GOOD MORNING: “What, sir, would the people of the earth be without women? They would be scarce, sir, almighty scarce” — Mark Twain, in a speech on Jan. 11, 1868. And where, sir, would the laughs be without Whoopi Goldberg? Thus, who is more appropriate than she to be the fourth recipient of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, to be presented Oct. 15. Whoopi was on hand for the presentation to the first Twain Award recipient, Richard Pryor. Twain also had much to say about racial inequality in the U.S. In a Dec. 24, 1885, letter to Francis Wayland, Twain wrote, “I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them & the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it.” Further about race, he wrote, “Even if the Jews have not all been geniuses, their general average of intelligence and intellectuality is far above our general average and that is one of our reasons for wishing to drive them out of the higher forms of business and the professions. It is the swollen envy of pigmy minds, meanness, injustice. In the case of the Negro, it is, of course, very different. The majority of us do not like his features, or his color, and we forget to notice that his heart is often a damned sight better than ours.” Whoopi notes, “Our dear Mr. Twain put it best when he said, ‘Humor is the good side of truth.’ I am deeply honored to join the ranks of Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor, who along with the great Samuel Clemens are some of the most fabulous truth-tellers of our time.”

A SURPRISE IS IN STORE for Thursday night’s Centennial Tribute to Gary Cooper at the Academy. In addition to the film clips and discussions by those who knew/worked with Coop, there’ll be a live musical performance by country artist Michael Peterson, playing “Fanfare for a Hero” written by Byron Janis, husband of Gary Cooper’s daughter, Maria. Peterson also will sing the previously unperformed lyric. Added to an exhibition of Cooper memorabilia will be his honorary Oscar, which James Stewart accepted for him April 17, 1961, at the Santa Monica Civic ceremonies. Cooper, suffering from cancer was unable to attend (he died May 13). In my column the day after those Oscars, I wrote: “Jimmy Stewart’s tearful, emotional words echoed the feeling of Coop’s many pals in the Hollywood press corps. Along with the award goes the warm friendship, affection, admiration and deep respect of all of us. We’re very proud of you, Coop, terribly proud.” As soon as they escaped the parking jam at the Civic, the Stewarts delivered the Oscar to the Coopers’ house, where the Sam Goldwyns and Jerry Walds also had been. Ernest Hemingway phoned Cooper from Idaho to give him congrats and good wishes … The other Oscar recipients that night were “The Apartment” and Billy Wilder, Elizabeth Taylor for “Butterfield 8,” Burt Lancaster for “Elmer Gantry,” Shirley Jones for “Gantry” and Peter Ustinov for “Spartacus” … Henry Winkler and John Ritter will be departing Neil Simon’s “The Dinner Party” on B’way (at the Music Box) after the June 10 perf. Jon Lovitz and Larry Miller take over, respectively. The company is proud of winning the Outer Critic Circle outstanding ensemble kudos and for raising the most money of any B’way production — $175,700 — for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. They did it auctioning Winkler’s prop hankie (sometimes two) each night, also posing for pix with audience members after each performance.

THE EISNER FOUNDATION donated $2.5 million to L.A.’s Pediatric & Family Medical Center Tuesday at the site, 1530 S. Olive St. The center now will be able to expand free medical, dental and support services to the economically disadvantaged … Harvard Business School Assn. of So. Calif. toasts Wolfgang Puck today at the BevWilshire as 2001 Business Statesperson of the Year. Meals on Wheels, one of Wolfie’s pet charities, is one of the beneficiaries … New Millennium will launch “The Private Diary of Howard Hughes,” by Richard Hack, with a giant, 200,000-copy first printing. New Millennium’s audio this week records writers Gore Vidal, Wendy Wasserstein, Dominick Dunne and David Brown. Deborah Raffin (Mrs. Michael Viner), who is producing the audios, was elected to the NARAS board this week … At the L.A. Times Book Festival at UCLA, a Target stage attraction was “Spiderman in ‘Who Wants to Be a Super-Hero?’ ” The simple quiz’er for tiny tots boasted three Spider-heroes asking questions, plus the exact musical background from ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” accompanying pauses on each question. Alternating on that Target stage were Forever Plaid, the marvelous harmonizers who gave the literati crowd a musical treat … Oscar-winning songwriter Jay Livingston was lavishly birthday-partied by wife Shirley (Mitchell) and L.A. Gourmet, who converted the kitchen into a garden. Musical guests included partner Ray Evans, Melissa Manchester, Corky Hale and Mike Stoller, Johnny Mandel, Pete Rugulo, Alan Livingstons, Ginny Mancini, as well as Rosemary Stack, Pat Crowley, Jody Berrys, Betty Rose, etc. … And Warren Cowan birthday-partied wife Barbara and her mom, Julia, at Trader Vic’s, where longtime pals included the Milton Berles, Jan Murrays, Red Buttons, Sidney Sheldons, Jeff Haydens (Eva Marie Saint), Bob Loggias, Charlie Brills (Mitzi McCall), Danny Welkes, etc.

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