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Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Genes

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Opening his 1955 novel Lolita, Nabokov's narrator Humbert Humbert describes himself as "a salad of racial genes." In hindsight, and based upon Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s new PBS series, Faces in America -- to air on Wednesdays, February 10 through March 3 -- perhaps the novelist was being less metaphoric and more real than he imagined.

At Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Room, with city views stretching east along Central Park South, one episode of the four-part series called "Know Thyself" was screened on Monday for a crowd that included Brian Williams, Lynn Nesbit, S. Epatha Merkerson, David Remnick, McGee Hickey, and Henry Louis Gates, Sr.

Harry Evans asked, before Tina Brown could stop him, had I spit into a cup? Was my DNA tested? The night proceeded like something of a parlor trick with Gates a charming host. Guess who is related to whom.

Believing that the triumph of American democracy is its melting pot, its immigrants, diversity, and genetic ancestry, Gates has been busy tracing the genes of some prominent Americans, among them Mario Batali, Eva Longoria and Yo-Yo Ma.

Here is what we found out both onscreen and off: Poet Elizabeth Alexander is descended from Charlemagne. With his Russian Jewish ancestry, film director Mike Nichols is related to the heart surgeon/tv host, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Muslim Turk.

Upon discovering that he and Gates had genetic material in common, Regis Philbin said gamely, "I am honored. There is no one in my family who even went to Harvard." And, how in the world do I explain this to Kelly Ripa? Lots of luck, Reeg.

Despite scientific experts participating in this captivating study, the significance of this material will bemuse skeptics. Meryl Streep illustrated her diabolical sense of irony when asked how the discovery of her ancestors going back several centuries made her feel: more important than I already am, she quipped rolling her eyes.

Gates pointed out that the results prove that no matter what was going on throughout human history in regards to race, class, ethnicity, once the lights were down, everyone was sleeping with everyone else. That said, here is no surprise: Hollywood Reporter's celebrity columnist Roger Friedman is genetically joined, an "autosomal" cousin, to gossip doyenne Cindy Adams.

It's a small world after all.

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