Wednesday, February 13, 2008

White Knights and Women's Rights, New York on a Winter's Day

Looking south along 7th Avenue from 24th street. 2:35 PM. Photo: JH.
It snowed yesterday in New York, beginning in the early afternoon, tying up traffic in the city within a couple of hours. It amounted to no more than was forecast – an inch or two but it was wet and slippery. After lunch at Michael’s, the cab ride home, which normally takes ten or twelve minutes for a ten dollar fare (tip included), took more than an hour with a thirty dollar fare, and there were a couple of moments when I thought we might be sliding (sideways) into another car despite the driver’s extreme caution.

Michael’s, however, was warm and sunny, almost but not quite just like the climate of its sister restaurant (Michael’s) in Santa Monica. Michael McCarty himself was on hand, and his daughter Clancy in her last year at NYU was at the table next to ours.

In the bay, at table one right behind us was the Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett and three ladies of three generations, all dressed like ladies for lunch. I have no idea what the conversation was about but I could see it was an equal give and take and very relaxed. Mr. Buffett was also highly amusing if the ladies’ laughter was any indication.
School kids and their nannies crossing Fifth Avenue at 79th Street, 3:45 pm.
Meanwhile at that very hour, Mr. Buffett was being celebrated in the financial markets as a White Knight for promising earlier in the day to single-handedly buttress debt markets by writing secondary insurance on up to $800 billion of municipal bonds. The Dow shot up more than 200 points (to a 230 intra-day high). The Sage characteristically played down any kind of altruism by telling an CNBC interviewer that he was only doing it for the money, providing reinsurance to three beleaguered companies: MBIA, Financial Guaranty Insurance and Ambac Financial Group. Later in the day, Ambac threw water on the idea and the markets followed suit.

Although there were a lot of quote-on-quote VIPs at Michael’s, no one, but no one’s presence could in their wildest dreams compare to the Midwestern Midas whose real stock in trade seems to be substantial Common Sense and healthy doses of Patience and Prudence.

Meanwhile around the room, an erstwhile genius of the entertainment world Mike Ovitz was lunching with Herb Allen III of Wall Street; right next door Andrew Stein; Former Clinton cabinet member Roger Altman was at another table; Sherri Babbio at another, Lynn Nesbit with film producer Stanley Jaffe, Dr. Mitch Rosenthal of Phoenix House with author Ed Klein; Mitch’s wife, Sarah Simms Rosenthal at another table with political pundit Richard Cohen; and around the room: Christy Ferer, Alice Mayhew, Jim Mitchell, Steve Abramson of New Line; John Josephson, William McComb of Liz Claiborne; Richard Rubenstein, Mort Hamburg; Michael Kassan in from L.A.; Bobby Zarem, Wayne Kabak, Neal Boulton of Men’s Fitness, George Ledes, Dan Wassong and lots more of that ilk and stripe.
Outside the Ukrainian Institute, the old Fletcher Mansion at 79th and Fifth.
This writer was with one of Broadway’s most prolific producer’s Daryl Roth who has two shows running right now – the huge hit “August, Osage County” and “Is He Dead,” a comedy based on an original comedy by Mark Twain.

Mrs. Roth is also the wife of Steve Roth the real estate tycoon – Vornado Realty – who built One Beacon Court where the Bloomberg Building and Le Cirque reside, and mother of young Broadway producer Jordan Roth.

Once upon a time a little girl from New Jersey whose parents loved musical theatre and often brought their children with them to see the Broadway shows, Daryl’s been in love with the theatre ever since.

DPC and Broadway's Daryl Roth  
After a successful career as an interior designer for commercial spaces, in the late 80s, she happened to attend a small private concert given by writer/ director/ screenwriter and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. and his collaborator, composer David Shire. So taken by their material she asked if they’d ever considered turning it into a theatre review. From that “Closer Than Ever” was conceived and opened off-Broadway in 1989 with Daryl Roth producing.

No one expected more than a couple week run out of the little show but it lasted nine months, won two Outer Critics Circle Awards, was turned into an album and gave birth to a theatrical producer’s career.

In 1991 came the musical “Nick and Nora,” based on the enormously successful film series, then an original play “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” and then “Proof,” “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” Through interest and participation in the producing of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” she developed a relationship with the playwright and produced his “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” and later the revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Tony Kushner’s “Caroline or Change;” “Anna in the Tropics,” the revival of “Salome,” of “Medea,” the original Kander and Ebb’s “Curtains,” “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the revival of “Inherit the Wind,” “Coram Boy,” “Deuce” and is currently working on the musical version of Paddy Chayefsky’s “A Catered Affair.” But that’s not all; there’s much much more.

Broadway today is a very expensive undertaking, no matter the production. The money, the jack, once known as Angels are now producers; producers who serve as angels for each other’s productions (credited as producers), producers who co-produce; anything to get each other’s productions onto the boards.

Today Daryl Roth’s life is the theatre (not to mention her husband and family and dogs). I asked her if she’d aspired to acting or writing or directing when she was a kid. No, just the theatre; she always knew she wanted to be in the theatre. The Maltby-Shire experience showed her the light.
Once upon a time theatrical production was the business of men. In the early days of the American theatre, from the mid-19th to the early 20th century there were occasional women who were stars and managers – Mrs. Drew, (an ancestor of Drew Barrymore) Mrs. Campbell, Sarah Bernhardt, later Mae West; even later, producer Cheryl Crawford, Armina Marshall who with her husband Lawrence Langner headed the Theatre Guild.

Today Daryl Roth is one of several prominent women of the theatre such as Terry Allen Kramer, Elizabeth McCann and Chase Mishkin. All of these women are major players, working with each other as well as the prominent male producers to launch each other’s productions. It could be said that the re-emergence of Broadway is closely related to the work of these women.

I was telling Daryl over lunch that my first theatre-going experience came when I was a kid – Greer Garson in the comedy “Auntie Mame” (Garson succeeded Rosalind Russell in the show). I still have a strong memory of the feel and smell and atmosphere of first entering and taking my seat in the Broadway house (the Broadhurst), where it was playing, and it remains with me anytime I visit one of those old theaters to see a show. Magic and magical thinking. Daryl told me it still happens for her every night.

Adrienne Germain, IWHC's dynamic president presenting an award to Professor Muhammad Yunus.
Last night at Cipriani, the International Women’s Health Coalition held its 7th Annual Gala honoring Kati Marton and Muhammad Yunus. The IWHC is not very well known by the public although there were more than 450 attending last night’s dinner, including many prominent New Yorkers and a large contingent of prominent women from all over the world.

The organization protects and promotes human rights and health of women and young people throughout the world. They “envision a world where women and girls are free from discrimination, sexual coercion, and violence; where they make free and informed choices about sexuality and childbearing; and where health information and services are accessible to all.”

IWHC carries out its charter by investing in community-based organizations with financial support and professional partnership with 75 organizations in Africa, Asia and Latin America that work with communities and governments to create lasting changes. It also lobbies for international policies and increased funding, and develop and mobilizes international coalitions.

Judy Woodruff opened the evening. Gala co-chair Maureen White was supposed to follow but could not attend last minute. Dr. Bernard Kouchner, a physician, diplomat and human rights activist and currently President Sarkozy’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, made a special trip to New York to pay tribute to Kati Marton, as did Samantha Power, professor at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
France's Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Dr. Bernard Kouchner paying tribute to Kati Marton.
Kati Marton, author, journalist, honoree, accepting her tribute and telling us about her work with the IWHC.
Ms. Marton who is also married to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, is the bestselling author of six book including The Great Escape: Nine Jews who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. She’s also a print and broadcast journalist with her work appearing in The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, the New York Times, Vanity Fair and Newsweek. She is a member of the Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee and the Council on Foreign Relations and serves as Chair of the IWHC Board of Directors since 2003.

The night’s other honoree, Professor Muhammad Unus (a Nobel Peace Prize winner, 2006), is recognized for his work in poverty alleviation and the empowerment of women. He founded the Grameen Bank, a micro-credit institution created to provide tiny amounts of working capital to the poor, without collateral, for self-employment.

IWHC President Adrienne Germain paying tribute to Professor Muhammad Yunus.
Professor Yunus telling the audience about the experience of starting a woman's bank in Bengladesh which has inspired micro-credit lending on all five continents.  
Since its inception as a project in 1976, the bank has grown to provide collateral-free loans to 6.5 million borrowers in Bangladesh, of which 96% are women. Today Grameen Bank lends out a half billion dollars a year to the poorest of the poor and maintains a credit repayment of 99%.

Dr. Yunus’ idea, which male central bankers thought either absurd or impossible has inspired a global micro-credit movement that reaches out to millions of poor women on all five continents, in poor countries as well as rich.

Both Marton and Yunus, in accepting their honors, spoke of their individual experiences helping those of us who are most severely hindered by the traditions of society and the men who rule the culture. Ms. Marton’s reports on the problems of health, early teenage marriage, vaginal circumcision and violence towards women and children in Africa is anguishing just to hear about. Dr. Yunus’ stories of how women prosper with just a bit of a financial assistance, conversely, is inspiring although daunting to consider.

Last night’s benefit raised a record amount for the IWHC programs. It was one of those evenings, non-black tie in which the people at the podium kept everyone at attention with stories of what is needed not just to make a better, healthier world, but to sustain the one we are living in. The matter of women’s health and women’s rights gets watered down by media and the silliness of American society where hyper-macho attitudes afflict everyone’s progress and prospects. Both men and women are responsible for this, however.
Ellen and Dr. Dick Levine
A view of part of the room at Cipriani 42nd Street
Agnes Gund and Marlene Hess
Sarah and Mitch Rosenthal
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Kati Marton (Mrs. Holbrooke)
Dr. Bernard Kouchner and Samantha Power
Ann Unterberg of the IWHC Board of Directors
I am also one of those men who is here because there was a strong woman to get me out onto the road of life. There was no strongly dedicated man to do that, and at this age I rarely see any men who have that kind of strength -- which often leads me to wonder if it has something to do with gender.

I saw Michelle Obama speak at a luncheon last spring. She exhorted the women in the room (it was mostly women) to befriend other women, their sisters, their aunts, their cousins, their neighbors, adding that it was because women are the ones who make the world GO.

Kati Marton expressed the same belief last night. It was interesting to learn that many women at the Michelle Obama luncheon that day were not all that impressed with her exhortation. Some wanted her to talk about what it was like to be on the campaign trail, what she wore, etc. I was amazed that they wanted so little from her. She's a tough cookie and every bit as tough as Mrs. Clinton. And every bit as nice. I've only met Mrs. Clinton under very unthreatening circumstances. She's always been very gracious and entirely human despite the chimeric image so often tossed about in the media.

I'm always amazed that she remembers me although I'm not sure that she remembers my name; and I don't care because I myself after meeting so many don't remember almost anyone's name more than half the time.

But her greeting is lovely, and kind, and there is a glint of humor in her presence. I see her as a very substantial person who is, like the rest of us, vulnerable to making mistaken decisions, but nevertheless will prevail in one way or another. I know so many people who HATE her. Most of the women I know who hate her sit on the edge of being victims themselves, for a variety of reasons, usually having to do with a man who has let them down in one way or another.
Michelle Obama at last year's N-YHS Strawberry Luncheon where she exhorted women to befriend and support each other.
Many of us are a silly lot, and maybe so is much of the rest of the world when considering the extreme problems of health, poverty and violence confronting more than half the world’s population. I am of the opinion that what is happening now in the world of the financials and environmental degradation is the tip of the iceberg that will plague our civilization maybe for the rest of the foreseeable future unless we find strong guidance to move us otherwise. That sounds like a wild thought but perhaps because of my mother (who was neither an angel nor even easy to deal with after I became an adult) I am inclined to vote on the side of a woman who has forebearance. Last night at the IWHC evoked all of that for me and very possibly for many others in the room, for we are not unique in our individual experiences of this life, but we can be hopeful.

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