By: Isaiah Negron
The life of Tony Cointreau, the singer and scion of the French liqueur family, is not the typical story of a child born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He overcame an abusive childhood by finding friendship with three famous women, Mother Teresa, the Broadway star Ethel Merman and Lee Lehman, the glamorous wife of Robert Lehman, the head of Lehman Brothers. These maternal figures helped Cointreau heal the scars caused by his emotionally absent mother and sadistic grandmother. Tony recalls, “I was told as a child I was too sensitive. That may have been, but I also had a lot of courage. I found, as I got older, they go very well together. They could hurt me, but never break me.”
His first “adopted mother” was Lee Lehman, considered one of the ten most beautiful women in the world, alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner. At 13, he was invited to a Halloween party the Lehmans were giving. “When I walked into the Lehman’s apartment for the first time, Lee looked at her daughter, pointed at me and said, ‘He’s ours.’ And I was,” Tony says. “Lee gave me unconditional love. It was beautiful.” Soon after, Tony spent the majority of his free time with the Lehmans, traveling the world and was treated as a member of their family.
Tony met his second “mother” at 18, the legendary Broadway diva Ethel Merman. They wert introduced backstage in her dressing room by her daughter, also named Ethel, while she was starring in “Gypsy.” Tony, again, became an instant part of their family. “After we watched the play, ‘Mom’ took us out afterwards where I met all of the people in show business. Ethel and I had the same instant connection that Lee and I had,” he says. “These connections went on for years and years, throughout their lifetimes.”
At 21, Tony began performing from Carnegie Hall to Las Vegas. Tony’s international reputation skyrocketed when he met Pierre Cardin in 1984. “He heard me sing in New York and wanted to launch my career in Europe,” he explains. “Six weeks later, I was on stage at Maxim’s in Paris with everybody in the world there, everybody.” Tony spent the next ten years recording and performing concerts across Europe. One of his biggest fans was Ethel Merman. “She sat through dozens and dozens of my shows and would introduce me saying, ‘This is Tony Cointreau and he’s a great singer!’,” he laughs. “One day after a show she came to me and said, ‘That was great. Now you know what you’re doing.’ It was her way of expressing the greatest accolade she could give.”
Despite his musical success and several years on the Cointreau board of directors, he felt something was missing in his life. He felt a passion to distribute the love that he had so freely been given to him by his “mothers. “I had seen a picture of a volunteer carrying a dying man in his arms in Calcutta and thought, ‘I have to do this.’” In 1989, he traveled to Calcutta, exposing himself to the harsh realities of extreme poverty for the first time.
Following the example of Mother Teresa’s work in India, Tony returned to New York and volunteered his time at Gift of Love, Mother Theresa’s home for men dying of AIDS. “No one knew yet how it was transmitted, but I had no fear. Even my doctor told me not to go there, that it was too dangerous,” he recalls. “I told him if we couldn’t do this for each other as human beings, there is no hope.” Tony spent his days there mopping floors and comforting the residents whose lives were slowly fading away. He said “As I cared for these young men in their last days, I would sing softly to them and it would just renew them. I would see the fear leave them. It was magical.” He discovered the same instant rapport with mother Teresa he had with Lehman and Merman. “I didn’t know she was going to be in New York. I never thought of meeting her, yet there she was,” he said. “I treated her like an ordinary extraordinary woman. We would just talk and talk. And she had such great humor! That’s what I loved about Mother.” He traveled to Calcutta multiple times, at her request, accompanying her in her work with the poorest of the poor. “Sometimes after working we would be sitting out on the terrace talking and she would often ask me to sing for her.” In 1997, Tony and his partner of 48 years Jim Russo, returned to India to be with Mother Teresa for the last Easter of her life.
This year, Tony’s book, Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa… and Me, published by Prospecta Press, delves deeper into the life of this remarkable human being who, above all, overcame adversity and discovered multiple examples of true unconditional love. “There is no award or accolade that can compare to the love I’ve had in my life. None.”