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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Salon Preserves a Genteel Era

April 28, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

It is barely noon, yet Edna Lillich Davidson stands on a riser in a ballroom of the Beverly Hilton, resplendent in a full-length evening gown of pink brocade with golden trim. As pianist Bob Mitchell plays a medley of songs about the month of April, she sways to the music, a dreamy expression on her face. All that is missing is a tiara. . . .

When the piano stops, Mrs. Davidson steps before the microphone and, as she has done once a month from October to May for the past 38 years, welcomes her guests to perhaps the longest running literary salon in the city.

Sitting at a dozen tables, the guests take up about a third of the large, well-lit ballroom. They number 75, perhaps, all of them women (except for two of the day's four invited authors), nearly all of them--how to put it gently?--old enough to have been approaching middle age when Mrs. Davidson began her salon in 1955.

The guests, it must be said, are less festively dressed than their hostess, but this is to be expected, since it is she, not they, who will perform today.

As she has always done, to the delight of those now taking dainty bites of poached lemon sole, Mrs. Davidson precedes the literary portion of the program with a synopsis of a Broadway musical, her sing-song voice lilting a seven-minute, exquisitely delivered version of "Gigi."

You would never know that she has been felled for the last two weeks by a virulent cold. She is a professional . . . and her show must go on.

To spend an afternoon at Mrs. Davidson's literary salon is to suspend the world for 2 1/2 hours, to forget that life in this city is not especially lovely just now. It is to eavesdrop on a certain social stratum of a certain era when civility was paramount, when poise was everything, when people prefaced their conversations with "Now, my dear . . . ."

Mrs. Davidson is a native of Philadelphia, and studied the dramatic arts before becoming a teacher and performer there.

"I taught mainly speech, diction, vocabulary, always posture, and always diaphramatic breathing! Which is the only way to breathe!"

She practices what she preaches; her speech is slow and clear, and she enunciates each syllable with such conviction that she virtually mesmerizes a listener.

As a young adult, she created a one-woman show--"Songs and Monologues in Costume"--and decided to hit the road (though she is unlikely to use such a coarse expression).

"I went to the Auto Club, and said, 'Will you please make an itinerary for me, only amongst exclusive hotels, from upper New York State to the Canadian border?' My father said, 'You may not go alone!' So I took a family friend with me and drove this distance. I came home with 40 engagements, more than I could fill in one summer!"

She was asked to organize a drama group and pageants for an influential Episcopal church, and was spotted by Mrs. Henry Biddle Sr., who took her to lunch at a private club, then hired her as a teacher at a Main Line finishing school.

When gently pressed to divulge her age, Mrs. Davidson firmly declines.

"Now, my dear," she says, "I don't believe in age, I only believe in fulfilling my potential."

In 1946, Mrs. Davidson came to Los Angeles, married a man 20 years her senior and settled in Westwood. She organized a drama group at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills (ever the lady, she declines to name the children of stars whom she directed).

In 1955, she decided to return to salaried work.

"All right, Edna," she said to herself, "now what are you going to do?"

She hit on the idea of a monthly literary salon with dues-paying members and approached three major hotels about renting space. The Beverly Wilshire and the Beverly Hills Hotel declined. But the Beverly Hilton, which had just opened that month, and its director of food and beverage, Fred Hayman (yes, that Fred Hayman), embraced the idea.

"He said, 'I don't care what the other two hotels have told you, we want you here!' I will never forget him saying that." she recalls. "I began at the Beverly Hilton with a $10 bill for postage. But I survived, you see, and that's all that matters!"

She not only survived, she flourished. About 800 authors--both established and neophyte--have graced her programs.

"Right from the beginning," she says, "I made up my mind: I was going to feature just as much the author with the first book as the author who had a dozen books published. We all have to be given a chance!"

Today, her "celebrity guest speakers" are radio personality and historical novelist Ciji Ware, actor Norman Lloyd, UCLA professor Lee Burns and first-time novelist Jo-Ann Mapson.

Mrs. Davidson, who understands the attention span of a postprandial audience, allots exactly 12 minutes per author.

Tradition dictates that 93-year-old Mary Schoenfeldt, the salon's charter member, receive the first piece of Mrs. Davidson's favorite Black Forest cake, which, sporting a big "38" on its top tier, has just been wheeled around the room to the tune of "The Anniversary Waltz." Mrs. Schoenfeldt rises and waves, as the guests applaud.

Though the season is over until October, there is one last important date on Mrs. Davidson's calendar. Six years ago, a member, Vada Oldfield, and her husband, Barney, a retired Air Force colonel, endowed a journalism scholarship at USC and an arts and letters scholarship at Mount St. Mary's College in her name.

"Was I flattered?" asks Mrs. Davidson. "My dear, I am so grateful! "

This year's recipients will be honored at a scholarship benefit luncheon June 8.

The event will take place at the Beverly Hilton.

To hold it anywhere else would be simply . . . unthinkable.

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