Sarasota's Celebrity Week

By Megan McDonald February 28, 2011

Sarasotans are used to spotting celebrities, from visiting entertainers to part-time residents like Stephen King and Jane Lynch. But last week, a virtual convention of bold-faced names rolled into town.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, delighted large audiences at the Van Wezel and the Ritz-Carlton, while Martha Stewart was impressive at a more intimate gathering on the Ringling College campus. (Read our exclusive post-event interview with Stewart here.) Meanwhile, U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner appeared at a fund-raising reception near the Ringling Museum. Even Biz Stone, the co-founder and creative director of Twitter, was in town, though his invention is much more famous than his name.

Stewart, who answered questions from college president Larry Thompson in front of 200 excited guests in the Academic Center, described herself as in touch with the average American woman. That might sound absurd coming from the glamorous head of a billion-dollar corporation, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.


Martha Stewart

But Stewart, who came off much wittier and warmer than I had expected, noted that, “I still clean up after my dogs, I clean out the chicken coop…right now I’m knitting a baby blanket for a grandchild that is due any day…I write about what I need as a woman, a mother, an entertainer. I have a universal love of so many things that I think other people love, too.”

While answering an unrelated question, Stewart surprisingly brought up her 2004 conviction stemming from an insider trading stock case. “I spend five months in prison, and, how many months was I in house arrest?” she asked staff members in the front row. “Five in house arrest? You see, I have a very short memory for bad things,” she said to applause.

Stewart has written 80 books, including the upcoming sequel to her ground-breaking Entertaining. But she’ll eventually write a book that tells her side of the controversial insider trading case. “I’ve had to clench my jaw and stay quiet, but just wait till that book comes out,” she said, smiling.

Stewart’s chief creative officer and her head of technology accompanied her on her tour of Ringling. She was impressed by the innovative thinking she encountered. Don’t be surprised if future Ringling grads end up working at MSLO. “We want to be at the forefront of great design,” she said.


Tony and Cherie Blair

The Blairs didn’t make it to the Ringling campus, but their appearances benefitted the college’s library association. (You can read Kay Kipling's impressions of Blair's morning talk here.) As expected, the former prime minister was eloquent, self-deprecating and inspiring in two sold-out speeches at the Van Wezel. He appeared on a Wednesday, the same day of the week he used to show up for the raucous, sometimes vituperative “question-time” sessions in Parliament. “Even after all these years, I still sometimes shudder on a Wednesday,” he said. “I’d much rather be here, believe me.”

Cherie Blair was equally charming the night before at the Ritz-Carlton. A few of us got to pose for pictures with her before her speech, and she was warm and personable. I asked her if she had ever watched The Queen, the 2006 movie about how the Blairs and the royal family reacted to Princess Diana’s death. Tony Blair has said he’s never seen it, but “I watched it on a plane,” she said. “I thought it was very good, but it wasn’t a documentary.” She said she never spoke as disparagingly of the royal family, as the Cherie Blair in the movie did.

While posing with another guest, Victoria Leopold, Blair mentioned that she admired the brooch Leopold was wearing. Leopold remembered that in Blair’s book, she wrote that she once admired a woman’s earrings at an event, and the woman insisted she have them. So Leopold thought about it a minute, and presented her brooch to Blair, who accepted graciously, and immediately put it on!

(Note to self: If I ever write a memoir, I’m gonna be sure to mention that people like to give me stuff.)

In her speech, Blair talked with obvious passion about her foundation, which helps educate young women in the developing world. But I heard some grumble afterward that her speech had a disjointed, perfunctory flavor, and that she was better when she spoke at an afternoon tea. I’m sure that’s because at that informal event, she answered questions posed by Sarasota Magazine editor Pam Daniel!


Speaker of the House John Boehner

As for Speaker Boehner, I can’t say how he came across at the fundraiser at the Githler residence, because the event was closed to the press. About 100 demonstrators showed up across the street to protest the House of Representatives’ recent vote to de-fund Planned Parenthood. No word on whether the notoriously weepy speaker shed a tear at the sight of them.

If any of you are suffering from celebrity deprivation after last week, take heart: Mikhail Baryshnikov will be at the Historic Asolo on Saturday to help announce the schedule for October’s Ringling International Arts Festival.

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