Samantha Miller
September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

JOHN TRAVOLTA PUFFED contentedly on a cigar, while his elegant wife, actress Kelly Preston, sipped designer water. On the table before them was a gourmet spread that might cause lesser mortals to swoon: duck sausage pizza, fried rock shrimp, chicken pot-stickers, tropical tiramisu and macadamia biscotti. All untouched.

As the stars and studio bigs watered their egos at the June 19 party for the thriller Face/Off in Hollywood’s chic Palace club, Helen ver Duin Palit waited patiently nearby—as she does at the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys and countless other fab bashes. But while Palit makes the A-list events of the L.A. season, she’s no social butterfly; she’s there just for the food. The leftovers, to be precise. While Palace club waiters carried trays stacked high with neglected noshes into the parking lot, Palit, 49, and her crew began loading up. “We’re just salivating,” she gushed. “The stuff is incredible!”

Not that she’s hungry herself. Like all of the untouched delicacies she gathers from Hollywood’s swankest parties, the Face/Off feast is headed for one of the 42 soup kitchens and shelters for the homeless, battered or mentally ill to which Angel Harvest, Palit’s 2-year-old organization, donates. “You simply call us up,” says Palit, “we’ll pick up the food, and you’re feeding hungry people.” To rave reviews. “I’m eating so much I won’t eat anything the rest of the day!” giggled Debra Johnson, one of 50 grateful women piling grilled chicken on redcorn taco shells at L.A.’s Downtown Women’s Shelter the day after the Face/Off party.

Angel Harvest, which receives food (and, often, financial aid) from more than 400 local companies—Disney, Paramount, Sony and Warner Bros, among them—is only the latest of Palit’s nourishing endeavors. She first hit on the idea in 1980 while working at a Yale University-run soup kitchen in New Haven. On a lunch break one day, she sat down to a plate of potato skins at a local eatery, and, she says, “all of a sudden I wondered what happened to the [potatoes’] insides.” Upon asking, she found herself with 30 gallons’ worth and was soon collecting food from restaurants all over town. In 1982, Palit took the concept to New York City and founded City Harvest, which now delivers more than 20,000 meals a day to area soup kitchens and shelters. Eigh: years later, Palit created America Harvest, which has helped 120 cities in the U.S. and 70 overseas establish Harvest-style programs. Then came Angel Harvest. “It’s such a simple idea and yet so effective,” says T.J. Baptie, a Disney exec. “But it took someone with the ingenuity of Helen to come [to Hollywood] and whip it into shape.”

The oldest of four children born to Helen ver Duin, who died in 1987, and Cornelius, 86, a retired TRW executive, Palit, growing up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, learned altruism at her parents’ knees. “The message I got at home was to give back to the community,” she says. Her mother founded a program to provide companions for the elderly, and both parents sat on the boards of several charities. At 6, Palit wrapped care packages for mental patients, and in high school she manned a church soup kitchen.

She met her first sweetheart, Andrew “Jerry” Coxe, at Kent State University. After the two dropped out, Coxe was drafted by the Army, prompting them to marry hastily in 1970. “It was the only way we could be together,” says Palit, who followed her husband to postings in Alabama, Colorado and Texas. After their divorce in 1975, Palit headed for Europe, where she spent three years working as an accountant in Norway and the Netherlands before returning to finish a bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology at Texas Tech University. There, she married Jay Palit, a cinematographer, and moved with him to New Haven. “Mother Nature decided” they would not have children, she says, and last winter her long days and workaholic ways led to their divorce.

But Palit, who lives in a rented Hollywood apartment with her cats Marmalade and Paka, is not one to dwell on disappointment. Charity remains her truest love, and she still marvels at the generosity of strangers. “People are just so incredible,” she says. “They want to give, and I’m just trying to make it really easy for them.”

SAMANTHA MILLER

ULRICA WIHLBORG in Los Angeles

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