Wednesday, May 25, 2011.
Last night at the St. Regis Roof, the American Cancer Society New York City, held its “Celebration of Life Spring Benefit, honoring this writer and Perri Peltz, the television journalist and documentary filmmaker whose “The Education of Dee Dee Ricks” premiered earlier this month at the Tribeca Film Festival and will run on HBO this coming October. I’ve been going to this annual benefit for several years. Diana Feldman, who is one of the co-chairs and long active in planning these, a friend and a person with a generous heart, asked me earlier this year if I would be an honoree.
I had replied: “honoree for what?
She answered: “For our Man of Achievement Award.”
I replied: “What’s the achievement?”
She laughed – Diana is easy to laugh which is part of her great charm – and I said yes.
Although I was serious with my question. Frankly I agreed because of her aforementioned qualities and friendship but the last question was honestly put.
Achievement Awards – often “Lifetime Achievement” Awards are popular at many benefit galas, and while some of them seem like a stretch (especially when the recipient is in his or her thirties), they are received with grace and humility at the ultimate flattery.
However, many recipients are also remarkable achievers in one way or another. I do not consider myself in that class for as I told the guests last night in my “acceptance” speech, finishing this Diary every night and getting it out is my idea of an achievement. I don’t put that lightly although I believe compared to many in the world I visit almost daily, it is not remarkable. Furthermore my partner in NYSD, Jeff Hirsch, who most readers know as JH, for his beautiful photographs, is really the achiever in this duo, putting together, editing, designing, laying out and putting us up on line every very early weekday morning.
All that considered, in thinking about “what” I’d say in my acceptance, I realized that I’ve been writing the New York Social Diary for 18 years – first in Quest magazine, briefly – three years – in Avenue magazine and since the turn of the century, in Quest. JH and I have been delivering the NYSD on line for the past eleven years. Facts that amaze me since the time has flown by so quickly, and been so packed with people, activities and ... Well ... Benefit galas. Adding them up I think I’ve attended about 1400 of them over that time.
People have often asked if I didn’t get “bored” with it all. Answer: I could have --except it always got down to you Dear Reader: it’s your getting bored that is my mission (and at times challenge) to avoid. Because of that, and because of my intense exposure to the process of philanthropy and fund-raising in New York, I found a route to keeping it interesting for myself, and I hope, for you.
Years ago when I lived in Los Angeles I had a friend who quit the film business after he’d made his pile of dough and decided to go on a voyage to India. When in Calcutta and learning of Mother Teresa’s hospices, he decided to knock on the door one day and volunteer to help.
For two weeks he worked in the kitchen washing the pots and pans after the meals were made – a far cry from the mogul’s office he occupied at one of the major studio in Hollywood. The implements he said, were primitive and not very efficient. He even suggested some that were more modern, but they weren’t interested. So he just continued his assignment many hours everyday, working in a place for the sick and the dying. It made a very deep impression on him.
After he told me the story – back home in his lovely house in the canyons of Beverly Hills surerounded by beautiful gardens and all the conveniences of modern American life, I asked him “What” he had “learned” from his experience.
He told me that he learned that everyone who does anything to contribute to charitable causes was making a difference, whether they were giving money, holding teas, changing beds, caring for animals, educating the children, raising money for all of these activities and much much more -- they were making a difference in creating a better life and a better world for us all.
That sounds like a tall order when I see it in words, but my friend – who was in no way frivolous or careless in thought – believed it.
That lesson of his has been my guide in this work called the New York Social Diary, and that’s what I told them last night in my little speech. And that’s what fired my curiosity beyond the surface of these many evenings that I’ve reported here. The mechanism of charity requires all types, all talents and all personalities. The reward is often only an ideal but when pursued with a dedication, commitment and passion that I have seen in so many people involved, the reward can be a Cure, a Hope, a Comfort and a Rescue, and a love and respect for Life.
I often think how if we could run our governments and our societies with this kind of energy, many of the problems now plaguing our civilization could be eliminated. I often think how the occasional realization of these ideals are proof that we’re better than we think we are.
Back to last night. Perri Peltz was awarded the Humanitarian Award. I’ve known Perri for quite a few years although we see each other infrequently and don’t know each other well. She has a very kind and sunny manner. You know when you’re in her company that she’s one of those women who is smart and in pursuit of realizing ambitions. You may be familiar with her as a journalist on CNN, CNBC, and other media outlets. There’s no edge to her delivery. In fact it’s almost Pollyana-ish but with incisive intelligence. One of those people you’d describe as not having a mean bone in her body. I’m sure that’s accurate.
Last night she told us how after her career in television news she felt a need to get deeper into matters. At first she tried medical school. After a year of it, despite advancing her interests and knowledge, she decided that wasn’t the best road for her. Somewhere in there she got involved through the experience of her friend Dee Dee Ricks in making a documentary about Ricks’s battle with breast cancer and her resulting interest in addressing the business of being poor (Ricks was the opposite) and being confronted by the dread disease.
Perri ran a couple of clips from the film for us. One was an interview with Dr. Harold Freeman who runs the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention in Harlem. This brief and moving interview actualizes and affirms what I wrote about the process of charity, its people and what it achieves. It is so moving on so many levels that everyone in the St. Regis Roof ballroom last night was transfixed by Ms. Ricks and Dr. Freeman (both of whom were also present).
I don’t Ms. Ricks, although I may have met her in my nighttime gala benefit travels. She’s been a very successful businesswoman here in New York and living right up there with many of her wealthiest friends. Her own bout with breast cancer turned out to be a seminal moment for her. She is a great woman, a kind and thoughtful woman. And brave. So is the good Dr. Freeman; a towering individual himself. You will see all this immediately when you see this powerful film – the work of the equally courageous, however modest, and kind Perri Peltz.
That moment made the evening for me, and as I said, it gave me a glimpse into the achievement we all share in the business of charity and philanthropy. It’s totally democratic and available to anyone.
Last night’s benefit co-chairs were Gigi and Harry Benson CBE, Diana and Richard Feldman, Charlotte Ford, Brenda and Howard Johnson, Margo Langenberg, Jean and Martin Shafiroff, and Barbara and Donald Tober. Vice-chairs were Joe Cohen, Evelyn and Leonard Lauder, Linda and Stephen Levy, Suzanne Mados, Hilary and Wilbur Ross, Eric Ruttenberg (Perri’s husband), and Lauren and John Veronis (Perri’s mother and stepfather).