Sandra Boynton watches five deer walk across the driving range in her backyard.
She has observed many animals during her career, including hippos (and their wild parties), warthogs (and their weird pajamas) and all manner of livestock (and their orchestrated dance sequences).
One wonders if she notices the same pointed antlers and muscular physique the rest of the world sees in those deer, or if her eyes automatically translate their sharp edges into rounded, huggable lumps. You couldn’t blame her: It’s a style that has helped her sell more than 500 million greeting cards and 70 million books.
She also observes another, less elusive, species with interest: the golfer.
“I like people who are obsessed with golf,” she says. “I’m not one of them, but I understand it.”
Constructing a driving range in one’s backyard is an odd way of maintaining a less-than-obsessive interest in the game. Reading her family P.G. Wodehouse’s golf stories at Christmas is another. So was buying her children matching niblicks. But, again, Boynton sees the world a bit differently.
So does Mike Keiser. He recognized Boynton’s gifts early on. Years later, he looked at a slice of Oregon coastline many felt was too wet and remote for any meaningful development and saw Bandon Dunes.
And few who tee it up there know that the woman who created the beloved book they read to their kids before bed played a vital role in those dreamy fairways.
Boynton traveled to New York City during the summer of 1974, wholly uninterested in changing the history of golf. Sustainable employment was a more immediate concern.
But even then, she knew the game. Golf had been a tenet of Boynton family gatherings since she was a little girl. Her father, Robert, captained the Princeton University golf team in 1941, one season after its last national championship. When war beckoned, he landed on the European front toward the end of World War II. The divisions, waiting to ship home, passed time by sending skilled players like Robert to compete at local courses.
Robert’s father, a businessman in upstate New York, attempted to inculcate all 17 grandchildren in the game. Robert and his siblings’ families would travel from Philadelphia to the Catskills every summer, and the elder Boynton would buy lessons for his 14 granddaughters and three grandsons at the Stamford Golf Club.
Boynton drifted in that golf universe, but swears she did not orbit.
“I never got bitten by the golf bug, but it was part of my landscape,” she says. “I always liked it, so I played a fair amount of golf with my cousins and sisters and parents in the summers.”
Boynton became an English major at Yale. (Yes, “of course” she played the university’s acclaimed course while a student, but, you know, only because her father wanted to check it out. Nothing serious.)
Following graduation, Boynton surprised no one by taking her own path. She traveled up and down the East Coast selling her personal brand of greeting cards, which featured well-rounded animals and droll humor.
Perhaps, if the lines had been a bit sharper, she might have been perfect for The New Yorker. Regardless, most execs didn’t think her style was ideal for the typical greeting card buyer of 1974. “Struggling” may not be the right word, but young Boynton was looking for a big score. Grad school beckoned, and she had only so many friends to crash with while traveling the coast.
And so she arrived at the New York Stationery Show, running out of receptive eyes. But Keiser’s were open.
“Boy, weren’t we lucky to have met her,” Keiser, who was then running Recycled Paper Greetings, recalls. “She, I think, felt the same way. She was prowling the New York Stationery Show and kept running into dumb people who said, ‘Get away from me. It’ll never sell. It’s too sophisticated.’”
This is a time period of clichéd sincerity that could be considered the dark ages of greeting card art by woke GCA aficionados. Intellectual fare such as Boynton’s birthday pun “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes” was frowned upon. She, like her turkey from Green Hat, Blue Hat, apparently didn’t “get” the greeting card market.
Keiser and business partner Phil Friedmann, on the other hand, were rapt.
Boynton’s animals were big-eyed and occasionally bushy tailed, and decidedly unlike the generic pap that dominated the day. In her characters, Keiser saw Snoopy’s marketability and Charlie Brown’s relatability. He believed they could attract children’s eyes and adults’ laughter.
“We knew that we liked it,” Keiser says. “We didn’t know that her whimsical style was the style that would turn out to be brilliant.”
Boynton, leaning on her father’s publishing industry experience, declined the initial $50 per-design offer, angling for a 1% royalty on sales. Keiser had never heard that one before, and even warned her against it, but they shook hands on the deal.
Boynton now cites “naïveté” for the bold move, but it underlined her confidence in the product.
“If the cards aren’t doing well, I don’t want to be paid well anyway,” she says. “Phil and [Mike] are very similar in their iconoclasm.…They were just different from any other company I talked to, and I knew these were the people that I wanted to be with.”
And the cards? The cards sold.
Boynton’s success at Recycled Paper Greetings was instant, and Keiser kept close tabs on his new superstar of sentiments. She also happened to live in Connecticut, near the Hotchkiss School and its historic golf course, where another great meeting of the minds—Seth Raynor and Charles “Steamshovel” Banks—had occurred.
Since Boynton grew up with the game, she was able to join Keiser and the executive team out on the course at a time when many women weren’t given the chance. She enjoyed the give-and-take, taking jabs at each other’s shotmaking and politics, bonding over the mutual appreciation for classic golf.
Keiser encouraged her to play more, but she demurred, occupied first with graduate school, then a burgeoning career making his products, and eventually raising four children while creating many of her children’s books.
“I actually can hit a long way, and I can be laughable,” she says. “Mike always wonders why I don’t play more. He says, ‘You could be so good.’ My answer is, ‘It’s so much better to play twice a year,’ and, if it’s terrible, ‘Well, I never play.’ And if it’s great, I go, ‘Wow, I never play!’”
But even she was surprised at how far her boss would take the hobby.
Keiser is often hailed as a genius for turning his greeting card fortune into the American golf mecca that opened in 1999, and assigning credit away from his keen foresight may be a reach—to everyone except Keiser himself.
“[Sandra’s] genius financed Bandon Dunes,” he says.
That’s not a metaphor: No bank would back the then-ridiculous concept for a golf resort. But by that time Keiser was capable of self-financing Bandon—and he credits much of that to Boynton.
In the decade after their first handshake, in 1974, Recycled Paper Greetings catapulted from $1 million to $70 million in annual sales, mostly riding on the back of Boynton’s round, golden fauna. The “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes” card sold more than 10 million copies alone.
While Keiser points his success to Boynton, she credits hers to targeting a niche audience: whomever she was thinking about that day.
“I tend to do my books or my cards with particular people in mind,” Boynton explains. “If you say, ‘What’s Jane’s relationship with her mother?’ it’s a lot better than ‘What does Mom mean to people?’”
For example, her successful golf-themed designs aren’t directed to all golfers. “Birdie Golfer”—a spherical songbird lining up a shot—was created specifically for her mother, who had just come off a run of red on the scorecard.
But Boynton’s granular approach toward single subjects created broad appeal. The sentiment crossed over. A message about Jane’s mother ended up appealing to almost all mothers, who in turn bought the cards.
“We were doing the right thing at the right time,” Boynton says. “Greeting cards were really horrendous at that point.”
Children’s books were not so horrendous at that point, which is perhaps why publishers were less keen on Boynton’s whimsy.
The original submitted draft for 1977’s Hippos Go Berserk came back with comments such as “Does the world need another counting book?” and “In the middle, the author starts to count backwards.” Maurice Sendak, who created Where the Wild Things Are, among many other children’s classics, once told an undergraduate Boynton that her illustrations were “greeting card art.”
He was correct, technically. So maybe she just needed some greeting card guys to publish her first book.
Keiser and Friedmann were more than happy to oblige.
“At that point we could’ve been called the Sandra Boynton Greeting Card Company,” Keiser says, noting that her commission had risen to 10%, a huge sum in that world. “We were basically ‘anything Boynton is good.’”
And they were also correct: The Boynton fire spread from the greeting card aisle to the bookshelf. Keiser and Friedmann rode the wave until 2005, when they sold Recycled for $250 million.
“Anyone starting a company would be wise to look for a genius like Sandra Boynton,” says Keiser. “She just kept getting better and better.”
By the 1980s, Boynton’s time on the course had slowed to playing only when vacationing with Keiser and his wife, Lindy.
Boynton’s husband, Jamie McEwan, was an Olympic slalom canoeist and had won a bronze medal at the 1972 games; golf was a bit mild for his blood. Boynton and the kids followed him to the Pyrenees for nearly two years while he trained for the 1992 Olympics. Between his work, hers and their growing family, golf took a back seat.
But the game never disappeared, and neither did her propensity to make quirky bits of history in it.
During her first visit to Keiser’s blossoming resort, in 2004, Boynton teed up at No. 12, the longest par 3 at the original Bandon Dunes course, playing toward the Pacific with a shallow green that elbows around a pot bunker. Grant Rogers—Bandon’s director of instruction at the time, whom Boynton describes as “like the guy in [the 1971 novel] Golf in the Kingdom”—handed her a 9-wood. (“I had never seen a 9-wood before!” Boynton remembers.)
“As soon as I hit it, Grant said, very calmly, ‘Oh, that’s in the hole,’” Boynton says of her hole-in-one. “I just remember feeling kind of stunned.”
Boynton called her mother, the Birdie Golfer, to tout her own Eagle Golfer status, and then returned to the clubhouse, where McEwan aggressively sought out patrons to buy drinks for. Rogers gave her the 9-wood.
The resort doesn’t have official records, but Keiser believes Boynton to be the first woman to record an ace at Bandon.
Since then, she’s never been a stranger at his ever-growing portfolio of golf properties, but Keiser wishes she would reap the unintended rewards of her life’s work just a bit more.
“Getting her out there was the hardest thing, because she had a family, she had all these business and publishing affairs,” he says. “I would say that she talked a good game and went there far less frequently than I would have liked.”
Sandra Boynton watches the deer walk off her driving range into the rainy afternoon.
In the early days, McEwan would watch the kids and explore the property at Bandon while his wife played with the Keisers. But he eventually found his way to the game.
Suffering from multiple myeloma and struggling to pursue his more rigorous passions, he finally fell for golf during his final trip to Bandon. It just made him feel better. They got back to Connecticut and he installed the driving range in the yard. He would commit to golf just as he had to canoeing decades earlier.
He did not receive much opportunity. Not long after the range’s completion, McEwan’s cancer worsened, and in 2014, he died, at 61 years old.
Keiser describes it as “one of the saddest things my wife and I ever experienced.” They funded a scholarship for the United States Olympic canoe team in his name, and the Jamie McEwan Trail now runs through Bandon’s property.
Boynton simply notes that she was not going to be rid of the range, one of her husband’s final projects.
Seven years later, it has returned to its original purpose: helping people feel better.
Boynton accompanies her kids, laughs at their wild swings and enjoys cocktails brought out by her younger son, Devin. He won gold at the 2015 Pan-Am Games for slalom canoeing, but is coming around to golf. Perhaps, after all the years and greeting cards and books and Keiser invitations, Boynton is ready to pick up a club more often.A 30-something father and writer considers her incredible arc while easing his 3-year-old into bed, reciting Boynton’s Good Night, Good Night from memory for approaching the thousandth time. The son correlates “They brush and brush and brush their teeth” with a toothbrush, and the father thinks “They all go up to exercise” during his improvised workout routine. The toddler is asleep, off to join the hippos in his dreams, and the father has recently returned from his first trip to Bandon.