Norman Mailer Center Benefit Gala: 2010

On Tuesday night literary New York gathered to celebrate Norman Mailer and the Writers Colony and Center founded in his honor. Molly Young reports on a grand evening.

Everyone was in agreement: It was a night that Mailer would have enjoyed and not only because he was the center of attention.

The almost 500 guests assembled on 42nd street for the Annual Norman Mailer Center Benefit Gala were visibly animated by the night's celebration of Orhan Pamuk, Ruth Gruber, Jann Wenner, and, of course, the man looming over it all, Norman Mailer. Also honored were Dawna Bagherian, Gwyne Bahler, and Minh Phuong Nguyen—the recipients of the National Norman Mailer High School, Community College and College Writing Awards, respectively—and British GQ Norman Mailer non-fiction writing award winner Helen Madden, a former Irish TV personality and actress who at the age of 65 turned to creative writing.

The Norman Mailer Writers Center, co-founded by Lawrence Schiller, is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting writers of promise; it offers scholarships, fellowships, and a Writers Colony at the harborside home where Mailer wrote many of his major works. A projected photograph of the late author’s Cape Cod residence—white trim, sandy beach—overlooked celebrants as they nibbled on lacy piles of prosciutto and chattered about Twitter, Philip Roth’s new novel, and, most of all, Mailer. ("It's not going to be a roast tonight, I don't think," noted the novelist Rivka Galchen, eyeing the crowd of revelers.) Mailer’s namesake organization carries out the author’s vision of a rigorous literary environment, and New York lights like Colum McCann, Erica Jong, Susan Cheever, and Norris Church Mailer, the author’s widow, were in attendance to applaud the Center’s work—and to raise a glass to Mailer’s memory.

After an introduction by emcee Gay Talese, Alana Newhouse presented the Distinguished Journalism and Humanitarianism prize to Ruth Gruber—the youngest person in the world to earn a PhD, the first foreign correspondent to fly across the Siberian arctic, and "a documentary photographer of the first order." Gruber, who turned 99 this year, cited a morsel of advice from Edward Steichen as she graciously accepted her award: "He said to me one day, take pictures with your heart." Gruber was met with a standing ovation.

Tom Wolfe, slim as a pin in ivory, was up next to present the Lifetime Achievement in Magazine Publishing prize to his pal Jann Wenner. In typical Wolfe fashion, he began with the visual—"Rolling Stone used to be tabloid-sized, and Jann had it made up with Oxford lines, like the old papers of the 1930s"—and spun out a tribute that touched on fast cars, facial hair, pageboy haircuts and editorial prowess. When Wenner came onstage to collect the award he returned the favor with fond words about Wolfe ("The most proactive thing you can do as an editor of Tom is to maintain the pretense that there's some sort of deadline Tom has to meet,") and an anecdote about hanging with Wolfe while the latter researched Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. "To my great disbelief," Wenner noted, "he told me he'd never taken acid."

"It's not going to be a roast tonight, I don't think," noted the novelist Rivka Galchen, eyeing the crowd of revelers.

Finally, as dessert arrived, The Daily Beast’s Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown stepped onstage to thank Orhan Pamuk for his "deeply meaningful and important work" and to present him with the Lifetime Achievement Prize. Pamuk delivered the evening's closing tribute to Mailer, recollecting his father's tattered Signet edition of The Naked and the Dead and calling Mailer the "Victor Hugo of America—a person deeply embedded in his time; a person who takes risks; a person with an immense ego and an immense verbal energy."

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Molly Young blogs at The Economist and has written for The New York Observer.