The PEN and Met Galas: A Tale of Two Seatings

The pen is mightier than ... not much

Salman Rushdie. (Getty Images)

Salman Rushdie. (Getty Images)

For $12,500, you could have been a Patron of last night’s PEN Literary Gala. That would have bought you a table for 10 in the whale room of the Natural History Museum, a “distinguished author” as a table host, “recognition” in all Gala materials, four complimentary tickets to PEN World Voices events, and a generous tax-deduction.

What would $12,500 have bought you directly across Central Park, on the same night and at the same time, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala?

Half of one chair.

Want to bring nine friends and sit on a full chair? $250,000.

For that, you would have witnessed celebrities walking the 72 red-carpeted steps of the museum — so many that this is surely the biggest photo feature in the history of The New York Times. You would have had the pleasure of seeing these celebrities in dresses personally approved by Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor, Condé Nast artistic director and, as of the ribbon-cutting earlier in the day of the $40 million Anna Wintour Costume Center, the BFF of Michelle Obama. And you would have seen men — well, some men — honoring the decree of Ms. Wintour and wearing white tie and tails in honor of Charles James, the Costume Center’s first designer to be honored with a show.

In another life and another marriage, I used to go to the Met event, then a two-part evening: Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley’s black-tie dinner for the swells, followed by a more affordable sock hop for the junior set in the Temple of Dendur Party Room. Now I’m married to a woman who only needed one sight of white people dancing to “We Are Family” under bright lights to beg off. And then there’s the not small matter of priorities. Fashion, having discovered licensing, lives in Boom Town; writers and writing are under siege. For a writer, choosing a PEN event doesn’t rise to the level of a decision.

So the whale room was musty. So the dinner wouldn’t get the chef past the entrée course on “Chopped.” So, though the evening wasn’t black tie, there were many men in suits. Once the program began, none of that mattered. Dock Costolo, CEO of Twitter, shook off his company’s mixed performance — lots of users, the stock down 42 percent for the year — to accept a “digital freedom” award. Toni Morrison presented Salman Rushdie, past President of PEN American Center and past chair of PEN World Voices, with a literary service award. There were ovations for Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, two-thirds of Pussy Riot, and for Jewher Ilham, daughter of the Chinese scholar and activist Ilham Tohti, who was arrested by police a few months ago and has not been heard from since.

The acceptance speeches all had the same theme. Rushdie spoke of Shéhérazade, “who looked at the face of death and was not afraid” and Alice, “awkward in Wonderland, always the wrong size.” Nadya Tolokonnikova, in a Kool-Aid pink dress and white tights that would not have won friends across the park, said, “Often a prisoner becomes the voice of a nation and a generation.” Suzanne Nossel, PEN’s Executive Director, matter-of-factly reported that she couldn’t get musicians involved in any protest against human rights violations in China — “They’d say, “I’ll do anything for you if it’s about Syria, but I have concerts in China’” — and that Hollywood routinely makes creative compromises for the Chinese market. File those remarks under Reality.

Of the 38 winners of the Freedom to Write award, 35 have been freed, thanks in large part to pressure from PEN. In that spirit, Ms. Nossel asked us to stand and take group pictures holding a small, Twitter-ready poster: “#FreeIlham.” Our table didn’t, and not for lack of caring. It was more like: The Chinese just aren’t responsive to a Twitter protest. I said to the woman next to me, a pleasant executive at J.P. Morgan, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to ask the Chinese how much it would cost to buy Ilham’s freedom?” She agreed. Life is deals. Money talks.

Money was on my mind as I left the PEN dinner. Salman Rushdie is no longer a name to conjure the declining kingdom of literary fiction, but in 1988, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned him to death for writing The Satanic Verses. The response — front-page news and worldwide protest — amounted to free publicity for the book. And yet it earned Rushdie no more than $2 million, just $800,000 more than PEN banked last night.

A quarter of a century ago, I wrote the award shows for the Council of Fashion Designers. Now that event is held at Lincoln Center and is billed as “The Academy Awards of fashion,” but in those days, the CFDA evening was a low-key family affair, held in the Rogers Auditorium at the Met. In 1987, when a 24-year-old Marc Jacobs won the award for emerging talent, I made a video that challenged him to hang his entire collection on a rolling rack and take me through it — in 30 seconds. He made it, easily. Marc Jacobs now has almost 300 stores in 60 countries and is so well known he was, for a year, creative director of Diet Coke. (Brand, meet Icon.) He is, according to TheRichest.com, worth more than $100 million.

I doubt that the collective wealth of every writer at the PEN dinner is nearly that. And that’s not likely to change. More than ever, the fix is in; no way is PEN mightier than the sword. But because books, along with art and music, are the best shot that creative people have at immortality, they persist, like shoots of grass in the cracks of a concrete sidewalk. And PEN is there to fight for the proposition. File that under Romance.