Krim’s Crusade : In the Fight Against AIDS, She Is a Scientist, a Socialite, a Strategist, a Spokeswoman and Sometimes a Cheerleader in Sensible Shoes

Times Staff Writers

The door swings open to a vestibule the size of some small apartments. Joseph, the butler, leads guests into a foyer whose inlaid marble floor might serve for ballroom dancing at minor diplomatic functions. A swirling staircase twists up to the second floor, where a Renoir pastel hangs over the fireplace. Downstairs, the kitchen is discreetly out of sight.

Were it not the command post for a war, the five-story residence chicly nestled between Park and Madison avenues might find itself featured as a Townhouse of the Rich and Famous.

But in the rustic-paneled study on the second floor, Mathilde Krim, founding chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, is on one of six telephones, constantly. Take the elevator up a floor and Harry, her assistant, is swimming in files, medical journals, grant proposals and correspondence from around the world. Harry is answering the phone: more messages for Krim.


“She’s taken the place over! Our house has become an office!” exclaimed Arthur Krim, chairman of Orion Pictures, in his own Fifth Avenue office. But his voice conveyed pride and admiration, not annoyance. On the long list of Mathilde Krim’s fans, her husband’s name has occupied the top spot since they met in Israel 31 years ago.

“Joan of Arc” is how Arthur Krim describes his wife’s role in the battle against acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Many gay people fondly call Krim, organizer of the AIDS Medical Foundation of New York, and its successor, AmFAR, “the fairies’ godmother.”

In turn, Krim bestows equal praise on those who have committed themselves to conquering the human immunodeficiency virus that has struck so hard at homosexuals and intravenous drug users in this country. “You are the elite. You are the nobility of our time,” she told a group of AIDS care-givers in San Francisco last month. “Our children and grandchildren will be proud of your example.”

In “a war with no generals,” as Krim terms the fight against AIDS, she is a galvanizer, a scientist, a socialite, a strategist, a spokeswoman and sometimes, she agreed, a cheerleader in sensible shoes.

“Mathilde Krim has brought more people into AIDS than anyone I can think of,” said Carole Levine, a medical ethicist who serves as executive director of New York’s Citizen Commission on AIDS. “She sort of identifies the key interests of people, along with the key opportunities to involve them. And then, what do you know, they’re off and running.”

Krim was quick to befriend retired Adm. James D. Watkins, chairman of President Reagan’s Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. She has an easy, comfortable relationship, based on deep mutual respect, with Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. She has a solid, highly believable TV presence, evident on one recent occasion when she rushed to rebut the much-publicized contention of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson that the AIDS virus could be transmitted through kissing.

“She is this calm, wonderful Ph.D., a godmother to us all,” said Tom Hannan, a New Yorker who has AIDS and is a founder of the Community Research Initiative. “When she speaks, especially on camera, one gets the feeling: This Is the Truth.”

Her critics are less generous. She has been dubbed a grandstander. She has been seen as a scientific gadfly, flitting from research about cancer-causing viruses, to interferon, to AIDS. Some fellow scientists charged that when Krim rushed to urge distribution of the antiviral drug AZT to severely ill AIDS patients before the drug’s efficacy had been conclusively demonstrated in placebo-controlled clinical trials, it was a case of her heart ruling her head.

To which charge Krim tightens. Her eyes grow steely, her mouth taut. Criticism does not roll smoothly off her.

“I was right--and it came from my head ,” she said, each word spitting out, staccato. “You must remember that at that time, we had no drugs to give to these people. How could we tell people whose life expectancy could be measured in weeks, ‘Give us six months for our placebo-controlled trial?’ ”

End of discussion. Krim’s face softens into her normally regal expression.

“When she gets angry, she just freezes you out,” said a close associate of Krim’s.

Krim can be stubborn, a former associate at AmFAR in Los Angeles said, adding: “Some of her blinders prevent her from seeing certain treatment alternatives, as well as certain political realities.”

Such criticism from within AmFAR may well reflect the cross-country rivalry between Krim and Dr. Michael Gottlieb,

the Los Angeles physician and researcher who treated the late Rock Hudson and is AmFAR’s West Coast founder. Krim recently withstood a major challenge by Gottlieb, who had tried to create a key board committee that would have excluded her.

But even Krim’s detractors within AmFAR acknowledge that Krim’s social and political connections and her scientific credentials are so solid that “her call is always answered,” the former associate in Los Angeles said. She has brought in million-dollar donations to AmFAR from people like Malcolm Forbes. In Washington last spring, AmFAR was seen as such a socially and politically acceptable organization that President Reagan addressed a dinner the foundation held in connection with an international congress on AIDS.

At 62, Krim combines absolute self-confidence with scientific sophistication and a wealth of technical expertise. In 1953, when science was seen “as a career for old maids,” she earned a doctorate in biology from the University of Geneva. Soon thereafter she emigrated to Israel with her first husband, David Danon, and as a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science, began looking into possible links between viruses and certain forms of cancer. In New York, she worked first at the Cornell Medical College, and for 25 years was on staff at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, among the most prestigious cancer facilities in the United States.

Her figure is solid, reflecting an appetite that sometimes amazes associates who watch her wolf down a plate of ham sandwiches (with extra mayonnaise) before they have had time to add mustard to their own. Her attire tends toward the matronly, with an emphasis on silks and suits. Her honey-blond hair is swept into a perfectly controlled chignon: Not one stray strand would dare wander out of place. For jewelry she wears only the enormous diamond on her left ring finger.

Krim’s primary vice is a serious cigarette addiction, a habit she explains as “by now almost an act of defiance.”

She looks urbane and speaks in a crisp accent that sounds, first of all, efficient. In a voice that is deep and sometimes throaty, Krim herself suggests her European accent “gives me authority.” In truth Krim needs no one to give her authority. Her no-nonsense quality makes it clear that idle hands and idle words are equally repugnant.

Being a woman has also boosted her credibility as an expert on AIDS, Krim said. “Absolutely, because it has been considered a man’s disease.”

As a consequence, an AIDS fund-raiser said, “she can talk about the sex act and not have anybody twitching in their seats.”

“More than anyone else, Dr. Krim is responsible for making AIDS a ‘respectable’ disease,” said Dr. Don C. Des Jarlais of New York State’s Division of Substance Abuse Services.

The Charity Circuit

So much so that AIDS has firmly established itself on the charity disease circuit. The same people who might be skittish discussing how people get AIDS are now perfectly content to pay big-ticket prices to sip cocktails, buy art or listen to music to raise funds for the fight against AIDS.

In December, for example, AmFAR will split the proceeds with AIDS Project Los Angeles of a six-week art exhibit and auction that begins with a gala dinner at Greenacres, the Beverly Hills estate of producer/investor Ted Field and his wife, Susie. Co-chairing the Dec. 14 dinner with the Fields are Disney chief Michael Eisner and his wife, Jane.

In New York, meanwhile, this Thursday, Leonard Bernstein has planned a “Serenade: A Musical Tribute to Mathilde Krim” at Carnegie Hall. The performers include Placido Domingo, James Levine and Isaac Stern, with special appearances scheduled by Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Paul Simon. The celebrity chairmen for this event, expected to raise at least $1 million, include Nancy Reagan, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson.

“I cannot praise her courage enough,” Bernstein said in the library of his apartment at the Dakota here. “She had the courage to launch a battle against AIDS when the subject was taboo and almost entirely ignored.”

Personally, Krim has little use for the frivolity of gala social events. “Can you believe it? Flying to Los Angeles for a cocktail party ?” she confided not long ago. The same evening, she was on the red-eye back to New York to tackle a full day of commitments that began with a working breakfast.

Her Rolodex of acquaintances blends the upper echelons of science, politics and entertainment. A Hollywood mogul of such influence that he is known as the consigliere of the film industry, her husband, Arthur, is also a former finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The Krims were so close to Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson that when they went to buy vacation property, they chose a site not far from the L.B.J. ranch in Texas.

Others Join the Fight

“Her part in AIDS so far has really been, No. 1, to bring in the kind of people who would give it some dignity and take it out of the realm of prejudice,” Arthur Krim said. Among the early recruits to Krim’s cause were Rosalynn Carter, Father Theodore Hesburgh, Lady Bird Johnson--as well as Woody Allen and Warren Beatty. After Hudson died of AIDS in 1985, Krim received full-tilt celebrity support when Elizabeth Taylor became national chairman of AmFAR.

Arthur Krim, the unabashed supporter of a wife who made it a condition that she would work after they married and she moved to the United States, extols her scientific “prescience” in becoming involved first with interferon and then with AIDS. “Through my years with Mathilde I have learned that she senses what is in an embryonic stage,” he said.

Krim herself shrugs off suggestions that it took foresight or courage to thrust herself into the forefront of the discussion about AIDS. “I don’t think it took guts, because it was never a disrespectable disease,” she said. “There is no such thing.”

In 1980, before the term AIDS had even been coined, Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, a colleague in interferon research who was practicing medicine in Greenwich Village, began telling Krim of a series of unusual symptoms among some of his gay male patients. They had swollen lymph nodes, he told her, and enlarged spleens. In short order they began to develop rare cancers and pneumonias, and to die.

Krim recalled how she received this information, like an alarm. “There was no vastness yet, but you could predict it. We were dealing with something that was incurable, lethal, unpreventable and that seemed to be sexually transmitted,” she said. “It was a fluke of fate that it landed in the gay community.” Her concern grew when she began to help Sonnabend analyze some of his patients’ blood samples. Even in 1981, said Krim, “we agreed that we were going to have a terrible problem.”

Scientists then had no idea what they were dealing with, Krim said, “but what we knew was that it cannot be treated.”

Krim felt certain that the disease would spread: “I did not believe for one minute that it would remain limited to the gay community.” But she did worry that gays would be held responsible for the spread of AIDS. “I thought we were going to have a situation where a minority group would be accused of doing this to others,” she said.

Spread of the Disease

She laments that government and many scientific sources failed to share the view that AIDS would spread beyond the gay community in the United States. By late October, figures from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta showed a total of 76,932 cases of AIDS reported in this country since 1981. Of those, 56% have proved fatal. Homosexual or bisexual males accounted for 61% of the cases; intravenous drug users, 19%. As many as 1.5 million people in this country are HIV positive, and will become ill unless effective treatments are made available.

The epidemic “could not have been prevented,” Krim said, “but it could have been slowed, contained.”

Sonnabend was among the early recipients of grant money from Krim in 1983 when she took “well over $100,000 of Mr. Krim’s money” and founded the AIDS Medical Foundation. Krim contends that her outspokenness about the disease brought her into disfavor at Sloan-Kettering.

At Sloan-Kettering, Krim said, “they told me to shut up (about AIDS).” Others say that Krim’s interferon campaign had reduced her credibility among certain colleagues, who confused her enthusiasm for interferon with self-promotion and even hype. “Another lunatic cure,” Krim said with iciness, was how some scientists regarded interferon. In 1985, Krim left Sloan-Kettering to devote all her energies to fight AIDS.

Already, she had seen how difficult it would be to enlist support. Foundations and “organized financial power” gave “nothing, zero, zilch” for AIDS until about 1984, she said. In those early years, “there were people who would say ‘I would like to give you a check, but I don’t want to put the word AIDS on my check, because I don’t want my secretary or my accountant to see it.”

This “pure prejudice” remains unique to AIDS, Krim said. “No one wanted to be thought of as gay,” or even sympathetic to what was viewed as a gay disease.

Krim had her problems as well within the gay community. “They were wondering, ‘Who is this crazy woman who is getting involved?’ ” she said. Fledgling AIDS services organizations around the country, she said, were afraid of competition from her research foundation. Early on, Krim advocated closing gay bathhouses as a way to slow the spread of AIDS, an action that has since taken place in many communities. While some gays supported her call, Arthur Krim recalled that “she took quite a beating from the gay press,” which relied heavily on bathhouses for advertising.

For her part, Krim had felt neither particular affinity for nor alienation from the gay male population that was the first group heaviest hit by AIDS in the United States. But from early childhood on, she had tended to side and identify with underdogs. Born in Switzerland in 1926, she spent her early youth in Como, Italy, where the Galland family stood out as “Protestants in a sea of Catholics.”

Young Mathilde felt different, an outsider. “With the Italians, it didn’t matter. They were nice,” she said. But when the family moved back to the suburbs of Geneva, “I found myself a stranger.” Mathilde was speaking Italian and German at home. She spoke French, with a distinctively non-Swiss accent, at school.

As a result, “I was the subject of taunts and ridicule starting at the age of 6,” she said.

As she entered high school and World War II progressed, “we started hearing stories about the atrocities against the Jews.” Her questions were dismissed by her own family, who took the there-is-no-evidence party line about tales of horrible cruelties being inflicted on European Jews.

The Fateful Newsreel

At the end of the war, young Mathilde took herself to a local movie theater to watch newsreels of American soldiers liberating Nazi concentration camps. “It blew my mind,” she said. “I came home from that picture in tears and outrage. I told my father about it; suddenly his generation was guilty in my mind for letting it happen. (He) could not believe it; he would not believe it.” She challenged him to go and watch the same newsreel. In fact, she threatened that she would never speak to him again if he did not.

“I said, ‘Look, I give you one week to go and see the newsreel, and then we talk about it.’ And he never did. He didn’t have the courage.”

Years later, Krim forgave her father. But at that time, “I of course despised him for it.” She began “seeking out Jews to find out who they were.” At the university she fell into a circle of members of the Irgun, a militantly anti-British Jewish commando organization. The leader of this underground group was Menachem Begin, a radical Zionist. Blond and blue-eyed--”I looked like an angel,” Krim said--she would ride her bicycle across the border into France to smuggle messages for the Irgun.

Krim had wanted to study medicine, “but my father told me it was a waste of money for a girl.” Her mother urged her to capitalize on her language skills by becoming an interpreter. She insists that even as she went to school to register, she intended to follow that course. But when she got to the university, “there were two doors. One said interpreters , and the other said biology. “ At the last moment, Krim walked through the biology door.

She was so afraid of disappointing her parents that for weeks she would not tell them what she was studying. Then one day her mother found the kit she used to dissect animals and began to cry. Later, Mathilde helped finance her studies by taking notes for language-impaired foreign students. “I made 100 francs a course,” she said. “It looked like a lot to me.”

To take her youthful rebellion full force, Krim fell in love with a Jewish medical student who was a member of the Irgun. She decided to marry him, and she decided to become Jewish.

“Of course what it was was defying my father, but I saw it as seeing the world my way,” Krim said.

She stresses that her eventual conversion was “a sort of mental, intellectual process, not spiritual.” She and Danon, the man she now describes as “my future ex-husband,” went off to Paris to get married.

“We found a little rabbi who was willing to do the conversion for a few francs without asking questions,” she said.

When she returned to Switzerland, married and converted, “my father was so upset he fainted. He told me I was causing him a heart attack.”

A Baby and Divorce

Their daughter, Daphna, was born soon after they were married, and in 1953, the young family headed off to Israel. Krim went to work at the Weizmann Institute and thrived in the adventuresome spirit of an ancient culture in an infant country. But the marriage foundered.

“As long as the world is against you, you stick together,” she said. “The minute we turned into a middle-class couple, that was when I decided it was over.”

Krim flourished in Israel, where she could bicycle to the day-care center and deposit Daphna, then return to fetch her after a full day at the laboratory. There were orange groves on the hill near her bungalow.

“It was wonderful, almost monastic,” Krim said.

There was also a well-intentioned chancellor of the institute, Meyer Weisgal, who was hellbent on introducing the 30-year-old biologist, by then divorced, to his dear friend Arthur Krim. The 47-year-old American, a governor of the Weizmann Institute, was president of United Artists and a multimillionaire. He was also unmarried.

“She made a deep impression on me as the nicest, most intelligent woman I had ever had the pleasure of meeting,” Krim said.

He was also bowled over by her beauty.

“Did you see the picture of us from that time, with Mathilde on one side of me and Brigitte Bardot on the other?” Krim asked. “She made Bardot look like nothing.”

Mathilde Krim theorizes that what really happened was that “He fell in love with my daughter,” who was 4. They married in 1958 and settled in New York.

The newlyweds socialized extensively in big-donor philanthropy circles. Mary Lasker, a leading philanthropist, became one of Mathilde Krim’s dear friends, and eventually, her husband said, her role model.

But Krim spent as much time in the lab as she did at black-tie dinner parties. Her own satisfaction came from her research. On Jan. 8, 1980--”I will never forget the date”--Krim was at a scientific conference in France when she heard on the radio that a pair of scientists had cloned alpha interferon. Interferon is a natural substance secreted by the body that plays a role in fighting infections. Krim was ecstatic. The news meant that the heretofore prohibitively expensive substance could be mass-produced inexpensively and used widely in therapeutic experiments.

“I screamed with delight,” she said. “I went back to my friends who were having dinner and I said, ‘ How can you eat? ‘ “

Coming Full Circle

Krim’s early enthusiasm for interferon research is being vindicated as the years go by. Last Monday, in an action that brought her scientific career full circle, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of alpha interferon to treat Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer common among people with AIDS.

Sometimes, when she is discussing the way AIDS has brought so many people together, the woman who was dubbed the Interferon Queen sounds a bit like the Empress of AIDS. She speaks, for example, of the “little people” who are the unsung heroes of the AIDS epidemic.

“The patients, first of all, and the care-givers, friends, lovers and family,” Krim said. “They are not famous, they are people who have not been trained or prepared for this situation. And I am always amazed by it.”

She is frequently in the trenches, visiting day-care facilities for adults with AIDS, or hospices and treatment centers. But just as often she is putting the polite squeeze on the wealthy. Krim always points out to prospective donors that while the government is finally putting substantial sums into AIDS research, a private foundation like AmFAR can “prime the research pump” by funding innovative projects quickly and with a minimum of red tape.

“These benefits, ART Against AIDS, the December concert at Carnegie Hall, these events are really a pretext to approach people,” Krim said. The approach seems to work: Two weeks before the New York fund-raiser, AmFAR already had tallied $800,000 from it. Still, Krim called AmFAR’s $11-million annual budget “peanuts.”

But the growing awareness about AIDS is also fraught with contradictions, Krim believes. Corporations are afraid of what a case of AIDS will do to their images, she said: “ ‘What, my company has AIDS and I make popcorn?’ ”

Mostly, Krim fears that “people are not equipped intellectually to understand the complexities of AIDS.” Education has been incomplete, and she worries that the public just does not understand the issues. And the cosmic significance of AIDS remains largely unexamined, in her view. No one is wondering, “What is the meaning of this epidemic?” she said. “What is this virus that can fell proud humans?”

Her own answer is that “first of all, it is a lesson in humility, that a measly little virus can do this to us.”

Learning a Lot

But in the long run, Krim said, “I think AIDS can have a civilizing effect on us, if we don’t let it destroy our system of values and human relationships. If we are mindful of not letting it debase our system of values, then we will learn a lot, because it is going to force us to deal with certain issues that we have not dealt with before.” Perhaps, she added, AIDS may even “make us more tolerant.”

Championing the cause of AIDS, Krim nonetheless feels anger toward “oh, everybody, that is the problem in this situation. You can’t even direct anger toward one specific person, because it is the whole system that is wrong. We are just not capable of coping; we are not very successful as a species.”

Krim wishes it were less complicated.

“I have no answers,” she said. “There are only questions.”

In the opulence of her large, sumptuous home, Krim shook her head in silent frustration.