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A Woman of Action--in War and Peace

August 15, 2000|PATT DIROLL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For nearly seven decades Ruth Gruber has taken incredible personal risks to cover the world as a foreign correspondent . . . and has managed to author 15 books along the way. (She received her doctorate in literature at age 20.)

"I'm a phudnik. That's a nudnik with a PhD," she explained, as she perched on a pink settee at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a chat before receiving the Israel Cancer Research Fund's Humanitarian Award at its fifth annual Women of Action luncheon Wednesday.

"Ruth is a true 20th century hero," said Norma Fink, who chaired the event with Dorothy Chilkov.

If Gruber were a cat, the petite New York City 88-year-old would have run out of lives long since. At 23, she began writing for the New York Herald Tribune. A book she'd written about a trip to the Soviet Arctic in 1935 brought her to the attention of then-Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. She became his special assistant, and in 1944 when she was 33, President Roosevelt and Ickes dispatched her to Italy on a top-secret mission to rescue 1,001 Jewish refugees and escort them through Nazi-infested waters to a haven in Oswego, N.Y.

Given the temporary rank of general for the assignment, her presence on a plane carrying top U.S. military brass was so puzzling that one officer concluded she was Lily Pons on a USO junket. Later, while scaling the Jacob's ladder to board the refugee ship (in red hat, gloves and white suit with a sailor's britches pulled over her skirt) she heard a shout from the deck, "It's Eleanor Roosevelt!"

Hal Holbrook, who portrays Ickes in the upcoming CBS miniseries based on "Haven," Gruber's chronicle of the daring rescue, introduced the honoree, and Diahann Carroll presented the award. In the audience, looking on with pride, were three people who had a role in Gruber's saga: actor Philip Lederer (whose late father, historian Ivo Lederer, was among the refugees), L.A. Realtor Irene Danon and composer Leon Levitch. All were aboard the Army transport, the Henry Gibbins, when she carried them into New York harbor Aug. 3, 1944.

Four outstanding Southern Californians were also honored with Women of Action awards. They included oncologist Dr. Patricia Ganz, a professor in UCLA's School of Medicine and Public Health; family law attorney Stacy D. Phillips, who co-founded Pacific Associates (which assists families with the stresses of divorce); landscape designer Helen Stulberg (who, with her husband, Gordon, founded the Fulfillment Fund); and award-winning costume designer Julie Weiss, whose credits include films "12 Monkeys," "American Beauty," Steel Magnolias" and "Isn't She Great."

*

Ravel's "Bolero" was wobbly, to say the least, but L.A. Opera's glorious mezzo soprano Suzanna Guzman saved conductor Victor Vener's tocino with a stunning performance of arias from "Carmen," her signature role at the Festival on the Green concert at the L.A. County Arboretum in Arcadia on Saturday.

Vener, as usual, dispensed Musicology 101 with a lengthy discussion of musical terms in the program. (Allegro con brio, presto, etc. He forgot intermission, but we figured it out.)

More memorable was the dramatic plea at the mike by California Philharmonic Orchestra president Lynn Caffrey Gabriel: "Let's show the people on the Westside that people in our valley are sophisticated and appreciate classical music too."

Unfortunately, the resident peacocks were the sophisticates in this crowd. Applause punctuated the four movements of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, not to mention the burlesque-house whistles following Maria Bermudez's dazzling flamenco. (In Spain, a whistle is a catcall, tsk, tsk.)

So much for our valley's sophistication.

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