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When there were always books in the house in childhood and a daily paper and subscriptions to magazines, and you were educated by nuns and Jesuits, and majored in English, and eventually became a journalist, you tend to take literacy for granted.

Others do not.

People like Walter Anderson of Parade (for whom I write, to be upfront about it) or Liz Smith (who is a pal) or Barbara Bush (whom we all know as a distinguished first lady). All three are ferocious literacy advocates who take much more seriously than most of us the fact there are an estimated 40 million Americans who can't read well enough to respond to a want ad or fill out a job application. More than a million of these folks are in New York City. This is called functional illiteracy and it is a national scandal.

They put on a black-tie fund-raising event the other evening at Manhattan's Lincoln Center and pulled in what one of the chairpeople, fashion designer Arnold Scaasi, said was a new record of just over a million bucks to finance Literacy Partners, which is Liz Smith's own particular cause (Mr. Anderson is on the board of Literacy Volunteers of America and the National Center for Family Literacy and in 1990 published a best seller on the subject, "Read With Me"). Barbara Bush has worked consistently with both, and similar, organizations over the years.

And is, in Liz Smith's words, "The Johnny Appleseed of literacy."

I went, grumbling about black-tie galas. You can be out every night in Manhattan if you can't say no. On this occasion, it was Liz who got me there muttering and reluctant. As I walked up into Lincoln Center, the vast complex was already swarming with elegantly dressed people and lots of cops. And that was just for the tribute to Martin Scorsese, one of the center's other events that same evening (the Kirov Opera was also on with divas striking poses and hitting high notes all over the place).

Our party, attended by a thousand people, was in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, billed as a salute to Tina Brown and Harry Evans, chaired by La Liz, and with such glorious names on the invitation as the three first ladies, Ms. Bush, Libby Pataki and Donna Hanover, the mayor's wife. Plus as Hon. Chairpersons, Kay Graham, lots of Hearsts, Tom and Suzanne Murphy, the Gerald Levins and the Saul Steinbergs. My seat was one row in front of the great Dominick Dunne and only three rows behind Tina, Harry and Ms. Pataki, so I felt enormously better about things.

Especially when out on the stage came the stars, among them Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize laureate for "Angela's Ashes." Frank was in a dinner suit and red bowtie. I love to see Irishmen in evening clothes; it never quite works.

The core was brief readings by some pretty wonderful writers: Mr. McCourt, best-selling novelist Mary Higgins Clark, James McBride, Rev. Peter Gomes of Harvard, who wrote a book of sermons, and the near-legendary Gore Vidal, who confessed this was only the second time he'd read from his own work in public.

First Liz (in softly pleated off-white evening pyjamas) talked about the cause and introduced Barbara Bush, who complained, of her years in the White House, "How come nobody ever thought I had an affair with anybody?" Then Liz brought on Nancy Gonzalez, a 39-year-old mother from the Bronx who talked, and movingly, about being an illiterate (when she waitressed she got by on sheer memory, not being able to read the menu or write down orders) and is today not only a reading literate but a computer one as well!). "Nancy spoke to a group of Wall Street people the other day and had them in tears," said Liz. "She is our secret weapon."

The stars of the reading were McCourt, Mr. McBride and Mr. Vidal. I'd not heard of McBride, but I see that his book about his mother is on the best-seller list of The New York Times. She was, he said, the Southern daughter of a Polish rabbi who married a black man in Harlem in 1942 and (somehow) raised 12 kids. McBride was both funny and touching and when at the end he said, "and she's here tonight, right up there!" and pointed, and a woman in a red dress stood and waved, it was a flat-out thrill.

Vidal is, of course, one of our great men of letters, and he read, and movingly, a passage about John Hay in 1867 musing in a Paris salon, on Lincoln's death. Glorious stuff.

Then Tina (of The New Yorker) and husband Harry, who recently left Random House to work for Mort Zuckerman, came up for their awards and everyone stood about a bit awkwardly for a time, as Liz thanked underwriters Conde Nast, R.R. Donnelley (they print phone books, she explained), Hearst and Rupert Murdoch (Liz's column appears here in New York in both his Post and in Times Mirror's Newsday).

A grand affair, significant and immensely cheering. And then next day on checking Mr. McBride's situation in the best-seller list of the Times, I found that of the top 10 non-fiction paperbacks, three are bios of Leo DiCaprio. And I fell briefly into the slough of despond.

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