Literati Must Decide: PEN Versus Union

PEN Versus Union

Again and again, the cry rose from the placard-waving rabble on East 42nd Street. “Hypocrite!” they yelled as men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns ducked their heads and ran the gantlet outside the entrance to Cipriani 42nd Street. Literary agent Andrew Wylie and writer Jamaica Kincaid approached. Ms. Kincaid’s face bore a grimace. Mr. Wylie wore a confused smile. Behind them stood a woman dressed as the Grinch, holding a placard that read, “Cheapriani: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” The agent and the writer scurried inside. “Hypocrite!” cried the crowd.

The density of our urban life requires us to make dozens of moral decisions on a daily basis. But most of those decisions–giving to a panhandler, stealing a cab from the guy down the block who’s been waiting longer, cheating on a spouse–are made without an audience, so the jaggedness of our life paths are known to no one but ourselves. Occasionally, though, a situation arises when moral choices must be made in a public setting, where one’s decision is noted and recorded by one’s peers.

The scene outside Cipriani 42nd Street on May 12 was one of those situations. The catering space was being picketed by almost 100 members and supporters of Local 6 of the Hotel, Restaurant and Club Employees and Bartenders Union. The union has been picketing the restaurants and catering spaces owned by the father-and-son restaurateur team of Arrigo and Giuseppe Cipriani since late January [see “Now Invading Manhattan, Father and Son Cipriani Start Rainbow Room War” in The Observer , Jan. 25] because, the union charges, the Ciprianis eliminated the union positions at the Rainbow Room.

Yet the scene was even more remarkable because of what was going on inside the soaring, vaulted space of the former bank: The PEN American Center was holding its annual gala, an event that raises money (approximately $600,000 this year, before expenses) to help the organization carry out its goals, which include protecting First Amendment rights of writers and campaigning for the release of imprisoned writers in more than 90 countries.

So almost 700 members of the city’s meritocracy were faced that night with a decision. If they crossed the picket line to attend the event, which was arguably for a good cause, the perception was that they were disregarding the plight of the union workers.

Among those who did not cross were former White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos, authors Gay Talese and Paul Auster, actor Griffin Dunne and monologuist Spalding Gray. When labor leader Victor Gotbaum and his wife, New York Historical Society chief Betsy Gotbaum, arrived together, Mr. Gotbaum did not cross the line. His wife did.

She was hardly in the minority. Those inside included former Washington Post editor in chief Ben Bradlee, playwright Arthur Miller, authors Salman Rushdie, Judy Blume, Susan Cheever and Hannah Pakula, Grove-Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin, actor Ron Silver, Brill’s Content founder Steve Brill, CBS News anchor Dan Rather, ABC Entertainment executive vice president Susan Lyne and former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein.

Mr. Bernstein’s presence inside shocked some picketers who could see him through the glass doors of the hall. When Mr. Bernstein had arrived, he had taken a leaflet from a union worker and spent a long time studying it. Then Mr. Bernstein told those assembled that he would not cross the picket line. Technically, he didn’t. He went around to the back entrance. “I took the chicken’s way out,” Mr. Bernstein later admitted to The Transom. “I told myself if there were no pickets [at the back entrance] I would come inside. It’s hardly an elevated stance. I wish I could be more principled about it.”

Mr. Bernstein did not seem at all sheepish, and frankly, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of guilt mucking up the elegant Philip Baloun décor, which included a flower-wrapped candelabra in the center of every table. Yet, the conflict on the sidewalk was broached again and again during the evening, between the appetizer of shrimp salad and the entree of filet mignon alla Cipriani.

“We are extremely sorry that you had to endure this,” PEN American Center president Michael Scammell told the crowd when he took the podium. Copies of a statement by PEN were passed out to each table. It read, in part, “While PEN is not in a position to assess the merits of this dispute, we do vigorously support the fundamental rights of all people including workers pursuing their rights to organize and bargain with employers, to express their views freely and fully. In particular, we have invited the Union to make information about this matter available to our guests. The board and many members of PEN deeply regret being faced with the choice of withdrawing support for our organization or crossing a picket line. We further regret having been drawn into a dispute to which we were not a party.”

Some guests seemed put out that any more time would be devoted to the picketers. “Toss it,” said Carol Mack, the wife of Earl Mack, the former chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts, as the sheaf of papers made the rounds of her table.

PEN executive director Michael Roberts told The Transom that the first he had heard from the union was on May 10, although John Turchiano, a spokesman for Local 6, said that he had contacted PEN three weeks earlier.

Mr. Roberts said that PEN had been in contract with Cipriani 42nd Street since mid-December, before the union announced it would picket, and would have lost in excess of $100,000 if it had canceled the event. Critics contend that most of the tickets had already been purchased, which suggests that the event itself could have been sacrificed, but Mr. Roberts said that then PEN would have “been under obligation to return the money.” Mr. Roberts claimed that on May 10, Mr. Turchiano asked him if he would move the event if the union found another location, but that he never heard from Mr. Turchiano again. “I inferred from that that there was no alternative,” he said. Mr. Turchiano denied this, saying that he had told Mr. Roberts to try the Waldorf-Astoria.

Mr. Roberts continued, “I don’t want to get into characterizing the union’s motives, but I think that the event got a lot of publicity for the union. One tends to doubt how serious they were about an alternative. It was a major public relations bonanza.”

Mr. Turchiano replied: “We’re picketing every event at Cipriani 42nd Street. We were not targeting PEN. This guy seems to have a persecution complex.”

At the gala, the picketing issue refused to go away. When it came time to present the PEN-Newman’s Own First Amendment Award of $25,000 to ReLeah Lent, an English teacher from Florida, Judy Blume got up and pointed out that neither principal of Newman’s Own–Paul Newman or writer A.E. Hotchner–were there, because they had refused to cross the picket line. “So instead they got me,” said Ms. Blume.

Later Mr. Rushdie, who had also entered via the back way, told the crowd, “I’ve never crossed a picket line until tonight.” He said he did so because it was “open season on writers” these days and “that makes PEN’s work all the more important.” Referring to the fatwa following publication of The Satanic Verses , Mr. Rushdie said, “Quite simply, the issues we’re facing here are those of life and death.” Those issues, he said, “take precedence.”

In an interview after the event, Mr. Hotchner said that when he told PEN he wasn’t coming, “They told me, ‘Why don’t you put on your tux and come over, and if there’s a picket line, you can leave.’ I told them, ‘That’s a really squirrely notion.'”

Mr. Hotchner, Mr. Newman and the publishers of George magazine had considered holding their May 19 dinner for Newman’s Own- George Awards at the Cipriani-controlled Rainbow Room. Instead it will be held at the U.S. Customs House. (The organizers of the I Am Beautiful-Vision & Voice Awards, to be presented on June 7 to Geraldine Ferraro, Gloria Steinem and others, have also pulled out of Cipriani 42nd Street.)

Mr. Hotchner said PEN was naïve to have been unaware of the picket problem. “It didn’t take a structural engineer to figure out that Cipriani was using non-union labor,” said Mr. Hotchner.

Later on the evening of the event, Mr. Rushdie told The Transom that he had spent most of the afternoon thinking about whether he should cross the picket line, but decided that “my conscience would have hurt me more if I didn’t come here tonight.”

In a phone interview, Gay Talese, who went to Elaine’s instead, said that he found Mr. Rushdie “a little shortsighted on the issue” and “did not want any more posturing from him.”

“What’s comical and what’s sad is the pretense to idealism that knows geographical limitations,” said Mr. Talese. “PEN has always had more compassion for faraway places than for the issues at home. They see tragedy and turmoil that must be rectified in faraway places, and right there on 42nd Street, outside of Cipriani 42nd Street, there are fellow Americans who have legitimate grievances.” Mr. Talese, who has been a PEN member for some 30 years and who said he is “aware of the great work” the organization does, nonetheless opined that the situation called for “people who respect liberal causes to take a stand, not for vacillating or finding excuses to saunter into this gala dinner.” Literati Must Decide: PEN Versus Union