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NOTHING TO LAUGH ABOUT

My office had to argue last week with a woman who had set up a speech I was to make in a humorous vein. There won't be any humorous speeches for a while, nor any laughs either. There isn't even gallows humor about what has happened. This is one moment in American life when nobody has dared tell me a disaster joke.

We are now living on television news, and I must say most of the network and local news efforts have been heroic. I stand in awe of anchors, correspondents, commentators and all who are serving us with no commercial breaks. Thank you! My friends in the media, who are below 14th Street in Manhattan, tell me, however, that no matter what a good and positive twist our leaders want to put on the rescue and recovery efforts, we "civilians' have no idea of just how bad things are. Our leaders (and kudos indeed to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Gov. George E. Pataki and to the firemen, policemen, doctors, nurses and their helpers) hold back from really candid expressions of the depth of this tragedy to New York City. Some say they fear there are thousands dead. Many of those bodies will never be retrieved.

The damage to Wall Street, the financial, tourist and travel industries are a drop in the bucket compared to the horror for those who have no idea what has happened to their loved ones.

So far, I find I knew personally only one person who died in this calamity. The beautiful Berry Berenson was the widow of the actor Tony Perkins, who died on Sept. 12, 1992, almost nine years ago exactly to the time when Berry's American Airlines' Flight 11 smashed into the first World Trade Center tower.

Berry, a blonde stylish photographer, was the sister of film star Marisa Berenson. Their grandmother had been famed couturier Elsa Schiaparelli. After Berry's marriage to Perkins, she concentrated on their sons, Osgood and Elvis. In fact, Berry was en route back to L.A. to watch her Elvis perform in a nightclub.

She was so proud of him and of his older brother, "Oz," who recently made a big splash in the film "Legally Blonde." A memorial service for Berry will be held at a private home in Los Angeles on Sunday. She was 53. Producer Howard Rosenman, a longtime friend, tells me, "It was amazing to see how Berry and Tony live on through their children. 'Oz' has Tony's star-like aura. Elvis is a musician and sensitive like his mother." I had known Berry and Marisa Berenson for more than 35 years. My heart goes out to them, and to Oz and Elvis and their legion of friends. It is too horrible to think of the last terrifying minutes of Berry Berenson's life. She didn't deserve that, nor did any of the people in New York and in the Pentagon. Nor do the loved ones of all these victims.

I keep hearing a voice in my head saying, "In a little while, things will go back to normal," which is what we lucky, lucky Americans have been saying for years at every setback in our lives.

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