developed a malignant tumor.

Baldwin had hoped to get by with a lumpectomy. But her surgeon and older daughter Beth, now 42, convinced Baldwin that her condition warranted a precautionary double mastectomy. On one point, however, she wouldn't budge. The surgery would have to take place after the wedding. As Stephen said, "I do," to bride Kennya Deodato, a graphic designer, Baldwin put on a happy face for her son's guests, most of whom knew nothing of her impending surgery. "You know where they got their acting ability?" cracks Baldwin of Stephen and her other sons, Alec, Daniel and Billy. "From me."

Since her diagnosis and recovery, Baldwin has proved to be a woman of many talents. No longer known simply as the brownie-baking matriarch of the ever-expanding Baldwin clan (no easy calling itself), Baldwin, now 67 and a grandmother of 13, has combined her family's star power and her own boundless energy to become a formidable figure in the national drive to raise funds for breast cancer research.

Soon after her surgery, Baldwin created a central New York chapter of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, a Texas-based charity which raises money and organizes support groups. Last year she founded the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund, Inc., to support research at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. On Oct. 18, at a Baldwin-organized gala that raised more than $500,000, the university's hospital recognized Baldwin's efforts by renaming its breast cancer facility after her. "She's tireless," says Michael Maffetone, the hospital's CEO. "She cares about every single person she meets." Her motherly warmth works wonders, adds daughter Beth. "People tell me you never say no to Carol Baldwin."

Before she could dedicate herself to healing others, Baldwin—whose husband, Alexander, died of lung cancer in 1983 and whose oldest sister, Mary Curry Martin, died of breast cancer in October—had to fight her own grueling battle against the disease. A diabetic since age 38, she endured an 11-month series of complications after her mastectomy, including two emergency operations to stem infections in her chest and six root canals for abscessed teeth. Losing her breasts also took an emotional toll. Before Baldwin's breast reconstruction was completed, Beth's son Jonathan, then 3, stumbled onto his undressed grandmother one day in the bathroom. Recalls a wincing Baldwin, who had moved into Beth's Syracuse home in 1989: "He said, 'Where are they? Mommy has hers.' " Even now, Daniel, 37, agonizes over his mother's health. "You're always thinking to yourself, is this remission or is she cured?" asks the former star of TV's Homicide. "I still have that fear. I don't think that ever goes away."

In part it was concern for her children and grandchildren that helped motivate Baldwin's activism. "I said to myself, 'I'm scaring the living day-lights out of them. I have to get myself busy doing something,' " she says. Stephen postponed his honeymoon to visit her in the hospital, and after she returned home, the brothers often spirited a few of Beth's six children off on holidays so that she and Baldwin could rest. One thing that troubled the family was Baldwin's initial emotional distance. "She was afraid to talk to us because she was afraid she would make us afraid," says Beth. "She's very strong-willed. If she wanted you to back off, you backed off."

Baldwin found solace by talking to volunteers from the Komen Foundation, whose ranks she quickly joined. Fellow breast-cancer victims "could understand without my frightening them," she says. From seeking support, she soon switched to providing it. Over the past few years, she has helped raise almost $1 million for cancer research. As persuasive as she may be, she recognizes the added draw of her star-studded family. Alec is sometimes accompanied to his mother's events by his wife, actress Kim Basinger. Billy's wife, singer Chynna Phillips, and Daniel's, former Homicide costar Isabella Hofmann, have also participated. "We're getting the word out much faster because of them," says Baldwin. "It's a very useful thing, being the boys' mother."

It was also, once, quite a challenge. "Oh, it was never-ending," she says of the chores of raising her now famous brood. "When you had Sunday dinner, you peeled 10 pounds of potatoes." Born Carol Martineau in Syracuse, where her father ran an insurance brokerage, Baldwin was the third of seven children. She met Alexander, then a college football player, when both attended Syracuse University. They wed in 1954 and moved to Long Island, where he taught economics and history, coached football and ran recreation programs at Massapequa High School. "When you have six kids, you do a lot to support them," says Baldwin, who took a market-research job in the '70s.

The boys may compete for credits these days, but their professional quibbles are nothing compared with their epic early battles. Baldwin remembers rounds of backyard football: The Turkey Bowl at Thanksgiving, the Baby Jesus Bowl at Christmas, the He-Has-Arisen Bowl at Easter. "They used to kill each other," she says. "It was supposed to be touch [football]. Well, you would have died when they came home!" She found herself forever stocking the fridge and baking her signature cakes and pies. "She was class mother, in the PTA, and soccer mom, and my dad was our Little League coach and Cubmaster," says Billy. "It was almost embarrassing how community oriented our family was."

Baldwin foresees more triumphs for her famous boys. Alec, 39, last seen opposite Anthony Hopkins in The Edge, often stumps for arts funding and Long Island environmental causes. "Alec is the oldest boy, and I think he considers himself the father of the family," she says. "Either Alec or Billy will be President of the United States," she predicts, straight-faced. "I'm going to be Rose Kennedy." Billy, a 34-year-old model turned actor (Backdraft), "is the peacemaker. I always thought he might be a priest because he just sees so much good in everybody." Daniel, the beefiest Baldwin, is "the athlete." And Stephen, 31, of The Usual Suspects, "we call 'the Flea' because he's here, he's there, he's everywhere." Her daughters, meanwhile, jokingly call themselves "the best-kept secret in the Baldwin family." Beth, whose husband Charles Keuchler is director of landscaping at a nursing home, works as a substitute teacher. Jane, 32, is a physical therapist in Syracuse, where husband Randy Sasso manages a car dealership.

The close-knit family's toughest test came in 1983, when Baldwin's husband died. With no previous symptoms, Alexander coughed up blood one day. Doctors found metastasized lung cancer. "He had never missed a day of teaching in 28 years, and he was dead in six months," says Baldwin. "He never complained," says Jane. "He always kept a stiff upper lip in front of us."

Just as her husband refused to allow the family to fuss, so Baldwin refuses to occupy center stage in her role as fund-raiser. "There are so many people who are doing just as much and even more," she says. But her children recognize her new status. "I know the geography of my family has changed since my mother went into this business," Alec told the Oct. 18 crowd of donors at Stony Brook. "I used to have girls come up to me and go, 'Hi, are you Alec Baldwin?' I'd say 'Yes, I am,' and they'd say, 'Could you give my phone number to your brother Billy?' Now it's become, 'Hi, are you Alec Baldwin? I just wrote a check to your mother's breast cancer research center.' " Then the actor added, with a smile, "I think we really know who's the real star of this family these days."

SAMANTHA MILLER
NANCY MATSUMOTO on Long Island

  • Contributors:
  • Nancy Matsumoto.