In the den with the Library Lions

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Entering the Reading Room where the Library Lions annual gala was held.

Friday, November 8, 2019. Rain in the forecast all day and night, with temps in the mid- to high-50s, then turning down to the 40s. Maybe we’re going to get some cold mid-Autumn weather.

On the social circuit these are always the busiest times – just before the Thanksgiving through New Year’s holidays. Last week, and the week before was one of those. Some very interesting, others traditionally pleasant (not a New York word but it works in this case).

That was the Library Lions annual gala at the New York Public Library at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. This is perhaps the most prestigious of the major social/fundraising events of the autumn season. The building itself is an architectural treat and honor for anybody to enter even if they’re not interested or inclined to read books. Its grandeur nevertheless represents something precious to all of us: the written word revered. It does not disappoint.

The dinner tables set up in the Reading Room.

The guest list is made up mainly of those philanthropic supporters of the Library and their guests, as well as former “Lions” and a host of artists and mainly writers. It’s a black tie affair, and the women sparkle particularly and intentionally. The cocktail hour is on the 3rd floor in room of portraits, across from the Main Reading Room.

Guests seated for dinner.

About eight o’clock guests began moving to the Reading Room where the tables are used daily (for more than a century) by writers and readers and students. On this night they are beautifully set for dinner. The vast four-story room — always magnificent thanks to Carrere and Hastings — is “decorated” theatrically for this dinner. This year’s décor was gigantic, beautiful floral images. As guests first entered there was an orchestra set against the entry wall, playing from the American songbook. With their music, the floral images did the rest: spectacular. An atmosphere was created for the entire evening.

It begins with welcoming speeches. At times, some go on a little too long — which only encourages many of the adult guests to talk among themselves. Because of the din of all that chatting it’s not always clear what the speaker is saying. (If you happen to be one who is listening.) People “talking” while the “speeches” are going on is epidemic in all of these events these days. One gets used to it. Sort of.

2019 Library Lions Elizabeth Alexander, Jill Lepore, Jamaica Kincaid, and Frederick Wiseman with Library Chairman Evan Chesler and Library President Tony Marx.
Library Trustee Tali Weinstein, 2019 Library Lion Elizabeth Alexander, and Esther Fein.
Charles Blow, Library Trustee Catie Marron, Darren Walker, and Agnes Gund.

After the speeches there were videos of the 2019 “Lions”:  Elizabeth Alexander, Jill Lepore, Jamaica Kincaid and Frederick Wiseman in recognition of their outstanding cultural contribution.” We were then presented with a performance by Wynton Marsalis and members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra.

Wynton Marsalis.

Then came the main course of dinner, at the long tables set for twenty – this year’s “Lions” all of whom were seated at the dinner also. The Awards were presented, one at a time, announced by Tony Marx, the Library CEO from the dais, with a spotlight on the honoree,  as they are bestowed with the medal.

The evening in the Main Reading Room was over. Those tables of 20 were quite closely seated. Conversation abounded as a result. Guests rose and began to amble down to the Astor Hall entrance of the building where desserts were being passed around and books were being signed by the authors and personally inscribed – a gift to the guests. And we were off into the New York night.

It was an evening of words in a most solemn yet heavenly atmosphere that is the Library, and what it represents to all humanity. 2020 is the 125th Anniversary the New York Public Library’s founding in 1895 (its main building at 42nd and Fifth was completed in 2011 after the razing of the reservoir).

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