The Ladies Who Lunch

Autumn Movement
Tuesday, October 18, 2011.
Warm and sunny autumn day, yesterday in New York.

At noontime JH and I went over to the Mandarin Oriental where the Board of Directors of the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy hosted its annual Fall Luncheon. Marcia Mishaan was Chairman and Suzanne Johnson and Cynthia Lufkin were Co-Chairs. Guest Speaker was Bette Midler.

I’m a Bette Midler fan. I’ve always been a Bette Midler fan since her first album came out way back when. I think it was called The Divine Miss M with beautiful cover portrait by the late great illustrator and graphic designer Richard Amsel that is now a classic.

She came on the scene in the late 1960s, first famous in an “underground” (or below the first floor) way giving performances at a gay club in the Ansonia Hotel on Broadway and 73rd Street where she was nothing short of a sensation. Her accompanist was even more unknown, a guy named Barry Manilow. Stardom soon followed and then a movie career and the rest is history.

Bette Midler yesterday at the podium of the Mandarin Oriental, is now not only a star of movies, TV and Las Vegas, but a major philanthropic force in New York City with her New York Restoration Project. The NYRP’s major fund-raiser is just ten days away (October 18th, and will be held at the Waldorf), and it is a big wild, wonderful, fun party just like you might imagine the Divine Miss M might host. She does not disappoint (visit its site here for details and tickets).

I’ve seen the lady around town occasionally at restaurants and events although I don’t know her. So it was interesting to see her in action on the philanthropy circuit. Smartly turned out in a forest green form fitting wool dress wearing what looked like jade earrings to match, and slender high brown suede boots that seem to be all the rage these days, all these years later she looks like a very chic New Yorker, not unlike a lot of the ladies at the luncheon.

Usually the format at this particular lunch is an interview (I did it as guest speaker a few years ago ”“ last year it was Candice Bergen), Ms. Midler elected to speak at the podium.

She told us about her childhood growing up in Hawaii which she described as a most beautiful place where a lot of the Japanese inhabitants had the most beautifully maintained gardens and houses. A paradise. Since it was all she knew growing up, for a long time, she thought the entire planet was like that. When she came to New York to start her career, she saw otherwise.

That childhood experience of environment stayed with the lady. In the 80s when she lived in Los Angeles and would drive her daughter to school, she was amazed at the lack of maintenance and carelessness about the city. She was moved to get involved with a group of people out there who called themselves the Los Angeles Restoration Project, volunteering to clean up areas, planting trees and gardens. It was very satisfying.

When she returned to New York to live full time in 1994, she was amazed to see that it was even worse here. So she started the New York Restoration Project firstly in Washington Heights, organizing people to go into abandoned rundown areas of land and simply clean them out. Her inspiration, she told yesterday’s luncheon guests, was Central Park as restored by the Conservancy.

This project took wing and with her and her volunteers hard work, it spread all over the city, planting gardens, restoring parks and pockets of parks. Midler delivers all of her words with those charming side comments that are her trademark, although yesterday in describing the progress the NYRP has made, there was a moment when she hesitated, lost for words and unable to speak. Choking up a bit, she explained that the beauty that the NYRP volunteers had created out of the mess they first encountered sometimes just overwhelms her even now just to think of it.

The child’s memory of “the whole world was like” Hawaii was realized right here in New York. It was a moving moment for everyone. Although she had a time of residence in Los Angeles, in adult life, Bette Midler started here and with the New York Restoration Project she has made it her home, and like her childhood neighbors, created beauty all around us. In her campaign to plant one million new trees in New York by 2017, she announced yesterday that this week they will have planted their 500,000th tree!

It was a great day at the Mandarin. More than 400 people attended and $150,000 was raised for the Conservancy. Van Cleef and Arpels sponsored the luncheon.

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