Book Party Anxiety, Writ Large

Book Party Anxiety, Writ Large

January 23, 2019

To usher in the new year, PEN America invited writers last week to raise a glass to their favorite books of 2018. It’s was a classic writers’ party, full of insecurity and awkward moments, but on a grander scale.

Rather than drawing people to a cramped East Village walk-up, it was held at Sean Kelly, a cavernous gallery on 10th Avenue near the Hudson Yards. Bowls of popcorn were more numerous, the cheese plates of better quality, and the wine came out of bottles, not boxes.

But all the same types were there, starting with bubbly book lovers like Glory Edim, the founder of Well-Read Black Girl, a hip reading club turned literary festival.

There was the aggrieved guy, who stormed over to ask why The New York Times doesn’t “review more books from independent publishers.” Then there were the writers who seem both younger and more successful than everyone else in the room, like Crystal Hana Kim, the author of “If You Leave Me.”

And finally, the literary lion: in this case, Ron Chernow, commanding his corner as if it were a mountaintop, refusing to speak. (Perhaps he didn’t want to be asked about Ishmael Reed’s play “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” which needles Mr. Chernow for racial insensitivity in his biography that inspired the musical juggernaut “Hamilton.”)

So, what was everyone doing there?

“What Pen America is most fundamentally about is celebrating literary expression and insisting on its cultural value,” said Jennifer Egan, the group’s president and the winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for “A Visit From the Goon Squad.” “This moment has a tremendous focus on free speech, partly because of our president’s effort to quash the free expression of the press.”

Toasted at the party was Ahmed Naji, an Egyptian novelist who served 10 months in prison after a sexually explicit passage in his novel, “Using Life,” was excerpted in a magazine.

In another corner, two young poets were composing haikus on demand. Tania Asnes, whose puff of blond curls suggested a cartoon thought bubble, was asked to write a haiku about Mr. Chernow and his refusal to be interviewed.

She thought for a moment before banging out on her manual typewriter:

Invisible ink,

Uttered into-onto air

Voices cross it out.

Ode to Chintz

A jar of plastic cockroaches, and the steady march of plutocrats, suggested that something unusual was happening at the Park Avenue Armory on Monday night.

The largely female crowd of around 200 social registrants had gathered inside a mahogany-paneled room to pay tribute to Mario Buatta, the society decorator who died in October at the age of 82. Nicknamed “the prince of chintz,” he popularized the English-country-house style that a generation of Wall Street wives adopted for their Upper East Side classic sixes.

The fur-clad attendees included Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, and his wife, Hilary Geary Ross; Anne Eisenhower, a granddaughter of Dwight Eisenhower; Christopher Forbes, chairman of his family’s namesake publishing company; Patricia Hearst Shaw, the heiress and cultural icon; Susan Gutfreund, the acclaimed hostess still looking to unload her Fifth Avenue duplex (now discounted to $68 million); and Jean Shafiroff, the ubiquitous socialite.

The event was a celebration of Mr. Buatta’s life, complete with Champagne and a tinkling electric keyboard. Many speakers explained that the insect motif was a reference to Harold, the plastic cockroach that Mr. Buatta kept in his pocket and delighted in using to upstage fancy dinner parties.

An inveterate prankster, he was also known for his collection of fright wigs and false teeth. “He really was an uncultivated Vegas stand-up,” said David Patrick Columbia, the social chronicler, not without affection.

Could Mr. Buatta’s over-the-top aesthetic — ruffles on sofas, tassels on drapes, pictures hung with huge silk bows — have been its own kind of joke, the ultimate sight gag?

“The reason people liked it was because he used a lot of color, and it lifted people,” Mr. Columbia said. “It didn’t make them laugh. Although he would have preferred to make them laugh.”

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