Ralph Davidson, a media executive who carved a path to the top of Time Inc., the New York publisher of magazines including Time and Life, and who later brought his business experience to the arts during a brief tenure as chairman of the Kennedy Center in Washington, died Aug. 1 at his home in Washington. He was 86.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Lou Davidson.
Once described for his rugged confidence as a “nonsmoking Marlboro man,” Davidson got his first position at Time Inc. in 1954 — as an advertising salesman for Life — by cold-calling the personnel department and asking for a job. He rose through the company ranks, becoming publisher of Time magazine in 1972 and chairman of Time Inc. in 1980.
Davidson served as the company’s chairman of the executive committee before assuming his post at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1988. He succeeded Roger Stevens, the real estate investor and theatrical producer who had been appointed by President John Kennedy in 1961 to lead the creation of a national cultural center in Washington, and who had been the only chairman to lead the Kennedy Center since it opened on the Potomac River in 1971.
Davidson had served on the board of the New York City Ballet and as chairman of the Business Committee for the Arts, and he had done fundraising for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But seemingly from the outset, he encountered the impression that he lacked the artistic background needed to run a high-profile cultural institution.
“When I took this job, I made it perfectly clear right at the outset that I was not a theatrical entrepreneur, impresario, whatever the word is,” Davidson told The Washington Post in 1988. “I said, ‘If you’re looking for someone with a theatrical background, then you’re talking to the wrong person. But if you will take me on the rest of my track record, then you’re talking to the right person, and we’ll go from there.’ “
Davidson said that he hoped to draw audiences to the Kennedy Center with a range of performances — “all the way from ‘Nixon in China’ to ‘Shear Madness,’” he said, referring to the opera by contemporary composer John Adams and the long-running comedic murder mystery featuring audience participation.
Once during his tenure, the theater accommodated an engagement by actress and comedian Lily Tomlin by canceling a performance by the Twyla Tharp dance company and moving a scheduled performance by the Washington Ballet, a decision that irritated supporters of local arts companies.
“Lily Tomlin puts a lot of people in the seats,” Davidson explained, according to The Washington Post. He said he necessarily regarded the theater as a business with a budget. At the same time, he supported ventures that were expensive but culturally significant — such as the National Symphony Orchestra’s visit to the Soviet Union with Russian-born musical director Mstislav Rostropovich, who had long been exiled from his country.
Davidson and Kennedy Center board members had what was described as an uneven relationship. He was perceived at times as being insufficiently involved with artists and arts patrons, according to news accounts, and some board members were disappointed by fundraising under his leadership. He remarked to the New York Times that he wished he had been able to “raise money a little faster.”
In 1989, Davidson requested that the board of trustees not renew his contract. He was succeeded by James Wolfensohn, the investment banker who subsequently became president of the World Bank. Davidson later did consulting work and was chairman of the board of trustees of the American University in Bulgaria. He also served on the board of Refugees International and visited refugee camps in Rwanda, his wife said.
Ralph Parsons Davidson was born Aug. 17, 1927, in Santa Fe, N.M. After the death of his father, an engineer, he grew up with his mother and stepfather in Los Angeles.
Davidson served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II and received a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from Stanford University in 1950. He later spent time traveling in Europe, eventually finding employment with the CIA in North Africa, he told the New York Times.
His first marriage, to the former Jean Skidmore, ended in divorce. Their son, Andrew Davidson, died in 2006.
Survivors include his wife of 31 years, the former Lou Hill Rosen of Washington; a son from his first marriage, Will Davidson of Ketchum, Idaho; a daughter from his second marriage, Mary Elizabeth Davidson of Washington; three stepchildren, Scott Davidson of Brooklyn, N.Y., Ross Rosen of Alexandria, Va., and Sydney Davidson of Summerville, S.C.; and 10 grandchildren.
Davidson said that when he called Time Inc. in search of work, he piqued his interviewer’s interest with recollections of his postwar, post-college Jeep trip across Europe and beyond.
“I told him how we’d had to build bridges where there were none, and how we’d been shot at crossing over the border from Yugoslavia to Greece, how we’d lived with the British army in Jordan,” Davidson told The Washington Post. “Well, he liked my Jeep story and said, ‘Come in and see me.’ The next thing I knew, I had a job. So you never know what it is about you that’s going to intrigue somebody.”