The theme of this year’s 26th annual PEN/Faulkner Foundation Gala was “danger,” but it could just as easily have been, “Whither the tuxedo?” The organizers of the prestigious literary event made a strategic sartorial decision: to drop the time-honored black-tie dress code in favor of business suits for men and cocktail dresses for women. While many of the men at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Monday evening seemed to welcome the relaxed standards, one in particular, master of ceremonies Calvin Trillin, was not so sure. “I have mixed feelings about the change of dress,” he said, “partly because of the negative effect it has had on my tuxedo amortization.” Nonetheless, the writer and humorist wore a dark suit, blue shirt, and yellow tie.
The change of dress even prompted Mary Haft, the gala’s co-chair, to send out an e-mail reminder on Monday morning: “Although Cocktail Attire is printed on invitation, know that this is a departure from years of the tradition of Black Tie.”
While Trillin focused on the change of dress code, the 12 writers and two DC students who were honored at the event stayed with the theme at hand: danger. David Baldacci, the author of more than two dozen best-selling books, who lives in Vienna, Virginia, recalled a three-day research experience he had training with the Army Rangers at Fort Benning in Georgia. He spent time on a sniper range, “got rolled over in a Humvee,” trained for a parachute jump, and did the required Ranger fitness course, “which, four years later, I am still sore from.”
Piper Kerman, well known for writing the memoir that became the acclaimed Netflix prison series Orange Is The New Black, said she has known a lot of danger in her life. “I have accepted crosstown rides from strangers in Washington, DC. I jumped off tall waterfalls in Indonesia with no certainty about how I would land,” she said. “I have carried bags of dirty money across international lines at the behest of a drug kingpin,” which is how she ended up navigating “the dangers, great and small, that wait for every person inside our enormous American maze of prisons and jails.” She served 13 months at Connecticut’s Danbury prison for money laundering and drug trafficking.
Elliott Holt, a DC-based writer, discussed her memory of when a 15-year-old high school freshman who sought shelter under a tree was killed by lightning when a sudden storm blasted a lacrosse game at St. Albans School in 1991. She was not the only speaker to reference the Washington area—the two student-authors who were honored, Daniela Shia-Sevilla of the Duke Ellington School and and Rachel Pyfrom of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, both wove Metro into their essays on danger.
Each year, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation honors a dozen established writers with the literary prizes, as well as recognizing two students from the Writers in Schools program. A component of the gala occasion is that the established writers spend time with student writers at DC public schools. In addition to Baldacci, Kerman, and Holt, the other writers who were honored this year included Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier; Mitchell S. Jackson, whose most recent novel is The Residue Years; Rachel Pastan, whose novels include Alena, Lady of the Snakes, and This Side of Married; Benjamin Alire Sáenz, who has published 19 books, including the short-story collection Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club; Madison Smartt Bell, who wrote the Haitian Revolution trilogy, All Souls Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone That the Builder Refused; Adelle Waldman, whose debut novel is The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.; and Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote the nonfiction bestseller The Warmth of Other Suns.
The 237 guests who attended the cocktail reception and readings were also treated to a seated dinner of roasted autumn vegetables, organic baby chicken with roasted fingerling sweet potatoes, and a rustic apple tart paired with Acacia Carneros Chardonnay and Beaulieu Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon.
John Hauge, one of my dinner partners who had just been to a black-tie gala the night before, was among the men who welcomed PEN/Faulkner’s new dress code. He said business suits were simply easier because many of the male guests come to the event directly from the office. Such is modern gala life in the city.