Living Legend: A Tribute To Neil Sedaka

By Masha Leon

Published June 01, 2007, issue of June 01, 2007.
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To the strains of “Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome” from the musical “Cabaret,” Countess Vanessa von Bismarck (great-great granddaughter of Otto von Bismarck); Prince Stefan von Ratibor; Sotheby’s vice chairman, Jamie Niven (son of film star David Niven), Israel’s ambassador, Dan Gillerman, and gala chair Amalia Dayan (granddaughter of Moshe Dayan) joined the 300 extremely elegant guests filing into the Rainbow Room for The American Friends of Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s May 10 Celebrating Art & Architecture gala and auction. Honored were Artist of the Year Jeff Koons and architect Preston Scott Cohen, recipient of the Visionary Award. Cohen’s innovative design for the new museum beat out 78 competitors. His design for the museum’s Herta and Paul Amir Building — scheduled for completion in 2009 — will be in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

In their gala journal entry, Dayan and her husband/co-chair, Adam Lindemann, touted Koons “as a favorite of ours” and expressed admiration for “Preston Scott Cohen, whose extraordinary structure is certain to profoundly change the museum visitor’s experience, as well as create a global impact on future museum architecture.” Haim Samet, chairman of the AFTA finance committee, credited Ron Lauder for his help in making possible “the museum’s Mark Rothko exhibit, curated by Christopher Rothko and Tel Aviv Museum’s director and chief curator, Mordechai Omer.” Samet announced that for Israel’s 60th anniversary, the museum plans a Development of Arts in Israel exhibit as well as an exhibition of works by Alexander Calder.

“I’m embracing what’s outside,” Koons. Said. His acceptance comments were as cryptic as some of his creations, which have been described as “kitsch” and “neo pop.” Koons mused, “Standing here as an American friend of the Tel Aviv Museum — you gave me an excuse to come [here] — [I have] a feeling of connection to the history of art.” His monumental outdoor sculpture Puppy, shown recently at Rockefeller Center, is permanently installed at the Guggenheim Bilbao. At the request of my daughter Karen, Koons posed next to a reproduction of his lithograph “Monkey Train (Blue) 2007” — an edition of 45 signed copies of which are available at $30,000 per print! Cohen told the art-savvy crowd of friends, colleagues, art collectors, owners and representatives of major galleries: “My father, Harris Cohen, a businessman and a consummate salesman, is here. From him I learned to see and to persevere.”

The extensive silent auction of works in a wide range of media and prices included a wood box sculpture by Italian-born Guiliani, minimum bid $1500; a mixed-media work by Israeli-born Aharon Gluska, minimum bid $6000; an oil on canvas by Moroccan-born Miriam Cabessa, minimum bid $6000; a rice-paper illustration by South Korean-born Jae-K Youn , minimum bid $9000, and photo prints by Ben Shahn ($6000), Berenice Abbott ($4,500) and Weegee ($3000). Niven’s enthusiastic live-auction spiel touted two high-asset ink-on-paper Calders: “Untitled 1963” and “Untitled 1970.”Retail value for each: $65,000. Minimum bid $45,000! Don’t know who the lucky bidders were. At last count, the evening raised $800,000 for the museum.


Musical Fireworks, the New York Pops’ 24th birthday gala, held April 30, indeed turned out to be a “God Bless America” event, with the Carnegie Hall audience joining the Pops Orchestra, led by David Charles Abell, plus the Young People’s Chorus of New York City in singing Irving Berlin’s iconic musical gift to this country. Gala honoree Neil Sedaka, who trained at The Juilliard School (his family name is derived from tzedakah, meaning charity), confided: “My mother was not happy when I gave up classical music and began to write rock ’n’ roll. But she got used to it when I got a couple of hits and bought her a mink stole — also known as a Hadassah tallis,” an old Catskillian reference unfamiliar to most in the audience. But Sedaka’s lyrics and music proved as fresh as when they seduced his first generation of fans. Michael Feinstein performed Sedaka’s “The Hungry Years”; Jay Siegel sang “Stairway to Heaven,” and Diana DeGarmo, a 2004 “American Idol” runner-up who had a Broadway run as Penny Pingleton in “Hairspray,” charmed the audience with her exquisite rendition of Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” After a series of film clips showing Patsy Cline, Tom Jones and Elton John performing Sedaka hits, the man himself — self-confident, energetic, on the cusp of 69 and in fine voice — commandeered the piano and thrilled the audience with more of his timeless, poignant hits.

“I remember being back there with Isaac,” reminisced event host Liz Smith as she took command of Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium/Ronald O. Perelman stage. “No one can be happier [tonight] than our [late] founder, Skitch Henderson, who [always] packed this hall with kids of New York who are New York’s future. There are 800 of them in the gallery seats at this performance.” Smith applauded the evening’s co-host, Denis Leary, star of acclaimed hit cable-TV series “Rescue Me,” for “personally raising $2 million for firemen across America.” Then, baton in hand and sporting red-soled black spike heels, Meredith Vieira, co-host NBC’s “Today” show and host of ABC’s “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire,” conducted the Pops Orchestra plus Macy’s Great American Marching Band in George Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band” and John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Golden-voiced Lea Salonga performed “Just Beyond the Dream” by Brian Besterman and William Schermerhorn, and John Lloyd Young, star of “Jersey Boys,” sang George Davis Weiss/Bob Thiele’s upbeat “What a Wonderful World,” accompanied by the Young People’s Chorus. Post-concert, buses waiting outside of Carnegie Hall whisked the black-tie members in the audience to The Pierre for dinner, dancing and mingling with the Pops’ stars — including Sedaka and his wife, Leba, (whom he met in the Catskills).


On May 2, pint-sized, indefatigable Ruth Westheimer was center stage at a reception hosted by Mark Gerson at his home for the launch of her book, “The Olive and the Tree: The Secret Strength of the Druze” (Lantern Books), a fascinating companion to her documentary of the same name. Working the room like a miniature Perle Mesta, Westheimer (author of 32 books!) greeted all the guests then started introducing them to each other. Among her fans that evening were Edith Everett, Ingeborg Rennert, Malcolm Thomson, Alan Slifka, David Marwell, Richard Heffner, Matthew Lazar and Israel’s consul general, Arye Mekel.

Over the years, she has perfected a paparazzi-galvanizing moment that not even Paris Hilton or her ilk could match. No matter how tall the male honoree, she would home in on him, put one arm behind his neck in a headlock, pull him down to her height and then kiss him on the cheek. The rest is print history. It’s my contention that this never-fail technique was conceived at the 1992 American Booksellers Association convention in California. Random House was hosting a private party at the Sherman Library and Gardens in Corona del Mar for Earvin “Magic” Johnson in honor of his then forthcoming autobiography, “My Life.” Hundreds of fans slowly snaked through the magnificently sculptured grounds. Suddenly, there in front of us was Dr. Ruth! In her inimitable voice, she proclaimed, “I vant you to see that I am standing on line like everyone else!” She then asked if Karen would take a picture of her “with Magic.” By the time sequoia-tall Johnson stooped to embrace Lilliputian Westheimer, the photographers were in a photo-op frenzy. Then Westheimer spotted Random House CEO Alberto Vitale. She rushed over to him, grasped him by the neck and, as the cameras flashed, bestowed upon him what was to become her signature photo-op hug and kiss. Earlier that day, on the convention floor, she told me about her forthcoming documentary, “Surviving Salvation,” which is about Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel in 1991. Soberly she added, “For this cause, I am a tireless schnorrer.”

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