Who’s Here: Karen LeFrak, Composer, Philanthropist

 Karen LeFrak is not alone. Her two companions, lounging elegantly around the LeFrak’s Southampton home, are aristocratic, perfectly coiffed, well bred and very fluffy. Miki and Gem are two standard poodles, champion show dogs with a dizzying number of wins under their belts, or collars. Miki, short for Champion Ale Kai Mikimoto on Fifth, has won 88 Best in Show titles and won the non-sporting group at Westminster twice. Since retiring, Miki hasn’t been resting on his laurels—has sired over a hundred champion dogs—“He was a great producer!” LeFrak laughs.

It’s hard to imagine how LeFrak manages a number of other interests in addition to breeding and showing her dogs. As a concert pianist and composer she has scored two ballets, which were performed by the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company. She has penned three children’s books; her latest, Best In Show, follows Jake, the Philharmonic Dog, and Jake, the Ballet Dog. [expand]

Jake, it turns out, was a very real dog, a mixed breed terrier with the good luck to be owned by the principal stagehand of the Philharmonic. Jake would come to work every day with his owner. LeFrak, a Director of the Philharmonic, as well as chair of its Music Policy and Special Events Committee, observed Jake interacting with the musicians and thought, here was a wonderful opportunity for a book to introduce children to the different instruments in the orchestra. And so, Jake, the Philharmonic Dog was born. For Jake’s next adventure, “I just made Jake hop across the Plaza to the Met for the Nutcracker. We called it the Muttcracker.”

LeFrak’s latest book is aimed at introducing children to yet another adventure. “Because I breed poodles and have champion show dogs,” LeFrak explains, “it was suggested that I write about raising a show dog. All the experiences in the book came from things that have happened.” The book, with appealing illustrations by Andrew Day, “teaches children about the sport of showing dogs, about competition and about taking chances.” At the end of the book, there is a list of sources to guide young readers to more information about poodles, the American Kennel Club (A.K.C.), and junior handling, but any dog-loving child will enjoy the story. LeFrak donates the proceeds from all her books to benefit a number of charities, including the New York Philharmonic, the American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, the A.K.C. Canine Health Foundation and Take the Lead.

LeFrak found herself drawn to standard poodles because of their intelligence, and the beauty of their coats—whites, in particular for the contrast of their dark eyes against their creamy coats. “When I was little, I had a mini poodle,” LeFrak remembers. Her childhood pet passed away before she went to college at Mt. Holyoke, at which time she met Richard LeFrak, who was attending Amherst. She graduated magna cum laude, continued on to a masters degree in music history at Hunter College and raised her two sons in the city, summering at their home in Southampton.

As her sons began to grow up, LeFrak toyed with the idea of another child, but her thoughts soon turned in another direction. “Nobody wanted a puppy, but I made a declaration of independence. I brought home Ruffle. Everybody fell in love with her.” Although Ruffle was “by no means a show dog,” she was such a big hit in the LeFrak household that Richard LeFrak suggested to his wife that she get a second dog, a “just in case” dog.

That second dog was a show dog, and LeFrak was now a “show parent,” entering the world of breeding and showing champion standard poodles. “I didn’t know what I was getting into!” LeFrak smiles, remembering her early experiences in the sport of breeding and showing dogs. “The people are as passionate as I can imagine.” She began to work with her co-breeder and mentor, Wendell Sammet, who has 60 years of experience in the field.

According to LeFrak, Sammet also has a real knack for naming the dogs, which appears to be an art form in itself. In the world of champion dogs, litters tend to be named along a theme, making it easy to remember who sired whom. Right now, LeFrak has a musical theme going: “Music and Tempo just had litters.” Music’s “singleton puppy”—that’s “only child” in dogspeak—is named Solo, who is on the show circuit currently, along with another LeFrak dog, Melody.

LeFrak’s show dogs are more than just pretty faces and snowy coats. Because “they are perfectly mannered,” LeFrak explains, “they are wonderful for animal therapy.” Jewel, Miki’s mother, was the first allowed into Mt. Sinai Hospital to administer therapy to stroke and accident victims. “We worked on helping them with speech, movement and cognitive function.”

Next, LeFrak and her dogs went to New Alternatives for Children. At N.A.C., they worked with children suffering with various neurological and behavioral disorders. LeFrak was also involved with the Child-Life Program at N.Y.U., working in therapy situations with victims of pediatric cancers. She also found time to co-chair the American Kennel Club’s DOGNY project, and helped raise more than $2 million to benefit search-and-rescue dogs. LeFrak has also brought her dogs to administer emotional support to the families shattered by the events of 9/11.

On July 16, LeFrak will be honored at the “Unconditional Love” benefit for the Southampton Animal Shelter, and remarks that “it is so special,” to be honored by the people she holds in such high esteem. She’s also got a lot percolating on the publishing front, with two more books finished and waiting in the wings, including one focusing on animal-assisted therapy.

With all that going on, LeFrak still sounds like a mom who enjoys being close to her grown sons, visiting with her new grandchild, and enjoying her Southampton home.

“We’ve been coming out here for 39 years—summering when the kids were really little, and then when they got older, I just hopped back and forth. We’re beach people. That’s why we are out here, that and friends. It’s really serene.” [/expand]

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