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OUT AND ABOUT : Authors Who Lunch

June 25, 1995|ALLAN M. JALON

Zsa Zsa Gabor did it. Walter Cronkite did it. Betty Ford, Maya Angelou and even Tommy Lasorda did it. No educated fleas, but members of nearly every other published species have said, let's do it, let's speak at one of the author lunches hosted by Round Table West.

They give inspiration (Norman Cousins), share recipes (Wolfgang Puck) or expound on Hollywood (A. Scott Berg). The subtext is selling books.

"I've done book-signings but this is more challenging," astronaut Alan Shepard said the other day, as he stepped up to become writer-talker No. 1,000. His offering was a space memoir written with fellow astronaut Deke Slayton--"Moon Shot" (Turner Publishing). But what's the moon, compared to the podium at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, facing 400 expertly coiffed, celebrity-seasoned women (mostly) who've just had lunch and are ready to be amused?

Famously unflappable, with the spare build of an aging jockey, even he seemed a bit nervous. His second anecdote had them in stitches. Shepard, it seems, was honored at the White House for replacing rocket-borne chimps as the first American in space. But a disappointed Caroline Kennedy tugged at her father's arm and asked: "Where's the monkey, Daddy?"

Ta-ta-ta-tum.

One of the day's three writers--the Round Table average: 15 minutes each--Shepard gave way to author 1,001, TV comedienne/memoirist Vicki Lawrence ("Vicki: The True Life Adventures of Miss Fireball"), who rivaled space humor with tales of her gynecologist. And 1,002, news-anchor Kelly Lang, lured the crowd with assurances that her first novel ("Trophy Wife"), about power and sex in L.A., had "lost of turns and twists, glitz and glamour!"

Then, everyone got in line--most with books they'd bought at tables in the back--for autographs. Hugging his copy of "Moon Shot," was Jose Garcia, a tall, 52-year-old screenwriter. "You come here and names on book-covers have a living face," he said. "I met Mel Torme and asked him about people who had influenced him. He talked about Chet Baker. And I understood him better."

Jackie Burdorf and Linda Freund, sisters, waited with their copies. "The people you meet here are interested in more than gossip," said Burdorf. "They want to learn something." Their mother attended "in the days when you came to Round Table in hats and gloves."

That was in the sprawling elegance of the Ambassador Hotel, where Margaret Burk and Marilyn Hudson, long-time friends and book worms, started the lunches 18 years ago. The two were inspired by journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns. "People don't ready anymore! Why don't you so something about it?" she taunted. And they did. The club--it costs $35 for the lecture-lunch--has since opened branches at Newport Beach's Balboa Bay Club and La Quinta.

Otherwise, little has changed. Hudson warms up the crowd with a slightly naughty horoscope. Burk introduces the writers. Both have the more formal, less frantic bearing of a passing generation.

These days, Burk admitted, most people can't take three hours during the day for lunch. And reading, she lamented, is no longer the central activity it once was. Still, any suggestion that Round Table's 1,000th author might be within sight of its last prompts Burk to gentle anger: "I have no doubt we'll go on for many years and that one day the 2,000th author will stand there and talk to Round Table West."

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