'Women of Achievement' Honored


By Masha Leon

Published April 03, 2008, issue of April 11, 2008.
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Issur Danielovitch Demsky (aka Kirk Douglas) was presented with the American Legacy Foundation’s first Public Awareness Award at its 2003 dinner. The presenter was Betty Perske (aka Lauren Bacall), whom Douglas tried to seduce when she was 16. “My mother and father died of smoke-related illnesses,” Douglas said, explaining that this was why he never smoked on or off screen. At this year’s March 10 Legacy Award dinner at The Pierre, the honoree was AARP CEO **William Novelli, whom the master of ceremonies described as “a man who really saved lives with his dedication to eradicating tobacco from the American and world landscape.” Novelli touted New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a 2005 Legacy honoree), “thanks to whom there are now 250,000 fewer smokers in New York City than in 2002… Bloomberg is a leader who has shown the world what public officials can accomplish.” Expanding on her annual mantra, “Smoking kills more Americans each year than AIDS, drugs, alcohol, fires, car accidents, murder and suicides combined,” Cheryl Healton, Legacy president and CEO, added a new nail-in-the coffin estimate: “One billion will lose their lives to tobacco in the 21st century.”

The evening also honored Dr. Claudia Henschke, chief of chest imaging and professor in the radiology department at New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center. Her seminal research led to a program currently in use in more than 50 institutions in nine countries focusing on screening for lung cancer. The evening’s anti-smoking guest roster included Dr. Eric Kandel, Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine and director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Sciences at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and his wife, Denise Kandel; Seymour Sternberg, chairman and CEO of New York Life Insurance Company; John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society, and Stephen Adler, president and CEO of Charity Brands Marketing. The foundation’s edgy and innovative new anti-smoking TV-ad campaign was screened and enthusiastically applauded.


“Women with loud mouths make a big difference,” said Academy Award-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden, a presenter at the March 3 Women’s Project “Women of Achievement” award gala, held at Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room. Honored was film star Kerry Washington, who in 2005 won an Image Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Washington, Harden said, “remembers to give back to a community that nurtured her.” She starred in, among others, the 2006 film “The Last King of Scotland.” Merrie Spaeth, whose bio includes a credit as producer for ABC’s news show “20/20” and the appointment as director of media relations at the White House by then-president Ronald Reagan, gave an award to Laurie Tucker, senior vice president of FedEx Corporate Marketing. “Whether in theater, Wall Street or politics, women are making their mark,” presenter Tony Bennett said, touting Iris Cantor, who, with her late husband, B. Gerald Cantor, established the Cantor Foundation to fund medical, educational and cultural institutions and programs in the United States. These include The Iris Cantor Center for Breast Imaging at UCLA Medical Center and the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Film Center at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Established 30 years ago, Women’s Project is the nation’s largest and oldest (and self-described “sexiest”) company dedicated to producing theater created by women. Honorees at WP’s past annual galas include Betty Friedan, Beverly Sills, Wendy Wasserstein, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Nora Ephron, Gloria Steinem, Annie Liebovitz, Barbara Walters, Lauren Bacall, Eugenia Zuckerman, Francine LeFrak, Muriel Siebert and, the only man WP ever honored, Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization.


The recent world premiere of the opera “The Yellow Star: Celebrating Extraordinary Acts by Ordinary People,” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, was an emotion-filled musical “thank you” to Denmark and its people, who managed to save almost the entire Jewish population of the country. The premiere coincided with the 65th anniversary of the rescue of the Danish Jews and the 45th anniversary of the founding of the scholarship fund Thanks to Scandinavia. Written by composer/librettist Bradley Detrick and produced by Rebecca Neuwirth, director of special projects at the American Jewish Committee and executive director of Thanks to Scandinavia, the ambitious production boasted a cast of 11 vocalists, an additional ensemble of 10 and a 15-member children’s chorus. On the back of the stage of the Edmond Safra Hall was a montage of black-and-white blow-ups of 1943 Copenhagen, King Christian X and the fishermen’s boats ferrying the Jews to safety in Sweden. The story follows the flight to Sweden of Hannah Kaplan and her daughter Rebecca, with the help of Danish neighbors, strangers and the underground — and even a Nazi soldier who turned a blind eye to a boatload of escapees.

As I watched the production, I had a flashback to a 1995 dinner honoring the royal Danish family and Danish-born classical pianist-cum -clown Victor Borge (a co-founder of Thanks Scandinavia). He recounted how, on the night of Kol Nidre in 1943, the Jews went into hiding and were spirited to Sweden in all kinds of boats. When the Nazis offered to release Danish hostages for hidden Jews, a government official replied, “No point in exchanging one Dane for another Dane.”

Prefacing the opera, there were remarks by Torben Gettermann, consul general of Denmark, and Warsaw-born Holocaust Survivor William Donat. He told how, as a child in wartime Poland, where 90% of the Jewish population was murdered, “I was smuggled out and given into the arms of Christian friends of my parents who had bravely agreed to save the life of a small, bewildered Jewish child. There were too few like them.”

“In Denmark,” Donat noted, “people from all walks of life — shopkeepers, doctors and nurses, clerics, social workers, farmers and fishermen, came together and formed a spontaneous national rescue effort for their fellow Danes.… Neighbors hid their Jewish friends so that they would not be home when the Germans came for them…. Farmers hid them, and the resistance brought them to the coast, where fishermen took them to Sweden, where they were welcome. Money for fuel was available from any bank, no questions asked. And so nearly 8,000 souls were saved.”

In 1972, I attended what may have been the first-ever dinner honoring the members of the Danish Underground. The master of ceremonies and keynote speaker that night at The Plaza was radio host Barry Farber, who spoke in English, Danish and Norwegian and lauded the then middle-aged men and women who had risked their lives to save their Jewish friends and neighbors. The Danes at my table were flabbergasted. They could not understand what was so remarkable about their actions. “We did what any other civilized people would have done,” one of them said. Farber cited case after case of humanitarian extraordinary acts that ranged from assuring that the families would be kept together in the fishing boats to seeing that their Jewish neighbors’ apartments were dusted, dogs fed and plants watered until they returned home after the war. Farber led the assemblage in singing the Danish Underground song and, in Yiddish, the “Partizaner Lid” — the song of the Partisans, which is a staple at the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring annual Passover Seder (this year on April 13).

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