|A very hot late June Tuesday in New York. At noontime I went over to the New-York Historical Society for their annual Strawberry Festival luncheon. This originally started as a Ladies Lunch in the 19th century, and it was at the beginning of the strawberry season, and strawberries were a great treat, almost a luxury. Strawberries and cream, strawberry shortcake. Ahh, the simple things.
Used to be. The N-YHS Strawberry Luncheon (revived 8 years ago by among others, Joan Jakobson) is now in the 21st century. It is now about about Women and Politics. I think the specific focus is Women. I added the Politics because it’s all the same at this time in our history. And from the looks of it, and the sound of it, like the words of our speaker today, as the song says, we’ve only just begun.
Today’s speaker was Michelle Obama, the wife of the Presidential candidate. I’ve been to most of these luncheons over the past few years and I’ve heard some interesting women including Hillary Clinton, and Liz Smith and Wendy Wasserstein, and Lesley Stahl, to name only four. They are all always interesting to hear – and to see in person. Your perception is altered by the experience of seeing them in the flesh, up close, and talking.
Yesterday’s luncheon was a sell-out because of her. There was also a bank of photographers and vidcams in the luncheon room – something I’d never seen at this event before. The N-YHS is one of the city’s under-attended museums. In the past few years, there’s been a lot of new blood engaged encouraging the public to attend the great mysterious stone edifice on the southwest corner of 77th Street and Central Park West.
Mrs. Obama fit the bill. She was introduced by a friend from Chicago, Judith Byrd-Blaylock, a businesswoman and political activist who has been close to the Obamas for a number of years.
Mrs. Obama is a tall woman and very business-like in bearing. She graduated from Princeton and then from Harvard Law. Mrs. Byrd-Blaylock pointed out the challenges a woman, and what’s more a woman of color, faced in such a heavily male environment as Harvard Law. From the moment Mrs. Obama was on the podium, however, you knew she definitely met all the challenges. This is a woman who could get her husband elected President. By which I mean, she is dynamic and inspiring. And real. I was thinking after the luncheon how much the world and role of First Lady has changed. I was thinking of Jackie Kennedy who was probably the more adored and idolized First Lady of the 20th century. That kind of presence would be irrelevant today. Mrs. Obama is already right up there with the rest of them.
She’s one of those women who is interested in the basics in life. If there is a cause here, it’s a cause in the name of women. She said that “a community is only as strong as the health of its women.” She pointed out that because women all over the world are still regarded as second-class citizens, everything else in the community is affected and especially the lives and the future of the children.
|She told us about taking a trip to Kenya with her husband whose paternal forebears came from there. It was a very proud moment for Kenyans to play host to a descendent who is now a United States Senator. Everywhere they went they were feted. What Mrs. Obama was also struck by, however, was the plight of women in Kenya. The HIV+ rate for women and children is more than 25% of the population and in some areas, more than 50%. A large percentage of women have sex the first time by rape. The rate of sexual and physical abuse is very high. All of the responsibilities of womanhood, and specifically motherhood, are thrust on all of these women nevertheless. Mr. Obama made it clear that the plight of the Kenyan women was not different from other parts of the world, including in this country, where many women are face with brutal abuse and sexual prejudice in the workplace, and often legally.
She’s a very down-to-earth and plain-speaking woman. In talking about modern women, she pointed out all of the responsibilities they have between work and family. She pointed out that women who have health issues, or marital (and/or abuse) issues, or wage-earning issues demonstrate a community with all those issues.
Through all this, I was thinking about my mother. I always think about my mother when I hear women talk about women’s rights and needs. She was a generation before the Women’s Libbers and therefore was never eligible for consciousness opportunities that could have affected her well-being and control of her life. I don’t think it is always easy for a man to understand the women’s issues because to many, if not most men, women are power figures in and of themselves. Indeed, even more powerful than men. Mother, anyone?
But my mother had to go to work everyday because my father was wholly undependable financially. And probably in other ways unknown to this child. He was also hell on wheels when questioned about his responsibility. As a kid, growing up, I lived with it, even took their frequent and major disagreements for granted (all the while hating it and waiting until I was old enough to leave and to never return).
|I was thinking about that and my mother (she passed away 19 years ago at age 82) who “worked all her life.” The work was also not glamorous and hardly well-paying. Furthermore she wore the shawl of embarrassment, that her man didn’t do his part – women were even held responsible for that. Today, listening to Michelle Obama was the first time I realized the how additionally difficult it was for her because of the rights and considerations denied her because she was a woman. I can still hear the complaints and the resolve to leave him when I was “old enough.” When I was old enough I left, and, alas, she remained. (I later learned that there was affection there; something that had eluded this child’s eyes growing up.) She knew nothing else.
Michelle Obama exhorts the world to know something else. Her presentation reminded me of Libby Pataki, the wife of former Governor George Pataki. She was skilled at drawing in her audience by relating her own day-to-day living experiences. It is non-threatening, even kind, but also engaging.
So listening to Michelle Obama talk about women and women’s needs and women’s health and women’s rights, I was also thinking that she should be our Secretary of State. Or something very important, no matter what happens to her husband’s presidential aspirations. You can tell she’s got lots of friends because she stressed her close connections with mother, aunts, cousins, friends. All in the name of community, something that is usually missing from much of our lives.
|Little Peggy Siegal, New York’s queen of the New York/Hollywood publicists celebrated her 60th birthday last night with a cocktail reception and dinner party at the Plaza Athenee, hosted by Arianna and Dixon Boardman and attended by 167 of her nearest and dearest.
Ms. Siegal is famous for having the most extensive guest lists of who’s who and who’s what in New York. She is also famous for her movie screenings where the New York opinion-makers are treated to a free pre-release movie in a comfortable screening room followed by a celebrity and VIP clogged dinner at a chic Manhattan restaurant.
|She’s been doing this for years on end and is a well known personage on the New York/Hollywood/Southampton/Palm Beach axis. But that ain’t all. There’s not a party she hasn’t attended including the famous Stephen Schwarzman birthday party at the Armory last February. Ironically, Mr. and Mrs. Scwharzman were no-shows at last night’s dinner (although they had placement).
Last night’s group included Candice Bergen and Marshall Rose, Daryl Roth, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Victoria and Minot Amory, Doug Cramer and Hugh Bush, Andre Balazs, Tory Burch, Amalia Dayan and Adam Lindemann, Jenny Conant and Steven Kroft, Mica Ertegun, Pepe and Emilia Fanjul, John Goldwyn, John and Susan Hess, Judy Taubman, Alexis Gregory, Mort and Linda Janklow, David and Julia Koch, Anki and Doug Leeds, Ninah and Michael Lynne, Bennett Miller, Billy Norwich, Liz Smith, Barbara Walters, Campbell Brown, Mort Zuckerman, Brian Williams, Barry and Diana Levinson, and the like. Tomorrow we’ll publish the entire list on the NYSD, as well as Peggy’s private rolodex of the best doctors in town, as well as manicurists, pedicurists, hair cutters and exercise venues (Perri Peltz’ Southampton Tennis Court — by invitation only).
Photos: Matt Carasella/PatrickMcMullan.com & DPC/NYSD.com