Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Puttin’ On the Ritz

Driving down Park Avenue. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012. A summer day; temperatures in the upper 80s. Global warming or no, this year has been the warmest so far of any I can remember. That could all change tomorrow, however.
A couple of lovebugs in Central Park.
Who was that lady? I had lunch at Michael’s on Friday with Silda Wall Spitzer. We first met at another lunch at Michael’s a few years ago. We were introduced by a college classmate of hers who wanted me to know about an organization she co-founded called Children For Children. Her husband Eliot was then running or about to run for Governor.

Silda, who is a graduate of Harvard Law was working for a hedge fund. She and her husband have three daughters in their teens and early twenties. A great believer in community service and philanthropy, she discovered early on that by introducing her daughters to volunteerism she was also empowering them. She also discovered that by empowering them, they enjoyed the act of sharing and assisting.

Kids 4 Kids or Children for Children evolved from these simple insights. This impressed me, as children and young people today who are focused on copious activities learn very little about helping others. Their “confidence” is based on their prowess (success to others) in athletics or school. Not a few seem to develop the unfortunate habit of bullying which is pretend confidence and ultimately a social infection. The response children and young people get from their activities in these volunteer organizations counteracts that misfortune, and helps develop leadership skills and self-reliance (common sense self-reliance).
Concetta Bencivenga, DPC, and Silda Wall Spitzer at Michael's on Friday.
Is this what we talk about when Silda and I lunch? Somewhat. We spend a lot of time talking about the world for young people today. Despite the technological progress, the world is far more confusing and complex for someone growing up. A friend of mine who is in private education told me recently that at least a third of primary and secondary students are on some kind of medication. We already know that last year there were 44 million prescriptions filled for Xanex in this country. You can say what you want about people and drugs but the underlying symptom is the society in which these people dwell and how they are able to cope with it.

Leadership today all over the world talks about the future in terms of threats of war and destruction. All this while the world is sweating to keep its head above water. Leadership needs to inspire to get people moving. That’s what the children in Silda Spitzer’s organization are learning and expressing. So it’s very optimistic.

Last year Children for Children merged with other organizations focusing on the same objective: to inspire, equip and mobilize youth to take action that changes the world and themselves through service. The umbrella organization is called generationOn, and they are having their annual gala benefit on May 31st at 583 Park. Their honorees are Gary Knell, President and CEO of National Public Radio (NPR) and Lauren Bush Lauren, Co-Founder and CEO FEED Projects.

I don’t know about Mr. Knell but I do know that Lauren learned early through her mother’s consciousness. When they moved to New York after Lauren’s parents divorced, the mother, Sharon, and her daughters very soon got involved in philanthropic activity in New York. Their experience led to the founding of FEED. They’re having an effect, a positive one. The world is a better place, a healthy place before of it.
Otherwise what did Silda and I talk about? Did we talk about her marriage? No. Why? On my part, I’m not into talking about people’s personal relationships unless someone’s got an issue they’re looking for an ear to clarify, and that happens rarely in my experience. I know she and her husband are very involved with their daughters’ lives and futures, and that the couple share many interests which is probably what brought them together in the first place. Otherwise, Silda’s one of those very bright and sunny women from the deep South who came to New York and is in the thick of it (and enjoying it). She’s now working for a new investment fund that invests in projects that are forward thinking, involved in improving the quality of life. Would you call her an idealist? I would. We could use a lot more of them.

Midway through our lunch we were joined by Concetta Bencivenga who is the new Executive Director of generationOn. Concetta is also Irish besides Bencivenga. I don’t know if it’s the Irish or the Bencivenga but she laughs easily. She’s also a new resident of New York so it’s all new and fascinating. She, like Silda, is full of natural enthusiasm for the tasks at hand at inspiring children. See for yourself (and maybe for your kids): http://www.generationon.org.

That was Friday. Yesterday at lunch, again at Michael’s, I lunched with Bonnie Strauss and Sandy Cahn. Sandy is the Executive Director of The Bachman-Strauss Dystonia & Parkinson Foundation which was founded by Bonnie a couple of decades ago.
Yesterday at Michael's: DPC, Bonnie Strauss, and Sandy Cahn.
We met more than a year ago, which was when I learned of Bonnie Strauss – arranged by Sandy Cahn. Dystonia is a little-known neurological muscle disorder that causes uncontrollable and often painful spasms in one or more parts of the body. You’ve seen it even if you’ve never known anyone who suffers from it. It affects more than 500,000 people  – more than Muscular Dystrophy, Huntington’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease combined.

It is not common but it is not rare. Both Dystonia and Parkinson’s disease are movement disorders that affect the brain’s basal ganglia. Parkinson’s is most common in people over 50 but Dystonia can seriously affect children also.

It affected Bonnie Strauss personally, and she decided to do something about it, hence the Foundation. Their major annual fundraiser is the Dystonia and Parkinson’s Disease Golf Invitational (The Hedi Kravis Ruger Memorial Tournament). This year they are celebrating their 20th anniversary. In that time they have given $12 million to research on both diseases. Their funded research has resulted in the discovery of the first Dystonia gene  DYT1.

Last year they raised $1.35 million at this tournament. It’s a benefit but a day on the links, the links being Century Country Club in Purchase. The Guest Speaker is the Honorable Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York. Mr. Bloomberg is now a long time philanthropist well known in these circles for being enormously generous and varied in his contributions. And the Mistress of Ceremonies is incomparable Paula Zahn.
The invitation to the June 18th Tournament.
It’s a whole day – Monday June 18th. It begins at 11 am with a buffet lunch and golf range open for practice. At 12:30 the Tournament begins. At 5:30 it’s cocktails and 6:30 it’s a buffet dinner and a live auction. It’s one of those days where many people had a really good time contributing to helping others. To learn more: www.dystonia-parkinson.org

Do you see a similarity to Silda? I was seeing that yesterday at lunch. Mrs. Strauss and Silda share a kindness about others and whatever its roots, both extend it well beyond themselves so as to affect the well-being of others. They wear these qualities with great modesty, even humility, and they’re in the business of moving mountains,
I should add to this pack of encomiums about Bonnie and Silda that there are a great number of people in New York, many of them women, who are accomplishing and achieving great tasks in ways similar. It’s something I learned early on in this business of mine, and it defines distinction as citizens of the community. You can tell I’m impressed.
Guests arriving last night at the French Consulate at 934 Fifth Avenue. That is the sailing pond across the avenue in Central Park.
And then, last night I missed the great interview Liz Smith had with Bette Midler at the  ***** club (it’s one of those crusty private clubs that forbids the use of its name in print, a unique bearing of false modesty known only to those among the well-fixed, or previously well-fixed).

I don’t know what Liz and Bette talked about but I do know those two girls could talk up a Broadway show, let alone a storm. Just the two of them. And I know Liz would be happy to break into song and dance anytime she was asked. Plus they both have stories – miles and miles and miles of ‘em and each better than the last.

Libba Stribling accepting her Medal last night.
I wasn’t there because my friend Elizabeth Stribling (Libba to her friends, families, followers) was receiving the Legion d’Honneur over at the French Consulate at 934 Fifth Avenue from the Ambassador of France to the United States, Francois Delattre.

Libba is a Francophile par excellence. So is her husband Guy Robinson, and her daughter (also Elizabeth). As Elizabeth Stribling she is one of the most successful real estate brokers of the last 30 years in New York with three offices and 350 brokers and staff. As Libba, with Mr. Robinson, she has been very active in French restoration both here and there, and in promoting French/US relations, among other civic and charitable interests.

The evening began with a (French) champagne reception at the Consulate, a great mansion built in the manner of a Roman palazzo, in 1926 by National City Bank (now Citi) president Charles Mitchell. It was acquired by the French in 1942. Libba and Guy Robinson have a lot of friends including many of whom share their love of France and all things French. Many were there last night to toast Libba.

The Ambassador’s speech, which no doubt is how these particular speeches are conducted, ran through the history of the medal (Napoleon 1803) and then the history of Elizabeth Stribling. Industry, persistence, exceptional executive skills, able-minded when it comes to tasks, thorough and charming. And loves France. Like several other New Yorkers I know, she and Guy have a house in France where they visit whenever they can. When Ambassador Dellatre finished his speech, you had the impression Libba would make a good ambassador herself.
The guests congregating at the champagne reception.
Ambassdor Delattre speaking about Elizabeth Stribling, with her medal on the cushion next to her.
The pinning.
The congratulations and the cameras (Patrick McMullan, Bill Cunningham, and Cutty McGill).
It was a beautiful evening in New York the light of the sun setting over the Park gave the enormous room on the piano nobile a luminescence – the kind where you feel like you’re not on a movie set, but characters in an actual movie. Or maybe a painting by John Koch. Congratulations to you Libba!
On my way home after the reception. Carolina Herrera on 74th and Madison.
The tulips on the island on Park and 76th. 8 p.m.
Someone sent me the following video that was made in Moscow of a group of young Muscovites suddenly dancing in a public area to Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” It’s a great song. Fred Astaire sang it and danced to it, and before that an early radio singer named Harry Richman made it a hit. Astaire, however, claimed it with his dancing.  I turned on the vid out of curiosity to see what Russian young people would do with an all-American Irving Berlin song written in 1929 for a Broadway show.

Fantastic, is what it is. Watching it I was reminded of how when I was growing up we frequently heard political reference to the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming (to bomb us). Well, watching this, it looks like it turned out to be the other way around. If they said the Americans are coming, the Americans are coming – to Russia – that would have been more apt.
Mr. Irving Berlin's legacy to his homeland realized for the world.His friends Pan and Astaire would have loved this!
It’s a ray of the sunshine Irving Berlin was famous for. For those who don’t know, he was the premiere American songwriter of the first half of the 20th century. There were many peers – famous names, etc. – but Berlin was admired by all. Ironically he was Russian. Born Israel Isidore Baline in 1888, (he died at 101 in 1989), one of eight children from Belarus. His father, a cantor, emigrated with his family to America to avoid the pogrom conducted against the Jews. The Balines were not the only ones who immigrated for the same reasons in the late 19th century. So too did the Gershwins, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Louis B. Mayer and the Warner Brothers.

The pendulum swings and so do the people in Moscow “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

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