Margaret Tante Burk, a businesswoman, publicist and book enthusiast who co-founded one of the country's largest literary lunch groups, died Oct. 6 in Los Angeles of natural causes, her son, Harry, said. She was 93.
For 30 years, until 2007, Burk ran Round Table West with business partner Marylin Hudson, hosting authors as varied as Maya Angelou, Walter Cronkite, Ray Bradbury, Jane Russell and Gloria Steinem.
Inspired by New York's legendary Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s, their version was a lively and sophisticated affair, blending Pulitzer Prize winners, first-time authors and venerable Hollywood stars at thrice-monthly meetings held at elegant venues, from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to Newport Beach's Balboa Bay Club. The audiences — made up largely of educated women of a certain age — regularly numbered in the low- to mid-hundreds.
Burk and Hudson, who died last year at 76, were "quite a dynamic duo," suspense writer Dean Koontz, a frequent Round Table West guest, said Wednesday. He called Burk "a lady of great graciousness and intelligence who knew how to make other people love books as much as she did."
The two women, who had been partners in a public relations firm, were as much of a draw as the well-known writers who took the stage.
Hudson was a dry wit known for her tongue-in-cheek astrology readings, while the convivial Burk chatted up the audience with news about her famous friends, who included actors, astronauts and jazz greats.
"They were the Lucy and Ethel of the Southern California literary scene," said Martin J. Smith, a novelist and editor-in-chief of Orange County's Orange Coast magazine, "and together they made the world a better place with their bawdy good humor, their appreciation for the written word, and their support for those of us trying to find an audience for our books."
The idea for the author lunches came from Adela Rogers St. Johns, the veteran journalist known as the "Mother Confessor of Hollywood" for her celebrity interviews in the 1920s.
"I once asked her, 'Is there something you feel you'd still like to achieve?'" Burk recalled in a 1987 Times interview. "She said, 'I would like to have a literary club.'"
So, in 1977, Burk, Hudson and St. Johns launched Round Table West at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, where Burk and Hudson had an office. St. Johns, who was by then in her 80s, occasionally attended the meetings.
Some of the luncheons were memorable for their last-minute stand-ins, such as the time "Beverly Hillbillies" star Buddy Ebsen and actor-bandleader Charles "Buddy" Rogers filled in for singer Peggy Lee and actor Macdonald Carey. Rogers, who was married to silent-movie actress Mary Pickford, told jokes on himself and played the piano. Ebsen brought down the house with a dance he called the "Shim Sham Shimmy."
For Burk, running the literary lunches was one in a string of successful careers.
Born in Savannah, Ga., on Aug. 8, 1918, she attended Northwestern University before moving to Los Angeles in the late 1930s. She married entrepreneur Harry John Burk Jr. in 1945 and helped him run his businesses, which included the Lebec Hotel in Central California.
After selling the hotel in the early 1950s, they moved to Palm Springs and later to Los Angeles, where Burk raised their three children.
In addition to son Harry, she is survived by six grandchildren. Her other children, James and Linda Burk Garcia, are deceased.
In 1964, Burk went to work for Huntington Savings and Loan Assn. and a year later was its vice president and director of public relations. In 1969 she became public relations director for the Ambassador Hotel and Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Favored by movie stars and presidents during its heyday, the hotel was by then known as the place where New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot in 1968. Burk, her son said, was hired to "help it overcome difficulties in its image that came after the Kennedy assassination." Among her duties was coordinating the hotel's bookings as a movie location, which she continued to do after it closed to guests in 1989.
She chronicled its illustrious past in a 1980 book, "Are the Stars Out Tonight? The Story of the World Famous Ambassador and Cocoanut Grove," a copy of which Bob Hope hand-delivered to President Reagan. With Gary Hudson, Burk also wrote a guide to celebrity grave sites called "Final Curtain: Eternal Resting Places of Hundreds of Stars, Celebrities, Moguls, Misers & Misfits" (1996). Her extensive leg work included prowling Forest Lawn with a pencil and notepad.
By the time Round Table West folded four years ago, it had hosted more than 2,500 authors, many of whom were unknown when they came to their first Round Table lunch.
One of them was Richard Paul Evans, whom Burk invited to speak in 1994 after he self-published an inspirational Christmas story for his daughters called "The Christmas Box."
"I said, 'Do I give my books away?' " Evans recalled. "She said, 'No, you sell them!' They went nuts. They bought all my books." Shortly afterward, he signed a $4-million contract with Simon & Schuster, launching his career as a bestselling writer.
"I loved Margaret," Evans said. "She was so sweet. She said, 'I just want to mother you.'"
A funeral will be held at 11:30 a.m. Oct. 22 at Forest Lawn in Glendale.