She walks and talks a little slower these days, her voice is a little softer than it once was, but in so many ways, Arlene Peck is still the same charismatic scene stealer she always was, with a full head of fiery red hair and the thousand-watt smile she flashes so easily.
In a long and action-filled life, this mother of three has been an internationally syndicated newspaper columnist, a television talk show hostess in Hollywood, a world traveler, a prison reform activist at Atlanta’s maximum security federal penitentiary, the author of two books and a part-time movie actress with a membership in the Screen Actors Guild.
Long before there were “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” there was a nonstop, one-woman reality show called Arlene Peck.
“It the genes, the gene thing,” she says knowingly in a recent interview with the AJT. “My mother was a legend. Molly Greenberg. She was a very successful commercial real estate maven. She could talk to anyone about anything.”
And so, it seems, so could her daughter Arlene, who parlayed a reputation as a
fearless newspaper columnist for the forerunner of the Atlanta Jewish Times, the Southern Israelite, into an abrasive, no-holds-barred syndicated columnist who sounded an early alarm about European anti-Semitism and the rapid rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and covered Israel’s 1993 military campaign in Lebanon.
Later she moved to Southern California where her ability to mix and mingle and her sharp wit won her a twice-weekly talk show for Comcast cable, talking to a steady stream of A-list and not so A-list stars.
“Celebrities were everywhere in Los Angeles.,” she recalls. “On every corner you’ve got someone, and they all had public relations people who were eager to get their clients on my program.”
Her book, “Before Botox: I Knew Them When … Twenty Years of Celebrity Interviews,” published in 2017, recounts her meetings with everyone from the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, to the one time king of daytime TV, Art Linkletter, and from Vidal Sassoon to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Her book even reserves a few pages for herself and how, when she unexpectedly found that she was without a guest one day for her show, she talked for 30 minutes about men, women and relationships.
“Whether in L.A or Atlanta,” she said during the monologue, “finding a good man is truly like putting a saddle on a cow. You work and work and finally get it on the creature. You then look and say, ‘What’s the use?’”
In the same chapter she had this comment about women: “… another difference between LA and Southern women: every LA woman is so ‘nipped and tucked’ that pool parties have more plastic in the pool than a Tupperware party.”
She particularly recalls how a public relations person arranged for her to attend a fancy event at the Los Angeles Hilton but cautioned that she could only attend the cocktail reception, not the dinner.
Nevertheless, she wandered into the ballroom anyway and found a place card marked Peck and sat down, like she belonged there. Across from her sat Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, but the evening did not go as she had planned.
“In a few moments this woman sits down next to me and she says, ‘Hello I’m Barbara Sinatra and this is my husband Frank,’” she remembers. “I said to myself, if I have a heart attack right here, I could die happy. But then I heard this man behind say in a booming voice, ‘I beg your pardon, I think you’re in my seat.’ It was Gregory Peck. A guy from food and beverage escorted me out.”
These days, Arlene Peck lives in a modest one-bedroom apartment at Huntcliff Summit, a Sandy Springs retirement community, where the snapshots of her with just about anyone who was anyone line the walls.
There’s a photo of an ever-smiling Peck and a youthful Dustin Hoffman, an aging Martin Balsam, along with Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Steve Allen, Shimon Peres, Elie Wiesel, Joan Rivers, and Pat Boone, among so many others. Like the ever-present Leonard Zelig in the 1983 Woody Allen movie of the same name, Peck was seemingly everywhere, the friend of everyone.
Some of the photos on the wall have begun to fade and Peck, after a string of serious health issues, is starting to lose some coloring, herself. Her “service dog,” a toy poodle named, appropriately, Star, has replaced all the celebrities she once hung out with. Still, she says she has no regrets and although she sometimes misses the bright lights, she’s happy.
“The highlight of my day now is a bingo game,” she says. “I got so excited the other day. I won a bingo game where I covered my entire bingo card and yay! I won $7.”