Thomas is maybe America’s many steadfast philanthropist. She additionally might it is in its most successful one.

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Marlo Thomas has actually a many on her mind. A manuscript to read. A podcast come record. A book to write. Her new Williams-Sonoma repertoire of entertaining essentials. Women’s rights. Gun regulate laws. And also always: St. Jude Children’s research Hospital. “I candid can’t call you whereby my thoughts of St. Jude begin and where castle end. If I’m not in a plank meeting, I’m ~ above the phone talking to a that company sponsor, working on a fundraising video, or speaking at a hospital event,” she says. Sleep is no escape. “I even dream about the kids and also their families,” she adds.

Fighting for those who room desperate is Thomas’s birthright. It’s November 1937, and Thomas’s dad doesn’t have the money to pay the $70 hospital bill for his wife, who has just given birth. Feeling hopeless, the struggling nightclub performer darts in to a church. The feels an inspiration to pray come St. Jude Thaddeus of his Catholic faith, the patron saint of shed causes. Danny thomas proposes a bargain: aid the first-time father administer for his family, and also in return he’ll build a shrine come the saint. He locations seven of the 10 dollars in his bag in the repertoire dish and heads back into the cold Detroit night.

Fifteen years later Danny Thomas is one of America’s most popular comedians. His sitcom Make Room for Daddy debuts in 1953, and during that is 11-year run he perfects the spit take. He performs in Vegas, hanging out v buddies frank Sinatra and also Dean Martin. He stays in one opulent Beverly Hills mansion v his wife increased Marie and their three kids, and the most remarkable component of this story: cutting board keeps his next of the bargain. The starts raising funds because that a hospital. Not a wing. Not a lab. He imagines an entire star-shaped clinical center committed to treating and curing youngsters with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. And this vision materializes in Memphis.

“Health justice” is a newly coined phrase, but Thomas grasped the ide early. His parents emigrated from Lebanon and resolved in Toledo, Ohio, a poor, multiethnic community. His mommy relied on she sister to deliver 12 babies. Two died. He shed friends come treatable illnesses choose appendicitis and influenza. “So my father sees firsthand the inadequacy of health care in this country: Rich youngsters go come the doctor; poor kids die,” states Marlo cutting board on a video clip call from she photograph-filled study in Manhattan.


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She speaks of St. Jude through the passion of a parent. She’s proud of its achievements, and she desires everyone to assistance it. In 2019 donations were nearly $1.8 billion. Thomas is grateful however not surprised. “It’s a success since it’s the actual deal,” she explains. “St. Jude actually saves children’s lives. And also we are exactly, 100 percent that we say we are. No patient pays because that anything. No invoice to anyone, ever. We want every kid to obtain the same first class care.”

When St. Jude opened, ~ above February 4, 1962, it was the first fully integrated children’s hospital in the South. The mission to administer travel, housing, and also treatment to patient regardless the religion, race, or the family’s gaue won status forced a substantial fundraising effort. Two generations the the Thomas family have met this challenge through a savvy mix of harnessing Hollywood talent, using classic grassroots strategies, and forming innovative sleeve relationships.

The “show have to go on” mentality extended to the pandemic lockdown. Under Thomas’s stewardship, fundraising easily pivoted. The classic St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend moved from an in-person occasion to a online one, drawing participants indigenous every state and also 72 countries. On giving Tuesday, the gaming ar raised $3 million in 10 hours. This firm sponsors stepped up.

While the hospital’s function is serious, the an outcome is joyful. “Comedy built St. Jude,” thomas says. “If you go, you’ll notification that you don’t listen crying there.” She recalls once offering a tour of the hospital and making the same observation in an elevator come reporters. Just then, with sitcom timing, the door opened and also a woman v a screaming, crying kid stepped in. Awkward. So cutting board leaned down and also asked, “What’s the matter, sweetie?” The woman answered, “Oh, she’s steering me crazy. She doesn’t desire to walk home!”

In the cutting board household, laughter and also service to be givens. Like most youngsters in Beverly Hills, Marlo and her younger siblings, Tony and also Terre, were given money ~ above Christmas. Uneven most, castle were then instructed to offer it away. By 16, thomas was walking door-to-door v a gun manage petition. The to work energized her. “I couldn’t wait to obtain up in the morning and get an ext signatures.”

After earning a teaching level from the college of southern California, Thomas adhered to in her father’s footsteps together a performer, creator, and also producer. Listing all her career achievements would fill an old-timey Manhattan phone book, therefore instead right here is one to mark from each te to show the breadth, depth, and quality of her work:


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At 18, Thomas provides her TV debut in The plenty of Loves the Dobie Gillis playing a part credited as “Frank’s girlfriend.”


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Thomas conceives and also stars as “Ann Marie” in That Girl, the an initial sitcom about a single working woman.


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Thomas conceives, executive-produces, and also performs on the stereotype-shattering album Free come Be... You and Me. A TV unique wins both one Emmy and also a Peabody award.


Thomas wins an Emmy for finest Dramatic Actress for Nobody’s Child, i m sorry spotlights mental wellness issues.


Thomas has a recurring component on Friends together the mother of Rachel, played by Jennifer Aniston, who becomes an ardent supporter of St. Jude. “She’s a saint,” Thomas states of Aniston.


Thomas has a four-episode arc together a judge on Law &Order: unique Victims Unit, due to the fact that no Hollywood job is complete without this credit.


2010s


Thomas stars on Broadway in the one-act beat George Is Dead, through her ideal friend, Elaine May.


2020s


As lock celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, Thomas and Phil Donahue publish What provides a marriage Last and launch a delightful podcast, Double Date.


At one time cutting board did not believe she would ever marry, however in 1977 Marlo walk on Phil Donahue’s Chicago-based speak show. Lock bantered and blushed in a real-life romcom meet-cute. When the display ended, Donahue declared,“You room really fascinating.” cutting board responded, “Whoever is the mrs in your life is really lucky.” shortly she ended up being that girl.

On the podcast Thomas describes the courtship succinctly. “We fell in love. We had dinner. We went to bed. And also that was it.” as soon as asked to choose her two favorite photographs in she study, she soon reaches for among her and also Donahue in Rome. The two sit on a sporty Vespa. She arms are wrapped roughly his waist and also her smile is radiant. The second photo is indigenous Christmas morning 1990. In ~ the time, Thomas and Donahue were living in Connecticut, if her family remained in California. She would certainly cry throughout the holidays, emotion lonely, so that year Donahue cajoled her parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews right into coming east. Thomas gave them every white terry fabric robes, which castle wear in the photo. Rather of gifts, family members members to be asked come prepare miscellaneous creative. A nephew made a documentary. A nephew wrote a song. “It was a great Christmas,” cutting board says. “And then, six weeks later, mine father was dead.”


Danny Thomas started the American Lebanese Syrian associated Charities (ALSAC) in 1957 come raise funds and awareness because that the hospital, and also he remained devoted to this reason until his death. That made it clear to his youngsters that structure St. Jude to be his promise and also not their burden. Still, all 3 took increase the cause willingly. “My father was an extremely proud of his heritage,” thomas says. “And he want to say to America, ‘You let united state in, and also see? that was a good idea.’”

Next the tapped his friend in entertainment, arranging benefit performances through Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe, and Sammy Davis Jr. Early on, Elvis Presley donated the presidential yacht, the USS Potomac, come St. Jude. (Presley had purchased the potomac as component of a tax plan by his infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Thomas flipped the yacht because that $62,500.) St. Jude fundraisers would come to be some the Hollywood’s many glamorous galas. Bette Midler performed. Robin Williams, that starred in Dead Poets Society, i beg your pardon was developed by Marlo’s brothers Tony, performed. One year invoice Cosby lugged down the house. (When asked around the Cosby revelations and also conviction years later, Thomas said she to be “absolutely floored.”)

These dinners took 7 months to plan, and also while a well-crafted, heart-wrenching video clip could relocate David Geffen come give an additional million dollars, St. Jude had even loftier goals. In 2004 Thomas launched the many thanks + offering initiative, i beg your pardon targeted retail sponsorships approximately the holidays. “It was going to have to be a $100 million regime or there to be no allude in law it,” she says. Eight years later on they blew previous that goal. Meanwhile, individual St. Jude donors organize an astonishing 30,000 fundraising events each year that variety from dog washes to yogathons to a SpaceX to plan led by commander Jared Isaacman. (Isaacman learned about the hospital from a LasVegas benefit—so don’t publication those rubber chicken dinners simply yet.)


Thomas appeared on Friends with Jennifer Aniston, who came to be an ardent support of St. Jude. “She’s a saint,” Thomas claimed of Aniston.
When the hospital opened, the survival price for childhood leukemia was 4 percent. This day it hovers about 94 percent. The over-all survival price for childhood cancer has actually jumped native 20 percent to much more than 80 percent end the very same period. St. Jude has added to these breakthroughs. In 1996 St. Jude researcher Peter C. Doherty was co-winner of the Nobel compensation in medication for occupational on the immune system. (Doherty currently runs an eponymous academy in Australia the is helping to develop two Covid-19 vaccines.) In 1983 St. Jude likewise became the first institution to properly cure sickle cabinet anemia (a problem that largely strikes children of african descent) through a bone marrow transplant.

Thomas speaks through ease around the research; phrases favor “the four species of medulloblastomas” role off her tongue. (And yet, she has actually never play a medical professional on TV.) her eyes flash through excitement when talking about the hospital’s brand-new proton beam, i m sorry is used on brain tumors in children. (“It’s the tiniest beam ~ above the planet!”) just like her 16-year-old self, she appears energized by the cause.

When president Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of freedom in 2014, the engraving concluded through “Ms. Cutting board inspires us all to dream bigger and also reach higher.” in ~ the consciousness Thomas’s think turned to her grandparents. She imagined them arriving with their scant belongings, happy to be in a nation that available opportunity. “I tried not to weep, yet the tears were coming down my face,” cutting board says. “I kept thinking, This is the opportunity of America. This is why immigrants space so important. We must psychic that.”

America gave Thomas’s grandparents hope, and in return her household has provided so much hope come others. Through vision, dedication, and generosity, possibly some lost causes aren’t so shed after all. “My brother and I say, ‘Wouldn’t it it is in nice if we might turn St. Jude right into a casino someday?’” she says, flashing one last gorgeous smile.

Photographs through Amanda DemmeStyled by Ryan Young

In this story: Hair by Steven Rice. Makeup by Eric Barnard. Tailoring by Jessica Yuen.


On ours cover: Marlo Thomas, photographed through Amanda Demme. Styled through Ryan Young. Max Mara dress, MaxMara.com. Tiffany & Co. Earrings, Tiffany.com. Hair by Steven Rice. Makeup by Eric Barnard. Tailoring by Jessica Yuen.

Lead image: Marlo Thomas, photographed at her Manhattan home. Akris sweater, Saks.com. Brunello Cucinelli pant, brunellocucinelli.com. Pomellato earrings, bracelet, and also rings, pomellato.com.

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A version of this story appears in the Summer 2021 issue of town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW


Nell ScovellNell Scovell is a television and magazine writer, producer, director and collaborator top top the #1 new York time bestseller _Lean In: Women, Work, and the will to Lead.
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