William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience

William Sloane Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience

by Warren Goldstein

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A magnet for controversy, the media, and followers, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. was the premier voice of northern religious liberalism for more than a quarter-century, and a worthy heir to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. From his pulpits at Yale University and, later, New York City’s Riverside Church, Coffin focused national attention on civil rights, the anti-Vietnam War movement, disarmament, and gay rights. This revealing biography—based on unparalleled access to family papers and candid interviews with Coffin, his colleagues, family, friends, lovers, and wives—tells for the first time the remarkable story of Coffin’s life.

An army and CIA veteran before assuming the post of Yale University chaplain at the youthful age of 33, Coffin gained notoriety as a leader of a dangerous civil rights Freedom Ride in 1961, as a defendant in the “Boston Five” trial of draft resisters in 1969, and as the preeminent voice of liberal religious dissent into the 1980s. This book encompasses Coffin’s turbulent private life as well as his flamboyant, joyful public career, while dramatically illuminating the larger social movements that consumed his days and defined his times.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300135053
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 3 MB

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William Sloane Coffin Jr.



Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-10221-6

Chapter One

Early Years

On Top of the World

The arrival of grandchildren-first Ned in 1921 and then Bill three years later-so complicated the routines of the Coffin household and its staff that during Catherine's pregnancy the following year with Bill's sister, Margot, the younger Coffins decided to move into their own place. They bought a two-story penthouse apartment in a building then going up at 333 East Sixty-eighth Street. Fifteen floors above the street, designed with the aid of a Skull and Bones architect classmate of Will, the residence boasted spectacular views of Manhattan and the East River. Young Bill watched as the Empire State Building rose above the skyline; a photograph taken from the penthouse in the thirties provides a spectacular panorama of the city lights.

In New York Bill Coffin lived a full boy's life: he played at home, attended the Buckley School for Boys by day, and spent summers exploring the estate on Long Island. His "most intimate relations," he recalled later, were with servants who functioned as surrogate parents: the Swiss governess, Mademoiselle Lovey, and the chauffeur, Bach. The governess clearly adored the children, or at least the boys, who remembered her with tremendous affection. The chauffeur taught Bill to box, a school activity encouraged by the combative lyrics of the school song: "Face your foes and fight them, / Up, my lads, and smite them. / Better to die than to retreat." With Bach in attendance one Father's Day, Bill won Buckley's featherweight boxing title.

When not at school, Bill, Ned, and Margot lived and played in the nursery, where Catherine came to read to her children around suppertime. "I always pretty much thought of [her] as with Dad rather than with us," Bill Coffin recalled. "Mother was certainly a presence, but not in the same way that the governess was." Coffin père greeted his children in the nursery as well, to much clamor and chaos, but generally dined at home with his wife, or out, without children. "It was always a great surprise when Daddy came," Ned Coffin recalled, "exciting, but very fleeting." His father figured even less in Bill's early memories. At Catherine's instigation the children were expected to play instruments and perform for family events. Sunday evenings the family gathered for hymn sings and the "Kinder [Children's] Symphony," later succeeded by a recorder quintet.

Bill thrived at Buckley, where weekly report cards signed by parents gave numerical marks in all subjects, a class average as well as class rank, a graph charting academic progress, and comments from the division head. The elder Coffin added occasional praise ("splendid start," "better yet"), as did Catherine. William Sr. had his parents' penchant for moral instruction, to which he added the importance of physical toughening. He wrote the seven-year-old Bill from shipboard in 1930 to tell him about an English boy who "throws the big medicine ball with the men in the morning. Whenever the big ball hits him on the chest, it knocks him flat on his back. Each time he gets up smiling and says, 'very sorry sir, my fault.' The men like to play with this brave, English boy."

Bill frequently led his classes or was in the top two or three of the dozen pupils. One report card provided some early evidence of the way others perceived him:

Has no close friends but is generally well liked; the boys sometimes think he is unfair; is not always a good sport; is too independent to be very responsible to authority ... but likes public approval; is more matter-of-fact and logical than imaginative ... dislikes all criticism but acts on it; courteous; ready to fight at the drop of a hat; ... is ambitious and spurred by competition; has a cheerful disposition but is high-strung.

Outstanding in athletics; could do more in team play if he co-operated better.

This report describes a boy not quite ten, yet already formed in important ways: independent, aggressive, disliking authority, athletically competitive and ambitious, enjoying public approval.

Catherine doted on her children. Her letters to them (when she and Will took a brief hiking trip into New Hampshire) spilled over with imagination and charm, wit and care for their feelings. The children felt loved by their governesses; adults attended them; they lacked for nothing materially; and they never doubted that their parents loved them. Between the governesses and travel, the Coffin children grew up bilingual, heirs to their mother's love of all things French. All of the Coffins considered themselves citizens of a larger community and deemed it normal to take part in international affairs. Excellent examples of how the American elite brought up its children, Ned, Bill, and Margot grew up feeling responsibility for the world and considering public responsibilities quite natural.

Catherine Butterfield and William Sloane Coffin represented their class admirably. Their definition of public service had a limited reach. They preferred a certain distance from the poor people who were the "objects" of much public service-though they sought more of this contact than did most of their friends and family. And they quite naturally passed on the casual racial and ethnic prejudices and snobbery of their set. Still, they gave their children a sense of adventure, an inclination toward service, and, most important of all, the self-confidence that comes with privilege.

The Crash

Until she died, Catherine recalled this period as a golden, slightly unreal past, in the way fairy tales record the time of the happy realm ruled by the wise and good king. For underneath the apparent stability and charmed prosperity, darker forces were gathering. While the stock market crash in 1929 did not wipe out the Coffin fortune, the Great Depression that followed put enormous pressure both on the dividend-paying stock of W. & J. Sloane and Company and on the Coffins' many tenants. Not the kind of landlords who quickly turned people out of their buildings, the Coffins still had to pay the mortgages.

Will had assumed full management of the Henry William Company when his father died in 1928; it was a thankless position after 1929. Coffin had put a good bit of his money into his low-income housing projects during previous decades, buying up blocks of tenements and renovating them. But real estate ventures that had made money and sense in the twenties collapsed in the early thirties.

Even wealthy New Yorkers faced growing economic pressure in the early years of the Depression. During the family's European vacation in 1930, Catherine showed a concern for economies absent since her earlier days in France. She wrote her husband, who was sailing back to New York, about a club that was "cheaper and twice as interesting as most restaurants." In Switzerland she reported on the prices of rooms and offered him sympathy and comfort as he returned to the "prevailing gloom.... I know how much your morale and courageous point of view will mean to everyone so I try not to begrudge you to them." Making the most of his skill, and doubtless trading on his substantial reputation, Coffin managed to keep the family finances afloat, apparently without cruelty. "One of his biggest civic services," according to Catherine, "was the carrying of numbers of families during those dreadful years from 1931 to 1933." Still, unavoidable realities prompted painful choices.

The family's major income during what Catherine called "that rather desperate year of 1933" came from selling their exquisite property in Oyster Bay. And three decades later, Catherine confided to a young friend that in order to pay a long overdue bill she had had to part with her favorite fur coat. The Depression intruded on an otherwise celebratory occasion that year, as Will celebrated his fifty-fourth birthday at a dinner party at home in April. The children read him a poem (composed by Catherine, who loved doggerel), with recorder accompaniment:

For when the Depression hit us flat Art took no notice at all of that; And every March one groans to pay When tax collectors come 'round our way- A difficult situation for A gentleman going on fifty-four.

The levity could not mask the increasingly difficult reality. Not only a well-known businessman, by the early 1930s Coffin had become one of the most important philanthropists in the city. He contributed large sums himself and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a variety of causes. Despite her pride in her husband's achievements and growing reputation, Catherine began to worry about his "over-crowded, complicated existence." As the Depression deepened, she became anxious about the "endless problems and pressures from people and organizations ... that came to Dad day after day for solutions. He had been begged to slow down, but that was not his way."

The storm hit with full force on the afternoon of Saturday, December 16, 1933. Ned was celebrating his twelfth birthday; Bill was nine, Margot eight. Old family friends were being married that afternoon, and Henry Sloane Coffin, by then pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, was officiating. Will Coffin had gone to his office in the morning and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for lunch. On his way home he fell, appearing to slip on the museum steps. Helped up, he drove himself home, strode into his apartment and past the open nursery door where the boys were playing marbles, ignored their welcome, and walked straight to his dressing room. He lay down on his bed. When Catherine came in a short time later, she saw him motionless, "hands clasped on his breast"-dead. "Mercifully," she recalled many years later, "he had gone as he would have wished, in full stride, with flags flying. I remember realizing that, and feeling confusedly grateful for him, that those constant problems, of which he never complained, had fallen from his shoulders." Henry was performing the wedding, so she reached one of the Bonesmen. Soon the apartment filled, and the governess took the children first to a movie, then to their Uncle Henry's for the rest of the weekend.

Front-page news in the New York Times, Coffin's death received heavy coverage in all the newspapers. Editorials in the Times and the Herald pointed to his remarkable breadth of public service, to the way he married his appreciation of fine things to his belief that those less fortunate than he had a right to them. As president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Times observed, "he strove to popularize the institution." The large funeral drew the social, religious, business, educational, and social welfare leadership of New York, including such pillars of the American elite as J. P. Morgan, Elihu Root, Nelson Rockefeller, Marshall Field, and Steven C. Clark.

Catherine Coffin experienced the triple loss of a husband she adored, the principal source of her income, and the key to her position in New York society. Had the country not been in the midst of the Depression, or had so much of her husband's investments not been tied up in real estate, she could have weathered the gale, absorbed the loss, and carried herself as a dignified widow in the city.

Newspapers reported an estate worth at least $400,000: $50,000 trust funds for each of the children, and $250,000 in cash for Catherine herself. In fact, however, the real estate holdings were mortgaged to the hilt; the real estate business languished in the deepest doldrums; and tenants were not paying rent. The estate consequently was producing little income, while it had large debts and little liquidity. W. & J. Sloane stock-"once the Goose, which for decades had laid such golden eggs for the family stockholders"-was paying no dividends, and Catherine had no independent source of income. All three Coffin children attended private schools; the family relied on a substantial domestic staff; and they lived in a very expensive residence.

Catherine fled to her sister's for the holidays and then returned to New York for the spring while the children finished the school year. With the help of Will's friends and associates, she sorted through her affairs and decided on a course of action. "My first urgent job," she recalled, "was to find other places for the maids." Then there was the sumptuous apartment: "Who could buy in those impoverished days a seventeen-room, hundred thousand dollar penthouse with a large annual maintenance charge? Finally, the other apartment owners (Dad had been President of the corporation) agreed to accept it without payment." Of the other properties, some Catherine sold, some she paid lenders to take off her hands, a few she continued to hold. Henry had taken charge of the Henry William Company (which produced very little income) and looked out for what could benefit Catherine and the children.

But the main issue for Catherine was that "it was not feasible for us to remain in New York." Catherine was too proud to clutch at the edges of the society in which she had once circulated so confidently. She settled on Carmel, California: "The reputation of California schools, the climate, the low cost of living, the music festivals and experimental theater, the beauty of Carmel and its marvelous beach, also the proximity of San Francisco and of Cousin Natalie, whom I liked and who was concerned for us, finally tipped the scales." Whatever instinct led her far away, that of psychological self-preservation played a role. Far from New York she would not be reminded of losses at every turn.

However much she put a good face on the move, both for her own pride and for her children's morale, she was heading into exile. Even so, in the summer of 1934, these exiles sailed by way of the Panama Canal, where an admiral entertained them. For the millions of less fortunate Americans wandering toward California in search of work, these were years of searing poverty. Catherine's far different voyage to California landed her where her income from property and investments would still support her in comfort without her needing to work for wages. Still, the relocation meant a kind of hardship for her, if not for her children.


Met in San Francisco by their cousins the Greenes, the Coffins soon made their way to Carmel, where they rented a four-bedroom bungalow, and Catherine became "a very, very strong presence in our lives." In fact, recalled Bill Coffin, "the first very vivid memory I have [of her] is the day Dad died. I can still see her face-lots of tears, but very much holding it together and just telling us that Dad had died and that everything was going to be all right."

With no nursery in the one-story house, she became her children's primary caretaker. While Catherine did hire a maid, no phalanx of servants separated the adult and child worlds.


Excerpted from William Sloane Coffin Jr. by WARREN GOLDSTEIN Copyright © 2004 by Yale University . Excerpted by permission.
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