Get Whale Soon! Money Rains From the Natural History Museum Balconies as Big Spenders Pony Up for Lupus

S.L.E. Lupus Foundation Life Without Lupus Gala 2012When Shindigger brushes shoulders with Mayor Michael Bloomberg during our frolics about town, it’s generally a sign we’re in the right place. This was most certainly the case last Monday evening at the S.L.E. Lupus Foundation Life Without Lupus black-tie gala. Hizzoner was one of 700 of New York City’s finest philanthropic fat cats who gathered at the American Museum of Natural History to raise money for lupus research.

After schmoozing with foundation board members Susan Golick, Richard DeScherer and Peggy Dowd, the mayor delivered a welcome address that was unfortunately inaudible due to the immense reverberation inside the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda. Seems impressive spaces don’t always result in dreamy acoustics.

“What brings you here tonight?” we coolly asked Mayor Bloomberg afterward.

“A lot of people unfortunately have lupus,” he said of the autoimmune disease characterized by swollen and stiff joints, high fevers, fatigue and skin rashes, among other symptoms.

He diligently shook The Observer’s hand before adding, “If we just all work together and people fund it, people work on it—we’ll do something and that will help you, me and all of our friends.”

A sincere grin, a quick adjustment of his dark tailored suit, and Michael R. Bloomberg was gone in a flash.

Circling around some massive dinosaur, (no, not an old patron, an actual dinosaur) we settled in at the bar, placed our orders and surveyed the room. A dignified potpourri of patrons palled around and quaffed daintily, before attendants firmly ushered everyone into the iconic Milstein Hall of Ocean Life.

“She had some work done in 2003,” began master of ceremonies Willie Geist, about the colossal blue whale suspended above. “I heard with about 25 gallons of paint.” Witty remarks notwithstanding, the recently appointed NBC-TV talk show host went straight to business, introducing a video presentation that explained the mission of the foundation and tried to unravel the mystery of lupus.

Next, as guests such as Stacy and Rick Forte, Allan Wasserman, Ronnie Kassan, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg and Karen Koeningsberg nibbled on smoked salmon and black American caviar on beds of Oak Grove Farms greens, honors were bestowed on a pair of the foundation’s biggest supporters, Fern and Lenard Tessler, whose generosity toward advancing lupus research was celebrated with an award presented by their friend Carol Weisman, who has the disease.

“We raised a lot of money and public awareness for this disease,” Ms. Weisman told The Observer, taking a pause from her appetizer beside husband Michael Weisman, the Emmy Award-winning NBC Sports producer. Around $2.5 million to be more precise …

A few polite maneuvers, and The Observer was soon gracefully wedged between former Gov. Mario Cuomo and his wife Matilda, elegantly perched at table No. 24.

“Lupus is a terrible disease—it can be conquered,” he said, jumping right into the discussion with as much gusto as if he and not his son were the current governor of New York.

“We’re on the way to getting recognition from the federal government,” he continued positively. “This is something that we should have trials for. With all the force of the great weight of these people that gets thrown every year, it gets more likely that the federal government will listen and others will listen. Then we’ll come to the point where there is a solution.”

The governor was on a roll … who were we to stop him?

“Okay, we can defeat any set of countries in a war. We can outgun everybody! Shame on us if that’s where we end our superiority. Our end should be we treat people better than any place in the world, and that means sick people,” he said. “We have to get involved in these things. I am involved, my wife is involved, my family is involved. They’re all gonna stay involved until we lick this thing. Until lupus is defeated, we’ll look at the next big fight”

A few dinner plates to Ms. Cuomo’s right sat opera superstar Jessye Norman in a scintillating gown and her trademark headwrap.

The Observer couldn’t help but gush over her radiant smile and regal presence. She giggled with great delight at this.

“I have been working with the Lupus Foundation for about 24 years,” she said commandingly. “The lupus cause is very close to my heart; I know people very well who carry this disease and who work incredibly hard to manage their lives working with this disease.”

“It’s also important for us to know that if you are in a room with five women who have lupus, three of them will be women of color. I have spoken with so many different doctors and research scientists, asking ‘Are we working on that part?’” she explained.

With our heart still aflutter over the diva’s Wagnerian aura, we stumbled back to our table for dinner in a daze.

As the soirée progressed, it was time for the heavy-hitters to empty their purses by making financial pledges for the charity. A convincing Christie’s auctioneer was able to make it rain cash, to the tune of well over $100,000 in about 10 minutes.

One patron, who seemed to feel dismissed in the upper balcony, whistled in $1,000.

“Oh I don’t usually respond to whistles, but I am single!” the bidder hollered.

The dénouement of the entire affair was sweet, and we’re not talking the layered pumpkin cake wheeled out after the meal. Nay, it was five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald singing Great American Songbook favorites, in honor of two friends who suffer from lupus.

“Both of them had to absolutely leave their lives and take care of themselves,” she said. “I personally thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Not that the occasion was too somber for some lighter notes. “There are a couple things I’ve never done before. One is sing below a whale,” she said, adding that the other was crooning while watching her likeness projected onto several screens. “Is that what my butt looks like?” she cracked.

Ms. McDonald concluded with a lesser-known Lena Horne song. The crowd ate it up, leaving their desserts mostly intact.

blehay@observer.com