Parading on a makeshift podium before more than 1,000 women at the Edwards Cinema Center in Newport Beach Monday morning, actress Jayne Meadows showed off a slinky red skirt and said, "I want you people to look at my legs. They are the only part of me that have not fallen apart."
And with that, she started an hourlong lecture entitled "Powerful Women in History."
The lecture began the 20th annual Town Hall Celebrity Series sponsored by the Assistance League of Laguna Beach and the Assistance League of Newport Beach. Proceeds will be used to pay for senior citizen activities, a dental health center for children and other projects.
Meadows has been on the town hall circuit delivering her treatise on such powerful figures as Cleopatra and Florence Nightingale for more than two years and said she is booked through 1989.
Culled from the Emmy award-winning PBS-TV series "Meetings of the Mind," on which she collaborated with Steve Allen, her husband of more than 34 years, the presentation began with Meadows kibitzing about Allen, the weather and her childhood in China where her parents were missionaries.
Eventually, she related anecdotes and information she found in researching the characters in "Meeting of the Minds."
"All these women were upper class, wealthy and were educated," she said. "There were also very, very powerful women in history who were not recorded, such as my mother.
"What do we mean by a powerful woman? That usually conjures up an image of a masculine, strident woman. My mother was not, nor was Joan of Arc. I think a powerful woman is someone who gets things done."
She spoke of Florence Nightingale. "She may have been a great woman, but research finds her to be a neurotic, angry and hard taskmaster. She was exquisitely beautiful, enormously wealthy, deeply religious and the most brilliant woman who ever lived. She also was an opium addict.
"And Catherine the Great? She outlawed capital punishment and freed the slaves."
"If Florence Nightingale was the most brilliant," Meadows continued, "Susan B. Anthony, who crusaded for women's rights, was the most saintly. I first told Steve that she was the dullest woman I had ever heard of. But I was wrong. She was a plain, little woman but so sweet. She was very difficult to play."
Surveying her rapt audience, Meadows wrapped things up:
"I say a prayer for these gracious women. All over the world--and in this room--there are powerful and great women. As the song says, 'We've only just begun.' "
The Town Hall Celebrity Series continues Feb. 22 with Irena McClan, an American who lived in the Soviet Union for 11 years. She is filling in for the previously announced La Condesa de Romanones, who has reportedly had a death in her family. Dr. John Burns will speak on "South Africa and American Security" on March 28, followed by Teresa Bloomingdale, a contributing editor of McCall's magazine, April 25.