In 1876 Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a railroad tycoon, offered to support Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky with 6,000 rubles a year, enough for him to quit his teaching job. Her condition was that the pair could never meet, though Tchaikovsky was still periodically invited to her large estate. On one visit, while taking a walk, he failed to avoid her. “Although we were face to face for only a moment, I was horribly confused,” he later wrote. “I raised my hat politely.
Maria Theresa, archduchess of Austria, queen of Hungary and Bohemia, advised son Ferdinand in 1771 not to support the Mozart family of musicians. “You ask me about taking the young Salzburger into your service. I do not know why, believing you have no need for a composer or useless people,” she wrote. “Furthermore, he has a large family.” The Mozart family had four members. Ferdinand did not make an offer.
Country musician Garth Brooks sued an Oklahoma hospital over its handling of a $500,000 contribution he made in 2005. Brooks wanted a wing named after his late mother and claimed hospital officials showed him mock-ups with her name in neon lights; the hospital said the donation had been anonymous and that Brooks only established his conditions afterward. Brooks won the lawsuit, receiving twice the amount of his original gift.
Ancient Greeks and Romans expanded the concept of philanthropy—love for mankind— to include animals’ love for humans. Plutarch called the fawn “tame and philanthropos.” Aristotle referred to the snipe and jackal as philanthropoi. “It is necessary that they not only love humans,” wrote Xenophon of horses, “but that they long for them.”
In the spring of 1914 the International Workers of the World formed the Unemployed Union. As a publicity stunt the group published fake extracts from first-century Roman press in The Masses magazine. One item carried the headline JESUS OF NAZARETH LEADS HOBO ARMY ON JERUSALEM. “Softhearted sympathy is misplaced,” it read, “as we are informed from reliable sources that the Judean rioters belong chiefly to the class of professional unemployed and habitual roustabouts.”
Leo Tolstoy, who opened a school for peasant children on his estate and organized relief efforts during famines in 1873 and 1891, later lost his charitable spirit. In 1903, in response to a visitor describing the poor at Moscow’s Khitrov market eating rotten eggs, fish, and fruit, Tolstoy declared that drunkenness and debauchery were responsible for such conditions, not misfortune. “They always have been bosyaki,” said Tolstoy about the beggars there, “and they always will be. They drink, are lazy, and that is all there is to it.”
While running the Vincent Astor Foundation, Brooke Astor established in 1991 an organization that provided furnishings to formerly homeless families, inspired by visits to two such families in Queens whose apartments were bare. “How can you build a new life if you don’t have any furniture?” Astor asked. “To move into a place and just sit there with a bag and not even have a teacup is terrible.”
In 1956 a shelter run by Catholic social worker Dorothy Day was ordered closed by New York City for being a firetrap. Day was fined $250. On her way to court, she passed a group of needy-looking men, one of whom gave her a check and said, “I want to help out a little bit toward the fine. Here’s two-fifty.” Based on the man’s shabby dress, Day assumed he had given $2.50; later she noticed the check was for the full amount and signed by W.H. Auden, who had read about her case and come to help. “Poets do look a bit unpressed, don’t they?” Day said.
In 1982 John Candelaria, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was given $238 in per diem meal money while on a bus to Wrigley Field from the team’s hotel in Chicago. Candelaria threw his cash out the bus window, a few dollars per toss, much to the surprise of those on the street. “It just seemed like the thing to do,” Candelaria told a reporter.
When the captain of a French ship landed on the west coast of Australia in 1802 and encountered the local Bunurong people, he stripped down and exposed his genitalia, hoping to dramatize his common humanity for the natives. The Bunurong exchanged curious looks before fleeing in dismay.
William Gladstone, prime minister of England four times between 1868 and 1894, walked the streets of London at night hoping to rescue prostitutes from their lives of vice. In 1848 he cofounded the Church Penitentiary Society Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women; he would, it is said, offer streetwalkers a place to sleep, protection from their procurers, and a chance to give up their way of life.
After serving a three-month prison sentence in 1927 for oltraggio, the crime of uttering insults against public figures, Italian workman Aristido Beccatti owed a 300-lire fine. Upon being told of the situation, Benito Mussolini, the insulted public figure, sent Beccatti a 500-lire check.