Bill Cosby: Untitled

When Bill Cosby took the podium that had been set up in the Plaza Hotel’s Grand Ballroom on April 28, the crowd below him was expecting an effusive, hyperbole-filled speech about John Marion, the former auctioneer and chairman of Sotheby’s North America, and his Texas millionaire wife, Anne Windfohr Marion. That is the ritual of gala benefits, this one being the Skowhegan 1998 Awards Dinner to benefit the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. The speeches always come between courses-big, bloated, sugary discourses that often, like the dinner, are one more thing to endure before the car ride home.

Mr. Cosby’s decision to bring a bread roll up to the podium and chew it loudly while he spoke was the first sign that the evening would be a departure from the norm. “Would you please eat? I don’t know if this is important,” he said. The art-world crowd, which included Skowhegan alumnus Ellsworth Kelly, gallery owner William Acquavella and Livent Inc. investor Michael Ovitz, laughed and then laughed again when, minutes later, Mr. Cosby lobbed a hunk of his roll behind him. As Mr. Cosby broached the subject of the Marions, who had come from Santa Fe, N.M., to receive the school’s Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Award for outstanding patronage of the arts, the crowd seemed to grow confused.

Mr. Cosby is a longtime friend of Mr. Marion, who once even appeared as an auctioneer in the comedian’s last sitcom series, The Cosby Show -but as he stood at the podium, he appeared to be groping for something to say about the couple. “For those of you who don’t know Anne,” Mr. Cosby said, then paused as he stared intently at his notes, “I’ll tell you as soon as I get her bio.” After continuing to search through his papers, he declared, “I just know that she’s a great greeting kisser.”

Much of Mrs. Marion’s fortune comes from oil (her mother, “Big Anne” Burnett Tandy, married the Tandy Radio Shack fortune), and she continues to own 350,000 Texas acres, including the 6666 Ranch northwest of Fort Worth. She’s used that fortune to build a significant art collection and to fund a Santa Fe museum dedicated to the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Mr. Cosby did not manage to find any of this in his papers, though. Eventually, he said, “I’m sure she’s done some great things.”

Then, suddenly, he seemed to have located the document he needed.

“What is Windfohr?” Mr. Cosby shouted Mrs. Marion’s maiden name in the direction of her and her husband’s table. “What ethnicity is it, John?”

The room began to buzz. In a roomful of people whose pasts had been buffed to the sheen and opacity of fine marble, ethnicity was an uncomfortable subject.

Mr. Marion’s voice responded faintly: “What does that mean?

Mr. Cosby boomed back in his signature cadence: “Other than white, what ethnicity is it?”

The response was difficult to hear, but Mr. Cosby seemed to have concluded that Mrs. Marion was of Mexican heritage.

“The Mexican Windfohrs, related to the Jumping Bean family,” he said.

The laughs sounded more uncomfortable. The buzz got louder. People exchanged wide-eyed glances.

Mr. Cosby continued to riff on Mrs. Marion’s curriculum vitae.

“Let’s see, education,” he said. “She wrote down, ‘Yes.'” Then he muttered “University of Geneva,” and followed it with a knowing laugh.

Mr. Cosby moved on to Mr. Marion, saying that he had been “thrown off the board of regents at Texas Tech for not knowing football.”

The sound of a piece of silverware being clinked against a wine stem brought the room to a dead silence. It was unclear whether the alarm had been sounded in objection to Mr. Cosby or to the noise of the crowd reacting to Mr. Cosby.

“No, no, please continue to talk,” Mr. Cosby. He continued: “When someone arrives super, super late, ask them the score of the Knicks game and pass it over to my table.”

Concluding his remarks, he faked a drunken stumble off the podium platform. He returned following dinner to razz the Marions some more. With a few more glasses of wine in them, the audience members seemed to have warmed to Mr. Cosby’s antics. The group laughed when he said that Mr. and Mrs. Marion have been “married only 10 years but to look at them, you think it’s far more.” Or when he said of Santa Fe, where they make their home, it’s “a place where artists go … when they’re finished. John and Anne went there 10 years ago and avoided the rush.”

When the couple finally took the podium to accept their award, Mr. Marion said, “My head is bloody but unbowed.” He thanked Mr. Cosby for being “an old friend” and for “eviscerating us this evening.”

As the Marions left the event with their awards, The Transom asked them if they had expected Mr. Cosby to take the tack he had taken. “Yes,” said Mr. Marion.

“Why not?” said Mrs. Marion.

When asked what percentage of the crowd had gotten his shtick, the comedian said that he thought the crowd had taken a little while to warm up to his brand of humor on this evening. But then Mr. Cosby smiled and said he was “paying” the artsy crowd back “for some of the things I’ve seen in their galleries.” Before pushing through the revolving doors that led out onto the street, he said, “The beginning of the evening was called ‘Untitled.'”

The Bouncing Baldwins

“I dare you to print this in your paper,” said actor and political operative Alec Baldwin from his Los Angeles home, where he was watching Lady and the Tramp with his 2-year-old daughter, Ireland. “If you have any balls as a journalist, you will print this.” The Transom waited, with baited breath, for whatever humdinger of a political statement Mr. Baldwin was about to deliver. “The New York Post ,” he said, “is a total, complete football program for Al D’Amato. They’re bought and sold by D’Amato. [And] they’re licking their lips for Gerry to win the primary because they think D’Amato can kick Gerry’s ass.”

Mr. Baldwin was referring to Geraldine Ferraro, but neither he nor his politically active actor brother, Billy, are formally supporting the former Vice Presidential candidate in her bid to defeat Senator Alfonse D’Amato. “Ferraro hasn’t had a voting record since the early 80’s,” said Alec. “I don’t know how you get over that.”

The actor has decided to throw his support behind Representive Charles Schumer for the upcoming Senate race. Billy Baldwin has endorsed Public Advocate Mark Green. But when it gets down to it, the brothers don’t really care which Democrat. All they want is for Senator D’Amato to get his butt kicked.

“If Gerry or Mark Green were the nominee, I’d support them,” said Alec, adding that “if Armand D’Amato were the nominee in the Democratic Party,” and could beat the Republican Senator, he’d vote for him. Armand D’Amato, the Senator’s brother, was convicted of mail fraud in 1993, then exonerated a year later.

“I would gladly support Chuck Schumer if he should beat Mark Green in the primary,” said Billy Baldwin, accompanied by his wife, Chynna Phillips, after the two had completed their shift manning the Big Mouth game at a pediatric AIDS research fund-raiser in New York. “I’m hoping that’s not what happens, but I’m happy to say I’m finally working on a campaign where I’m not choosing between the lesser of two evils. I think they’re both great.” Plus, Mr. Baldwin added, Mr. Green “asked me about a year ago, before Chuck Schumer [did].”

Alec Baldwin sees the one-candidate campaigning of his fellow Democrats as one of the party’s biggest problems. “Democrats never learn from the Republicans,” he said. “They’re all babies, and if they lose, they just take the ball and go home. And pathetically so.”

Mr. Baldwin himself was not exactly a grown-up in the way he reacted to a Dec. 8, 1997, cover story in The New Republic . The piece, by Stephen Glass, gleefully mocked the actor’s political savvy and motives.

“The guy was out to get me, and that’s not hard to do,” said Mr. Baldwin. “If you wanna make the tired old hackneyed assessment of celebrities who do this to draw more attention to themselves, you can,” he said. “So some sexually confused guy from The New Republic wanted to take me on. Why would I get on Crossfire just to answer his charges that I don’t know what I’m doing?”

Mr. Glass replied, “I won’t respond to the sexual McCarthyism of a Hollywood liberal.”

-Kate Kelly

The Transom Also Hears

… Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day , Chevy Chase seems doomed to repeat his humiliating turn as a talk-show host until he gets it right. Mr. Chase took the couch again for a faux talk show at the Rainforest Alliance’s annual benefit dinner at the Pierre hotel, and one of his first lines out was, “I can tell by the smattering of applause that you’ve seen me do this before.” This time around, Mr. Chase’s sidekick was a guy who did exotic animal sounds. None more strange, though, than Mr. Chase’s sudden declaration at one point in the show: “Here’s a couple of dollars, now go out and get yourself a nice piece of ass.”

… When Harold Evans and his wife, New Yorker editor Tina Brown, were honored by Literacy Partners for, as the invitation to the May 4 benefit said, “their leadership in education and literacy,” the Daily News editorial director noted that there were some people who “bitterly regret that literacy came to my family.” It was a reference, perhaps, to the grief he and the missus have given, and taken, since becoming leading members of New York’s media elite. He added that if offended parties wanted a refund for the tickets to the benefit at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, “do please apply to Rupert Murdoch and I’m sure he’ll be pleased” to comply. Mr. Murdoch, a longtime nemesis of Mr. Evans, is also the owner of the Daily News ‘ rival, the New York Post , which was a corporate sponsor of the event.