Harry Chapin's Family Fights to Carry on His Extraordinary Legacy of Compassion
When they speak of him, Harry Chapin's friends and family remember a magnificently restless, reckless man. "Harry was difficult to manage," says his half brother and personal manager, Jeb Hart. "You'd talk to him in the morning about something and by the afternoon he would have forgotten about it." Those who loved him say that the 38-year-old singer pushed himself beyond the limits of discretion. He took risks in his art: Such long narrative ballads as Taxi and The Cat's in the Cradle were out of step with the fashion of the times and were coolly received by many critics. And he took risks with his life: Between 1975 and 1981 Chapin collected at least six speeding tickets and 15 other moving violations before his license was revoked last March. "He was the worst driver I've ever seen," his brother James, 40, says. "He was always so distracted." Driving eventually cost him his life. Last July 16 his Volkswagen Rabbit, which he was operating illegally, was struck from behind by a tractor-trailer on the Long Island Expressway in New York. "Ironically," James says, "I don't think this accident was Harry's fault."
Chapin's death devastated his family, but it also has affected thousands of people and organizations, the beneficiaries of his extraordinary largesse. Long Island's Performing Arts Foundation, which Chapin helped keep alive with gifts and benefit concerts totaling more than $500,000 in five years, folded just after his death. It was only one of a dozen organizations that relied on Chapin for their subsidies. "Harry was supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, seven foundations and 82 charities," his widow, Sandy, says with only slight exaggeration. "Harry wasn't interested in saving money. He always said, 'Money is for people,' so he gave it away."
Despite his 250 concerts a year (at $5,000 to $40,000 per), Chapin died with a virtually empty bankbook. In the eight months since the accident his survivors have been meeting regularly in his 17-room house on Long Island Sound to find ways of continuing the causes for which he raised more than $3 million in the last six years of his life. Among these were ballet companies, theaters, symphonies, scholarship programs and even a small "alternative" newspaper in Flint, Mich. Chapin put several half brothers and sisters through college and paid for a full-time nurse for his 100-year-old grandmother (she's still living). His favorite and most ambitious venture was World Hunger Year, an educational organization devoted to eradicating starvation. "I've tried to keep as many of these things going as I can," says Sandy, and her newly created Harry Chapin Foundation has raised $200,000 to that end. In addition, each adult member of the family has taken over at least one of Harry's projects. James, a former history professor at Yale and textbook author, is chairman of the board of World Hunger Year. Even with the proceeds from a $150,000 insurance policy on Harry's life and a $180,000 benefit concert by Kenny Rogers last May, James says WHY is feeling the loss of Harry, who founded it in 1975. "We miss his ability to raise funds. What was unique about Harry was his ability to scatter seeds and see which ones would grow."
His family recalls that Chapin was always ambivalent about success—and chronically unable to say no. "There were concerts he had planned to do for himself that he turned into benefits at the last minute because an organization suddenly couldn't make its payroll," says Sandy. Adds James: "Harry enjoyed being rich and famous. But he also wanted to be good. That was the paradox of his nature."
Chapin called himself "the conscience of the entertainment world," and he gave time as well as money to the causes he championed. Four years ago he spent several weeks in Washington, D.C. lobbying to create a President's Commission on World Hunger. On the morning of the Senate vote he prowled the hallways of Capitol Hill buttonholing legislators. His politicking made a lasting impression; on the day he died, 13 Congressmen rose on the floor of the House to offer eulogies. "I've never seen an entertainer who dedicated so many hours to a civic cause," Ralph Nader once said. "A lot of them go to soirees, a lot of them give lip service, but Harry's commitment was unprecedented."
Chapin's altruism dates back at least to his 1968 marriage to Sandy. A dropout from the Cornell philosophy department, he was giving guitar lessons in his Brooklyn apartment and trying to write a screenplay. One of his first students was Sandra Cashmore, a woman eight years his senior with three young children. Sandy, who was unhappily married to a businessman, was studying for a Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia. She and Harry fell in love and, after her divorce, were married. Harry adopted her three children—Jaime, now 21, Jonothon, 19, and Jason, 17—and the couple also had two of their own, Jennifer, now 10, and Josh, 9. "Much of Harry's do-goodism came from Sandy," says Tom Chapin, 37, who is a folk singer like his late brother. "Sandy was always saying to him, 'So what if you become a superstar, what does it mean?' "
Harry's success meant a life wildly different from what the young couple planned. "I was going to be a professor and support him while he wrote the Great American Novel," Sandy says. "I thought we'd have a quiet life together as writers." Sandy didn't finish her Ph.D., but, like the hero of Taxi, Chapin never gave up his dream. "Harry was always talking about taking time off from concerts to write a book," Sandy says. "So I had been quietly saving money for the past four years. Otherwise I might have had to borrow from friends."
With a little luck, she won't have to. Her three older children were provided for by their father, now also dead, and royalties from Harry's songs pay Sandy's monthly bills. There is still a mortgage on the family's only luxury—an 80-year-old Huntington, L.I. house with a wraparound porch, a breathtaking view of the sea and a tennis court on manicured grounds. But Sandy says that she and the children will not mind if they have to sell it: "The kids were always embarrassed by this house."
Chapin's survivors are also trying to complete his unfinished artistic projects. Among them: an album of new songs, a feature film based on the story of Taxi, and a documentary about grandfathers. (Harry's own maternal grandfather, Kenneth Burke, won the American Book Award's Medal for Literature last year at the age of 84.) One goal of all these efforts is to improve Harry's reputation as a musician; many rock critics dismissed his songs as superficial and cloying. Says Tom: "We're very aware that Harry's personality was always larger than his music."
However history may rank Harry Chapin as a musician, he will surely be remembered as a good man. Says Robert Redford, who worked with the singer on Sun Day, a solar energy rally in 1978, "The kind of commitment Harry made is rare. In all my experiences in this business, I can honestly say that Harry was the most stand-up guy I ever met."
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