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SOCIAL CLIMES

New loves and vintage memories in an evening devoted to women

June 01, 2003|Ann Conway | Times Staff Writer

They dished and dined, but mostly the hundreds of women who came to honor Carol Channing, Tippi Hedren and Esther Williams listened. The three stars had some tales to tell. And KTTV news anchor Christine Devine got them talking the minute she welcomed them to the Hope Is a Woman Awards in the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

"We're going to have a conversation with the girls, a little round-table thing -- I've always wanted to be Oprah Winfrey," Devine said as the honorees were seated on stage at the luncheon, sponsored by the Southern California chapter of Women of Washington Inc., a nonprofit mentoring, education and networking organization. Each year, the group honors women whose successful careers have given hope to others.

In no time, Williams, the synchronized swimming star who became "America's Mermaid," was regaling the rapt crowd with talk of her '40s screen test for MGM with Clark Gable. "He was a huge star -- why did he do my screen test?" Williams said she asked director George Sidney after filming a passionate kiss with the king. As Gable left the studio with his wife, actress Carole Lombard -- the couple were famous for their marital pranks -- she learned the answer: "I heard him say, 'Well, I told you I was going to kiss me a mermaid today!' "

Next up at the May 21 event: Channing, recipient of the 1995 lifetime achievement Tony Award for her work in productions such as "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "Hello, Dolly!" Married just a little more than a week to her childhood sweetheart Harry Kullijian, who attended the affair, the stage star told guests that she and her new husband had both been widowed. "He had a beautiful 60-year marriage and I had a loveless 42-year one," she said in her trademark breathless voice. She wrote about Harry in her new memoir, "Just Lucky I Guess." "We all have a first love," she said. "And we never forget it. We don't mention it to our husbands, but we never forget it."

People ask if Harry has encouraged her to continue her career, she said. "He tells them, 'I want her to continue to fly, but if she falls, I'll be there to catch her.' Isn't that sweet? How long does this last?"

Hedren, animal conservationist and the star of such Alfred Hitchcock classics as "The Birds" and "Marnie," said she'd never dreamed of having a movie career. She was enjoying life as a New York fashion model when the director tapped her to star in "The Birds," which went on to become a blockbuster. He had spotted the cover girl in a TV commercial, then summoned her to Hollywood. These days, Hedren is preparing to marry veterinarian Martin Dennis, who shares her passion for the conservation of exotic animals. It took them some time to develop their relationship, she said, smiling. "And now, we're getting married!"

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