So apparently some famous writer was disgraced this week and a venerable literary organization asked me to fill in for him at a dinner to raise money for imperiled writers around the world.
You won’t believe what ensued.
I get there, and the host introduces me to the guests, accurately observing that several of them are named Bob. (Plus one Bill.)
It’s not an exciting crew, but it’s a good cause, and I feel like I’m enlivening people’s retirements.
It’s in a place called the Players Club. Not as in playas. As in actors. It was founded by John Wilkes Booth’s brother, which should have been a sign of the ambush that loomed.
I tried to be pleasant. There were the usual liberal private club comments about how amazing India is, etc. The Taj Mahal is great, apparently.
Anyway, we sit down, and I’m asked to give a quick summary of my book.
Which I do. And I could tell that I was losing this crowd fast. Precipitously.
They hadn’t been briefed, maybe. They didn’t know that I’m actually an opponent of, not an advocate for, winners taking all.
So now my host, who has been very nice so far, flips suddenly. Like she’s been undammed.
Hearing my mention of David Koch and how his name shouldn’t be on any building in a city full of people whose rights he has fought to shred, she chooses her hill.
She is going defend Koch.
Of course, she hates him, because she’s a good liberal. But she’s also a private club Manhattan liberal, and she knows him. They’re on things together, maybe. She gives. He gives. And she defends him because if he gave money for the building, his name should be on the building.
So I ask if she’s read DARK MONEY by @JaneMayerNYer, which exposes the Kochs for who they are.
No. Doesn’t need to. She knows him. He gave the money. It’s only fair.
It unravels from there.
Now she tells me I’m being condescending, which I probably am, because these are the people who think they’re the resistance but are in fact the reason we have a broken country atop which a former Democratic Manhattan private club liberal now sits.
So finally I ask her: Well, why did you invite me?
She mutters about liking good debate. But her husband, he’s the honest guy.
“Because we had no choice.”
I think the last words I heard him say were “God, you’re awful,” before I stood and fled.
I realized that I prefer reading Tom Wolfe novels to living in them.
Wolfe would have loved the fake money sourced from China on the place settings.
The whole thing was especially surprising because the host once wrote a memoir about her empathy for a pet. So I thought I’d be easy.
Her husband had a career in hotels, so I expected some hospitality.
But I was wrong, and the story has a moral: Never underestimate the defensiveness of very rich people who believe they’re progressive and who are willing to give back in any way they can — except by surrendering any of their privileges, advantages, or immunities.
I’m so sorry, but I forgot the moment when, not liking an argument I was making, the host/pet memoirist picked up both of her knives (salad; chicken main dish) and said, “Be careful: they gave me sharp knives.”
To all who are (very legitimately) asking, What was I doing there? Don’t I know about these types?
I volunteered my time for a great organization that defends journalists against imprisonment and death.
Getting ambushed in Manhattan is a small price to pay for those heroes.
In the morning, fresh memories.
The moment when the host, full of worry, asked, You say the very, very rich are the problem. I mean, how far down the ladder does your critique go?
I knew what she was after, and with a smile of false reassurance I said, It stops right above you.
The moment when, at a dinner to talk about breaking open the opportunity structure, it was explained that, while a parent cannot nominate an adult child for membership at the club, they take turns as friends sponsoring one another’s children, which is basically how America works.
The moments when I said thank you to three different bartenders and waiters, with a smile and eye contact but nothing fancy, and they reacted as if they had won the Powerball because maybe no one there has looked at them like that in 12 years.
The moment when she was holding two knives in the air at me and boasting of their sharpness, and I said, ridiculously, Well, my ideas are sharper than your knife. Which is Sorkin-bad. But maybe still better than picking up my own knives?
The moment, at the outset, when I almost didn’t get into the club, with the bouncer giving me a border-wall-slat stare until I said I’m the speaker.
I can also now say, and must say, that @PENamerican has been amazing about this episode.
Groups that fundraise so often put donors above those they serve.
Not PEN, which has played The Rock to my Kevin Hart. Defending writers clearly isn’t just a slogan for them.
BREAKING: APOLOGY IN HAND.
I’m going to be a gentleman and keep it private. I’m also going to continue to write our way toward an America that doesn’t run on the feverish taking, relentless clinging, and selective giving of plutocrats.
Update: I have proposed to the leadership of @PENamerican, first in jest, then, as I thought about it, with swelling, absolute seriousness, that I be invited to perform the story of my Players Club encounter at its literary awards ceremony on February 26.
What do you think?
The awards celebrate “the freedom to write.” What a way to honor that freedom, which is threatened not only by dictators but also, more quietly, by a thousand moments in which people who don’t deserve to be patrons exert power over people who don’t deserve to be supplicants.
I propose this in furtherance of @PENamerican’s noble war against censorship of all kinds. Including the soft censorship of the gilded salon.
Today I heard from so many writers who have been in versions of the room that I was in. And I learned from them what a fight we all face.
Everyone understands the threat that a tyrant or a jailer poses to the writer.
What is less understood, but what my colleagues helped me see, is that all too often, when writers who are exotic to the old guard are trotted out to speak to them, we get quiet.
And in an age of plutocracy here in America, we cannot fight the handcuffed tyranny of the tinpot tyrant and remain silent about the braceleted tyranny of the East Side philanthropist.
A lot of writers wrote to me today and gave me courage and the benefit of their experiences.
Many have lived what I lived last night many times over.
I stand ready to tell that story on February 26. Many could add theirs.
Thank you, @PENamerican, for defending our freedom.
While we await an answer to my plan, a story that will shock absolutely no one. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/02/nyregion/02players.html?_r=1 …
Five years later: "Club employees have brought a suit claiming that they were denied money from a year-end tip fund to which members contributed. And for the last 12 weeks, the club has periodically been late with their salaries." https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/16/nyregion/players-club-director-survives-an-ouster-vote.html?_r=0 …
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