Friday, October 5, 2012

Setting the example

Life blooms. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Friday, October 5, 2012. Overcast, threatening rain most of the day. None. Warm and slightly humid and very busy traffic. All of these elements in the Big Town set the mood.

Setting the example. I went down to the Metropolitan Club at noon time where the Lighthouse International was hosting its annual Henry A. Grunwald Award For Public Service luncheon. This is a fund-raiser.

This year they were honoring Bob Pittman, CEO of Clear Channel  and Linda Fairstein.  The luncheon was started in 2001 after Mr. Grunwald had become involved with the Lighthouse because of personal experience.

Louise and Henry Grunwald in 2003.
I don’t know who got it organized, but before its inception, Mr. Grunwald and his wife Louise presided over an eclectic society of friends, and Louise Grunwald has long been known for being an excellent hostess. When the time came to put together a special luncheon for the Lighthouse, they had all the phone numbers in their personal directories to beat the drums.

When Henry Grunwald was in his 70th year, he experienced the first indication of macular degeneration. A writer/editor all his life, he was a man whose life was reading. The simple idea of losing his eyesight was inconceivable, and also what was happening to him.

He was the highly respected editor at Time magazine in the day when it was one of the most influential news organizations in the world. Being on the cover of Time was a major public relations coup for anyone who ever reached that pinnacle, unless of course, it was a monster, like Hitler. Even then, it was newsworthy in itself. Time was the crown jewel of the Henry Luce publishing empire, and Henry Grunwald was at the helm for many of those later years.  All kinds of power was attributed to a man in that position, and he carried it with distinction and eclat.
Views of Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Club ballroom.
He eventually wrote a book about this terrible impairment that overcame him late in life, called “Twilight.” In it he recounts the experience of losing one’s most valued sense. Learning what the Lighthouse International was doing for all kinds of vision impairment, however, he and his wife got behind it. This year’s lunch will bring in about a half million for the organization. That is what a man and a woman can do.

Co-chairs for the event were Mandy Grunwald (daughter of Henry), Elizabeth van Merkenstijn, Joseph Ripp, Lesley Stahl. The Committee was Mark Ackermann of Lighthouse, Donna and Bill Acquavella, Caty and Stephen Graham, Warren and Olivia Hoge, Donald and Catie Marron, Stanely Mortimer, Enid Nemy, the Dorothy Strelsin Foundation, Steven Rattner, Jeanne and Bob Savitt, Elizabeth and Mayo Stuntz and the John L. and Sue Ann Weinberg Foundation.

I’ve been attending this luncheon since its inception, and its base support has only grown since then. A good portion of credit for its success goes to Louise Grunwald who is also a major contributor. Many of her friends and associates took tables.
Louise Grunwald, Liz Smith, and Ben Brantley
Iris Love with her dachshound handbag. Annette Tapert in her forest green leather dress
Liz Smith was emcee and introduced the two honorees, both of whom are New Yorkers she’s known long and well. I think of Liz as the Toastmaster General of New York. She can encapsulate the personality and character in any individual in just a few sentences with precious praise, and never failing to rustle up some barbs to spice up that praise. She’s very democratic with her words, with all, and laughter from the audience often punctuates her sentences.

Bob Pittman has had an extraordinary business career, leaping from one success (founder of MTV) after another, and is now CEO of the largest cable network in the country, Clear Channel. Liz announced at the beginning of her introduction that the honoree has only one eye, having lost the other in a horseback riding accident when he was a kid in Jackson, Mississippi. Characteristically, nothing has stopped him from piloting his own plane, riding a motorcycle cross country and whatever else draws his interest.
Liz Smith Bob Pittman
Linda Fairstein’s career as a lawyer, prosecutor, best-selling crime novelist is well known to the NYSD reader. She is another one of those New Yorkers who has forty hours in each day giving her time for all her interests and activities, including writing a new novel (one a year). Linda also actively supports several philanthropies, including Lighthouse, Safe Horizon, Gods Love We Deliver.

Both honorees delivered brief statements of thanks and reiterated the great need for everybody to support Lighthouse since its work affects all of us and many times, us personally.

The lunch was called for noontime and over by 1:45. This little matter of time spent is also a vote for attending for a lot of people. A good time was had by all, and thanks to them, more help is on the way.
Linda Fairstein arrives with fanfare ... And addresses the luncheon guests
When I first sat down to write this Diary, I was thinking about the Lighthouse Grunwald luncheon and how Louise Grunwald got this show on the road so successfully and from the looks of it, effortlessly.

I don’t believe the “effortlessly” part.  No matter how great the troops you can rally, making it work year after year is like any other important executive or managerial strategy: you’ve got to stay on it. Louise Grunwald has never been active in any business but the talent comes naturally to her.

This is true of many women I meet in New York. Last week I had lunch at Michael’s with Bonnie Lautenberg. Bonnie is the wife of Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. She and the Senator have been married for quite a few years after a very long courtship – Bonnie had been an early  widow, and involved in her father’s real estate business.
DPC with Bonnie Lautenberg at Michael's
I’ve known her in passing for a few years. She is the daughter of the late Michael Steinberg who had five daughters whom he evidently treated like princesses – responsible princesses, that is – because to this day they all revere the man, and they’re all personally industrious.

Bonnie is launching a special project that she’s been working on for several years. After withdrawing basically from the day to day of her father’s business, she studied Photography at the International Center of Photography. She created a project for herself that has blossomed into a major program.

Hillary Clinton by Bonnie Lautenberg.
Tom Harkin by Bonnie Lautenberg.
John Cornyn by Bonnie Lautenberg.
It’s an exhibit of portraits of 113 Senators from the 109th and 110th Congresses. Each senator was photographed in his or her office or anywhere in the Capitol building that they chose. These photographic appointments included Bonnie asking each what they considered their legacy piece of Legislation and/or what are they most proud of having accomplished in the Senate, and what do they want people to know about them?

Everyone agreed to participate; no surprise there, right? And it’s a show now, slated to eventually travel America, so people can get a first hand look at the best foot forward, rather than stuck in mud as our legislators are commonly perceived by many in these times.

The show is called “How They Changed Our Lives: Senators As Working People.” Bonnie sees it as a great educational tool and civics lesson. The show opens Sunday and will run through October 20th at the Mana Contemporary gallery, 888 Newark Avenue, Newark.

Women and husbands. Volunteerism is a long important tradition among many New York women in favorable financial circumstances, as well a many community minded women of average means. It remains a crucial factor in our burgeoning metropolis, and the act of volunteering has burgeoned also with the generation of women who came after the Second World War.

What made me think of it was Vera Blinken, wife of Donald Blinken who was our Ambassador to Hungary during the Clinton Administration.

I’ve known the Blinkens superficially for a number of years, and was especially aware of them because of the ambassadorship. I had learned that Vera, who seems totally American (and went to Vassar) was born in Budapest and was a very small child at the end of the War. She and her widowed mother escaped during the Soviet occupation after the War.

I didn’t know, until I read their book “Vera and the Ambassador,” Vera’s profound impressions of experiences in those terrifying times, and its influence on her and her husband’s ambassadorial work.
DPC with Vera Blinken at Michael's
Like Bonnie Lautenberg, Vera was blessed with strong, sensible, hands-on parents. Loving parents too, it seems; another distinct advantage for anyone. Arriving in America, still a child, who didn’t speak the language, she worked hard to fit in with her contemporaries -- a big challenge socially.  Reading the book, however, you can see the true grit of the child of wartime and lessons that a sensitive parent could provide.
The book is written in alternating chapters of hers and then his, after  the riveting story of Vera’s childhood and subsequent escape from Hungary. Although it is entirely autobiographical, it is also a fascinating account of how  one does become an ambassador (it is a its own kind of political campaign), and why.

Click to order Vera and the Ambassador.
In the case of Donald and Vera Blinken, much can be attributed to their very strong marriage and partnership. A second marriage for both – although they’ve been married for forty years now – the decision to seek an ambassadorial appointment specifically for Hungary, came from their already mutual active interest in assisting Vera’s native land and people.

Obtaining that kind of a post wasn’t as simple as we’ve been led to believe – make a big donation, pull out a plum. Donald Blinken is frank, detailed and honest about what he was seeking and why. His wife not only backed him but also campaigned strategically for him. The couple had an objective – which was to help the Hungarian people and enhance the relationship between Hungary and the United States.

The results of the Blinkens’ efforts and then their tenure was not only an education for them, but now their book “Vera and the Ambassador” is on required reading lists at graduate schools of diplomacy. It’s a veritable primer, a compelling account of what is required and what the rewards are.

The Blinkens experience was so successful also for them, that they came away dedicated to a life long interest in helping our neighbors and helping ourselves. Last year, on the 19th of October, up at Columbia University, was the official inauguration of the Donald And Vera Blinken European Institute which is dedicated to the future of European studies. An American story for all of us.
Donald Blinken, his son Antony Blinken, Vera Blinken, Columbia President Lee Bollinger, and Victoria de Grazia at the inauguration of the Donald and Vera Blinken European Institute at Columbia University on October 19, 2011

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