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Southern California Philanthropy / Edie Wasserman |
A weekly look at those who give.

Making a Home for Hollywood

She Helps Ensure That Show-Biz Vets Without Millions Can Retire With Dignity

November 03, 1998|BARBARA THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Edie Wasserman wants to make one thing perfectly clear: Lew is the one who does most of the work on charities. It's Lew who should get the credit.

Her husband, Lew Wasserman, gets a lot of credit, mostly for his unprecedented reign as one of Hollywood's most powerful men.

But it's Edie Wasserman who's been named one of Los Angeles magazine's 100 most powerful people in Southern California for her philanthropy.

Of course, Edie thought the article to be ridiculously fawning.

She hates the limelight and says she's a terrible public speaker, but today she's willing to sit down and talk about her pet project, the Motion Picture and Television Fund--the health care and retirement organization for the entertainment industry.

Lew and Edie Wasserman have been friends to presidents, movie stars, producers, and not necessarily in that order. Their philanthropy includes the Jules Stein Eye Institute, the Geffen Playhouse, the Music Center, many state universities and several lesser known organizations. Since JFK--they were Kennedy fund-raisers--they've been political players in the Democratic Party. Lady Bird Johnson remains one of Edie's devoted friends.

Edie, who turns 83 on Wednesday, has slowed down somewhat. "This is the only thing I 'do' anymore," she says referring to the Motion Picture and Television Fund.

But slowing down is a relative term.

Says longtime friend, producer and director Gil Cates: "You're dealing with a woman who's very smart and very direct. And there's no game-playing. . . . You ask a question, you're going to get an answer."

Adds actress Sharon Stone, considered by Edie to be one of her heirs apparent in the fund: "I think that she is the matriarch of the business in this town. She epitomizes all that is regale, elegant and fun."

On Saturday, the Wassermans were honored for their joint work when the Motion Picture and Television Fund's Woodland Hills campus was renamed the Wasserman Campus.

Campus residents mixed with Kirk Douglas, Aaron Spelling, Suzanne Pleshette and Robert Townsend as about 300 people turned out to honor the couple. The ceremony presenters were Hollywood who's who list--Wasserman goddaughter Jamie Lee Curtis, protege Steven Spielberg, Jack Valenti, Jeffrey Katzenberg and fund President Roger Mayer. "Didn't I tell you I had a future when I married you 62 years ago?" Lew asked Edie at the ceremony.

Privately, Edie had already told the board: "If you find somebody to give more money than I'm giving, then change the name."

She remains active on the board, taking people on tours and checking on the retirement home from time to time. Says the fund's CEO William Haug, "Edie is on campus, everyone stands up a little taller. Even the people who don't know who she is know who she is."

Passing the Torch to the Next Generation

A few weeks ago Edie sat down for a rare interview. She's worried, she says, worried that "people look at me and see an old lady." She is mortified that they see the fund as just a quaint old-age home for long-forgotten starlets and penniless stuntmen. Today, it serves a good portion of the industry's 500,000 workers and their families in Southern California.

The foundation was started in 1921 by the celebs of the day--Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Charlie Chaplin--as a relief fund for people in the entertainment industry. Since then, it's had many transformations, growing into an organization that offers health insurance, residential care, Alzheimer's care, child care and hospital care.

The fund's unofficial slogan--"We take care of our own"--has provided a model for such groups as the NFL and auto workers also wanting to take care of their own.

"Our only problem is getting younger people helping," Wasserman says. "It's very hard to convince them they will need it."

She spends a lot of time lobbying people like Jodie Foster and Sharon Stone to step up to the plate. Stone, who just recently extended her commitment with AmFAR, the AIDS research fund, says she looks forward to a time when she can take over for Wasserman.

She Was a Rich Girl; He Was a Poor Boy

If Edie Wasserman is comfortable with show people, it may be because she's been around them all her life. Her father, Henry Beckerman, was a lawyer who represented many entertainment people--Sophie Tucker and Guy Lombardo, among them. Edie wanted to be a dancer, but no "good Jewish girl" would ever be allowed do that, she says.

She grew up in a tony section of Cleveland. She likes to tell people that Lew came from the wrong side of the tracks, and she came from the right side. "We met in the middle because my father was broke."

As a preteen, she had a checkbook and a weekly allowance of $125. "That lasted till the Crash."

"Lew didn't lose anything," she says, because he didn't have anything. His mother ran a modest restaurant in Cleveland.

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