Anita Madden became famous as a party hostess. Her legendary Kentucky Derby Eve bashes were extravagant, celebrity-studded events that attracted as many as 2,500 people and raised millions for charity.
She would always make a grand entrance wearing a flashy, revealing costume, her blond hair in cascading curls.
But Madden, who died Thursday at age 85, was so much more. She was a savvy civic leader, philanthropist, humanitarian and businesswoman who lived a mostly private life.
The Ashland native helped her husband, Preston Madden, continue the Thoroughbred breeding success of his grandfather’s Hamburg Place farm. She also helped their son, Patrick, create another family fortune by developing much of that 2,000-acre farm, which was cut in half by Interstate 64 in 1964, the year he was born.
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Madden died at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at The Willows Health Center in Hamburg, surrounded by family and friends, a week after being discharged from a brief stay at Baptist Hospital Lexington, said Ruth Ann Childers, the hospital spokeswoman who was speaking as a family friend. No cause of death was given, but Madden had been in declining health for several years.
“Authentic, special, and unique in every way, she was intellectually curious and yet she had the common touch,” Mayor Jim Gray said on Twitter. “She infused Lexington with a sense of imagination, she celebrated the unusual and she welcomed everyone regardless of their station in life. Her life inspired us. Her spirit is irreplaceable.”
For nearly 40 years, Madden threw famous Derby Eve parties, which raised money mostly for what is now The Bluegrass Boys’ Ranch Scholars Program. In its most decadent years, the parties included scantily clad male servers and topless young women dressed as mermaids. Attendees included governors, corporate titans, Thoroughbred industry figures and celebrities such as Chuck Norris, Jim Nabors, Burt Bacharach, Molly Shannon and Dennis Cole.
“The Bluegrass Boys’ Ranch needs the money, and Lexington needs the party,” she said in a 1995 Herald-Leader interview. “We need to keep the Derby in Lexington so that people don’t think the Derby only means ‘Louisville.’ “
Madden’s last Derby party was in 1998. Her jaw-dropping costumes from many of those parties were collected last year for an exhibit at ArtsPlace.
Madden’s parties and other philanthropic work also raised money for AIDS and heart disease research and other local non-profit groups. The three-state Ohio River Valley Women’s Business Council honored Madden in 2012 with its first Woman of the Year Trailblazer Award.
Madden was one of the first women appointed to the Kentucky Racing Commission, where she served from 1980 to 1983.
“There will never be another Anita Madden,” said Arthur B. Hancock III of Stone Farm, who served with her on the commission. “Anita was a great woman. She was great at promoting Kentucky and the horse industry. She was a wonderful, vivacious person who really cared about people. We’ll all miss her.”
Hancock said he will never forget Madden coming up to him at a commission meeting two weeks before the 1982 Derby and telling him she had had a vivid dream that his horse, Gato Del Sol, would win.
“She said, ‘I’ve seen it! I’ve seen it!. She was dead serious,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Anita, hell, nobody gives him a chance.’ He went off at 21-1. But, by golly, he won. It still gives me goosebumps to think about it.”
Marylou Whitney, a horsewoman who with her late husband C.V. Whitney threw their own famous Derby Eve parties for decades until 1994, called Madden “a legend.”
“Anita was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known,” Whitney said by phone from Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “We all loved Anita. She gave so much of herself to other people.”
Madden served 17 years on Lexington’s Planning Commission, beginning in 1977.
Hamburg Place was founded in 1898 by legendary horseman John E. Madden. The farm produced five Kentucky Derby and five Preakness Stakes winners, as well as the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton. Preston and Anita Madden bred one of the most famous: Alysheba, who won the 1987 Derby and Preakness.
Over the past 25 years, Patrick Madden has developed much of the farm as Hamburg Pavilion, a shopping complex now at the center of one of Lexington’s largest suburban developments.
Anita Cannon Myers Madden is survived by her husband of 62 years; their son and his wife, Jennifer; grandchildren Caroline and Michael Madden; and a brother, Marc Stuart, who with his band, Dash Riprock and the Dragons, played many of her Derby parties.
Visitation is Oct. 3, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., at Milward’s Man O’ War, 1509 Trent Blvd. The family is planning a private service. Memorials are suggested to The Bluegrass Boys’ Ranch, P.O. Box 12128, Lexington, Ky., 40580