Paper, Polo, Rock and Ruin
By Megan McKinney
Politics and “Hair”
Continuing from last week’s segment regarding Michael Butler’s extraordinary friendship with the reclusive Greta Garbo. The great film star’s friend, director Edmund Goulding, also introduced Michael to Joseph Kennedy, who entertained both Goulding and young Butler at the family’s Hyannisport compound. Soon Michael was supplying the sexually insatiable ambassador with girls and, through old Joe, he met and became a great friend of the future President.
Michael then owned the Coradina, a large gaff-rigged schooner, one of the largest sailing boats on the high seas. With Jack Kennedy, he did serious sailing, some of it in the Mediterranean when the Senator was on crutches from a back operation. Readers of an earlier issue in this series will remember a reference to the “triadic” Mediterranean cruise of Michael and JFK with a beautiful woman on the Coradina reported by Charles Kaiser in his 1997 book The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996.
According to Kaiser, “In Newport a year later, Butler and Kennedy repeated the same arrangement on another sailing trip with another “very famous woman.”
Before long, Michael also became Senator Kennedy’s Special Advisor on the Middle East, an area in which Michael was working a great deal in the late 1950’s and from where the senator needed accurate information. He also performed services for the senator in India and, when Kennedy decided to run for President, Michael became deeply involved, supplying both money and Butler Aviation aircraft to the campaign.
Michael was devastated by the assassination of President Kennedy; therefore when Robert Kennedy called, asking him to manage Illinois Governor Otto Kerner’s shaky re-election campaign against Charles Percy, he did. The campaign was successful and Michael became even more intrigued by politics.
In 1966, he ran as a Democrat for state senator from Du Page County, where a Democrat had not been elected since the Civil War. His outrageous—however award-winning–advertising campaign depicted him with a Rolls Royce, dressed in riding boots and jodhpurs. His campaign slogan was, “Michael Butler Likes Polo Ponies, Parties, And Pop Art. Does That Make Him A Bad Guy?” Unsurprisingly, he lost the election by a two to one ratio.
Michael, who has been called “the world’s hippiest millionaire,” was thinking of running for office again just before he produced Hair. He later recalled the show’s genesis on his web site, www.michaelbutler.com, “Sitting in one of my haunts, the Racquet and Tennis Club on Park Avenue, I idly picked up The New York Times. In the theatre section there was an ad for a show I’d never heard of: Hair–the American Tribal Love Rock Musical–that included a famous photo of five Indian Chiefs I had known all my life. I thought, ‘My God — the Indians have got a show together!’ Of course, I bought tickets to the first preview. With my great friends, Nancy Friday and Olivier Coquelin, I went to see the play about the Indians. Did I get a surprise! What I saw was the strongest anti-war statement ever written. I realized at that moment that this show could express, to my constituents in Illinois, my newfound attitude about the war in Vietnam. I asked my close friend and associate, Roger Stevens, then head of the Kennedy Center, to arrange an introduction to Joseph Papp, impresario of the Shakespeare Festival, who produced Hair.
“When I met Joe, I asked him if they would consider bringing the show to Illinois. He replied, ‘No–we present something for a few weeks, then close it and go on to another.’ Disappointed, I returned to Oak Brook. When I returned home, I found a message from Dr. John Bishop, who was in Springfield taking care of [the governor’s wife] Helena Kerner. Dr. Bishop said, ‘I was in the car with Otto and Dick Daley and Daley said, ‘Young Butler can win, but he must cut his hair’.’ And the very next day Joe Papp phoned from New York. ‘We have been reviewed–and they are very good. Would you like to do a co-production with us in New York City?’ I never looked back.”
When Hair opened at the Biltmore Theater on Broadway in April 1968, it created an incomparable sensation. It was then the most successful piece of musical theater of all time, running for 1,742 performances in New York alone. Additionally almost 30 companies of the show played in 17 countries, including one in Communist Yugoslavia. Michael made roughly $10 million from Hair, and spent it on parties, private planes, a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce and lived most of the time on a 150 acre estate outside of London.
The Butlers of Oak Brook: Paper, Polo, Rock and Ruin, Megan McKinney’s series of eight articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Next Sunday: The Other Butler Heirs Mid-Century
Robert F. Carl