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Polly Bergen, dead at 84, was strong women's rights activist

Polly Bergen, dead at 84, was strong women's rights activist
Polly Bergen, right, speaks with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at a 1984 National Women's Forum dinner in Washington. (Ira Schwarz / Associated Press)

Emmy-winning actress Polly Bergen -- who passed away at 84 on Saturday -- is likely best known for her role in the original "Cape Fear," a 1962 J. Lee Thompson-directed thriller starring Robert Mitchum as a vengeful ex-convict terrorizing a lawyer and his wife (Gregory Peck and Bergen).

But Bergen also played the first female President in Curtis Bernhardt's 1964 "Kisses for My President" -- a role that's far more in line with who the actress was in real life.

Bergen -- also an accomplished singer who recorded albums and performed in Broadway musicals -- was a dynamic businesswoman and strong women's rights activist. She created and ran a successful cosmetics company that she sold to Faberge in 1973 and she was a staunch political supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"She always thought a woman president in real life was long overdue," says her nearly career-long manager Jan McCormack. "She campaigned vigorously for Hillary when she ran against Obama; she went up to people's doors and rang their bells."

Rex Reed, film and theater critic for the New York Observer, was a close friend of Bergen's for over 50 years. He says Bergen was a legendary "A-list, New York Oscar party host" -- he remembers watching the Oscars one year on Bergen's bed while sitting in between Paul Newman and Lucille Ball -- but Bergen was even more passionate about women's rights, he says.

"She and Gloria Steinem teamed up to raise money and educate people as to the needs of women," Reed says. "She went many times to the White House and spoke before the Senate and at other other functions. She encouraged people to vote -- that was important to her."

Planned Parenthood was a cause particularly close to Bergen's heart, McCormack says. She was pro-choice. Bergen also had three children: daughter Pamela (PK) Fields and son Peter Fields whom she adopted with her second husband Freddy Fields, and a step-daughter, Fields' biological child Kathy Lander, who she helped raise.

"She was never able to have children of her own and so she adopted -- and that was all part of Planned Parenthood," McCormack says. "She wanted kids to be born because they were wanted and needed and not at random."

Coincidentally, there is a Planned Parenthood art auction and benefit -- in collaboration with Night Gallery -- tonight (Saturday evening) at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

The pre-auction staged show includes comedy by Jack Black and Jenny Slate as well as a performance by dancer/choreographer Ryan Heffington. The Centre Pompidou Foundation's Eliza Osborne will host the live auction, with art for sale by Sam Falls, Kour Pour and Pae White, among others.

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Bergen's family is requesting that in lieu of sending flowers, donations be made in her honor to Planned Parenthood.

Twitter: @debvankin

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