All the evening needed to be perfect would have been an appearance by Cary Grant.
The one-time-only tribute to the late actor Wednesday, which netted $1 million for the Princess Grace Foundation-U.S.A., was a totally above-the-titles night. Crowding the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton was the richest of Hollywood royalty, along with the Princely Family of Monaco (they insist on being capital letters) and appearances by a dozen-plus legendary entertainers out to celebrate their personal connection with the once Archie Leach.
Grant’s face, that wonderful face, beamed and clowned and cavorted from a screen via several sets of scenes from his 72 films. This was the face that prompted Mae West’s famous casting call, upon seeing him on the Paramount lot: “If that tall, dark and handsome can talk, I want him for my co-star.”
The film memories punctuated reminiscences from Gregory Peck, R. J. Wagner, John Forsythe, Eva Marie Saint, Roger Moore and Shirley Temple Black, musical memories from Henry Mancini, the high-glamour, high-performance Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr. and Quincy Jones and a brilliant reading of telegrams from Dean Martin.
Emcee Merv Griffin kidded about driving to Hollywood Park with Grant with Grant’s wife Barbara behind the wheel--"Twenty minutes . . . but she would drive and take two hours.” Flanked by Prince Rainier and her current beau, Kirk Kerkorian, Barbara Grant watched the tributes intently--smiling frequently, but also crying at certain places, according to those seated at adjacent tables.
Griffin, who keeps having himself introduced as Donald Trump, kiddingly sang the first few lines to a risque song that Grant supposedly had written--and that prompted lots of stories from people at various tables about how Grant loved to sing, and was only able to do so in a few movies, like “Night and Day.”
Although Griffin introduced a videotape appearance by President Reagan and Mrs. Reagan (she was listed as honorary chair), the First Lady made no appearance on the tape. The once-talk-show host showed he hadn’t lost his elfin humor when he said the First Family was packing up to come home--"though from what I read in the paper, Nancy doesn’t have very much to pack up.”
In the midst of glitz, the night turned out to be personal, almost down-home, as the evening’s producer, Jack Haley Jr., obviously opted for a string-of-pearls-like evening of stories rather than a massive diamond-choker production. “I loved Cary Grant and I admired him and I had the pleasure of his friendship for 30 years,” Robert Wagner said. He told about Grant, who, while making “An Affair to Remember,” told the young Wagner that he had just “learned” how to breathe in a scene. “Sixty-seven movies and Cary Grant was still learning.”
Peck told about a dinner in a French restaurant, with his wife, Veronique, “Mr. and Mrs. Blue Eyes,” and Grant--and Grant announcing at the end of the meal that he would like to repeat it the next night “only I don’t have a girl.” Peck said they pointed out to him that “you are Cary Grant,” and that the Faberge plane was at his disposal, and that indeed if this woman in London (who became Barbara Grant) was so special, he should fly up and get her. And the next night, after dinner, “they began walking out together.” It’s hard to top romantic stories told by Gregory Peck about Cary Grant.
Romance and jewelry notes from around the room: wonderful diamonds on Barbra Streisand’s finger and wrist, but no jewels adorned the hand of her date, Richard Baskin, who rubbed her back with the inside of his arm and engaged in close conversation after each segment. Barbara Davis, Candy Spelling, Stacey Winkler (in a show-stopping lavender Yves St. Laurent) and Rosemarie Stack all had their hair swept up--but only Candy managed to put very large diamonds in hers.
Strong traces of the Grant face and charm were easily found in his daughter, Jennifer, there with fiance Randy Zisk, showing her ring to old family friend and publicist Beebe Kline, and admitting that “June is a very good month for a wedding, don’t you think?” Jennifer was seated at dinner next to Prince Albert, and close observers said the two young people were obviously moved in turn by various speeches and film clips. The very first scene was one of Grace Kelly and Grant in a car high in the hills of Monaco from “To Catch a Thief,” a poignant reminder since Princess Grace’s fatal car accident occurred very close to that spot.
At certain points, Grant’s presence in the room was a little too real. Wearing a fur-trimmed velvet dress and carrying her purse on stage, benefit chair Dina Merrill opened with a tribute that placed her admiration for Grant in the present tense--"He is the most debonair.”
Not the only glitch. Frank Sinatra had been an organizational hero early in the evening during the “photo session,” when the dozens of stars were too spread out and he took over major-domo style, moving them around with practiced ease. He came on last in the lengthy evening, announcing “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Breakfast will be served in 22 minutes.” Although his cue cards contained the phrase “This is going to be difficult,” he skipped that line--and then seemed to experience real difficulty in getting his speech going.
But mostly it went smoothly. The food, including a massive chateaubriand, butter sculpted into jumbo roses and a Princess Swan Dessert, was more than tasty for banquet food. Actress Rita Gam, who had been one of the Princess’s bridesmaids, did quip to Roddy McDowall: “I’ve never seen so much red meat since the ‘50s.” Taking bows--Judy Quine and Ruth Berle. In the audience were strong foundation supporters like Edie and Lew Wasserman, Barbara Sinatra, who with Judy Quine is a Princess Grace Foundation trustee. Other star sightings: Jill St. John, Victoria Principal, Angie Dickinson, Joanna Carson (wearing the Merle Oberon rubies) and Burt Lancaster.
Pre-dinner, lots of the stars were confined to a separate private reception, and that meant that many folks who paid $1,000 for a ticket got to see the famous faces only on the stage or at a nearby table during dinner. “All I do is go to these bloody parties and then I go to bed,” Eva Gabor complained. She was seated at a small table at the side of the Versailles Room when a pretty but matronly looking blond woman approached. “Hi,” said the woman, stretching out her hand. “I’m Liz Ann Levine. Grace’s sister.”
Gabor was quite a sought-after star--and especially noted was her decoration of the lavish ladies’ room, pointed out from the stage by Griffin, who urged a closer inspection.
He also made sure that as soon as the Dodgers sewed up the game, he announced the final score.
Of course, that raised some interesting questions.
Even if Grant was still “with us,” two close friends said, it wasn’t clear that he would have been present at the party. “It would have been hard to keep him from the Dodgers,” one buddy said.