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Marylin Hudson dies at 76; book critic co-founded Round Table West

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A book club with a Hollywood sheen, the monthly literary luncheon known as Round Table West, took root in 1977 at a ballroom in the Ambassador Hotel and grew into the largest such gathering in the nation.

Public relations executive Marylin Hudson was one of its co-founders and one of its draws. For decades, she warmed up the crowd of hundreds with a satirical horoscope reading that started when she filled in for an astrologer. Her routine was scathingly funny, said authors who followed her at the podium.

"This great lady did more to support authors and encourage the reading of books than just about anyone in Southern California. She is irreplaceable," Joseph Wambaugh, one of hundreds of authors who spoke to the group, told The Times in an e-mail.

Hudson, who had pancreatic cancer, died Tuesday at her Pasadena home, said her husband, Gary. She was 76.

Round Table West, which expanded beyond Los Angeles to Newport Beach in the late 1980s and Palm Desert in the 1990s, folded in 2007. Hudson and others theorized it was partly the victim of a decline in the reading of books.

The inspiration for the group came from Adela Rogers St. Johns, a colorful journalist whose celebrity interviews in the 1920s earned her the title "Mother Confessor of Hollywood." Then in her early 80s, she suggested that Hudson and her business partner, Margaret Burk, start a literary club to encourage reading.

Named after the celebrated group of writers who met at the Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s, Round Table West once drew as many as 600 guests to a single luncheon. The wit and whimsy that permeated the room could be traced to Hudson, authors said.

Hudson "was a very, very warm and funny person," said T. Jefferson Parker, a writer of crime novels who first spoke to the group in 1988 at the Balboa Bay Club. "She would always have the whole room laughing."

"It was kind of upscale and literary and social all mixed into one," Parker said.

Author Martin Smith recalled that "at Round Table West, you were treated as a rock star. These people loved to read and wanted to hear what you had to say. That was all an extension of Marylin."

Three speakers were usually featured and given 15 minutes apiece to use any way they wanted.

Maya Angelou read poetry and newsman Walter Cronkite extolled the wonders of sailing. Pilot Chuck Yeager was pleasantly surprised to be on the same bill as actress Jane Russell. Norman Cousins shared inspiration and Wolfgang Puck recipes. An author of a dance-themed memoir did a three-minute tap routine.

When actress Gene Tierney said two words — "Thank you"— and sat down, actor Robert Young came to the rescue, reminiscing "about the old days of Hollywood and how he remembered her," Hudson told The Times in 1987.

Author Dean Koontz, who appeared before Round Table West in 1999, "marveled that such a group could be drawn together in the first place" and "meet so frequently in such a convivial atmosphere."

Its long success was "a testament to both Marylin's organizational skills and her social grace," Koontz said in an e-mail to The Times.

Round Table West also had a less-publicized literary mission, a program called Books for the Bookless to encourage reading. About 180,000 new books were collected, and many were donated to prisons and halfway houses.

She was born Marylin Helena Pawlak on Aug. 18, 1933, in Cleveland to Jan and Stephanie Pawlak. Her family had a winery in Cleveland and her father also developed real estate.

Growing up, she lived in South America and settled in California in time to attend high school in Canoga Park.

At UCLA, Hudson majored in political science and earned her bachelor's degree in 1954.

For a decade, she supervised home economists as director of Hunt Foods' kitchen in Fullerton, said her husband, who met her there.

As a newlywed, she read everything Agatha Christie wrote, her husband recalled, and often devoured a book a day, partly because she had to. For the last 17 years, she reviewed books for Orange Coast magazine.

"She looked for good books across the board and had a real knack for that," said Smith, the magazine's editor. "She really elevated the magazine over the years."

Hudson penned "You Were Born Under a Funny Sign" (2003), a humorous book that shared its name with her astrological act, and co-wrote a 2008 biography of Bo Roos, an early Hollywood business manager.

With Burk, Hudson ran a public relations firm with offices in the Ambassador Hotel. The pair bemoaned the hotel's closing in 1988 after 139 Round Table West meetings had been held there. Eventually, the group resettled at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Regardless of setting, Hudson and Burk, now 92 and still living in Los Angeles, always stood out, observers said, in a room with no shortage of celebrities.

In addition to her husband of 50 years, Hudson is survived by a son, Sherman. She also leaves behind an estimated 15,000 books, which line her home.

Services will be at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1130 E. Wilson Ave., Glendale.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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