Philanthropist Peggy Cravens, patron of the arts and education, dies at 91
Peggy Cravens, a former child singing star who became a philanthropic force in the Coachella Valley supporting causes including College of the Desert, Palm Springs Art Museum, McCallum Theatre, Palm Springs International Piano Competition, ACT for MS and the Palm Springs Opera Guild, died Friday after a brief illness. She was 91 years old.
Cravens had a passion for the performing arts and supported young people in their educational and artistic endeavours. She and her late husband, Donald Cravens, a renowned photojournalist for Life magazine, donated $3.5 million to COD for a student service center on the Palm Desert campus. It opened in 2010. At the time, it was the largest individual donation in school history.
They also donated funds to the Palm Springs Air Museum, where the Donald and Peggy Cravens hangar houses aircraft from the European theater of World War II. Donald Cravens was part of the D-Day invasion and documented the war in photos and film.
She was president of the College of the Desert Foundation from 2000 to 2002 and remained on the board until her death. She also served as chair of the board of the Palm Springs International Piano Competition (formerly known as the Waring International Piano Competition).
In the late 1990s, Cravens was instrumental in reviving and expanding the competition, which began life as the Joanna Hodges Piano Competition and hosts eight days of an international piano competition every two years with participants from all over the world.
She has also served on the boards of the Palm Springs Opera Guild and ACT for MS, as well as a cultural curator from Rancho Mirage. Among those who worked with her on organizing benefits and galas, Cravens was famous, or infamous, for what her friend Sandra Woodson called her “devilish attention to detail” and “mischievous wit” and her approach to getting things done.
She had a passion for entertaining, often hosting friends for dinner parties at her Rancho Mirage home and throwing a 90th birthday party at the Ritz-Carlton in 2021, which she billed as the “74th birthday of her 16th birthday.” .
Former COD Chairman William Kroonen, speaking at the event, recalled that when he first met Cravens he felt like she talked “a lot, but not a lot. Well …. need I say more?”
Kroonen called her “a beacon of determination and understanding.”
Joel Kinnamon, another former COD president, called Cravens “a beacon of light” and said “decades of support and commitment to students and the College of the Desert Foundation are forever.”
Joe Giarrusso, president of the Palm Springs International Piano Competition, said Cravens was an “exceptional listener” but “what blew me away the most was her business acumen.”
“She wanted everyone around her to be better off,” said former Palm Springs mayor Robert Moon, who served with Cravens on the COD Foundation board. “She was a woman of grace, character, compassion, intelligence and beauty.”
Cravens grew up in North Bergen, New Jersey, and made her first radio appearance at age 3, singing “Silver Threads Among the Gold” on WHOM-New Jersey. At age 10, she was the national winner of the “Major Bowes Amateur Hour,” a singing competition that could be likened to today’s “American Idol.”
She won an audition with the Theater Guild two years later and was invited to join the national touring company “Oklahoma!” However, her father insisted that she stay in school.
Cravens worked in summer theater and trained with a famous Metropolitan Opera baritone, John Brownlee, in high school. As a teenager, she replaced Dorothy Morrow on Broadway in Frank Loesser’s 1950 musical, “Where’s Charley?” with Ray Bolger. For a decade she performed under the stage name Peggy Willard, singing at supper clubs and appearing on television. She sang on the television show “Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall” in the early 1960s.
She left show business in 1961 after marrying Irving Koerner, a New York investment banker at Allen & Company. She became active in charitable causes and among the major New York City charity events she helped present were Frank Sinatra’s benefits for the Metropolitan Opera’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Rockefeller Center. She chaired a benefit evening for the Museum of the City of New York and supported the Metropolitan Opera, serving on numerous gala committees for new productions at the Met.
She and Koerner began vacationing in Palm Springs in 1971. They joined the Tamarisk County Club in 1978 and purchased an apartment on Desert Island in Rancho Mirage in 1981, where she lived until her death with her dogs. beloved Cavalier King Charles.
After Irving Koerner died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1991, Peggy met Donald Cravens at the White House in Washington while attending a Ford’s Theater Foundation benefit. They married in 1992. Donald Cravens died in 2013.
A memorial ceremony will take place at a later date.