The New York Public Library's annual Literary Lions gala
The New York Public Library. 8:30 PM. Photo: JH.
My mother read to me when I was a little kid (before I was old enough to read myself). I’m amazed looking back on it because my mother’s days were very full from early morning till late at night. But she read to me at night, when I was in finally tucked in, just before going to sleep. She read the books of a man named Thornton Burgess who wrote stories about Peter Rabbit and Reddy Fox and the Green Forest. I can remember lying there in my little bed, transported into that vast, rich world of beautiful mystery and animals with personalities that children can lend themselves to so easily. Eventually, often, my mother would stop, telling me that she was getting hoarse and couldn’t go on. She never sounded hoarse and later, much later, I realized, she was simply too tired.

But because she did read to me, when I was old enough, about six or eight, I got a library card so that I could continue reading myself. The library in our town was called the The Atheneum. It was a beautiful brick building. This small child imagined it to be like a great castle, as it sat majestically, to these eyes, on the village green, with tall massive double doors – the kind that were built for kings. Inside it was tall and vast and clean and quiet. Everyone spoke in a near whisper. That was because of the books. We were respecting the books.

Attached to the great library was an annex for the children’s library. One of the librarians was Miss Wolcott. She wore her eyeglasses on the tip of her nose and she too spoke very quietly, but always kindly. Miss Wolcott and Miss Deane, the first grade teacher, were my first crushes. Getting a library card was a big deal and we always took out three or four books at a time since we were given two weeks to keep them.

My mother threw me a lifejacket when she started me on the road to reading. Reading saved my life and made my life. Those of us who cannot read or do not read are being robbed of miracles everyday.

Approaching Library Way on 42nd and Park
Last night The New York Public Library held its annual Literary Lions gala, if you’re wondering how I got on to the business of libraries when I was a kid. This is a very snazzy gala and I must admit it has a certain cachet for me because it is staged in the monumental library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue with its great stone lions – Fortitude and Patience – sitting outside on the great steps. It tweaks the sense memories exquisitely.

The New York Public is so much larger than the then majestic Westfield Atheneum, that I can’t imagine what effect it would have had on this kid as a little one. A house for an emperor maybe. Because as this big kid, I remain awed and even, in a way, intimidated by it. I’m not one of those who considers himself dumb (oh, you’ve noticed), but when I see people sitting at the tables reading or checking books out in this library, I imagine I’m looking at the smartest people in the world. Growing smarter by the second.

There were a lot of smart people at the Library last night. And a lot of fancy people too. Fancy New Yorkers, that is. Sophisticated, cosmopolitan, rich, powerful, brilliant, clever, ambitious, beautiful, handsome, imaginative, and everything in between and then some. Because the Literary Lions attracts that.

Gayfryd Steinberg and David Monn decorated the place for the occasion. This has become something of a tradition since they first astonished the Lions guests a few years ago. This year the astonishment continued — they decorated the Astor Hall (which is the large entry hall at the top of the Fifth Avenue steps) with oversized floor lamps. The kind you’d put next to a chair or a sofa where you’d sit and read. And they gave off an orangy-yellow glow, just like the perfect light for diving into a dreaming novel or a history of France. That was where they held cocktails.

Anna Wintour from the back
It was black tie and the women were in long dresses. No fashion victims here making look-at-me statements. Uh-uh. This is a crowd of women who know how to dress. Silks and satins and chiffons and laces. Anna Wintour was there, wearing a white fur jacket and long blue dress with a train. She has a very coolish visage, as the world knows, but she nevertheless looks spectacularly smart and maintains the image of what one might conjure up for the editor of Vogue.

But there were a lot of beautiful women and smartly dressed women. Some were wearing spectacular jewels. One woman had large diamond and emerald earrings and a matching diamond necklace with a large solitaire-cut emerald surrounded by diamonds hanging elegantly from it. She was an older woman, and not a beauty in the fashionable sense, but she had a lot of style and a grand bearing and her jewels enhanced her in a way that marched with the best of them.

There were a lot of literary people too, of course. Looking as smart and elegant as the rest. At about eight-fifteen, the gongs started and people were moving out of the vast room and down the hallway and around the corner and down the stairs to the Celeste Bartos Forum where the dinner was being held.

The Forum was the Steinberg/Monn tour de force. A huge square room with steel and glass dome in the center, its walls were covered with reddish autumn leaves, millions of them; entirely from floor to ceiling and lit to give off the orangy glow of the perfect autumn sunset. And from the ceiling were suspended more of the oversized cream lampshades decorated with orange borders, as well as hundreds of strings of leaves hanging above. It was a sensation.

The menu program
There were several hundred guests at tables of ten. As soon as everyone was seated, Catherine (Catie) Marron who is chairman of the Library greeted the crowd and thanked the evening’s chairs: Mr. and Mrs. Oscar de la Renta, HRH Princess Firyal and Lionel Pincus, Ambassador and Mrs. Felix Rohatyn, Ms. Ann Tenenbaum and Mr. Thomas H. Lee (Mr. and Mrs.) and the Honorable Mery H. Tisch and Mr. James S. Tisch.

Mrs. Marron then introduced Mayor Bloomberg who has just been re-elected by a landslide to his second term as the Mayor of the City of New York. Mayor Bloomberg is an old hand at these galas, having been a participant, guest, and major contributor to so many of them in the years leading up to his poltical career. He also always wore black tie. Now he’s always in a suit, no matter where he goes. He gave a short, charming speech thanking everyone for their support of the library (they raised more than $2 million at last night’s gala).

Then Paul LeClerc, (pronounced Lih-CLARE),
president of the Library took the podium and talked about this great library to which he made oblique comparisons to the lost ancient library of Alexandria. The New York Public Library with its more than 10 million books and many thousands of documents (including the Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s own handwriting) is now the greatest library in the world.

Mr. LeClerc introduced the five honorees and they came up to be decorated with their medal hanging from a red ribbon necklace: Harold Bloom, Mike Nichols, Tom Friedman, Billy Taylor and Shirley Hazzard. Applause; flashing cameras and then we all had our first course.
The five honorees were decorated with their medal hanging from a red ribbon necklace (clockwise from top left): Billy Taylor; Mike Nichols; Shirley Hazzard; Tom Friedman; Harold Bloom (pictured with his wife).
Then Toni Morrison took the podium. Ms. Morrison is a tiny woman with a monumental bearing but hardly large from across a large room. All of this was also on video, however, and so Toni Morrison was appropriately larger than life and very easy for us to see on the screen suspended in the middle of the wall behind her. She introduced each honoree with an eloquence that identifies the poet, and then there was a short video of the subject.

Toni Morrison
Each honoree recounted their experience with the library. Mr. Bloom, for example, grew up in the Bronx, in a home where Yiddish was the language spoken. He found his new world in the local library where he consumed the great books voraciously. When he was old enough, when he was going to the Bronx High School of Science (which he was not particularly fond of), he came down to Manhattan to this great library where he consumed even more of the great books of the world. Since 1959, Mr. Bloom has published thirty great books of his own.

Each honoree had a similar story about their relationships with the library. Shirley Hazzard’s experience of libraries began in her native Australia, but when she came to this country as a young woman, she entered the fold of this great institution also. Mike Nichols’ first library was one of the branches on the Upper West Side where he was growing up.

Later he shot a scene from one of his films in the 42nd Street center, and to this day uses the Library at Lincoln Center for reference and ideas. Jazz virtuoso Billy Taylor whose mentor was Art Tatum, used a local branch when he was first writing music and later when he was doing research for his doctorate “The History of Jazz Piano,” he used the Schomburg Center branch of the library. So impressed was he by the contributions to the Center that he donated a large part of his jazz collection to them.

Tom Friedman said that “The New York Public Library serves as a bridge ... We have an obligation to sustain and nurture our public library system so that people who can’t even afford a paperback, or for whom there is no other choice, are always going to be able to read books at the Library.”

This was one of those evenings that affirms the positive amidst the maelstrom of the catastrophic, the problematic, the negative and the uncertainties that modern life presents to us in seemingly larger and larger doses. The library as exemplified by The New York Public Library continues to present that space that first awed and inspired this child, for millions and millions of children and men and women. It remains our respite, our solace and our resolution for so much, if not all that confronts us in our daily lives. Long may it last, for our sake and all those yet to appear. Bravo Literary Lions!
Anne Bass
Cocktails in Astor Hall
Arlyn and Richard Gardner
Arthur Becker and Andre Leon Talley
Bob Colacello
Richard Meier and Lally Weymouth
Brucie Boalt
Catie Marron and Vernon Jordan
Sharon Hoge
Deborah Black
Dina Merrill and Ted Hartley
Susan Fales-Hill and friend
Dr. Judith Ginsberg, Marian Heiskell, and Paul LeClerc
Jane Stanton Hitchcock
Felix Rohatyn and Barbara Walters
Graydon and Anna Carter
Hannah Pakula
Joan Hardy Clark
Stephen Adler and Lisa Grunwald
Linda and Mort Janklow
Diane Sawyer and Liz Smith
The Lion Cookie
Lynn Nesbit
Louise Grunwald and Saul Steinberg
Louis Bofferding and Cetie Ames
Marie Josee Kravis
Diane von Furstenberg and Candice Bergen
Pam and Gifford Miller
Patty Raynes
Pam Miller and Lewis Cullman
Paul Beban and Dr. Leslie Boyd
Leonel Piraino and Nina Griscom
Shirley Lord Rosenthal and Oscar de la Renta
Polly Kraft and Kathy Rayner
Anna Wintour and Vera Wang
Warrie Price with Dr. Donald and Cynthia Frank
Mayor Mike
One of the plaques along Library Walk on 42nd Street beween Park and Madison

November 15, 2005, Volume V, Number 192
Photographs by DPC & JH (city)/


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