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Obituary: Irene Diamond / Hollywood story editor, philanthropist aided minorities

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

By Mary Rourke, Los Angeles Times

Irene Diamond, a Hollywood story editor turned New York philanthropist who donated more than $200 million to AIDS research, minority education and the arts, died Jan. 21 at her home in New York City of a heart attack. She was 92.

Her strong opinions about social issues led her to support gun control, AIDS education and free condoms for high school students, and an end to the death penalty. Her most prominent contribution went to medical research.

She first outlined the plans for the Aaron Diamond Foundation in 1984 with her husband, Aaron. The couple took an unusual approach to philanthropy. They decided to give away their total endowment of more than $200 million in 10 years and then go out of business.

Aaron Diamond was a real estate developer who built high-rise offices in midtown Manhattan and redeveloped Roosevelt Island. The couple lived in a Park Avenue apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side for most of their married life.

"Aaron had made his fortune in New York, so he wanted to leave his money to the city," Mrs. Diamond told Vanity Fair magazine in 2000.

Just as they were about to activate the foundation, Aaron Diamond died of a heart attack at 74. She continued on her own.

Irene Diamond saw her most ambitious project realized in 1991 with the opening of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in lower Manhattan. At the time it was the largest AIDS research laboratory in the world. The city of New York and New York University Medical Center were other sponsors of the center.

Medical science and minority education each accounted for 40 percent of the Diamond endowment program. The other 20 percent went to the arts. Two years before the Aaron Diamond Foundation was spent in 1996, Irene Diamond launched her own charitable trust, the Irene Diamond Fund, with no time limit attached. She made slight adjustments in the original foundation's program by expanding her priorities to include human rights projects.

In recent years the Juilliard School's minority scholarship program, the Dance Theater of Harlem and Human Rights Watch have received multimillion-dollar grants.

When she was a young girl in Pittsburgh, Irene Levine's Russian-immigrant parents provided piano lessons for her. But she dreamed of becoming an actress. After high school, in the early 1920s, she moved to New York City, changed her name to Irene Lee and studied repertory theater.

In 1933, she was invited to Hollywood for a screen test but changed careers after she met the producer Hal Wallis, who offered her a job as a story editor.

Among her discoveries was the play that later became the movie "Casablanca." The version she read, "Everybody Comes to Rick's," was an unproduced play with several rejection slips attached to it. Wallis paid $20,000 for it. Mrs. Diamond later complained that Wallis never gave her credit for her part in the deal.

Despite the rift, Mrs. Diamond worked with Wallis until he closed his office at Paramount in 1970.

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