Philanthropic support for the Chicago Public Library (CPL) brought together Chicago literary figures and Chicago plutocrats when the Chicago Public Library Foundation held its annual Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner last Thursday evening at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Forum, located at 725 West Roosevelt. Longtime Chicago Sun-Times film critic, Roger Ebert, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was honored with the Carl Sandburg Literary Award and authoress Rebecca Skloot was honored with the 21st Century Award. The event was covered by Elizabeth Hamel in her Sun-Times high-society column, Elizabeth’s Social Circuit, yesterday, Tuesday, October 25, 2011 (“Gala draws a well-read crowd: Dozens of Chicago’s literati on hand to honor Sandburg Award recipient Roger Ebert”), but I am also drawing on a press release and other sources.
A total of sixty-six authors with ties to Chicago were on hand for the event. Ms. Hamel reported the organizers asked the audience not to applaud as the writers walked on stage one at a time “for a historic photo op” but “no one could tell the group not to clap for an American hero when Capt. James A. Lovell, commander of the Apollo 13 mission, walked on stage.”
Other writers at the event included David Axelrod, a political advisor to Mayor Richard M. Daley and President Barack H. Obama, Jr.; Alderman Ed Burke of the 14th Ward, a former cop and the most powerful member of the Chicago City Council; mystery novelist Sarah Paretsky; playwright Regina Taylor; defense attorney, former federal prosecutor, and mystery novelist Scott Turow,President of the Authors Guild; and the singer and songwriter Dennis DeYoung, thefrontman for the band Styx from 1970 to 1999.
The authors were raised by some of the richest, most powerful, and most influential people in Chicagoland. The event was co-chaired by Hyatt Hotels Corporation Executive Chairman Tom Pritzker and his wife Margot; his sister Gigi Pritzker Pucker, and her husband, Michael Pucker; Donna LaPietra; and Dia S. Weil. It was also attended by Sun-Times Publisher John Barron; Sun-Times Editor-in-Chief Don Haynor; Bob Wislow, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the CPL Foundation and Chairman & CEO of U.S. Equities Realty; CPL Board President Jayne Carr Thompson and her husband, former Illinois GovernorJames R. Thompson; and Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey.
The dinner served at the event consisted of smoked trout salad and braised beef. After dinner was served, Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Co-Chairwomen Donna LaPietra and Dia Weil presented Ebert with the Carl Sandburg Literary Award. A photo that accompanied the article depicted Mrs. Weil on stage with Roger & Chaz Ebert and Bill Kurtis. There were similar pictures accompanying the press release and the article of Rebecca Skloot, authoress of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, giving a speech when she accepted the 21st Century Award.
As Ebert approached the stage with the assistance of his wife, some members of the audience held up foam thumbs – a reference to the thumbs up or thumbs down ratings Ebert and his late co-host, Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel (1946-1999), used on At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (1982-1986) and Siskel & Ebert (1986-1999), if not other programs. The Master of Ceremonies, Bill Kurtis, interviewed Ebert on stage.
As Ebert has not been able to speak since 2006 due to the last of several surgeries he underwent for the treatment of cancer. His oral communication is through a computerized voice system dubbed “Alex.” Ebert answered questions for thirty questions. Kurtis and Ebert covered his opinion on the state of the motion picture industry and his struggle to complete his memoir, published last month, Life Itself. Especially difficult for him to write were the chapters that addressed his past alcoholism.
One photo that accompanied the article depicted Sarah Paretsky with Laura Caldwell. The latter left the practice of law to start writing so-called “chick lit” novels for women, but took a more serious turn a few years ago and began to write mysteries and thrillers as well as non-fiction.Whiledoing research for her sixth novel, The Rome Affair, she met Jovan Mosley, a murder suspect who had been charged with the crime but had sat in a Cook County holding cell for over five years with no trial date. She joined his defense attorney, who ultimately provided his innocence, an experience that led her to write Long Way Home: A Young Man Lost in the System and the Two Women Who Found Him and to found Loyola University of Chicago’s Life After Innocence, which, according to her Web site, “assists wrongfully convicted individuals or other innocent persons affected by the criminal justice system in order to help them re-enter society and reclaim their lives.” I only go into such detail because her journey as a writer and human being is so interesting.
Another photo depicted three authors of One Book, One Chicago selections: Carl Smith, The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City; Sandra Cisneros, authoress of House on Mango Street; and Stuart Dybek, author of The Coast of Chicago. Donna LaPietra posed for one photo that accompanied the article with Peter Sagal, a playwright, screenwriter, and longtime host of Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! The latter is a humorous news quiz show that is co-produced by Chicago NPR station WBEZ which has a nationwide audience of 3,000,000 people through 520 NPR stations and about another 1,000,000 who listen to the podcast. Still another photo depicted CPL Foundation President & CEO Rhona Frazin with Dennis DeYoung & Suzanne DeYoung.
The CPL Foundation raised $1,250,000 at this dinner. That set a fundraising record for the CPL Foundation at a time when Mayor Rahm Emanuel, under pressure to cut expenses wherever possible, has threatened to both close branches of the Chicago Public Library on Monday and Friday mornings and to layoff hundreds of workers. BMO Harris Bank was Lead Sponsor of the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner.