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Irene Diamond, 92; Gave $200 Million for AIDS, Other Causes

January 28, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Irene Diamond, a Hollywood story editor turned New York philanthropist who donated more than $200 million to AIDS research, minority education and the arts, died Jan. 21 at home in New York City of a heart attack. She was 92.

Her strong opinions about social issues led her to support gun control, AIDS education and free condoms for high school students and an end to the death penalty. Her most prominent contribution went to medical research.

She first outlined the plans for the Aaron Diamond Foundation in 1984 with her husband, Aaron. The couple took an unusual approach to philanthropy. They decided to give away their total endowment of more than $200 million in 10 years and then go out of business. Typically, foundations expect to continue indefinitely, and they donate a small percentage of the total fund each year.

"We both had a feeling that, if we stuck with our priorities and really hit hard with the money, we would probably be able to make a difference," she said.

Aaron Diamond was a real estate developer who built high-rise offices in midtown Manhattan and redeveloped Roosevelt Island. The couple lived in a Park Avenue apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side for most of their married life.

"Aaron had made his fortune in New York, so he wanted to leave his money to the city," Diamond told Vanity Fair magazine in 2000.

Just as they were about to activate the foundation, Aaron Diamond died of a heart attack at 74. She continued on her own.

Irene Diamond saw her most ambitious project realized in 1991 with the opening of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in lower Manhattan. At the time it was the largest AIDS research laboratory in the world. The city of New York and New York University Medical Center were other sponsors of the center.

She recruited Dr. David Ho, a 38-year-old research biologist on the faculty of the UCLA School of Medicine, as the founding director, after his work in drug-resistant strains of the AIDS virus caught her attention.

"Irene wanted a great research institute in New York, the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in this country," Ho told The Times. "She was a maverick, she chose me despite my young age. She was focused on the younger generations."

Five years after he was appointed, Ho was named Time magazine's Man of the Year. He and his colleagues had discovered a new strategy to flush out the virus that causes AIDS.

Ho and Diamond became close friends. He often dined at her sprawling, informal Park Avenue apartment. The diminutive hostess, who was hardly more than 5 feet tall and who preferred to cut her own hair at home rather than waste time in a beauty parlor, served "a simple, good meal," Ho said. Afterward, they talked for six or seven hours, with Ho doing most of the listening about everything from medical research and gun control to ballet and classical music.

Medical science and minority education each accounted for 40% of the Diamond endowment program. The other 20% went to the arts. Two years before the Aaron Diamond Foundation was spent in 1996, Irene Diamond launched her own charitable trust, the Irene Diamond Fund, with no time limit attached. She made slight adjustments in the original foundation's program by expanding her priorities to include human rights projects.

In recent years the Juilliard School's minority scholarship program, the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Human Rights Watch have received multimillion-dollar grants.

"The arts were part of Irene's life: She saw how they helped explain the human experience," said Joseph W. Polisi, director of the Juilliard School in New York City, which received $10 million from the Diamond foundation in 1992. The money helped build the enrollment of African American, Latino and Native American students at the school.

As a young girl in Pittsburgh, Irene Levine's Russian-immigrant parents provided piano lessons for her. But she dreamed of becoming an actress. After high school, in the early 1920s, she moved to New York City, changed her name to Irene Lee and studied repertory theater.

In 1933 she was invited to Hollywood for a screen test but changed careers after she met producer Hal Wallis, who offered her a job as a story editor.

"I lived and breathed writing," Diamond said of those years. She found scripts and plays that Wallis could adapt for the screen. Among her discoveries was the play that later became the movie "Casablanca."

The version she read, "Everybody Comes to Rick's," was an unproduced play with several rejection slips attached to it. Wallis paid $20,000 for it. Diamond later complained that Wallis never gave her credit for her part in the deal.

In the book "Round Up the Usual Suspects" (1992), which was about the making of "Casablanca," author Aljean Harmentz quoted Julius Epstein, one of the scriptwriters. "Irene Lee deserves the credit," he said about the discovery of the play. "She was much smarter than Hal Wallis. She was the one who assigned us to write it."

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