A few scenes from the Pen Literary Gala

by Thomas Beller

01/20/2003

Lincoln Center plz, New York, NY 10023

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Paul Simon did not wear a tux. He sat by the fountain in the middle of Lincoln Center, a photographer by his side, and another guy, a journalist? Several people wandered up to him. He seemed very approachable, as though he wanted to chat in the pleasant evening light. He wore a tweed jacket and a blue baseball cap. His face was very round. He looked like an editor.

Michael Hirschorn did not wear a tux, either.

Mark Green was there (in a tux). He said he comes to the event every year, but never stays for dinner.

Grace Paley was there. She came by and spoke to someone next to me; we were about the same height with me seated.

Rick Moody drank no alcohol. He is also a vegetarian, it turns out.

Donald Antrim was standing outside with a woman at the start of the evening, while it was still light and people were filing in. They looked as though they had stepped out for a smoke (they weren’t smoking). Out of nowhere, the woman almost fell down. “It’s my heels,” she said, when she recovered.

David Rosenthal from Simon and Schuster dropped some change on the floor. It was a penny and a dime. “Are you going to pick it up?” I said.

“I don’t go down for dimes,” he replied.

Keith Kelly, who covers the book business for the New York Post, made several calls to confirm his seat. But he did not show up and his seat remained empty.

Gita Mehta was not there. She is in India.

I was informed that Amitav Gosh had turned down the Commonwealth Prize a few weeks ago. His reasons were that the whole thing smacks of colonialism.

Some big fat poo bah guy came up to the bar and sang along vaguely with the band. “Da doo da da.” he sang tunelessly. It was really pleasant in a sloshed way. He reminded me of Network, the movie; a guy who runs things, drinks too much, and has a weird sense of humor.

Steve Kroft was there. Terry McDonnell wasn’t.

Arthur Miller was the keynote speaker and his was the only voice to cut through the din. He reminded the huge crowd that PEN was founded by successful writers after World War I with the aim of protecting the free speech of intellectuals and writers. He said that the culture of writers and the culture of money were not the same sphere (he put it better). He read from a prepared speech and he was great. At the end of the night his daughter gave him an effusive goodbye kiss and turned quickly on her heel and left, as though she can’t stand long good-bye’s.

The last five people to leave the enormous room were: Vanessa Chase, John Cassidy, who is on “book-leave” from the New Yorker (his book is about the Internet Bubble); David M. Wells, a reporter from Bloomberg whose desk for a long time occupied the space at the bottom of a spiral staircase that all of Charlie Rose’s guests traversed on their way to his show (the Charlie Rose show is taped in the Bloomberg offices, oddly); myself; and George Plimpton.

We stood there drinking while the staff changed out of their suits and cleaned up under the house lights. At a certain point all the cleaning stopped because the staff were all busy taking apart the elaborate floral arrangements on each table. This went on for a while until a woman came out and yelled, “Come on people, get to work or we’ll never get home!”

After everyone got back to work the woman went from table to table blowing out the votive candles one at a time, and our group went across the street for a nightcap at the Saloon.

George told stories. One involved callng John O’Hara to ask if he would be interviewed for The Paris Review. O’Hara listened to Plimpton but did not speak. “He just panted into the phone, I could hear him breathing.” Then O’Hara hung up on George. Apparently he was offended that the Paris Review had done an interview with Hemmingway before they had asked him.

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