Fortune Society is a New York City-based non profit organization that provides essential support to the formerly incarcerated. Some of the services offered include help with finding housing and jobs, adjusting to civilian life and educational opportunities. It was founded by David Rothenberg in 1967 as a result of his experience at Rikers while researching for the play Fortune and Men's Eyes.
John Herbert, the author of Fortune and Men's Eyes had been incarcerated previously as an altercation by some thugs had caused a mass roundup by police. The judge sentenced him to prison due to his epicene appearance. Being deeply moved by the play, his experience at Rikers and Herbert's plight, Rothenberg channeled his passion for activism into a non-profit advocacy organization called Fortune Society borrowing from the play's own name. By the time the play premiered in Canada, Fortune Society had been created. Initially, the organization began as discussion forums at the Actor's Playhouse featuring a diverse set of interlocutors including parole officers, elected officials and the formerly incarcerated among others. Pat McGarry and Clarence Cooper, author of the The Farm, agreed on an organization called the Fortune Society, from the play’s title, which had been taken from a Shakespearian sonnet, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state.”
Rothenberg’s office on W 46th became the de facto headquarters of the organization and the group began fundraising at Tuesday night discussions. In an effort to raise awareness four men from the society went on The David Susskind Show. Clarence Cooper, Frank Sandiford, Eddie Morris, and Rob Freeley were panelists on the show leveraging their social status and celebrity.Susskind informed audience that the men were all part of a new organization and to connect to them at the Fortune Society at their office address.
The next day 250 former convicts were lined up outside Rothenberg's small theater office anticipating an organization that could help them with employment and housing. Mel Rivers also came that day to see what the organization was all about resulting in Rivers, Jackson, McGarry, and Cooper starting as the core of Fortune Society.
Rothenberg began arranging for ex-cons coming to the Fortune Society to attend Broadway plays and conscripted his close friend and colleague Alvin Ailey to join the organization and provide tickets for the formerly incarcerated the society was trying to help. Kenny Jackson joked that when you get out of prison in New York, “you get $40, a baloney sandwich, and two tickets to Alvin Ailey.”
Around this time, the Attica Prison riot broke out and Rothenberg was included on the prisoners' shortlist for civilian observers. This prompted Arthur Eve's office to call on him and recruit him for that role. He was among the three dozen men called in to Attica as observers. The group unanimously agreed to send a smaller delegation to represent observers. The delegation included William Kunstler, Tom Wicker of the New York Times, congressman Herman Badillo and state senator John Dunne, who returned to New York to plead with governor Nelson Rockefeller, only to find he had ordered troops to take over the prison. The take over was violent and there were casualties. After the dust settled, four prisoners' bodies remained unclaimed. Fortune Society made arrangements for these men to receive proper funerals.
The Attica Prison riot raised a lot of awareness about the conditions prisoners faced during their incarceration. These events spurred Rothenberg's many friends and colleagues to work with other theater professionals to host fundraising events. Notables like Arlene Francis, Melba Moore, Zoe Caldwell, and Christopher Reeve supported the organization and fundraised for its cause. Even Attica prison publicized Fortune Society to its prisoner population.
Many volunteers offered to help after Attica, providing tutoring and secretarial services. The model tutoring program that still runs today was created at this time, offering classes for illiteracy, GED and college preparation, as well as career services. The society grew in office space and participants with the welcome collaboration of educational institutions
During the infancy of AIDS, the society received letters from inmates with tales of men dying of a strange epidemic. Rothenberg sent literature from the Gay Men's Health Crisis to Deputy Commissioner Marty Horn, who said they could not allow literature with the word gay in it. After discussion with Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the word was never spelled out and the wardens permitted the brochures to enter. Thus, the Department of Corrections took its first step in recognizing the epidemic’s effect on the inmate population.