Remembering Joel Smilow

Longtime Westport resident Joel Smilow — known initially as CEO of Playtex, then for his generous philanthropic efforts on behalf of Yale University, cancer patients and other healthcare institutions — died last Sunday at Yale-New Haven Hospital. He was 88 years old.

He grew up in Washington, Virginia and Maryland. After graduating from Bethesda’s Woodrow Wilson High School, he became a proud and active member of Yale’s Class of 1954. For the rest of his life, he was an active participant in almost anything Yale. In 1993, Smilow was awarded the Yale Medal for outstanding service.

At graduation, he was commissioned as an ensign in the US Navy, and served on destroyers based in Norfolk. He held the rank of Lieutenant JG at the time of his discharge.

Smilow then attended Harvard Business School, and graduated as a Baker Scholar in 1958.

Joel Smilow

His business career started at Procter and Gamble as an assistant brand manager. In 1965 he moved to Glendinning Associates, a small marketing consulting company in Westport.

In 1970 he was recruited to become CEO of International Playtex. He successfully guided the company until retirement in 1995.

Smilow’s interest in philanthropy had already begun, but it soon became a major focus. He was involved with many diverse institutions. His generosity helped countless numbers of people, in large and small ways.

He was a member of the Blind Brook Club, Birchwood Country Club, and the Reserve and Eldorado Country Clubs in California. In his younger days, he enjoyed playing tennis and golf, and continued to enjoy poker and bridge. Above all he was a huge football fan (the Yale Bulldogs were his favorites).

He belonged to the Young President’s Organization and Chief Executives Organization, and enjoyed the many friendships former there. He was also a longtime friend and partner of Chef Daniel Boulud.

He is survived by Joan, his wife of 67 years; children Rick (Debi), Bill (Kathy) and Susan; grandchildren Charlotte, Anna, Griffin and Lexi, brother Michael, and many nieces and nephews.

A private service was held. Donations in his name can be made to
Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven Health, Joel E. Smilow Heart Institute at Bridgeport Hospital, Smilow Intensive Care Unit at Norwalk Hospital, or Smilow Heart Center at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California,

9 responses to “Remembering Joel Smilow

  1. When I was a new Westport teacher, I drove Billy Smilow home one day. I happened to have a Playtex baby bottle in my car and on the way to Billy’s home (and so our ride would not be a totally silent one) complained about the quality of the product, since the bottle’s nipple had two holes, one at the tip and one on the side.
    At the end of my rant, Billy turned to me and politely asked if I knew who his father was. I told him no, and asked how in the world I would know this. Then he told me his dad was president of Playtex. I was mortified to say the least.
    About a week later, I received in the mail—at my home address—100 Playtex plastic bottle inserts and a dozen bottle nipples.
    I share this because I am guessing this gesture reveals a lot about Billy’s dad: kind, generous, thoughtful, caring.

  2. Yes, you accurately note Joel Smilow’s generous philanthropic efforts on behalf of Yale University and healthcare institutions. But Smilow was also conscious of – and generous to – his Westport connections.

    In 1998, the Westport Library was in need of renovation (even though it had premiered in 1986) and to be opened up to the Saugutuck. Most town residents and donors do recall the imaginative “River of Names” fundraiser.

    But the Westport Public Library would not have been renovated without the “lead” gift ($1 million and relatively anonymous) from Joel Smilow.

  3. Donald J Franceschini

    Joel was a man of many exceptional talents and a business icon with the most charitable heart. He touched so many in life and was blessed with a wonderful wife, Joan and family. Those that knew him well recognize that only a few men in life come along like Joel. We worked together for many years and I feel blessed to have known him. May he Rest In Peace. Don Franceschini

  4. Dan thank you for such a comprehensive biography. I don’t know what’s more admirable: his stunning philanthropy or the fact he was married to the same woman for 67 years.

  5. Joel will be missed by the friends he made whose lives he enhanced. We thank him on behalf of all he helped but never got the opportunity to thank him personally. Our sympathies are with Joan and the family Helaine and Fred Gould

  6. Dorothy E Curran

    Thanks, Jeff Jacobs, for honoring Joel Smilow’s CRUCIAL $1Million Lead Donor gift to the WPL when we both were WPL Board Members during the late 1990s Capital Campaign. As you know, the gift was so important to the success of that campaign to save the then sinking WPL, that an entire historical pictorial tile in the River of Names bas-relief, donor mural, celebrated its importance. VERY disturbing that the WPL has removed the mural, and the legacy of JOEL SMILOW and ALL of its donors, and has NO PLAN to restore it.

  7. Betty Lou Cummings

    How I remember the night at the RTM meeting I had the privilege of A very enlarged check of 1 million dollar for our library…large gasps from the Audience & the rest is history… thanks to Joel Smilow❤️

  8. Joel was a brilliant businessman. More important he was a great human being recognizing many others were not as fortunate. Over thirty years ago I met Joel in a tennis match on Longboat Key in Sarasota. After that I was a regular partner of his on Saturdays at his home on North Ave. It was there, while we were playing tennis, that Joel received a call from Henry Kravis informing Joel that KKR was set to provide financing for his buyout of Playtex. Joel’s love of his alma mater led to Joan and his donations providing an endowment for the football coach as well as for new offices for the administration of the athletic department. He brought legendary Yale football coach to speak to the Y’s Men. Joan and Joel established Smilow centers around the country in economically depressed areas in an effort to aid disadvantaged children. Joel will be sorely missed but clearly remembered for his outstanding philanthropy.

  9. Stephen Axthelm

    I coached Joel and Joan’s wonderful granddaughter Charlotte (Rick and Debbie’s daughter) in LL Softball for several years. Joel and Joan were often in the stands and so appreciative of the beauty of girls playing ball. Lovely, lovely people. Rest in peace Joel. Loving thoughts to you Joan and your family.

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