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A cross section of leading philanthropists drawn from the worlds of fashion, film, music and finance shrugged off the ocean’s evening chill and assembled at Barbra Streisand’s Malibu compound Thursday night for a dinner and concert on behalf of what now is officially the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Cardiovascular disease annually kills more women than all cancers combined yet funding for research and treatment of coronary illnesses in women is a fraction of that spent on men’s heart ailments. Since she became aware of that deadly disparity, Streisand initially donated $5 million to the Cedars facility and pledged $5 million more, while personally lobbying friends and associates for another $10 million. Her Malibu gala was the culmination of that effort.
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“Remarkably, in the last 50 years almost all the research on heart disease was done primarily on men,” Streisand told her guests. “The only message that sends to me is that even in scientific research, women are still treated as second-class citizens. To me, that’s just unacceptable.”
Among those who applauded her remarks were the heart center’s head Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, Haim and Cheryl Saban, designer Donna Karan, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, NBCUniversal chief Ron Meyer and his wife Kelly, actors Josh Brolin and Diane Lane, Academy Award winners Alan and Marilyn Bergman — who wrote some of Streisand’s most memorable songs — uber-music exec Berry Gordy, pioneering cardiologist Dr. Dean Ornish and City National Corp. CEO Russell Goldsmith. Martin Short was the evening’s MC.
After dining on a heart-healthy menu of gourmet vegan dishes — yes, there are such things — they heard David Foster accompany their hostess on the piano while she sang four songs, including a duet on “Smile” with Josh Groban and the mega-hit “Evergreen,” a favorite of the evening’s guest of honor, former President Bill Clinton, Hollywood’s favorite ex-chief executive.
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In fact, as memorable as any Streisand performance must be, the highlight of the event may have been the verbal interplay between Clinton and the singer during their unusually heartfelt remarks.
The former president was introduced by Lisa Ling, whose journalist sister Laura Ling was released from captivity in North Korea after Clinton secretly intervened on her behalf. “So many people have asked me, ‘Why did it have to be Bill Clinton to negotiate that release?’ ” Ling told the crowd. “The answer was quite simple: It was because Kim Jong-il had always just wanted to meet Bill Clinton. The reason goes back 15 years prior. When the leader of North Korea, his father Kim Il-sung passed away, Bill Clinton was the first world leader to call and offer his condolences. It was an expression of humanity that he had always remembered. … I can think of no one with better suited to promote the idea of healthy hearts than someone with a very big heart himself, President Clinton.”
Clinton reminded the crowd of his own cardiovascular problems, which required bypass surgery and a complete change of diet and lifestyle, as well as the fact that his administration made funding research into women’s health issues a priority. “I was well aware when I took office that a whole research apparatus of American medicine had grossly underfocused on women on all sort of medical problems in research projects. So we tried to fix it.
“When Barbra called me about this [fundraising project] and give me all the basic numbers, I realized that nobody had done anything about this since 2000. I was just crazed. … I will say this to everyone: The next time you see a member of Congress, without regard to party, tell them that when they appropriate money for the National Institutes of Health to do more to stipulate that we eliminate gender bias in medical trials and research.”
Speaking about his personal connection to Streisand, Clinton quipped: “If she were a member of Congress and I were still president, she would be on what I called our ‘Just Say Yes’ list. We had a very small list of congressmen — literally, fewer than 10 people — that when they call you [and ask for something] just go ahead and tell them yes, because you’re gonna sooner or later. They’re like a dog with a bone; they won’t let you go. They’ll make your life miserable. So just go ahead and tell them yes and save all the time.
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“So when she called and started laying down the law about all the facts [about women’s heart disease], I just said: ‘Stop. What do you want me to do?’ ”
Clinton concluded by thanking Streisand “for all those crazy telephone conversations we had over two decades saying, ‘Did you know this or that?’ … Then she was outraged over something else. I never thought anyone could care a lot about more things than I care a lot about. She makes me look like a heartless, dumb piker.”
In a remark that seemed to resonate politically with the mostly Democratic crowd, Streisand replied: “Wouldn’t you just vote for him again today? I miss you.”
So, it seems, do a lot of people in Hollywood these days.
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