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Unstoppable

How Did the Carousel of Hope Become the Superlative-Buster on L.A.'s Charity Circuit? It's Hard to Say No to Barbara Davis.

October 06, 2002|Patt Morrison

The commander stands in her silver chanel ballet slippers and surveys the battlefield.

Out there, it is still quiet and dark and empty.

The first skirmishes will commence just past sunset on Oct. 15. The battlefield will be brilliant with explosions of light, and clamorous with the roar of large-caliber buzz. Halle Berry, Sting, Sidney Poitier, Oprah Winfrey and Elton John will reach the front lines through a glitzkrieg gantlet of paparazzi. Elizabeth Taylor has promised to reenlist.

The struggle for field position will be hand-to-hand; important people have been known to send their assistants sneaking onto the battlefield to switch the numbers on tables to get their superiors closer to the action.

All this the commander knows, for she has waged this campaign 14 times before. The war zone is the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel; her weapon, the Carousel of Hope Ball; her fight, against juvenile diabetes.

This ball of hers is the superlative-buster, the 800-pounder on the charity calendar, the biggest, richest, puttin'-on-the-ritziest, arguably the most successful and longest-running good-deed society event in town--so large and lavish that it's only given every other year, lest the charity tap get tapped dry.

In mainline Old Hollywood and some of what remains of mainline old money in Los Angeles, the Carousel of Hope ball is referred to glibly as the Oscar night of its ilk. It's a facile phrase but not a very precise one, the differences being of kind as well as degree. Case in point: Women who go to the Oscars may borrow their jewels, Cinderella-like, from the vaults of Van Cleef & Arpels or Fred Leighton; women who go to the Carousel Ball open their safes and wear their own. And to put it baldly, a lot of the people who go to the Oscars are the hired help--exalted, but hired. The people at the Carousel Ball often are or have been their bosses. And where the Oscars are essentially a high-wattage office party, over time the chairs at the Carousel of Hope have been filled by players who may only encounter one another because Barbara Davis got them to say ''yes'': Fergie, the Duchess of York, presidents Ford and Reagan, Wayne Gretzky, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Oliver Stone, Patty Hearst, Ted Kennedy.

The supreme commander of all this is a trim woman of 71, perhaps the last grande dame hostess in Los Angeles. Barbara Davis has been married for 51 years to Marvin Davis, a Denver oil billionaire who bought 20th Century Fox Studios in 1981. His wife was an unstoppable Molly Brown, airdropped out of Denver and onto the top of the Hollywood heap. The first party she threw here was a little do for the Queen of England, on Sound Stage 9 of her husband's movie studio, a celebfest for which Davis hired some of the same party hands--the valet parking company, the party-rentals firm--that she still uses nearly 20 years later.

She is the mother of five, the grandmother of 14, and up close has a chivvyingly fond, motherly manner to her. Lunching with her, you just know that if you had trouble wrangling a bit of food on your plate, she would cheerily lean over and cut it up for you. But it's the mom-in-field-marshal mode that explains why Barbara Davis' ball goes on and on, where other charity events may soar and then sink.

Her film-producer son, John Davis, says she is ''a mother on a mission ... She's got a velvet glove with an iron fist underneath.'' That she goes about it carrying a pale blue, four-figure Hermes Kelly bag clenched in a hand glittering with a band of brilliant-white first-water diamonds makes it no less a crusade.

Marvin Davis was a Denver oil gajillionaire in the 1970s when the youngest of the Davises' five children, 7-year-old Dana, was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. ''Fix it,'' said Marvin, with a rich man's certainty. When he found it couldn't just be ''fixed,'' he gave his wife a million dollars--the first of many millions he'd give, as it turned out--to start a hospital to get about fixing it.

A quarter-century later, there is the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes in Denver, where more than 25 doctors treat 4,000 children and their families each year. Some of the children are flown in gratis from as far off as Chile and are treated for free. To support the center's work and research for a cure, there is the Children's Diabetes Foundation.

In 25 years, more than $60 million has found its way to the foundation and a few other diabetes groups. Perhaps $20 million of that is from Marvin Davis' own pockets. Most of the rest is the box office from the Carousel Ball, the ticket sales and objets de luxe that movie stars and auto dealers and jewelers have parted with to help Barbara Davis' cause, and also, conveniently, their own cause: to keep their names or their goods in the papers and themselves on the right guest lists.

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