NEW YORK — A record crowd helped raise $250,000 at Wednesday’s S.L.E. Lupus Foundation’s annual luncheon, which honored The Jones Group’s Mary Belle and Matilda Raffa Cuomo, former first lady of New York state.
Before sitting down at the New York Bag Ladies Luncheon at 583 Park Avenue, many of the 330 guests milled through the 140 designer handbags that had been donated for the silent auction. The Prada, Gucci and Tory Burch bags may have been the draw for some, but the event’s speakers relayed more substantial reasons for being there. Before honoring Belle, soprano Jessye Norman quoted Simone de Beauvoir and reminded attendees they had come together to give a voice to lupus, an autoimmune disease that affects 1.5 million Americans, 90 percent of whom are women.
Belle recalled how her former boss at Liz Claiborne, Jerome Chazen, recruited her to pitch in with the foundation’s 1986 gala. “My task was simple — fill 500 gift bags,” she said. “Jerry said, ‘But Mary, they have to be good gift bags.’ That’s when I learned what an arm-twister he is.”
Raffa Cuomo, who founded Mentoring USA National/International, offered printed advice, sending each guest home with a copy of her new book “The Person Who Changed My Life.” Her husband Mario, their daughters Margaret and Maria Cuomo Cole and daughter-in-law Cristina Greeven Cuomo were on hand for the celebration, as was Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s wife, Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg.
Before presenting his wife of 58 years with her award, the former three-term governor noted his stint in the minor leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates, his high-flying gubernatorial days and the couple’s five children, including the state’s current governor Andrew. “But the greatest thing that has ever happened to me was that God gave me Matilda as a wife,” he said.
She said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m as surprised as you are. Is this my anniversary gift? Is that what this is? He’ll probably say that later.”
Norman offered a gift of her own to the crowd by unexpectedly singing “This Little Light of Mine” a capella.
Before heading out, Cuomo sounded off about the country’s fiscal health. Asked what would be the best way to get the economy going, he said, “The biggest problem with the economy, beyond all the populace forces — by that I mean Europe may be going backwards again etc., etc. — is we do not have a government that is working. It is not working because of what legislators are doing with the president. There is one side that is the legislators and one that is a Congress that is not willing to work with the president. They want to make him look bad by not making the economy look better. There are plenty of ways to get the economy going and traditional ways, too. Andrew will show some of them….The lack of collaboration is the problem. There is no magic solution but they have to come together.”