Twenty-five years ago around a kitchen table in Atlanta, Elton John and a few friends decided to start the Elton John AIDS Foundation to combat HIV/AIDS and change minds about the widely misunderstood and demonized disease. Despite the pop icon’s star power, the Foundation wasn’t an out-of-the-gates success. But in 2017, after decades of hard work, it’s regarded as one of the finest AIDS charities in the world (98% of money donated goes directly to those in need; the Foundation covers its own overhead) and it’s raised an impressive $385 million to help people in more than 30 countries.
So naturally, the 25th anniversary gala deserved special treatment. Taking place by candlelight inside Manhattan’s Gothic Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Tuesday night (Nov. 7) with Neil Patrick Harris serving as de facto emcee, a roster of actors, philanthropists, musicians and politicians gathered to celebrate the EJAF’s 25th year. Those in attendance gave generously (a portrait of Sir Elton by the late Herb Ritts went for $95,000 during the auction) while enjoying performances from the soon-to-retire Aretha Franklin (who delivered a knockout nine-song set, including a lovely “Say a Little Prayer” that took on greater resonance inside a church), violinist Joshua Bell, and Heather Headley, who revisited her days as the original Nala on Broadway’s The Lion King by singing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” All in all, the gala raised more than $4.3 million.
An enormous number of faces in the intimate audience were nationally recognizable: President Bill Clinton and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (both of whom spoke at the event), Billy Joel, Sting, Diane Lane, Ethan Hawke, Glenn Close, Padma Lakshmi, Elton’s husband David Furnish (the Foundation’s MVP), Aileen Getty, three of Elizabeth Taylor’s grandchildren (who presented Elton with an award) and many more.
But it was clear that for Elton John, the most emotionally resonant guest at the gala wasn’t one of the fabulously famous or wealthy – it was Jeanne White-Ginder, the mother of the late Ryan White. White contracted HIV from a blood transfusion as a preteen in 1984 and defiantly fought the disease’s stigma on a national level, becoming an early warrior for the cause. For weeks leading up to White’s death at age 18 in 1990, Elton was a constant presence, and the White Family’s resilience and bravery quite literally changed his life.
“When I was in Indianapolis for the last week of Ryan’s life…I’d lost touch with my soul,” John said, fighting back tears. “I hated myself so much, I’d lost all sense of reason. The White Family lit a candle in my soul.”
Six months after White’s death, John went sober and reevaluated his life, deciding to devote himself to a cause instead of living just for himself: “I have them to thank for my life now,” he bluntly stated.
The mutual affection between John and White-Ginder was readily apparent when they separately addressed the audience; both sniffed back tears when speaking of Ryan and that period in their lives. Later that evening, the two shared a beautiful moment when White-Ginder walked over to Elton and David – perched at the foot of the stage during Franklin’s set – and Elton put his arm around her and his husband while Aretha delivered her stunning gospel-soul take on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Yes, sometimes the world can be a lovely place.
The evening wasn’t made up exclusively of weighty moments, however. Neil Patrick Harris got off a few great zingers, introducing Gov. Andrew Cuomo as “the only Cuomo working harder than Chris’ t-shirt down in Florida” and making cracks about the communion wine at the cathedral. Alec Baldwin took the mic for a transcendent moment when he impersonated Bill Clinton directly to Bill Clinton, and followed it up with a quick Trump impression as a means of demonstrating how grating the sitting president’s voice is when compared to the reassuring Southern accent of Clinton.
After Baldwin, Clinton thanked “William Jefferson Trump Baldwin” and doubled down on the candle metaphors that provided a through-line at the event (considering “Candle In the Wind” and the fact that the cathedral was lit by literally thousands of candles, those metaphors were unavoidable).
“We’re all just flickering candles passing through,” Clinton told the crowd. “It’s how we burn that matters.”
Referring to John’s fundraising for HIV/AIDS as “the most beautiful song he ever wrote,” Clinton said he hopes Sir Elton’s candle “burns for another 30-40 years – and I hope I’m around long enough to keep the matches handy.”
Aretha, the icon, performing at the 25th anniversary of the Elton John AIDS Foundation pic.twitter.com/Ak74ZIwEkH
— Joe Lynch (@branniganlynch) November 8, 2017