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ANN CONWAY

Nothing Generates Money, or Talk, Like a Royal Speaker

November 25, 1996|ANN CONWAY

A mainstay in Newport Beach social circles, Ann Stern thought she'd heard it all.

Until someone recently told her, "Do that, and you'll never be president of an Orange County group again."

The reason: Stern was helping line up a speaking engagement for the Duchess of York here next May.

Stern is president of the Big Canyon/Spyglass Hill Committee of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, one of a number of charities that use high-profile speakers to generate income.

In this case, cried some, Sarah Ferguson--or the "disgraced duchess," as she has been called--was too controversial, her reputation too questionable, to be worthy of an Orange County engagement.

Stern was stunned--but undeterred.

The philharmonic board had approved the project. The criticism came from a group of people who thought the group should be more conservative in selecting a speaker.

Committee vice president Eve Kornyei also met with some negativity when she came up with the idea to invite Ferguson to appear at the group's annual speaker dinner.

"I just didn't respond," says Kornyei, of Corona del Mar, a former aerospace planner. "I have to be positive. Keep going. Keep everybody else positive."

While charity balls and fashion-show/luncheons are the cornerstones of social fund-raising, an event featuring a speaker-in-the-news is a hot drawing card.

Ivana Trump talked about surviving the humiliation of a public divorce, and Dominick Dunne spoke of his front-row seat at the O.J. Simpson trial at previous Big Canyon/Spyglass events, netting thousands for the Philharmonic's musical education programs for children.

Speakers Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan have brought big bucks to the coffers of Angelitos de Oro, which supports Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Orange County. Family values advocate William Bennett and TV personality Larry King have also been featured at the events.

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The Orange County Chapter of the American Red Cross has showcased Elizabeth Dole and Jehan Sadat at its annual Clara Barton Awards benefit.

Last year, Childhelp USA introduced radio personality Laura Schlessinger at a dinner gala that netted more than $100,000 for the prevention of child abuse.

The Pacific Symphony has also jumped on the bandwagon, lining up actress Lauren Bacall for a speaking engagement in March.

While the idea of presenting the divorced Duchess of York has created a few waves, philharmonic leaders are confident she will bring insight to those who hear her.

"A lot of women identify with her," says Dean Corey, executive director of the Philharmonic Society. "Especially women who have been in fairy-tale-like situations and then, there they are . . .

"She is a very exaggerated version of that, but many women probably say to themselves, 'I could have been in the same situation.' "

"Who are we to judge?" Stern asks. "When the duchess recently began giving interviews, telling her side of the story, I thought, 'Why should anybody ever judge anybody else?' "

Says Mitzi Tonai, the philharmonic's director of development: "Yes, there have been some accusations [toward Ferguson], some unfavorable exposure. But the positive part is, she has fielded those head on, dealt with them.

"She will probably teach us all a lesson about what to do once you get into a difficult situation. You don't deny it or back out. You face it and solve it."

When Kornyei agreed to be chairwoman of the event that would feature a prominent speaker, she wasn't at all sure whom she should invite.

"I spent my summer looking through magazines and newspapers, getting ideas," she says. "I'd go to parties and ask people who they would most like to have dinner with."

After reading a magazine article about the duchess, Kornyei brought her name before friends and members of the philharmonic committee. "They agreed she sounded right," says Kornyei, who finalized the engagement last week. "I am delighted that she's coming. You get these highs in life, and this is one of them."

Kornyei has also cleared the next hurdle, finding someone to underwrite the cost of Ferguson's appearance (estimated at about $40,000, says an insider). A couple have come forward.

"I can't tell you who," Kornyei says. "They want to remain anonymous."

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