There’s only one Dede Wilsey on the Bay Area social scene. Over the years, Wilsey has earned a place on the Mount Rushmore of remarkable women who lead by giving and doing for the City’s premier cultural institutions. Her universal generosity to the arts, schools, local hospitals, health care organizations, children and family support agencies — hundreds of nonprofits — is the gold standard of philanthropy.
She was born Diane Buchanan in Washington, D.C. Her father, Wiley T. Buchanan Jr., was a successful businessman and served as a U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg and Austria as well as White House chief of protocol under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Her mother was an heiress to the Dow Chemical fortune. Wilsey could have simply lived the good life, but instead her hard work, extraordinary financial generosity and fundraising prowess have made a profound impact far and wide.
At 21 years old, Wilsey married shipping line executive John Traina, moved to San Francisco and had two sons: Trevor, who would also serve as a U.S. ambassador to Austria, and Todd, who would become a film producer.
In the beginning, getting used to the pace of California living was a transition for Wilsey. “People walked so slowly,” she recalls. “That bothered me.” But it didn’t take her long to immerse herself in the local arts and culture scene, raising money for the ballet, opera and symphony and becoming a fixture in the City’s well-heeled social set. After 15 years of marriage, she and Traina divorced, and she went on to marry real estate magnate Al Wilsey.
Over the years, Wilsey has become known for her glamorous parties, elegant fashion and exquisite jewels. But it’s her velvet-glove fundraising skills, particularly for the de Young Museum (more than $200 million), that elevated her to Hall of Fame status.
On a recent rainy afternoon, I sat down with Wilsey (and Bella and Mia, two of her four Maltese) in her Pacific Heights home, where we talked about childhood dreams, first impressions and her uniquely impactful life here in San Francisco.
Tell me, what was it like growing up as Diane Buchanan?
Washington was a wonderful, fun place in those days, and people weren’t mean. It didn’t matter what party you belonged to. So, even when I was a teenager, when I came back from Europe, we had a gang — the Nixon girls, the Johnson girls, some other senators’ kids because they’d be there for six years. The ladies went to the Congressional Wives Group. They did flower arranging. They did all kinds of things. It was probably a hundred ladies who were friends. And there was no animosity. I understand why Washington doesn’t function, because that’s gone. You have to be friends. You have to respect each other.
What were your dreams for yourself when you were a little girl?
I wanted to be a musical comedy star. My idol was Debbie Reynolds. I wanted to be like Debbie, and I went to every musical, because there were lots of them. I lived for those movies. I knew every word to every song. I knew every word in every movie. I knew every actor, every actress. I would go home and dance all over the place, thinking that [there] was no business like show business.
And did you ever pursue dancing or acting?
I did not. I always dreamed that one day I could go to Burbank and I could meet some of those people. I could have met them, because my parents knew a lot of people, because they traveled with the heads of state across the United States. But that didn’t transpire. And also, I probably couldn’t sing or dance either. When I was 14, my father said, “One day, you could marry the president of the United States. You could be the first lady of the United States.” And I said, “Daddy, I’d like to be the president.” That was not a good answer, in those days.
What did he say to that?
He was sort of horrified: “Women aren’t presidents. Don’t be ridiculous.” I realized there was a slight disconnect.
Did you ever think about going into politics?
Well, I met John Traina when I was 18, and that sort of curtailed my activities. And when I was growing up, even in college, you could go to work for Vogue, Bazaar, Town & Country, or a senator or congressman. Those were the acceptable jobs. I would’ve loved to have gone to law school. I would have loved to get that joint MBA-law degree, which wasn’t even available in those days.
You got married at 21.
I got married a little before my friends because I dropped out of college and went back to Washington. And then my father said, “You are not getting married yet. You are a teenager.” So he got me a job with a senator. And I loved that. I never thought I’d do that, but I learned all about the legislation. I knew every bill that was written. It was fun, fun, fun. But then, finally, John said, “You know what? You really need to marry me now, because I want to go back to California.”
So you moved to California in the mid- 1960s. What were some of your first impressions of San Francisco?
I remember we were going to a dinner in Marin County, and it was probably 6:30 or something. Still sunny. And we were driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, which I don’t think I’d done before. And I looked up and I said, “This just looks so Western.” I felt like I was at the end of the world. And I didn’t know anybody. Not a single person. John was working. It was very lonely to go downtown and be by yourself. I took courses at the Alliance Française. I took courses at USF. Anything to do something. And eventually, somebody asked me to join the [San Francisco] Ballet Auxiliary. I thought, I like ballet. Good. And I met some people, and then I got involved in more things, met more people. The people here were very nice.
You’ve been married to two very interesting men: John Traina, with whom you had your children, Todd and Trevor; and Al Wilsey [who passed away in 2002, followed by John in 2011]. Tell me a little bit about each of those men and the lasting impressions they’ve had on you.
They couldn’t be more different. Ironically, one was born September 26th; one was born September 27th. Now I’m waiting for Mr. 28! They both couldn’t have been nicer men. Wonderful with the children, thoughtful. John was much more social in the sense that he loved going out. He loved going to dinner. He worked for American President Lines, and then he worked for another steamship company after that. Al, on the other hand, was a totally selfmade man. His mother died when he was 15. His father died when he was 17. He was at USF in his freshman year. He had to drop out the second year to take over his father’s company, which was a small company. Al just loved work. And he always said to my kids, “You just can’t imagine how fun it is to work.” He also said, “You can’t imagine how fun it is to give away money, and you won’t understand it until you do it.”
Speaking of giving money away, you are well known for your philanthropy. Where did your desire to give back come from?
From my parents, really. My father was a big giver of scholarships. He always said, “You have to give back.” And my mother, of course, agreed with that.
Do you have a particular philosophy around giving?
I don’t think it’s a philosophy, but I think the thing that makes me happiest is to think that I could change somebody’s life. Because that’s really special.
Do you remember your first philanthropic gift?
Yes, it was $2.50. I was in seventh grade, and it was half my monthly allowance. Somehow, I got appointed chairman of this project, and it was to take a turkey and a Christmas dinner to an underprivileged family. I had to raise the money for all the trimmings. I thought, I’ve got to make a gift here. When I went to see these people, I thought, oh, I’m so lucky. I’m so lucky that I don’t have to worry about where my turkey is coming from or anything else. And that really makes you think, OK, I’ve got to do what Al Wilsey said: “Do more and more, if you can.”
You not only give a lot of money, but you raise a lot of money, particularly around capital campaigns and buildings: ICA [Immaculate Conception Academy], Grace Cathedral, UCSF and, of course, the de Young Museum. Why are you so good at raising money?
I think because I’m not afraid for someone to say no. It’s like a chess game. How am I going to get that person to give that money? It took me 10 years to get $10 million from Nancy Hamon for the de Young tower. I thought, I don’t care how many years it takes, I’m going to get that money. She was the most wonderful woman, but there were a lot of wonderful people. Frankly, that made it so fun. Particularly great women like Phyllis Wattis, Nan McEvoy, Nancy Hamon. These are women who have not been replaced, that I’m aware of, and I was really privileged to get to be friends with them. … But, you learn about fundraising. Every person is different. Everyone’s sensibility is different. And I tend to be too off the cuff with a quip, because I don’t take life too seriously. And I realized I have to be very serious with some people. And it’s hard because I want to say, “Oh, come on, just give me the damn money. What’s the difference? You’re not going to miss it.” But it’s fun.
You spent more than 10 years and raised more than $200 million for the de Young. Why was that project so important to you?
Well, it was 10 years. ’95 to 2005. And keep in mind, I had no idea what I was doing.
Sometimes that’s best.
It was perfect. I had done Grace Cathedral first. The Bishop [William Swing] asked me if I would do the campaign. And I said, “Could I think about it, please?” Because I didn’t know how to raise money. And so I forgot to call him back. And then one day he called me — I was standing in the kitchen, I’ll never forget. And he said, “I’m so happy you’re doing this campaign.” I said, “Oh no, no. Wait, wait, wait. I can’t. I don’t have any idea how to do this.” And he said, “Dede, the Lord will prevail.” And I thought, that is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. What am I going to do? And you know what? That money just came in and came in and came in. One day, I said, “Bishop, I don’t know where that money came from.” He said, “I told you.”
One of the things I admire about you is you seem to be unflappable. Where does that trait come from?
I don’t know. I think you can’t take things too seriously. And I don’t think you should take yourself very seriously. My father was a great one and my kids tease me about this — the power of positive thinking. I said, “Listen, if you believe something, it’ll happen. But you have to really believe it and you have to work. But you can make things come true. Never be negative about something, because if you are, it will not happen.” It’ll go south.
And have your sons taken that advice to heart?
I think very much so. The other day, I wrote to one of my sons and something had happened that was sad or bad. I can’t remember what it was now. Anyway, he wrote me back and he said, “Well, that’s true. But as my mother always says, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’” And I thought, yeah, that’s right. They got it.
I’m happiest when … I’m with my dogs or my children or grandchildren — home
The biggest risk I ever taken is … Marrying John Traina and moving to California.
My biggest regret is … I never had a daughter.
If I had a magic wand, I would … Try to make everybody I know who’s not happy, happy, for whatever reason.
Aside from your philanthropy, you are also known for your glamorous parties, elegant clothing and beautiful jewels. Do you think elegance is still in style in San Francisco?
No. The other night at Cosí [fan tutte] I was walking along outside the boxes in the mezzanine and I saw a woman in flip-flops. And I just stopped in my tracks. She was in a dress, but I thought, how could you enter this magnificent place where so much beautiful music [is created] — a history of it, almost 100 years — showing no respect? It’s not about, “Can I buy a new dress?” It’s about showing respect for the art form, for the people who composed and sang and spent their whole lives [perfecting their craft]. And so it annoys me when people don’t show respect for the art forms anymore.
Last night, I was thinking about some of the ladies who have left here. There were so many wonderful, elegant characters. Wonderfully charitable people who cared about the community. Before the opera, somebody always had a black-tie dinner. The biggest dinner I’ve ever had here was 72 people before the opera with three courses, using several rooms. But all that’s gone. And, really, it was very hard losing Ann [Getty] and Nancy [Bechtle] and Charlotte [Shultz] within such a short time, because they were all good friends. But they also were pillars of the community in their own way. And who’s taking their places? We’re getting a lot of new people in the opera, the ballet … The Nutcracker had 50 percent new people in the audience the other day. Wonderful. But we have to sustain it, because one day I’m going to be looking for Sister John Martin [Fixa] and all my friends somewhere else, and who’s going to support all this stuff? It troubles me.
It’s a very good question.
I had lunch with a very successful person [recently] and I thought, how am I going to say, “What do you do good? What do you give to?” I said, “What are you interested in? Do you like the opera?” “No, not really.” “Do you go to the museums?” “Not really.” “Do you go to the ballet? Do you like the symphony?” “No, not really.” “How about the boys and girls chorus?” I have lists and lists. And she said, we are building a hospital or a girls’ school, I can’t remember, in Africa. And, I thought, [that’s] very commendable, but you made all your money right here in the Bay Area. Why don’t you give something back here? I don’t care what it is. Anything that you like, because you owe it to this community that made it possible for you.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want dogs to be taken care of. I want to be sure the museum’s taken care of. I’d like to be sure there’s good leadership in all the things that I care about. It would be nice to be known that you were a character — that’s OK. But that you really cared about your community. And if you don’t care about it, go get another community. I think that’s a real problem in San Francisco right now, because people are just leaving and abandoning. You can’t leave this place. It’s in trouble. There’s no question. But don’t abandon it. Help. Let’s get together and figure out what we can do to make it better. I don’t know the answer, by any means, but I’m not ready to say I’ll go to Florida or someplace. If you’re growing up, you have the flu, you get the measles, you get whatever, it’s sort of like cities have the same thing. And we’re just not in the best time right now, but it’s worth saving.
You’ve had such a remarkable life. If you could relive any single day, what would it be?
Well, personal things, of course, when you get married, you have babies. That would be fun. And I only had two. I always wanted a girl. Had to wait 35 years to get a granddaughter, but it was worth it. I think, apart from the special days, probably opening the de Young. Because I never thought it was really going to be finished. And the first day that I went into that building without a hard hat, it was like a miracle. I was there with [longtime de Young director] Harry Parker. We hadn’t opened yet — and this guard called to me, “Hey, Dede, this is going to be great.” I said to Harry, “You know what? He’s right. If that guard who’s been walking around this dirt pit for five years believes this is great, that’s good enough for me. I don’t care if anybody else thinks so.” It just meant everything.