Monday, May 21, 2012

Over the River and through the kitchen ...

Lounging along the Hudson River. 8:40 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, May 21, 2012. A weekend of beautiful weather in New York – bright and sunny, warm and with a cooling breeze down by the river.
More post-sunset Hudson River views.
Last night down at the Four Seasons Restaurant, the Cancer Research Institute held its 30th Annual “Through the Kitchen Benefit. This is the only event that the restaurant makes an exception and closes to the public and invites the guests into its famous kitchen.

The evening begins with a cocktail hour at 7  in the grille room. The event was sold out. It draws a big crowd of well known and prominent New Yorkers, and it’s probably the only event of its kind that can get this crowd to go out on a Sunday night.  The reason: a good cause and an incredible meal (plus seconds and thirds if you can handle it), not to mention a massive dessert table.
The cocktail hour in the Grille Room of the Four Seasons restaurant at last night's "Through the Kitchen" dinner benefit for the Cancer Research Institute.
Unlike a lot of fund-raisers, there is a minimum of “talk,” etc. No honorees, no tributes (and more “talk”). Just Through the Kitchen with your plate in hand (it’s the ultimate Park Avenue smorgasbord), on to your table (the place card was a matchbook with the “name” of your table on it), in a room full of people who know each other by one or two degrees of separation. So it is a clubby affair. Tables this year were named after New York nightclubs of yore and sundry attractions, such as “Playboy Club,” “Birdland,” “Plato’s Retreat,” “Studio Fifty Four,” “Copacabana,” Mine was “Trader Vic’s” – and all tables were elaborately and cleverly decorated by DeJuan Stroud.

When it came time to talk turkey, Perri Peltz, daughter of founder Lauren Veronis reminded the guests of the evening’s inception, thirty years ago. The Four Seasons was at that time – and still is – the ne plus ultra restaurant for the high mucky-mucks/corporate/power corridor clientele at lunch and dinner. Its interior remains the original – a collaboration of Mies, Philip Johnson and William Pahlman – and what was once pace-setting in design is now reassuringly classic, a modern-stately, elegant self.
Hilary Califano, Lynn Nesbit, and Jenny Conant.
Lauren Veronis and Debbie Bancroft. Rochelle and David Hirsch.
Alex von Bidder and Nina Rosenwald. Tiffany Dubin and Bill Manger.
So the idea that Lauren Veronis conceived – giving the restaurant’s clientele the opportunity of also getting to try everything right there in the kitchen – was the kicker that still brings out the crowd. Perri also reminded everyone that raising money for cancer research, despite the publicity, is still a major challenge and not easy to succeed at. However, last night they raised more than $600,000. Over the last 30 years, this dinner has raised more than $7 million for cancer research.

Jamie Niven, the ne plus ultra of charity auctioneers (Sotheby’s) took the podium to conduct an “auction.” He told the guests that Researchers write sixteen proposals for projects for every one they are able to get funding for. It’s a long, arduous task just getting to Go. He raised enough at auction last night (and then specific donations in increments of $20,000, $10,000 and $5,000) to fund three research projects and add another $200,000 to the Cancer Care Institute coffers.
Fernanda Kellogg, Jim Zirin, Kirk Henckels, and Marlene Hess.
Guests entering the kitchen donning their aprons for the feast.
The menu.
After the main course, they opened the doors of the mezzanine in the Pool Room, where the dessert tables were laid out to entice the Sweet Tooth aficionados. They were lined up like kids waiting for cotton candy.

Among those attending were the Mayor, Michael Bloomberg with his lady friend Diana Taylor, and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mrs. Kelly, who was one of the evening’s  co-chairs, along with Christine and John Fitzgibbons, Denise and Michael Kellen, Jamie Niven, Margaret and Andrew Paul, Perri Peltz and Eric Ruttenberg, Betsy and Paul Shiverick, Jeanne Sorenson Siegel and Lauren and John Veronis.

Also: David and Lisa Schiff, Dalia and Larry Leeds, Herb and Jeanne Siegal, Hilary and Joe Califano, Joanie Schnitzer and Irwin Levy, Marlene Hess and Jim Zirin, Jeff and Liz Peek, Nancy Silverman, Alfred and Judy Taubman, Lally Weymouth with Joe Cowen, Tiffany Dubin with Bill Manger, Steve Kroft and Jenny Conant, Rochelle and David Hirsch, Barbara Walters, Cece Cord, Maurice Sonnenberg, Tory Burch and Lyor Cohen, Nina Rosenwald, David Margolick and Linda Wells, Cy Vance Jr., Debbie Bancroft.
Perri Peltz briefly tells the group about her mother's idea which celebrated its 30th anniversary last night. Jamie Niven closes the bidding on the auction.
Producer Diane Nabatoff. Lauren Veronis and Marlene Hess.
I was seated next to Diane Nabatoff, the film producer, who was attending her first “Through the Kitchen” with her husband Robert Machinist.

Six years ago Ms. Nabatoff produced a film called “Take the Lead” about a teacher and his students, inspired by a true story about Pierre Dulaine, a well known ballroom dancer and instructor.

Mr. Dulaine was born in Jaffa, Palestine in 1944, son of an Irish father serving there in the British Army, and a French/Palestinian mother. He grew up mainly in Amman, Jordan and Egypt until he was 14 when the family settled in Birmingham, England. It was there that he began his dancing career.
In 1972, with a great deal of dance experience under his belt, he settled in New York where he developed Dancing Classrooms, a program for 5th grade children that uses ballroom dancing as a vehicle to change the lives of the children and their families.  Since then Pierre Dulaine has taught more than 300,000 New York schoolchildren ballroom dancing. The results of that instruction are life enhancing to an almost miraculous degree. Diane Nabatoff’s “Take the Lead” was a fictionalized version of that life and achievement, with Antonio Banderas playing the Dulaine.

Nabatoff’s interest in the man led to a documentary which is just now nearing completion and yet untitled. The new film is about Pierre Dulaine’s program put to the test in his native Jaffa with a group of Israeli and Palestinian children. Nabatoff described to me over dinner the process which began with overt, almost brutal hostility between the two groups of children, and ended with a triumph of transformation and friendship, as they learned to dance with each other. Triumph and transformation; the hope is in the children. That’s the true to life emphasis of this story that can bring tears to your eyes just hearing about it. The film will be reading for screening in September.
The Pool Room with guests settled in at their tables ...
Many New Yorkers were deeply saddened to learn of the death late last week of Mary Richardson Kennedy, the estranged wife of Robert Kennedy Jr.  As is always the case with the Kennedy family, the media, often through the infinite channels of hearsay, speculation and ready moral judgment has removed all matters of privacy concerning Mrs. Kennedy’s demise – evidently a suicide by hanging, at her home in Westchester.

Mary was very well liked, even loved, and had many friends in New York. With her husband she participated in several public philanthropies and causes. I met her through Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Riverkeeper project, and also the Food Allergy Initiative which she and her husband joined because of the specific health issue in their own family. The only conversations we had were about the projects she was involved in. In the ensuing years, the FAI has grown in size and accomplishment. The Kennedys were among those whose contribution had a great positive impact for millions of others.

Mary Richardson Kennedy (as she liked to identify herself) was a very pretty woman – a beauty really – with a kind and gentle demeanor out in the world.  I knew nothing of the personal issues and the demons which may have distracted and tormented her.

Several in the media have been quick to attack the entire Kennedy clan and their social behavior over the matter, as if they were part of the cause of Mary Kennedy’s problems. The Kennedys are always an easy target. This has been going on for more than a half century – since Jack Kennedy was elected President. Actually, the gossip goes all the way back to the Patriarch himself. It has been furthermore enhanced and embellished by terrible tragedy and death.

When the family emerged to world fame with the Presidential election of 1960, its image was glorified by their great wealth, glamour, wit and vigor. Their influence was profound on the American psyche. Americans idolized that image if not the individuals themselves, hoping even to re-create it in their own lives. The Assassinations of the brothers scotched everything, ironically, and Chappaquiddick literally drowned it.  Although the surviving brother emerged from it and worked hard and admirably for decades to carry on the inspirational legacies of his brothers, as well as to lead his family.

The third generation of public Kennedys are now in middle-age. There are scores who are still, at least in the public mind, united as a family. What that unit really is is known only to them. Otherwise, what was created under the Patriarchal umbrella of wealth and power has been torn asunder. How these cousins process their world experience realistically is unknown to us, and possibly unknown to most of them also.
They remain famous and comparatively wealthy, and for some, even very rich. However, generations of wealth combined with easy access to the corridors of power and influence almost always leads to a detritus of privilege with most individuals.  It’s an old story - the nature of wealth - and it is commonplace. Rarely is wisdom an asset derived from it. Few families in such a position (and it’s a rare one anyway), are left unfettered, unhindered, or untouched by it. This truth has been demonstrated again and again for the Kennedy family often under the public’s (media) microscope.

Family matters, no matter the family, are best understood, if understood at all, only by those who live behind those four walls with doors shut and shades drawn. The stress and pressure that this creates for Kennedy family members is always just outside their frontdoors, no matter where they go or what they do. It probably explains why the most famous of them – Caroline – clearly keeps a high and impervious wall between herself, her immediate family, and the public gaze. What we the public see and what we are told about them (much of which is unknowable unless volunteered) is all that we really can know about any family, no matter how famous they might be. And that amounts to very little, or next to nothing. Such is life. May the beloved Mary Richardson Kennedy be allowed to rest in peace; and may we spare her children the clamoring public gaze that now stalks their parents.

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