On The Avenue

PEN is Mightier Than Ever

by Michael Gross Photographed by © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center
Wednesday, April 26, 2017

PEN America, which has long championed freedom of expression, and sought to protect persecuted writers around the world, turned its attention to what is awkwardly called the homeland last night at its annual Literary Gala. Though the event honored the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Macmillan CEO John Sargent, The Women’s March, and imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, and included onstage appearances by Meryl Streep, Alan Cumming and Audra McDonald, the night’s focus–from cocktail chatter about Ivanka Trump being booed in Germany to onstage battle cries for the First Amendment and against those who would threaten it–was on bolstering a literary class that feels more besieged than it has since the days of Richard Nixon and COINTELPRO (look it up).

As PEN’s president, the writer Andrew Solomon, put it in his opening remarks beneath the famed blue whale hanging over the American Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, it was “the largest and most successful gala ever,” raising $1.945 million from about 900 attendees, all inspired to act in “a time of unprecedented attacks on free expression [designed to] generate chaos.” Solomon continued to wax eloquent: “Veracity is the nexus of brilliance,” he said. “No truth can be held to be self-evident [when] everyone is subject to distortion.” And he concluded, “The clowns need not be sent in. They’re already here.”

The outspoken Streep picked up the dissenting theme while presenting the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award to Sondheim.

“When we debate whether and how to hold onto the America we know and love, we are thinking of the America that Stephen Sondheim has revealed to us, a place that’s vibrant, expressive, dissonant, and dramatic, moral/immoral, yearning, despairing, fanciful, and always, funny,” she said. “An America that is far from ideal—that grapples with its flaws earnestly, if imperfectly. An America that is empathic, mindful of the vulnerable and broken, honest. That America, Sondheim’s America, is at stake as we gather tonight. Because the truth, the arts, the standards, honor, and freedom that Stephen Sondheim has embodied in his work and his life are at the forefront of the struggle that PEN and all of us now engage in, trying to steady a ship of state that feels as if it’s tipped pretty weirdly all to one side.”

Accepting his award, Sondheim noted graciously that he considers himself a mere songwriter, but noted that “if Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize,” he could hardly say no, adding, “I’m also glad you like my songs.”

Toni and James C. Goodale, he an author and one of the lawyers who defended the leak-and-release of the Pentagon Papers during the Nixon administration, presented the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to The Women’s March, accepted by co-chair Bob Bland. The Award celebrated and honored the role Bland, and her fellow national co-chairs—social justice and civil rights leaders Tamika D. Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour—along with a dynamic, powerful, and diverse group of national organizers, played in driving a contemporary resistance movement that inspired millions. Bland appeared on stage in a red “pussy hat” matching her red dress, and decrying the moment that “hate, fear and intolerance took control of our country,” proclaimed, “This is a very unique opportunity to be at the forefront of leading and birthing some healing in this nation.”

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honoring imprisoned Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, was presented by Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, to Natalya Kaplan, a cousin of the outspoken critic of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and takeover of Crimea, who is serving a 20-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony. Alan Cumming read a letter from Sentsov, who said of his two children, “I don’t want them to live in a country of slaves.”

To end the affair, Christie’s auctioneer, Robbie Gordy sold a First American Edition of George Orwell’s 1984 signed by Streep, Sondheim, McDonald, other special guests and the literary hosts, for $28,000.

Among the crowd were Gay and Nan Talese, Daphne Merkin, Harvey Keitel, Salman Rushdie, Ayad Akhtar, Alan Cumming, Rita Dove, Masha Gessen, Zadie Smith, Holly Peterson, gala co-chair Margaret Munzer Loeb, Annette Tapert Allen, Robert and Ina Caro, Neil Gaiman, Tom and Sheila Wolfe, Nancy and John Novogrod, Lynn Nesbit, and Morgan Entrekin.


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