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ONLY THE BEST : Gift giving at its finest is inspired, gracious--the music box that Mark Twain gave to his daughter "because it's Monday," the Cadillac that Billy Al Bengston gave to fellow artist De Wain Valentine "because he wanted it." The great giver is a breed apart, sometimes angel, sometimes fool, but always operating from the heart.

December 15, 1985

When David Niven Jr. was born, it was a foregone conclusion that Noel Coward would be his godfather. Unfamiliar as he was with the world of rattles, Coward went looking for the perfect christening gift, something suitable yet not insufferably dull. At Asprey's in London he found just the thing--a cocktail shaker. The inscription, in his handwriting, reads: "Because, my godson dear, I rather / think you will grow up like your father / my gift is this and with it given / a toast: Fine health to Master Niven. / May all gay things on you be showered / today and always--Noel Coward."

Jack Benny, renowned for his thrift, made fun of his own parsimony by giving George Burns a money clip. Made of gold, which stunned them both, it features Bouche caricatures of Burns on one side and Benny on the other. "Fifty years ago, I was 38," Burns says. "Jack was 39. Jack was always 39. The money clip had a dollar bill inserted in it, and as he gave me the clip Jack said, 'I have a little bad news for you.' I asked if he wanted the clip back. Jack said, 'Heck no, I want the dollar bill back!' " Burns has carried the clip with him every day since. As he says, "Jack is gone and part of me went with him, but a lot of Jack stayed here with me."

When Steve McQueen first met Ali MacGraw, he sent her a bunch of daisies. The gesture apparently failed to spark her interest, for she threw them away. McQueen then sent an even larger bunch--delicately arranged in a galvanized trash can--and this time MacGraw reciprocated. The daisies flew back and forth in a variety of trash cans, according to Beverly Hills florist Harry Finley, until the two were married.

Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda met for the first time while filming "On Golden Pond." "The very first day she came up to me, holding something in her outstretched hands," Fonda recalled. " 'I want you to have this,' she said to me. 'This was Spencer's favorite hat.' What a gracious thing to do. It was the hat that John Ford wore while he directed his pictures. And I knew that Ford and Spencer had been close friends, hard-drinking Irishmen. I put it on and Katharine nodded, and I wore it in the first scene we shot that day. While we were making the picture, Katharine asked me to do a painting for her, sort of a memento of our working together. I was very flattered, but I didn't have the faintest notion of what the subject should be. Then, a week after we returned home to California, my costumes arrived. I opened the box and three objects tumbled out. Right then and there I knew exactly what to do." Fonda simply lined up his three favorite hats: his fishing hat, his rain hat, and the battered brown felt hat that had belonged to Spencer Tracy.

When Walter Annenberg found himself seated next to Sir Winston Churchill at a stag dinner party given by Bernard Baruch in New York in 1949, he was delighted and somewhat awed. But "about 1 in the morning, after endless wines and beakers of brandy," he plucked up his courage, turned to Churchill and said, " 'Sir, I hope you don't think me presumptuous, but I must tell you how saddened I was at the electorate in your country rejecting you as they did after you had saved their empire and their way of life.' "Now, he could have shriveled me up with a few well-chosen words, but he looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Young Annenberg, look not for rewards from others but hope you have done your best.' After about 10 minutes of very privileged conversation, Churchill said, 'Annenberg, I am going to do something I rarely do, which is to leave my autographed picture for you upon my departure. Don't tell anyone until I am out of the country, because I don't readily hand out my autograph!' " Annenberg, who later became the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, calls the autographed portrait, taken in 1941 by Yousuf Karsh, "probably as fine a gift as I have ever received."

Looking for a birthday present for her husband, Gordon, the son of oil billionaire J. Paul Getty, Ann Getty thought he would be pleased by a finely wrought replica of the museum that bears his father's name. To test the waters, she commissioned Daniel A. J. Martin, known to the trade as "the Faberge of architecture," to construct a model of their house in San Francisco. Her husband was delighted. Buoyed by the response, Ann embarked on her next project, charging Martin with the much more exacting task of reducing to scale the exterior of the J. Paul Getty Museum, with its 128 columns, 50 trees, myriad fountains and classical statuary.

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