A First Lady, a Good Cause and a Comedic King


By Masha Leon

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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While Leona Helmsley, Edgar Bronfman Jr. and [Court TV Network CEO] Henry Schleiff wended their way into the inner sanctum of the Four Seasons, its bar area pulsed with a crush of photographers and guests who had come for the April 27 book party for Tina Santi Flaherty’s “What Jackie Taught Us — Lessons From the Remarkable Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis” (Perigree/Penguin Group).

Noting a contingent of priests and bishops in the crowd, Flaherty, the first woman elected a vice president at three of America’s largest companies (Colgate-Palmolive, GTE and Grey Advertising) joshed, “We need a rabbi.” She articulated what inspired her to write the book: “Jackie’s lessons about how best to live one’s life with poise, grace … style … courage.” But, she admitted, “Though we lived in the same building, I did not know Jackie personally.” Television soap diva Susan Lucci, who wrote the book’s introduction, also confessed to “not knowing Jackie personally.”

“I am shallow… I love the book and I am going to pass it on to [NYC] cab drivers,” said an on-her-best-behavior Joan Rivers, smashing in a black Versace gown. She presented the “Lessons in Living” awards “inspired by the book” to Lucci and designer Oleg Cassini. “Very few people knew Jackie,” said 91-year-old Cassini sporting a red shirt. “I was her friend… I was accepted into her circle during the 1,000 days of the presidency.”

Cassini’s comments reminded me of Kati Marton’s reference in her book, “Hidden Power” (Random House), to his and Jackie Kennedy’s (she was not yet Onassis) relationship. “Convalescing after [son] John’s birth during Thankgiving 1960, she penned a nine-page letter to designer Oleg Cassini, prescribing what she wanted to wear to the inaugural ball: ‘If Jack were president of France — très Princessse de Rethymais jeune … pure and regal.’” Cassini delivered!

In May 1994, a week before Jackie Kennedy Onassis died, I spotted her with then companion Maurice Tempelsman, walking along 83rd Street. Frail and wearing a silk print babushka on her head, she held onto Tempelsman, who hovered protectively at her side. I suddenly heard the click-click-click of a camera. A bearded man with a telephoto lens the size of a cannon was crouching between cars, photographing the pair. Suddenly, Tempelsman, Jackie’s Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking knight, left her side and, brandishing the rolled umbrella like a lance, charged the photographer, who turned tail and fled across Fifth Avenue.

* * *

“We hope to find a cure for life-threatening allergies by 2010,” said Todd Slotkin to the 480 guests (who raised $380,000) at the April 29 Food Allergy Initiative (FAI) luncheon at the Mandarin Oriental. A co-founder of FAI, Slotkin has four sons, two of whom have potentially fatal food allergies.

The luncheon’s centerpiece was a video presentation of children ranging from toddlers to teens, describing a minefield of potentially fatal allergic reactions to such ordinary foods as peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, bananas, peaches, plums, eggs and more… the peril of cross-contamination in restaurants… the need for “peanut-free” tables in schools… and that never-to-be-left-at-home Epi-Pen—a lifesaving bridge between a reaction to an allergic “hit” and the hospital emergency room.

Dr. Scott Sicherer, a professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a researcher in its Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, reported, “In the last five years there has been an [inexplicable] worldwide doubling” of allergies to peanuts. FAI Leadership Award recipients included: Bert Cohen, whose “mother’s serious food intolerances” led to his co-founding Enjoy Life Foods; and Herb Tanenbaum, director of Harbor Hills Day Camp in Randolph, N.J., which offers a “safe [food] environment” for children.

* * *

In the last decades of his extraordinary life, Alan King, the illustrious comedian-raconteur-actor and author who died May 9 of lung cancer, often peppered his stand-up comedy routines with digs at the frailty of the human body, the vagaries of old age and one-upsmanship. On a visit to Jerusalem, the mayor showed off what the Jews had built in the desert. King’s comeback: “Ha! You should see Las Vegas!”

In December 1998, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture honored King by inaugurating the Alan King Award in American Jewish Humor. Award presenter Elie Wiesel told the story of two masters who encounter Elijah the Prophet and ask him, “Who will inherit the world-to-come, Paradise?” “Elijah named two men. ‘Why them?’ asked the masters. ‘Because,’ replied Elijah, ‘they are entertainers.’”

When King got to the podium, he made chopped liver of his deceased parents, who would battle chronically. “My father was a Zionist, a unionist, and an atheist and was against everything.” King recalled how his mother used her neighbor Mary McCarthy’s LIRR commutation ticket. “The conductor looked at my mother and the picture on the ticket and asked for her name. ‘Mary McCarthy,’ my mother replied. So he asks that she sign her name so he could compare signatures. My mother snapped back: ‘I never write on the Sabbath!’”

At the February 1991 “Artistic Expression of Solidarity With the People of Israel” concert at Circle in the Square Theatre, master of ceremonies Alan King defined his dual loyalty to Israel and America as akin to “being in love with two women: America is my wife, and Israel is my mother.”

Our most recent encounter was at the April 2003 Boys Town of Italy dinner, at which he shared the emcee spot with soul mate comedian Billy Crystal. “They needed to laugh … so they hired two Jews,” King told the mostly Italian audience at the Waldorf-Astoria. On May 11, at Riverside Chapel, Billy Crystal gave King a stellar send-off to the Stand-Up Comedy in the Sky, where, if Wiesel is right, Elijah will be among the welcoming committee.

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