ASHLAND, Ky. — Anita Madden was synonymous with sumptuous and spectacular parties held every Kentucky Derby eve over the course of five decades (from the mid 1950s to the late 1990s). The events were filled to the brim with extravagance, a little decadence and an abundance of entertainment, and were attended by the Who’s Who in politics, sports and Hollywood celebrities and jetsetters.
It is with those concepts in mind that the Highlands Museum and Discovery Center will host a “Derby on Delay” event on Saturday, July 10. The event will feature “all things Anita” and will emulate the Derby parties for which she is renowned. The museum is also showcasing an Anita Madden exhibit, including many of Madden’s Derby gala gowns, which opened on May 1.
Above: Ashland native Anita Madden was famous for her Kentucky Derby parties from the 1950s to the 1990s. It is with this theme that the Highlands Museum & Discovery Center will host its own party on July 10.
Highlands Director Carol Allen was contacted by Madden family staff at Hamburg Place in Lexington, the famous farm Anita called home since the time she married Preston Madden, grandson of horse-breeder John E. Madden, in 1955. Hamburg Place, which bred 1987 Derby and Preakness Stakes champion Alysheba, offered Allen and the Highlands memorabilia related to Anita Madden, including several of the lavish gowns she wore to her parties.
“Heather (Whitman), our curator, was very excited to have the opportunity for such an interesting exhibit,” Allen said. “So I began thinking about an exhibit opening and decided rather than just an opening, we should emulate the exciting pre-Derby party that was held on the Polo field at Hamburg Place for many years. Several thousand people were usually in attendance, with many stars in sports, TV, Hollywood and politics.”
Madden was an Ashland native who first attended Western Kentucky University and then the University of Kentucky, where she met her future husband in Lexington.
As reported in the Hamburg Journal, Madden was integral in developing what was once farmland at Hamburg Place into the bustling business center we know today, work undertaken by both her and her son Patrick in the 1980s and ’90s. Many of the streets in the Hamburg development were named after Madden family stakes winners, including Alysheba, Pink Pigeon, Sir Barton and other notable champions.
Though Madden was known for her keen intelligence, it is not the Hamburg development necessarily that she is remembered for, but for the annual Derby parties she hosted at the Madden farm polo field for 40 years. The event grew each year, culminating in 1998 to a crowd of 3,000 guests. Many media outlets covered the Madden galas, including all the local network affiliates, but also major shows including Entertainment Tonight, The Today Show, and music channel VH-1. For many years, WTVQ, the ABC affiliate in Lexington, broadcast live from the party for 1 ½ hours, pre-empting their network show “Nightline.” The show was co-hosted by well-know Kentucky sports announcer Kenny Rice and TV anchor Sky Yancey.
Above: Anita Madden’s Kentucky Derby party in 1987 preceded Hamburg Place’s Alysheba winning the Derby.
Madden chose memorable themes each year and went above and beyond to decorate accordingly. In 1983, the theme was “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” a reference to a work by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Judy Mann with The Washington Post described the event in detail. She cited a young woman placed near the entrance of the main tent wearing the 111.59-carat Earth Star diamond, on loan to the event from the De Beers mining company. The canopy over the dance floor was coated in rhinestones, patterned after a car featured in the Fitzgerald story.
In 1993, the theme was “The Search for the King’s Body Along the Inca Trail.” Madden dressed in a cape bedecked with hundreds of Peruvian purple feathers.
John Giffiths, whose mother, Joy, attended Ashland High School with Madden, was a guest at several of the Derby eve parties. John was about 26 or 27, he said, when he attended with his mother. He recalled the event as “quite remarkable” and said it was a theme related to Arabian Nights, with men and women dressed as genies, with Arabian music playing in the background.
“There was a break in the music and they had these hydraulic man lifts that were made up to look like flying carpets … and they had a man genie and a female genie that were dancing around,” Griffiths said.
Madden was an influential figure in Lexington, not solely for the unforgettable parties she hosted, but for her involvement in the community. In 1977, she was appointed to the Fayette County Planning and Zoning Commission by Mayor Foster Pettit where she served for 17 years.
She was also appointed by Governor John Y. Brown to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, where she served as the first female racing commissioner in Kentucky from 1980-83.
Madden quietly supported many charities in her time, but one that was not so quiet was her support of the Bluegrass Boys’ Ranch. The Derby eve parties served in large part as a fundraiser for the ranch, as well as a few other charities over the years.
Madden’s neighbor, Mrs. T.O. Campbell, founded the Bluegrass Boys’ Ranch and inspired Madden to get involved. Eventually, Madden and her son were able to transition the ranch into a scholarship program.
“The Bluegrass Boys’ Ranch needs the money, and Lexington needs the party,” Madden said in a quote to the Lexington Herald Leader in 1995.
Above: Anita Madden supported many charities in her lifetime.
Even after her death in 2018, Madden sought to help provide for the ranch, as memorial donations were requested in lieu of flowers for the service. The ranch wasn’t the only recipient of Madden’s philanthropy. Many of her parties and events raised money for other causes that were important to her, including the Kentucky Heart Fund and the Lexington Fund for the Arts. She was also known to advocate for equine research and AIDS initiatives.
Madden had a giving and generous nature that became an intrinsic part of her legacy, along with the flamboyant and monumental parties that many still talk about with awe years later.
To make reservations for “Derby on Delay” at the Highlands, contact the museum directly at (606) 329-8888.