Judith Peabody, who died at her home in New York on Sunday at age 81, was a shy social figure who nevertheless blazed a trail for the causes she fiercely believed in — AIDS awareness and the arts being chief among them.

“When I first met her she was 20 years old and she was working at Youth House, where the Court Center building was here in New York City,” said her husband Samuel Peabody, who survives her along with their daughter, Elizabeth. “She would work with them and counsel them and she was wonderful. That was just the beginning of her long contributions to the city.”

This story first appeared in the July 27, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Over the last five decades, Peabody sat on the boards of organizations including American Ballet Theater, the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, where she founded the Judith Peabody Fund. Her efforts were recognized by GMHC, ABT, the Harvard AIDS Institute and even the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which presented her with a special humanitarian award in 1989. “She was very modest about what she did, and she did a lot,” said fellow activist Deeda Blair. “She had extraordinary charm [and] this ability to reach out to people.”

“She always struck me as someone who never wanted to take the limelight, but she would be very determined about the people she wanted to help,” said Adair Capital co-founder and longtime friend Pierre Durand. “She [was] very involved with New York City life, [but] she was shy. She always wanted to help, she wasn’t shy about that.”

Though a strong supporter of the theater and ballet, Peabody is best remembered for her dedication to fighting AIDS. (Friends referred to her as St. Judy.) “I served on the board with her when I joined in 1994 and she was someone who I really admired and had so much respect for,” said Dr. Marjorie J. Hill, now chief executive officer of GMHC. “She was always measured in what she said but not hesitant to make a contribution in terms of an opinion. She was someone who was a quiet warrior.”

GMHC celebrated Peabody in 1995 with a luncheon at the Pegasus Suite at the Rainbow Room, which — testament to her ability to touch a broad range of people — drew everyone from Nan Kempner and Diane von Furstenberg to Bianca Jagger and Gloria Steinem.

Blair and Peabody were honored with their friend Marguerite Littman four years later by the Harvard AIDS Institute. “I was primarily involved in raising money for basic research and fundamental research. But to be very honest, Judy did the hardest work,” said Blair. “She worked with the patients who were sick and who were dying. I saw a number of AIDS patients and I would be wrecked after spending half an hour. Judy would be there day and night.”

Peabody’s 24/7 devotion was especially remarkable considering that it was a time when AIDS was still a taboo topic, at least on the charity circuit. “She was as lovely and beautifully dressed as you would expect a well-born patrician woman to be, and at the same time she was involved in a lot of populist causes,” said Paul Wilmot, who has known the Peabodys for nearly three decades. “She was involved with AIDS early on, when it wasn’t the subject that social figures rushed to….The definition of socialite is they do social work. And [Judy] worked for the social good.”

That included the theater and ballet. Peabody loved going to shows and seeing thespian pals such as Ian McKellen when she would visit Littman in London. And when Littman came to New York, Peabody engaged her in the Broadway and Off-Broadway scene. “Her parties were always filled with a good mixture of people, and a lot of people from the theater,” Littman said. “She always brought different worlds together.” Peabody was especially fond of getting piano players, such as Dorothy Donegan and Goldie Hawkins, for her fetes.

This is not to say there were never times when Peabody and her husband hit the town simply for the sake of having a good time. “Sam and Judy loved going out,” said Wilmot. “I don’t think there were any of the high-profile parties or charity things they didn’t go to. They were very active. The big grin, the great big smile. In every word she was a gentle person: she spoke gently, she behaved gently, she was a gentle woman. And at the same time ebullient and fun.”

Certainly Durand recalls their talent for making an entrance. “Sam and Judy were the most glamorous couple,” he said. “So understated. When they walked into a room you couldn’t help but turn and look at them.”

There’s a reason for that, Samuel said. “It was 59 years of marriage. It was magical.”

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