October 09, 2000 12:00 PM

Elegant in a black sequined pantsuit and matching cashmere wrap, Lynne Cohen cut a glamorous figure when she stepped into a glittery Monaco casino. It had been a full day already. Vacationing in France, she and her family had visited a local gallery to see some of her favorite works by Miro and Giacometti. That night they had treated themselves to dinner at an Italian restaurant, and now they were ready for adventure. “It was so much fun,” recalls Amy, 24, the youngest of Cohen’s three daughters, “though none of us are good gamblers.” Adds Cohen’s oldest daughter, Whitney Rosenson, 30: “That night she was beautiful.”

No one but the family knew the truth of that evening in November 1997: Cohen was in the last stages of a five-year struggle with ovarian cancer. Just two months later, on Jan. 3, she checked into a Los Angeles hospital, and on Jan. 24 she died at age 53. “I kept thinking how sad it was,” says her second daughter, Erin, 25. “The last time she was there, she was young.”

Even while struggling through the last emotional days of their mother’s life, Cohen’s daughters resolved to create something positive out of her devastating illness by creating a foundation that would raise awareness of ovarian cancer and, even more important, fund research to develop an early-detection blood test. Annually, about 23,000 women are diagnosed and 14,000 die of the disease. Because there are no clear warning signs, it is usually detected in the third or fourth stages, when only 12 to 15 percent of patients survive. If the cancer is caught early, there is a 90 percent survival rate.

The Lynne Cohen Foundation has been an impressive success, raising more than $1.2 million in less than two years. The sisters credit the generosity of donors to their mother, who started an art-leasing business in the family’s Brentwood, Calif., home that grew into a gallery in Santa Monica. She was beloved for her helpfulness and unfailingly upbeat personality. “All of Lynne’s friends felt that they could not do enough for her,” says Trudy Harris, a longtime pal who is now the foundation’s research director.

The money has gone to innovative programs at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Taussig Cancer Center at the Cleveland Clinic, among others. “They turned a personal tragedy into a cause to help other women,” says Dr. Maurie Markman, head of the Taussig center. “Obviously we are grateful, and I think future generations of women will be as well.”

Cohen herself knew little about ovarian cancer before 1993, when doctors found cancerous cells and she had a hysterectomy. Born in Chicago, the daughter of the late Jules Schwartz, a life insurance salesman, and Ruth, 85, a homemaker, Lynne had enjoyed a relatively trouble-free life. When the family moved to Los Angeles, she became a cheerleader at Beverly Hills High and later at the University of California at Berkeley. She earned a masters at UCLA and became an L.A. County social worker. In 1972, Bert Cohen, then a partner in a New York brokerage firm, met Lynne, who was still married to David Rosenson, Whitney’s father. When Bert later heard that the couple had separated, he phoned her and they met for coffee. Just a year later they were wed.

The Cohens had two daughters, plus a son, Robby, 18. Lynne was, by all accounts, the quintessentially attentive mother. Robby recalls his first day of preschool. “My mom hid in the bushes all day listening to me cry. She couldn’t leave.” Meanwhile, she was heading a multimillion-dollar expansion project at her kids’ elementary school. Says Amy: “She took on everything wholeheartedly.”

Even after cancer was discovered and she was subjected to frequent, enervating chemotherapy treatments, Cohen refused to ease up, attending her daughters’ soccer games, driving in the parents’ car pool and remaining eternally buoyant. “My mother did not ever act sick, so I didn’t think of her like that,” says Whitney Rosenson. With actor Pierce Brosnan, Cohen cohosted a 1995 benefit that raised $500,000 for USC’s Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, where both she and Brosnan’s late wife, Cassandra, were treated. Recalls their oncologist, Dr. Franco M. Muggia, who was then the center’s director: “In spite of all that she faced, she tried to provide whatever help she could.”

In Lynne’s last years, only her doctors and husband Bert knew how ill she was. She asked that he not upset their children with the seriousness of her condition. “She and I made a deal that she did not want to know anything from the doctors,” says Bert, 57, who retired 10 years ago, which later allowed him to oversee his wife’s treatment. During her illness, she agreed to a number of experimental therapies, all to no effect. But Lynne never lost her compassion for others. “Just days before she died,” says Susan Jeffers, an oncology nurse who treated her at Norris, “she insisted on putting eye makeup on a girlfriend. Even if she didn’t feel good, she made sure everyone was taken care of.”

And now her girls are taking care of her legacy. All are involved in the Cohen foundation. Rosenson, with an art history degree from the University of Michigan, runs her mother’s art-leasing business. Erin, who earned her art history degree at the University of Pennsylvania, is taking early childhood education courses at New York City’s Bank Street College. And Amy, who studied psychology at Duke, is taking philanthropy classes at New York University and heads the foundation, which hopes to raise another $300,000 this year. Amy and her sisters will help orchestrate the dedication on Oct. 19 of the Lynne Cohen High Risk Clinic for Women’s Cancers at NYU’s Bellevue Hospital. “Fund-raising for ovarian cancer is a natural step for all of us,” Amy says of herself, her sisters and their devotion to Cohen. “We are walking in the path she left unfinished.”

Florestine Purnell

Giovanna Breu in New York City

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