March 28, 2009 at 1:00 am

Detroit booster/ Philanthropist

Gretchen Valade: Cotton overalls heiress backs causes from jazz to St. John Hospital

Gretchen Carhartt Valade grew up in Grosse Pointe with a passion for jazz and with financial security that could have led to a life of idle pleasure.

Instead, she channeled her passion into saving a cultural jewel, the Detroit International Jazz Festival, and into causes that benefit all Detroiters.

In 2005, Valade propped up the jazz festival with an infusion of cash. A year later, she endowed the festival with a $10-million fund so millions of Metro Detroiters and visitors could enjoy North America's largest free jazz festival for many years to come.

Last year, Valade opened the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe, a sophisticated oasis of fine dining and top-drawer jazz in Grosse Pointe Farms that keeps local musicians working all year.

Valade also is a major donor to the United Way for Southeastern Michigan and to St. John Hospital and Medical Center.

Back in the 1880s, Valade's grandfather, Hamilton Carhartt, started a company to manufacture heavy cotton duck overalls for railroad workers. Carhartt Inc. did well until the Depression, when many of its factories had to close.

Growing up in Grosse Pointe among the sons and daughters of the auto elite, Valade did not feel special.

"My family background was overalls!" she quips. "I was sort of ashamed of it because all my friends were asked to the big auto show. They'd get all gussied up, and I never went. I felt like Cinderella because my father had nothing to do with automobiles and everything to do with denim."

But World War II came along, and the U.S. Navy needed dungarees. "Denim got big," Valade says. "Things turned around, and now I'm glad we're in that business and not in autos."

Sweet or hot, jazz was always the soundtrack to Valade's life. Her older sisters played Fats Waller, Bix Biederbecke, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James records on their Victrolas.

After a stint at Detroit Country Day, Valade attended boarding school in Massachusetts and then finishing school in New York City.

"What 'finishing school' meant was, 'Give me your money, and I'll take care of your daughter for a year,' " Valade says.

She had a blast exploring New York's smoky jazz clubs. Back then, you could get into clubs at age 18, "which was about what I was," she says with a laugh. "That's how I learned all about Eddie Condon and Sidney Bechet -- I went to see them all the time."

In 1948, she married Robert Valade, the son of a Detroit dermatologist, and settled in Grosse Pointe.

"He didn't know about jazz, but he learned real fast," she says. The Valades had two children, Gretchen and Mark. Since Robert Valade's death in 1998, Mark has run Carhartt Inc., and his mother is the chairman of the board.

Valade became involved with St. John Hospital after her husband's death. "They treated him so well; I was very grateful."

She became an active donor to the United Way after reading a Detroit News story about a divorced mother of three who'd lost her home and her job, and was living under Hart Plaza.

"She couldn't get a job because she couldn't afford a sitter. People think it's just drugs or alcohol that makes people homeless, but it's not. It's a lot of bad luck. And you know, I've had a lot of good luck."

Susan Whitall / The Detroit News