Muhammad Ali — assisted by his wife Lonnie — mounted the stage at the November 9th 2006 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Inaugural Double Helix Medal Dinner at New York’s Mandarin Oriental and delivered a heartfelt plea for the support for research to help “rid the world of Parkinson’s disease!” Then Emcee co-host of NBC’s “Today Show” Meredith Viera presented the former world heavyweight champion—“the most recognized person in the world” —with the first ever Double Helix Medal for Humanitarianism. It was the last time I got to chat with Ali —whom I first met in the 1960’s—and who died on June 3 at age 74.
My first Ali encounter was in the mid 1960’s at the Chicago’s Palmer House and we exchanged a few words. At the May 1975 American Booksellers Convention at the New York Hilton he graciously posed for a photograph. In 1976 — again Chicago with my husband — I spotted him…he seemed to remember me and—with a flourish—wrote “To Masha and Joe from Muhammad Ali Lord of the Ring 6-4-76 Peace!” on a Johns Manville notepad. In June 1995 while we were waiting at LaGuardia’ s baggage carousel, he smiled and autographed my ABA program.
Not until the April 1998—when he was the honoree at the Givat Haviva Dinner at New York’s Sheraton Hotel—did I get to chat with Ali at length as well as with his fellow honoree Thomas Houser author of “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Missing”. Both were honored for “their efforts on behalf of world peace and human rights.” Articulating slowly Ali— still able to handle a pen— autographed a copy of Hauser’s book.
Addressing a stellar assemblage that included Camilla Sadat daughter of Anwar Sadat and Baseball legend Hank Greenberg’s son Stephen Greenberg, Emcee Dick Schaap recalled “riding through Kentucky with Ali [then known as “X”] who got agitated when we stopped at a light…He had stared at a pretty blond girl. ‘You crazy man!’ said Ali ‘ a Jew looking at a white girl in Kentucky can get you electrocuted for that!’”
“Ali has more awards than Clinton has girlfriends” Givat Haviva chairman Henry Ostberg prefaced his award presentation of a Koran in Arabic, Hebrew and English. The award—it was noted—was named in memory of Haviva Reik who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Slovakia in 1944 to help organize resistance, was captured and executed. Ostberg noted that since 1949 Givat Haviva had been one of Israel’s leaders in the field of Jewish-Arab reconciliation. Apropos Hauser piped up: “If a boxer and a lawyer can overcome their natural antipathy, then Jews and Arabs can get together.”
So imprinted into the national psyche are Ali quips that in the opening scene of the 1999 Jewish Repertory Theatre’s production of Arje Shaw”’s “The Gathering,” Holocaust survivor Gabe [Theodore Bikel] greets his grandson Michael (Jesse Eisenberg) with their hero Ali’s signature proclamation: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” The audience roared!
In March 14, 2001 when Ali was honored at the 46th United Cerebral Palsy Annual Dinner at the Marriott Marquis, Ali waxed philosophical: “I am fifty nine years old. Next year I will be 60. Yesterday I was 22! What is more important than fame and glory is to do the right thing.” The award was presented to Ali by Donald Trump who declared: “He’s the greatest—a pugilist-become-philanthropist.”
At the December 3, 2006 Museum of the Moving Image tribute to Will Smith I asked the Oscar -nominated film star what was the aftermath of his portrayal of Muhammad Ali in the 2001 film “Ali”. Smith took a deep breath, paused and in measured pacing said: “Ali changed my life forever. To walk in his shoes has inspired me to become a better man.”