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Library Honors Its 'Best Friend,' Gregory Peck

November 21, 2000|PATT DIROLL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gregory Peck, described as one of the Los Angeles Library's great friends, was honored along with his wife, Veronique, at a library foundation gala at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel last Tuesday.

To celebrate his efforts, more than 500 library supporters joined some of the most prestigious names in show business at the gala, "a once-in-a-lifetime evening for the library's best friend," said Joni Smith, who chaired the event.

Peck, 84, has produced a noted reading series at the Central Library for the last five years. This has been a hands-on project for him ever since he was invited in 1994 to read at a benefit for major donors.

"He so enjoyed the gig and the surroundings, he asked if he could bring his 'friends' down to read," said Evelyn Hoffman, executive director of the library's foundation. "He's been coming ever since." Peck personally invites celebrity friends to read material of their choosing, attends the rehearsals and introduces the guest readers at every program.

Proceeds from the gala will benefit the library's $2-million literary endowment fund established in Peck's name.

Peck said his love affair with books started when he was 6 and acquired his first library card at the La Jolla Public Library. "I checked out four books at a time. In those days, we didn't have radio and television. Books were our entertainment, and we read like crazy."

Four of Peck's friends from readings past headlined the gala by reading some of their favorite pieces.

Anjelica Huston and Sally Field both chose excerpts from Dorothy Parker. Patrick Stewart opted for a medley of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward and Tom Stoppard. And Jack Lemmon read a poignant soliloquy from "Long Day's Journey Into Night"--a performance that held everyone so spellbound that the cue for the start of a surprise finale was nearly missed.

After a few nervous moments, more than a dozen stars who have participated in the library readings poured down the aisles and onto the stage, belting out Irving Berlin's "We'll Follow the Old Man Wherever He Wants to Go."

*

One of the five chairs reserved for the guests of honor at the Voices of Justice celebration Thursday remained empty on the stage of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

That's because its intended occupant is in jail. Rebiya Kadeer, 53, has been imprisoned in China for eight years. Her crime was mailing news clippings from the state-run press to her husband in the United States. Her husband, Sidik Rouzi, who was forced to flee to the U.S. in 1996, spoke on her behalf.

Kadeer's was just one of the accounts of courage shared at the annual dinner sponsored by the California Committee South of Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based international human rights organization.

The four other honorees:

* From Chechnya, Dr. Khassan Baiev, who has treated thousands of Chechens and Russians in his small war hospital since the conflict began in 1994.

* From Sierra Leone, Abdul Tejan-Cole, a human-rights lawyer whose work has brought the world's attention to the gross atrocities committed there by the Revolutionary United Front.

* From India, Martin Chhotubhal Macwan, an activist for 160 million Dalits, or India's "untouchables."

* And from Jordan, the National Jordanian Campaign Committee to eliminate so-called "crimes of honor." The organization of 11 men and women was formed in 1999 to promote the repeal of a law that allows lenient sentences for family members who kill Jordanian women in the name of honor. (Between 20 and 30 women are killed each year; they are often victims of rape or have filed for divorce.) Representing the committee were Maha Abu Ayyash, an Amman artist, and Rana Husseini, a reporter with the Jordan Times.

Annette Bening emceed the evening, which was chaired by Lorraine and Sid Sheinberg. Vicki Riskin and Mike Farrell, co-chairs for Southern California, report the event raised $650,000.

Patt Diroll's column is published Tuesdays. She can be reached at pattdiroll@earthlink.net.

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