Singer/songwriter Carly Simon was among the honorees at Freeing Voices, Changing Lives, the first-ever gala of the American Institute for Stuttering. The event was held June 10 aboard Cunard Line flagship Queen Mary 2, at its Brooklyn Cruise Terminal berth in Red Hook. The event also honored former stutterers: journalist/author Dominick Dunne, NBA All Star Kenyon Marin and fitness entrepreneur Jake Steinfeld. Co-chaired by Sir Harold Evans, legendary publisher, editor and best-selling author, along with his wife, formidable editor Tina Brown, whose exposé “The Diana Chronicles” is not likely to be on the top of Queen Elizabeth II’s reading list. Gala special guests included former stutterers: stage and screen actors Kevin Kline and Sam Waterston; ABC News’s “20/20” anchor John Stossel, and former chairman and CEO of General Electric Co. Jack Welch, who was with his wife, Suzy. “There are 3 million stutterers in America,” informed Catherine Montgomery, founder and executive director of the institute. “There is a hieroglyph for stuttering,” she said. She then listed a roster of famous stutterers: “Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Stewart, Tiger Woods, Senator Joseph Biden and author John Updike. The lattermost wrote, “You write because you don’t talk well.”
Dunne — editor, essayist and author of “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles,” “An Inconvenient Woman,” “People like Us,” and photomemoir “The Way We Lived” — attributed his stuttering to an abusive father. Drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, Dunne — currently covering the Phil Spector trial — recalled: “In the battle of Metz, I saved a wounded man’s life during a retreat…. To this day, I do not know how I did what I did, but I did it. I received a Bronze Star pinned on my private’s uniform by a general in the field who told me how brave I was. I was 18. My picture was in the paper. It was the first compliment of my life. I never stuttered again!”
“I grew up the fat kid from Long Island who stuttered,” said Jake Steinfeld, who described a terrifying flashback to second grade. “Weightlifting changed my life, built my confidence, my self-esteem, helped me overcome the stigma.” Steinfeld went on to create a body-building empire. He is founder and chairman of the board of Body by Jake Global LLC; creator of FitTV, America’s first 24-hour fitness lifestyle network, and founder of Discovery Communications, Inc., which has more than 30 million subscribers. He has also established Don’t Quit! Fitness Centers in inner city middle and high schools throughout the country and, at Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s request, serves as chairman of the California Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
“Like Jake, in class I never raised my hand, could not bear the shame [and was] afraid I’d be called on even though I knew the answer,” Simon said. “There was this lump in my throat that would not let the word out. I began to stammer by my fifth birthday… my anxiety attack came three years later. The lack of esteem took a lifetime to overcome. I was needy, insecure, afraid of going away from home, leaving my mother…. Neither psychotherapy nor medications helped alleviate the stammering. I did not have the benefit of therapies [that are] now available…. At 10, around the family dinner table, I could not say ‘Pppppleeeesse pppassss tttthe buttter.’ My mother came up with an ingenious idea. Whenever she sensed that I was having difficulty getting a sentence out, she’d suggest: ‘Sing it, Carly.’ I found I could sing when I needed to communicate… so I sang all day long. As the years passed, the stammer slipped away.” (The program notes inform: “It is true that all who stutter can sing without stammering. According to experts, it is due to the fact that singing requires very different neurological processing than speaking.”)
Towering NBA star Martin, who was once reticent to recall his early years as a stammerer, urged: “It is never too late to get up, no matter what your age, race or work.” He then added, “My sister protected me from childhood taunts about my stammering until I got bigger than anybody else.”
Emceed by CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, the 300-plus “Who’s Who” guest crush in the QM’s vast Queen Room included New York State Senator Charles Schumer, Sir Howard Stringer (chairman and CEO of Sony Corporation), Linda Fairstein, Ron Silver, Rex Reed, Calvin Trillin, Lauren Hutton, Patricia Duff, Joel I. Klein and Elsa Klensch. After an elegantly served lunch came entertainment by JD Lawrence (chairman and CEO of The JD Lawrence Show Inc.), who had a speech impediment when he was younger and overcame taunting from school peers, Otis and the Hurricanes and Toby Kasavans. Then guests were given a “wow”-eliciting overview tour of the luxurious floating city. Wish I could have joined the thousands of eager cruisers checking in for that afternoon’s QM2’s departure crossing to Southampton, England.