A New York state of mind

  • The Washington Examiner
  • |
  • November 09, 2005

by Karen Feld

“I don’t trust George Bush,” former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., told me Monday night at a benefit at the Tribeca Rooftop in New York City, where he was presented the Humanitarian Award by The Caring Community, a group that empowers seniors. “I gave him the benefit of the doubt for a year and a half. There was no one turning point. It’s cumulative, and I hate to say that: Afghanistan, Iraq, Social Security, and even what he says about avian flu.” The outspoken Kerrey is president of the New School in Manhattan.

New School take on AU

Kerrey also talked to me about Ben Ladner, the ousted and disgraced American University president. “Every college and university president in the country has to be watching that story unravel. No one wants to be handed a tax of that size.”

Kerrey, a Vietnam veteran and former businessman who was a Nebraska governor and U.S. senator, said his current position is the toughest job he’s held: “At the New School, I actually have to work.” He’s still looking for a church in nearby Greenwich Village. When one guest suggested a church, he asked: “How’s the music?”

N.Y. landmarks at event

And speaking of music, the legendary musical comedy star Kaye Ballard, who turns 80 next week, was also honored at the same event. I was seated at her table along with movie critic Rex Reed, who emceed the gala; Liz Smith, whom Reed referred to as “Hedda Hopper with heart”; and Ballard’s dynamic agent, Muriel Nellis, of D.C.-based Literary and Creative Artists.

Liz Smith as mentor to young Rex Reed

Reed recalled many years ago when he wrote a review of “Lilith.” At the time he was making $50 a week working for a press agent who knew Liz Smith, then-entertainment editor at Cosmopolitan. He sent the review to Smith, and she used it. “It was my first New York byline. A week later, I was hired as a movie critic for Cosmo,” Reed said. “I owe it all to Liz Smith – and what’s more, I didn’t know people got paid to go to movies.”

“Rex was so cute,” Smith recalled. “Tonight he looks like a banker.”

Peterson’s distinction

Pete Peterson – founder of The Blackstone Group, the same investment group to which Kennedy Center chairman Steve Schwarzman belongs – said that, like Bob Kerrey, he was brought up in Nebraska. Peterson, once commerce secretary, holds the distinction of being the only person fired from the Nixon Cabinet. What a lucky break that was.

Ballard’s longtime pals

Reed introduced Ballard, a longtime resident of Greenwich Village, now living in Rancho Mirage, Calif., saying, “When we first met, everyone wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor. Now we’ve known each other long enough to reach the time that no one wants to look like Elizabeth Taylor.”

Liz Smith recalled first meeting Ballard in the early 1950s when she was “so glamorous and so funny.” She traveled with her in “Top Banana.” “Kaye taught me about timing and how to get a laugh.”

Nat King Cole once told Ballard that he was troubled by rock ‘n’ roll. But Ballard loves almost all kinds of music, including Elton John and Rod Stewart. Still, she adds, “I can’t understand hip-hop.”

Recalling showbiz history

Ballard calls comedian Henny Youngman her mentor. “I have two of Jimmy Durante’s canes. I was in awe of him. I don’t want the world to forget the people who made show business what it is today,” she said. That’s why Ballard is writing her memoir for Back Stage Books, an imprint of Watson-Guptill (the folks who own Billboard). And boy, does this lady have stories and does she love an audience. She’s a walking history of showbiz, from burlesque to musical theater to TV. She’s still in touch with her old friends and colleagues, and had anecdotes about Imogene Coca, who “was so much in Sid Caesar’s shadow that she never got the credit she deserved.” She thinks Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols are brilliant. Ballard has an amazingly sharp memory, and she brags that she never made a dime doing work outside show business.

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