Shindigger: New York’s Literary Lion Turns 100!

On a damp evening in May, the great and the gray trooped up the marble stairs of one of New York City’s most hallowed institutions, the New York Public Library, for its centennial celebration. A smorgasbord of talent had been hired to showcase the library’s varied nature, including an outdoor electric harpist, the Abyssinian Baptist Choir, the Gay Men’s Chorus and the schoolchildren of P.S. 22.

As the “stars” of the NYPL are writers, documentary makers and cultural leaders, known more for their words than their faces, they can be a little tougher to recognize than your average pop star. Mindful of this, the NYPL had thoughtfully provided medals for the honored guests so that the reporters would know who they were talking to. 

At the pre-dinner VIP drinks, library president Paul LeClerc spoke movingly about the library to a crowd that included Toni Morrison, documentarian Ken Burns, David Dinkins, Jonathan Franzen and Martha Stewart

We asked for a word with Mr. Dinkins, who agreed but not before “Bill has taken his photographs”–referring to Times photographer Bill Cunningham. Mr. Dinkins had been honored in Mr. LeClerc’s speech for his decision to keep the library open six days a week in the depths of the 1970’s recession.

The former mayor told us, “It cost us $47 million dollars, if I remember right, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.” What will be on his reading list this summer?

“I’m looking forward to writing a book on my life. That’s a long period of time. I was born in 1927. We’re hard at work. I don’t know that we’ll finish it, but we’re well on the way.”

Fran Lebowitz appeared at the table with Mr. Dinkins and Ms. Morrison. Ms. Morrison fingered Fran’s NYPL medal and told her that she wanted one. “Well, you’ve already got a Pulitzer Prize, so you can’t have one,” said Ms. Lebowitz teasingly.

Martha Stewart, who is taller in person than she looks on TV and was wearing a checked coat with a satin and pearl necklace, said of her summer reading, “I’m still reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, which I should have finished by now, but I haven’t. I have piles of biography and garden books to read. I hope I find the time.” 

Chris Tomson, drummer of the band Vampire Weekend, was featured in the centennial book, a collection of essays by luiminaries about their favorite item from the NYPL’s collections, was there with his girlfriend, Megan. “This is a little out of my context,” he admitted. 

We caught up with Mr. Franzen on the way up the stairs to the Rose Main Reading Room, where the rededication ceremony was due to take place. Mr. Franzen was one of the earliest honorees to arrive–“6:37. I wanted you all to see that.”

Mr. Franzen thought that this might be the summer to read all seven volumes of Proust.

“I’m told the last three volumes are the best. You think you loved it even though you wimped out after barely three volumes. You didn’t actually get the great stuff,” he said with the air of a man who reads volumes of literature the way some people sip a cappucino.

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He asked The Observer if we’d ever read Proust. We lied and said we’d started but never finished.

“Well, everyone says that Swann’s Way is the best but it’s not the best. In fact, it gets better, but not before it gets slower.”

At the rededication ceremony, a roll call of New York’s who’s who walked down the aisle in the center of the Rose Main Reading Room. Barbara Walters was the mistress of ceremonies and illustrious authors from Frank Rich to Robert Caro paid tribute to “a great treasure house of history.”

Centennial book contributor Uzodinma Iweala revealed some of the lesser known uses of the library. “I used to come here mostly to fall asleep and be woken up by the security guards and I’ve gone on no fewer than four dates with people I’ve met here.” Dinner in the Edna Barnes Saloman Room was a rare treat; guests feasted on lobster salad, sliced filet of beef and lime-marinated chicken, which was passed family-style around the tables. Enormous green and white arrangements of mini-rhododendrons completed the setting; guests laughed and drank under the watchful eyes of portraits of former benefactors of the library, including one of Vincent Astor (also known as the late Brooke Astor’s husband) in his naval uniform.

Doug Bernstein was the creative consultant for the party and the perfect dinner companion. As the party wound to a close, guests exited the building to see the library completely illuminated for the first time in its history. A trustee hugged the gray Lego lions that had been created for the party–we knew just how she felt. –Daisy Prince



Shindigger: New York’s Literary Lion Turns 100!