Hayworth Gala Pays Respects to Alzheimer’s Victims


By Masha Leon

Published October 24, 2003, issue of October 24, 2003.
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The décolletages were jaw-dropping and the masks astonishing at the October 7 “Magic of Mardi Gras” Alzheimer’s Association Rita Hayworth gala. Chaired by Muffie Potter Aston, the gala was established 18 years ago by Princess Yasmin Aga Khan in memory of her mother, Rita Hayworth, who died of Alzheimer’s. To date the galas have (cumulatively) raised nearly $40 million for Alzheimer’s research.

At a pre-event reception hosted by Walter Fischer, corporate chair of Rolex Watch USA (which underwrote the gala), I asked Neil Sedaka, who came with his wife, Leba, if his name is derived from the Hebrew tzedakah. “Yes,” he replied, “my family came from Istanbul.”

A sparkling Fran Drescher breezed into the Waldorf-Astoria with her flame-haired mother, Sylvia, and her father, Morty, in tow. A two-cheek kiss from producer Marty Richards, to whom I offered a mazel tov for the “Chicago” Oscars. “Az men lebt, derlebt men” (“If one lives long enough”), I said, and as I began to translate, Richards interrupted: “I know. Ikh red yidish” (“I speak Yiddish”), he said. “I’m the last in my family… to speak Yiddish.”

“Inside Edition” anchor and event emcee Deborah Norville, whose mother died of Alzheimer’s, introduced Sheldon Goldberg, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association, who informed that the disease, which currently claims 4.5 million Americans… may climb to 16 million by 2060.”

The evening’s honoree, Donna Dixon Aykroyd, paid tribute to her father, whose demise by Alzheimer’s she compared to the death of “an oak tree… starting at the top.”

Muffie Potter Aston recalled her grandmother, “a World War II heroine who spoke seven languages and died of Alzheimer’s.” Aston compared the disease to “a thief who robs victims of dignity.” Describing her steering committee as “a group of sharks… who will not leave without a check,” she singled out committee member Claudia Cohen as “a great white.”

Intrigued by her reference to her grandmother, Aston told me: “Jovanka Ribar Hunter, I called her Nonnie, was from Slovenia, a widow at 29 and mother of a 6-year-old…. She was head of communications in the Slovenian underground [which] fought with [General Draza] Mihajlovic…. She was captured by the Nazis… interrogated by them… but they let her go.” (Mihajlovic led the Serbian chetniks against the Nazis and was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of American airmen shot down during bombing missions to Romania. He was captured by Marshal Tito’s communist forces and executed by firing squad on March 25, 1946.)

* * *

“A Tasting of Merlots,” a September 24 wine-sampling to benefit the Jerusalem Foundation at Christie’s. The event was hosted by its wine department head, Richard Brierley, and offered vintages from France, Italy, Chile, the United States and Israel. Touting the foundation, founded by former mayor Teddy Kollek in 1966 “to fulfill the city’s ancient mission as a beacon of tolerance, hope and social justice,” foundation member Rafael Pastor cited the drastic measures taken in Jerusalem as “the direct result of Israel’s current security crisis”: school closings, teachers being fired, poverty, hunger. He stressed the foundation’s continuing aim “to improve the condition and quality of life for all citizens of Jerusalem.”

During a chat with Israeli vintner David Recanati about this summer’s scorching heat — a bane for farmers, a boon for grape growers — I asked if any of his grapes were from imported strains. Recanati, whose Galilee Valley Special Reserve 2000 shared the evening’s winning vote with France’s Pomerol region’s Château Clos de Salles 1999, asserted: “No. We’ve been growing grapes [in Israel] since biblical times.”

* * *

At the October 8 opening of the Garrick Anderson Boutique at Bergdorf Goodman, guests — including Watergate exposer Carl Bernstein — mingled and sipped malt Scotch. A tall gentleman asked me about a man’s plaid cashmere jacket I was admiring. “It’s the fine tailoring, the perfect alignment of stripes across seams,” I explained. He was Sir Thomas Harris, British consul general, who told me that his daughter-in-law was Jewish. “Hello, rabbi!” he suddenly exclaimed, then warmly embraced Bradley Bleefeld.

Bleefeld, a former adviser for economic development for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, later told me that he met Sir Thomas when he created the “Ambassador Series” at Gettysburg College. “We began to work together to build economic and academic ties between Pennsylvania and Great Britain.”

Currently a senior associate with Capital Associates, Inc., a Harrisburg, Pa.-based public affairs/government relations firm, Bleefeld was a senior rabbi at Knesset Israel in Elkins Park, Pa. He still acts as rabbi “for Shabbos and yom tov” at Beth Hillel in Vineland, N.J.

“My parents and grandparents read the Forverts — religiously,” he said. “I spent summers near Kindervelt in Renana Park, N.Y., and, in ’57, as a 10-year-old, my photo appeared in the Forward.”

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