On Monday, October 22nd, Chris Konish and I went to PEN USA's literary festival at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I hadn't been for a couple years, and I'd forgotten how beautiful the hotel is. Everything about the experience from the time you parked your car spoke of a sort of understated elegance that you don't associate with Southern California in all its opulence, its over-the-top pillared houses. I love the Nathaniel West description of Los Angeles' architecture in Day of the Locust where he shows that many of the houses perched on hills look like they could have been built for a film set about Arabian queens, Greek myths or lords and ladies in English country houses. Come on people, this isn't Greece or Rome, you are not living in an Italian villa on Lake Como. You are not George Clooney.
But the Beverly Hills Hotel isn't either sedate or ornate; it's lovely and elegant. As soon as Chris and I arrived, we started running into people we know. Bruce and Julie Goldsmith, Tom Zoellner always at the top of his game, Carl Eastlake and his wife Lorraine Despres, Judith Freeman who I adore, Sandy Dijkstra holding court and looking like a Mandarin princess in a snappy Chinese outfit, Celeste Fremon and of course, David Kipen. Adam Somers, the executive director looked relaxed as though he throws parties like this every day, and I pointed out to him that the fact that looking ten years younger than the last time I saw him is simply unfair.
The dinner was very good, chicken that made you want to lick the plate, a delicate salad, and the dessert was made up of these little bites of food each a mouthful of yum. But of course, the event is about the awards. PEN rolls out the big literary awards of the West Coast in every genre imaginable. And the stars come out to receive them. Joyce Carol Oates and Eavan Boland in the same room fairly took my breath away. The move from the Biltmore to Beverly Hills has made this signature event something it never was -- relaxing and classy. At the Biltmore, it seemed charming. Here, you felt you were at a literary cocktail party and dinner with simply the best kind of people.
Coming to this event reminded me of everything I love about PEN. The writers who make up PEN care passionately about the freedom to write whether it's in the classroom or for journalists abroad. We care about writers in prison, and we care about writers who are not given the tools to express themselves in schools in Los Angeles. We believe in giving writers a voice and, if necessary, the training for that voice.
My other memory of my time at PEN was reading the books. I read Eric Lax' book on Woody Allen, Celeste Fremon's book on gangs, Bruce Goldsmith's romance, Loraine Despres' two fabulous novels set in the South -- dark romantic books. I loved getting to know these writers who live creatively and artistically.
One of the writers on the board when I was there was a journalist and photographer named Jamie Wolf. Her work was on display at Litfest for the silent auction. Janet Sternburg's photographs were as well. I remember being at Jamie's house for a meeting, and there were books stacked on the piano and a dog came in, a springer spaniel I think, bouncing and full of life. Her house was brimming with art, music, books and ideas. And then she took me out into her garden which was like a piece of paradise. A riot of color. Roses leaning back into the sun; every time a breeze blew up there was a blessing of petals. Mounds of flowers against bushes and trees. I never knew what Jamie and her husband David did for a living, what cars they drove or where they like to travel. That was my experience at PEN. That stuff not mattering. I remember Jamie's writing, her photographs, her passion for freedom of expression, the piano, the dog, the flowers, the garden. When I saw those writers at PEN, what I remembered about them was books and passion. That's a good core for any literary organization. I salute PEN for the work they continue to do, and I look forward to next year's fabulous event.