Babette Lewyt, rescuer who rescued the North Shore Animal League

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2013:

Elisabeth “Babette” Lewyt, in her nineties and believed to have been close to 100, died on December 10, 2012. A resident of Sands Point, Long Island, New York, Mrs. Lewyt had headed the North Shore Animal League in nearby Port Washington since 1969.

Born in Chartres, France, “she would often take in stray dogs and cats, earning her the nickname ‘Saint Babette,’” wrote Christian Science Monitor staff writer Kirsten A. Conover in 1996. As quiet as her late husband Alexander M. Lewyt was ebullient, including in developing the promotional techniques that are now almost universal in humane work, Mrs. Lewyt disclosed little else about herself before their marriage in 1956.

Whether Mrs. Lewyt had any formal association with humane work in France is unknown, but the SPA de Lyon, 240 miles east of Chartres, founded in 1853, is among the oldest humane societies in the world, had extensive youth outreach programs in the early 20th century similar to the Bands of Mercy promoted in the U.S. by the American Humane Education Society subsidiary of the Massachusetts SPCA, and may also have influenced Princess Elizabeth de Croy, who was born about halfway between Lyon and Chartes in 1921 and founded the Refuge de Thiernay sanctuary in 1968.

Alex Lewyt, recalled Sarah Lyall of The New York Times after his death in 1988, was “born in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan in 1908, the son of an Austrian immigrant who ran a shop near Gramercy Park in Manhattan that made metallic gadgets like coat hangers. By the time he was in high school, he was working for his father, fashioning such things as metal holders for harmonicas. When he heard an undertakers’ supplier complain that it was hard to fasten neckties around corpses, Alex, not yet 16, devised a new kind of bow tie that would clip on. He sold 50,000 of them.” Inheriting the family business at age 18, Alex Lewyt continually expanded and diversified, despite the Great Depression, adding clients including International Business Machines Inc., best known as IBM.

Employing more than 500 people at the outbreak of World War II, the Lewyt Corporation added another 1,500 people almost overnight to make bomb sights, radar and electronic equipment, a night vision device that remained classified until 1955, and a machine Alex Lewyt invented to clean naval gun barrels at sea. Overhearing a female assembly line worker remark that the gun-cleaning device could be adapted to household cleaning, Lewyt designed his most famous invention, the Lewyt vacuum cleaner, and by December 1944 was already preparing to transition from wartime production mode to producing vacuum cleaners and other devices for the post-war civilian sector. Lewyt also made popcorn poppers and air conditioners, and continued to make equipment for military use as well, landing a $16.7 million contract with the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1950.

The Lewyt vacuum cleaner, however, remained his greatest success before the Lewyts took over the North Shore Animal League. Jeffrey Gitomer, author of The Sales Bible, in 2003 recalled that Lewyt advertised his vacuum cleaner “before production was finished and created a demand in the market with no product, a market vacuum, if you will pardon the pun. When the cleaner finally emerged on the market, it was swept up, generating $4 million in sales in four years.” Much of Lewyt’s success resulted from swiftly recovering from serious mistakes. Recalled Sandy McLendon of Jetset, also in 2003, “Lewyt’s round canister could have been used as a prop spaceship. The machine was extremely well-made, but it had no wheels or runners.” Run over accidentally by a grocery store delivery boy named Martin Roche, Lewyt reaped a publicity bonanza by awarding Roche a four-year scholarship to Columbia University in exchange for the right to add the wheel arrangement from Roche’s improvised grocery cart to the Lewyt vacuum cleaners.

“Another Lewyt problem was the name,” McLendon noted. “Almost no one reading it could pronounce it. Finally, some unsung advertising genius,” probably Lewyt himself, “came up with the slogan that solved everything: ‘Do It With Lewyt.’ It says a lot for the innocence of the era that the ad raised sales, not snickers.” Alex Lewyt is today noted by online sources for predicting to The New York Times in 1955 that “Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years,” and for having turned down a chance to sponsor The $64,000 Question, which became the biggest hit in early television. But Lewyt may have been best known at the time as a wealthy bachelor, who enjoyed speedboating, had been featured on the cover of the March 1950 edition of the popular magazine Collier’s, and was frequently mentioned by syndicated social columnists Walter Winchell and Hal Boyle, among others.

More than 3,500 women wrote to express interest in Lewyt after John MacLeod profiled him in the November 12, 1950 edition of The American Woman, but Lewyt reportedly found none of them more interesting than his vacuum cleaners. Instead, looking for things to do with his money, Lewyt spent much of 1950 building an immense collection of antique clocks. By 1952 Lewyt was living part-time in France, and had begun collecting art. He recounted to reporters that his first art acquisition of note came as a boy, when he traded five jelly beans for a Babe Ruth baseball card, just before Ruth emerged as a superstar. The first published mention of Elisabeth Lewyt came when Alex Lewyt bought a Maurice Utrillo painting of Chartres for her as a wedding gift.

For the next dozen years Mrs. Lewyt was quietly in the background as Alex Lewyt accepted the French Legion of Honor for wartime service to France, founded a Museum of Household Implements directed by his sister Margaret, started a program to employ senior citizens in 1957, sold the Lewyt Corporation in 1973, and collected paintings by Cezanne, Degas, Bonnard, Renoir, and most famously, “The Man With the Axe,” by Paul Gauguin. Many of the paintings were later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Believed to have been Alex Lewyt’s art scout and advisor, Mrs. Lewyt was known to have eight purebred golden retrievers.

While Alex Lewyt built his manufacturing empire, Long Island animal advocate Marianne H. Sanders on May 1, 1944 incorporated the North Shore Animal League to bid for the Town of North Hempstead animal control contract, in competition with laboratory suppliers. Her inspiration was apparently the work of Bide-A-Wee Home founder Flora Kibbe, who had opened shelters in New York City, Wantagh, and Westhampton before her death in 1943. Sanders won and held the Town of North Hempstead sheltering contract for 13 years by subsidizing the work with thrift store proceeds. Sanders sought from the outset to maintain a no-kill policy for healthy dogs. Cats arrived only when North Hempstead residents brought them. The cats were killed, at first, but within a year Sanders started a cat adoption program. North Shore rehomed 73 of 342 dogs handled in 1946, an outstanding record for the era.

By 1956, serving seven of the nine Great Neck villages, North Shore managed to return 250 dogs to their homes, adopting out 308. Sanders in 1957 retired to California, but returned to help the shelter in the early 1960s. As the Long Island human population grew, North Shore had to choose between being no-kill and doing animal control. It gave up the animal control contracts, at huge loss of revenue. Only 129 animals were rehomed in 1968.

The North Shore Animal League had no paid staff and was on the verge of dissolution when Mrs. Lewyt heard about the shelter and the situation, and brought Alex Lewyt to a mid-1969 board meeting. “My wife adored animals, and I adored my wife,” Alex Lewyt recalled. The Lewyts recruited their neighbor, Perry Como, to serve as celebrity chair of a membership drive. They drove through affluent Long Island neighborhoods collecting the names of people with dogs to call. The U.S. Postal Service had just been privatized in 1969, and had just introduced bulk mail presort discounts, so the Lewyts brought in experienced direct mail marketing help from Reader’s Digest, headquartered nearby on Long Island, and introduced a sweepstakes fundraising promotion modeled after Reader’s Digest’s own. Most significantly, the Lewyts featured Como in prominent paid advertisements to promote shelter adoptions.

Never before had a humane organization paid to advertise adoptions, in competition with pet stores and breeders. Conventional humane societies fumed that North Shore was treating animals like commodities––while those humane societies killed more than a quarter of a million dogs and cats in New York City per year, plus another quarter million in nearby suburbs. By 1972 North Shore had pushed adoptions up to 3,000 per year, leading the world, and was often running low on adoptable animals. Mrs. Lewyt began to make headlines by driving her station wagon to nearby pounds and paying $10 apiece for as many dogs as they were willing to release from death row.

As revenue rose, North Shore added professional staff, including 10-year ASPCA humane officer Mike Arms as director of shelter operations in 1976, and dog trainer Charlie McGinley two years later, to help prepare dogs rescued from pounds for successful adoption. Heading the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, California since 1999, Arms in 20 years at North Shore boosted adoptions to a peak of 44,000 per year. Arms also introduced adoption co-promotion with other shelters, including the spring Pet Adoptathon, begun in 1995, now celebrated worldwide. After moving to the Helen Woodward Animal Center, Arms in 2000 started the similar Home 4 The Holidays program. Arms extended Mrs. Lewyt’s animal acquisition outreach into the rural South. Instead of merely paying the redemption fees for adoptable animals, North Shore in 1990 began making grants to shelters to fund dog and cat sterilization. Shelters participating in the program advertised, “Bring us the litter and we’ll spay the mother for free.” Thirty-one shelters participated in the shelter transport program by 1992. Humane relocation was attacked by North Shore critics as “relocating pet overpopulation,” but cities whose shelters joined the North Shore program were soon killing far fewer homeless animals.

Shelter killing in the New York City area meanwhile fell faster than anywhere else in the U.S. The Lewyts in 1976 co-founded the Northeast Animal Shelter, of Salem, Massachusetts. Operating two shelters so far apart proved impractical. An amicable separation followed. The Northeast Animal Shelter also pioneered adoption transport, beginning in 1990. The main North Shore shelter gradually expanded to occupy most of a large city block, surrounding the original shelter location at the end of an alley now called Lewyt Street. After Alex Lewyt’s death, Mrs. Lewyt mostly entrusted the management of the North Shore Animal League to the staff, but continued to visit the shelter daily, for as long as her health allowed, to walk dogs and perform other chores alongside other volunteers, who seldom realized at first that she was actually the head of the organization. “Babette’s passion and devotion to saving the lives of homeless animals led to Animal League America becoming the world’s largest no-kill animal rescue and adoption organization,” eulogized John Stevenson, who joined the staff as an attorney in 1988 and ascended to the presidency in 1993.

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