Albright Broaches Brooches at a Gem of a Gala


By Masha Leon

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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“Every major life event is marked by a presentation of jewelry,” said TV anchor Deborah Norville, mistress of ceremonies, at the January 9 Gem Awards Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street. The glittering black-tie event honored Sybil and David Yurman, founders of David Yurman Design, Inc.; Carmen Borgonovo, a W Magazine editor, and the world-renowned jeweler Cartier. Stanilas de Quercize, president and CEO of Cartier North America, gleefully declared, waving his arms skyward: “God gave us two hands (for watches), 10 fingers (for rings), two ears (for earrings) … and space to show them off!”

“When she wears an eagle with claws, it’s ‘We mean business,’” Norville said of guest speaker Madeleine Albright, whom she presented as “the 64th secretary of state … the first woman to hold this position … the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history.” Albright has had a tendency of telegraphing her negotiating stance by means of her lapel brooch — be it a dove pin, “a gift from Leah Rabin,” or “a military pin combining the emblems of all the U.S. services.”

“I do love jewelry,” Albright told the crowd. “I’ve done more to show off your works than any other secretary of state.”

Called “a snake” by the Iraqi government, she subsequently sported a snake pin at a United Nations debate on Iraq. “When devious, I wear a spider; when ready to sting, a bee.” Asked by Russia’s foreign affairs minister Igor Ivanov if her small pin in the shape of a rocket was “your [interceptor] missile?” Albright chuckled: “I told him, ‘Yes. … We’ve learned to make them really small. Now it’s time to start negotiating!’”

Hal Rubenstein, fashion director of InStyle magazine, presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to the Yurmans. Recalling his mother’s “rarely worn bar-mitzvah jewelry, stuck in a velvet box in the back of a drawer, [which] she got from some guy who worked on 47th Street,” Rubenstein joshed: “David could have been that haymish jewelry guy down the hall, and Sybil, a possible mah-jongg player with my mother.” He lauded the Yurmans as “artisans” who “led the [1970s] transformation of the industry. … They were the first to sell [affordable] jewelry as a ‘line’ … to be worn, not sitting in a vault.”

“We started as a sculptor and a painter 25 years ago.… There was one year of college between us,” David Yurman said. “It was the worst possible time. Gold was up to $800” a troy ounce. He then turned the mike over to his wife and partner, who disclosed: “When I was young, I went to work for five sculptors. Dave was one of the sculptors. It was my lucky day!”

During dinner Sybil Yurman told me that her grandfather “owned the only horse and carriage in Podiatza, a shtetl near Lodz. His house was a way station from which he smuggled Jewish children out of Poland before they turned 13. He made 17 trips with his young charges to North Carolina before settling here in 1918. … His father’s sister in Algeria sent him gold coins to pay for the trips.” David Yurman, whose grandparents came from Romania and Austria, confided: “I grew up on the Lower East Side, on Rivington and Orchard streets … not far from the Forward.” I told him, “The Forward has moved uptown.”

* * *

The German-born actress Ute Lemper, star of “Chicago,” “Cats” and “Cabaret” and famed for her interpretation of Berlin cabaret songs and the works of Kurt Weill, opened the January 13 performance of her revue “Voyage,” a musical journey that runs through January 31 at the cozy Café Carlyle, with Israeli chanteuse Chava Alberstein’s Yiddish song “Ikh Shtey Unter a Bokserboym” (“I Stand Under a Carob Tree”). Lemper explained: “It is about hope of getting to the land of freedom … to stand and dream beneath a bokserboym (a carob tree), a faygnboym (a fig tree) and a mandlboym (an almond tree).”

Lemper, witty and acerbic, blond and svelte in a backless black gown, seduced the audience with a voice that ranged from purr to roar. Prefacing a Weill song, she alluded to “Germany, before the Nazis … when you could make fun without risking your life.” Giving Edith Piaf a run for the trilling “r”s, she introduced Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam,” with the dig, “The French can’t take the fact that he is Belgian, not French.” When I later complimented her, in Yiddish, for her on-key articulation, she laughed and said she hoped to expand her Yiddish repertoire. Lemper’s “Voyage” is a delicious musical grand tour.

* * *

Fraydele Oysher, who died January 5 at age 90, was a feisty belter, a Yiddish theater performer and the first woman to sing cantorial music onstage — who, at the drop of a yarmulke, would attempt to sing any cantor under the table.

I met her in May 1982 at the kick-off bash for the publication of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon: The Life of Sholom Secunda” by Victoria Secunda at the headquarters of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, then in Times Square. Sammy Cahn began to describe the step-by-step creative process that led to his English version of “Bei Mir” (made famous by the Andrews Sisters), when he was interrupted by the glass-shattering voice of Oysher belting out her version of the song.

I last saw her perform in May 1996 with her daughter, singer-comedian Marilyn Michaels, in “Marilyn Michaels’ Mother’s Day Event” at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse. It was Michaels vs. Oysher dueling to capture the stage. Oysher once described herself as “a terrific piece of work.” She sure was.

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