Thursday, February 7, 2008

Music and Lyrics

In the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria for the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's Tribute to Leonard Bernstein. 7:45 PM. Photo: JH.
It was warm as springtime in New York yesterday with incorrect forecasts of a day of rain; while violently erratic weather in the South brought death and destruction to some parts of the country.

Last night, New York’s ambassador of Good Will, Good Works and Most Famous Columnist, the indefatigably eternally youthful Liz Smith hosted a little birthday party for herself (84 years young – and I’m not kidding –- as of February 2) over at the Russian Tea Room.
The Russian Tea Room.
Click to order A Version of the Truth.
Liz celebrated her actual birthday at a dinner on that date with two other Aquarians born on the same day: Elaine Stritch and Barry Diller.

Last night’s “birthday bash” served up lots of caviar (a favorite dish of La Liz) with all the garnishes and little crepes as well as pigs-in-a-blankets and a “very pure vodka” and/or champagne.

The party, true to Liz form was not really for her but to promote two co-authors from Los Angeles whom Liz admires: Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack. Kaufman and Mack wrote “Literacy and Longing in L.A.” and their latest, “A Version of the Truth.”
Jennifer Kaufman, Liz Smith, Vernon Jordan, and Karen Mack
Vernon Jordan, Peggy Siegal, and Joel Schumacher
Liz's Birthday cake
Chris Meigher and Iris Love
Amy Gross and Sean Driscoll
Serenading the guests with music and vodka
Joni Evans and Billy Norwich
David Peterson, Wendy Finerman, and Barbara Goldsmith
Liz, Mary Wells Lawrence, and Peter Brown
Louise Grunwald and Barbara Goldsmith
Vicky Wilson, Iris Love, and Anne Radice
Brad Inman, Sara Nelson, Laurence Kirschbaum, and Jane Friedman
Elizabteh Peabody, Peter Rogers, Liz, and Joan Juliet Buck
After Liz’ party, I hoped the R train to SoHo where Fred Doner and his wife, sculptress Michele Oka Doner were hosting a PEN Authors’ Evening dinner for thirteen of us at their loft/studio (see NYSD HOUSE). These dinners have become somewhat of a tradition that PEN employs to raise funds for their activities (fighting censorship, defending the freedom of writers and promoting literacy).

Each party has a guest author. Ours last night was Judith Thurman, a prolific Staff Writer for The New Yorker who has written several books including the acclaimed “Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller” and “Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette” as well as the beloved screenplay of the award-winning “Out of Africa.”

Last year she also published “Cleopatra’s Nose; 39 Varieties of Desire,” a collection of essays that (save one) first appeared in The New Yorker.
The dinner guests at Fred and Michele Oka Doner's PEN Authors' Evening last night. Judith Thurman, guest author, is seated center between the two men.
The environment for last night’s dinner, being an artist’s studio (and home) lent itself to the specialness of the evening. PEN American Center, which benefits from these evenings is the U.S. branch of the world’s oldest international human rights and literary organization.

The P.E.N. (poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists) American Center was founded in New York City in the spring of 1922. The year before, in London,: Mrs. C. A. Dawson Scott, a Cornish novelist, and John Galsworthy, author of “The Forsyte Saga” and a well-known literary figure, founded the first P.E.N. organization.

They first called it "The P.E.N. Club." It was borne out of Mrs. Dawson Scott's "unshakable conviction that if the writers of the world could learn to stretch out their hands to each other, the nations of the world could learn in time to do the same."  The idea could not have come at a more appropriate time, as bitter hatred existed between the nations following the First World War, although mankind has remained impossibly slow in pursuing to Mrs. Scott’s suggestion.
Michele's studio by day.
PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace. It believes that the necessary advance of the world toward a more highly organized political and economic order renders free criticism of governments, administrations, and institutions imperative. And since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood, and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.

Writers have always played a leading role in the PEN American Center. Past presidents have included Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag and Salman Rushdie. To learn more about PEN and how you may participate or benefit from it, or become an associate member or a full member visit: and download an application form.

Dinner last night was at a large round table which was one of Ms. Oka Doner’s sculpted pieces along with a concentrically  round bench for us to sit on. Conversation during the three courses took place mainy between partners on one’s left and right. During dessert Fred Doner suggested we engage our guest author, Ms. Thurman, with some questions about herself.

She was first asked how she became a writer. Her mother, she told us, was an English instructor and had also once worked as a receptionist at The New Yorker, a magazine which she held in high esteem. Mother Thurman always encouraged daughter to write, even telling her that she would be a writer. She also served as an editor, teacher and taskmaster for the child developing as a writer. The mother’s awe and respect for writers and love for her child produced a dream come true. It also produced a skilled and prolific writer who, besides her books, has produced many articles, a famous screenplay, and pieces for The New Yorker.

Ms. Thurman also told us that she was fortunate to work for The New Yorker because of the magazine’s excellent fact-checking and editing staff. Asked if she felt that the rigorous editing hurt her style or her prose, she replied that it only helped make it more effective.

After discussing one of Ms. Thurman’s more memorable portraits -- on Teresa Heinz Kerry -- which she wrote for the magazine during the 2004 Presidential campaign, conversation at the dinner table moved into the realm of the current Presidential campaign, and more specifically another woman who was once wife of a candidate (and then a President) and is now running for the office herself.

Conversations about Senator Hillary Clinton, if they don’t dissolve into rancorous diatribes or exclamations of personal “hatred”, are never wholly admiring or even, for that matter, not always respectful (although last night’s table conversation was that). Last night’s talk about Hillary ran both pro and con but any loathing or rancor, if it even existed among the guests, went unexpressed.

During the conversation about the history of Ms. Thurman’s professional life as a writer, obviously one marked by notable success, she admitted that no matter how much she has written, she often had doubts about her own abilities as a writer.

It was one of those evenings which is rare for most of us where the conversation was serious, thought-provoking and enlightening. The Oka Doners’ living space was a perfect complement for Judith Thurman’s presence and sharing, and all of us left the evening with a sense of gravity and even a small dose of well-being (and renewed appreciation of loving mothers who encourage their children to read and write).

Last night in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra hosted a musical tribute to Leonard Bernstein. From the early years of the Palestine Orchestra, through the orchestra's remarkable development, the composer/maestro (always referred to as Lenny by his many friends) played an important role as conductor, promoter, and advocate for the musicians of the IPO. Last night they celebrated the beginning of Lenny's 90th birthday by playing some of his music (and learning more about Lenny from his daughter, Jamie Bernstein) from Candide, Wonderful Town, On The Town, West Side Story, and ending with a special tribute from Tony Bennett.
Click image to play a video sampling of last night's performance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's Tribute to Leonard Bernstein.
Last night also marked the the first of the IPO's concerts commemorating the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. During the year, the orchestra will travel to many parts of the world.

Last night's benefit chairs were Judith and Burton Resnick, Co-Chairs Stacey and Matthew Bronfman, the Associates Benefit Co-Chairmen, Ophira and Joram Cukierman, Rachel Posner and Michael Weinstein, and National Tour Underwriters, Diane Belfer, Helgard and Irwin Field, Rochelle and David Hirsch, Barbara and Morton Mandel, Annette and Peter O'Malley, Inga and Ira Rennert, and Marilyn Ziering.

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