The New Yorker Festival Was Mostly Just What You'd Expect

It was mostly just what you'd expect: Celebrities, sponsorships, and politics dominated the weekend.

By Ted Kruckel October 8, 2008, 4:29 PM EDT

The New Yorker Festival's pedi cabs

Photo: Startraks

In case you haven’t heard, the first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. So here goes: As far as the performing arts are concerned, I am a philistine. 

I’ve fought this compulsion privately for years, and now I’m out and proud with it. I went to opening night at the American Ballet Theatre for years, staying through the entire performance (well, only because board member Muffie Potter Aston told me that the board made specific pleas to members not to leave during the show because it’s disheartening to the troupe). I toiled on committees for the New York Public Library and Cooper-Hewitt Museum for years, hosting little cocktail parties, organizing ticket buyers, and worst of all, attending meetings. 

I gave up going to the theater because no one would attend with me anymore due to the snoring. The last musical I enjoyed was Sweeney Todd. My friend Bernadette could be counted on to fax me the libretto of just about any opera performance I took in, but I don’t think I could make it through three acts today.

Remember going to the Angelika and sitting through a three-hour French movie about a sad, abused, but ultimately honorable pregnant maid? Yep, me too. But these days I get up and leave the cinema as soon as I can predict the ending—which inevitably occurs about 40 to 45 minutes into the run time.

But I can still read. So I thought, “Maybe the New Yorker Festival is for me.”

In its ninth year (expect a big hoopla next fall; no one knows how to work an anniversary like Condé Nast magazines), the New Yorker Festival (NYF) has grown quietly and organically into a real cornerstone of the chattering class’s fall schedule, based on this philistine’s reading of the media tea leaves. 

But they also have celebrities! Famous people, screened through the sieve of The New Yorker, yes, but still celebrities!

To make sure I didn’t immerse myself too rashly into the world of talky culture, I started with lunch at Morandi, Keith McNally’s low-set, knotty-pine, Italian outpost on Waverly and Seventh Avenue that I don’t think gets its publicity due. (Thank God. The Waverly Inn and the Beatrice soak up most of the hotness and those who hope to be seen.) I’ve been going regularly and have never seen a famous person until…today.

There’s Malcolm Gladwell! The curly halo-headed observateur of trends and culture (author of Blink and The Tipping Point) and who my intelli friend Ron Prince says is the best dinner conversationalist he ever met (which hurt my feelings a little bit). This is so exciting, on the day of the New Yorker Festival! Sitting there, drinking a coffee-style beverage (it may have just been coffee) typing on his laptop. Writing!

This is what the festival is all about—writers being writers, right here in front of us, sharing their ideas, their process, even mingling with the readers.

Me: “Sorry for interrupting your writerly solitude, but I’m attending the New Yorker Festival this weekend, and I assume you’re speaking somewhere.”

Malcolm Gladwell: “I just finished.”

Me: “How did it go?”

M.G.: “Fine.”

Although M.G. was perfectly polite, I sensed that my 15 seconds of talking to a famous person were up, but still this was, yes, the New Yorker Festival!

Off to the NYF command center I go to get my tickets for my seminars and events. Set in the Metropolitan Pavilion, the acid-green signage was clean and welcoming, marked down a tiny bit by the less professional hand-lettered imploring signs of the Escada sample sale next door. (Affordable Escada, come and see!)

Alas, the welcoming center was closed from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. So after shopping for my mother at the Escada sale and having a glass of Pouilly Fume “de Cris” at Le Singe Vert (another under-mentioned great restaurant, please don’t start going), I entered the NYF.

It’s cocktail hour! Featuring Stella Artois beer and a brown tequila drink in martini glasses. I opted for Stella—a good choice, not only because I’m reminded on how toothful and satisfying a proper beer can be, but also because I’ve picked the beverage that the night’s mini-soiree menu was centered around by Match Catering. It’s Belgian night at the NYF, and tiny waffles with strawberries, trays with frites cones, and duxelles of mushrooms abound. (The spirits sponsors change nightly. I wish I had seen more of Match’s matching, overseen in-person by Joan Steinberg.)

This is sponsor country, which I guess is my job to pay attention to, so how do the business partners of the NYF fare? There’s a Blackberry station where an attendant fixes the clock on my phone. Check. There’s an Acura car and a pick-up area where an Acura will drive you to an event (or you can take a free pedi cab, although I saw not one of either take a group in my three visits—all out I guess). GSS Security was (over?) abundantly on-hand to handle the queues. In the NYF bookstore, I bought a book by Lillian Ross to be signed by the Here But Not Here legend at a seminar. I seemed to be the only party guest even browsing, much less buying anything, and the nice cashier had neither a pen nor a paperclip to help me validate/organize my purchase as a legitimate tax write-off. (Will this sentence suffice?)

My favorite idea going into this seminar was a celebrity voting registration program where people like Susan Sarandon, Edie Falco, and Tim Robbins would actually give you the requisite sheet and pencil. What a great idea, I thought, until I realized that everyone who reads The New Yorker or even just attends the festival is probably already registered. This seemed to be borne out by the empty tables and forlorn forms I noticed at all the events. I wished organizers had just had the cleverness and facility (not to mention the permits) to just pick those tables up and put them outside for passersby, making a token gesture a meaningful one.

Associate publisher David William graciously told me very little about how much you have to spend to be an advertiser/sponsor of the NYF—it’s proprietary, you know—but I learned that you need not have been buying pages for years: The tequila guys are brand new. He also told me that the separation of church and state prevents sponsors from having signage at the speaking/event sites. Which made perfect sense to me until I spied the Westin Heavenly Bed lounge at the Directors Guild of America Theater on West 57th Street. (Is this a good time to acknowledge that The New Yorker and Westin Hotels are both former clients of mine? I hope so.)

Here—while awaiting Clint Eastwood (who opened by intimating that Sarah Palin won the V.P. debate, thereby losing the room) or Tommy Lee Jones to tell Lillian (and you) all sorts of private, off the record, brainy things—you can experience “elements of the heavenly” Westin Bed experience. I’m confused. I look around. There are no beds. Is the furniture made from the same material as the mattresses? I bounce up and down on a lounge chair, unconvinced. There are water bottles and a bowl of pecans. Good fit for Heavenly Westin and the NYF? You decide.

Have I mentioned yet that I have been at three sites and not one copy or even cover of the magazine has been noticed much less given to me? I break down and buy the current issue on Sunday, mad that all my hoofing hasn’t earned me a free copy. I guess they assumed we’re all subscribers, and decided to forgo the benefit of having all the people at Morandi and Le Singe Vert and other local restaurants brandish a copy of the magazine while, like me, they killed time between functions.

But let’s not quibble, shall we? Let’s talk about content. Here is where the NYF shines. Republican maverick (that’s right!) Chuck Hagel reminds you of how there are always two sides to every coin. Tommy Lee Jones explains (convincingly) how dumb an idea the U.S./Mexico border fence is and how ashamed Kay Bailey Hutchison should be of the rabid, racist, anti-immigrant efforts she makes to garner re-election publicity. (Tommy, who knew? We love ya.)

But I only wish the crowds, who look the part (all nubby plain clothes, barely a gold earring or Prada men’s shoe in sight), played it. But, alas, they’re ill-mannered like at the movies: saving seats with coats even as the program begins, complaining when they can’t find their wives, and most disconcertedly, getting up to leave before the speakers are done, something so much more disruptive in these mostly open settings than in the dark of a performce venue. Look, I’ll be honest, we all get the willies after 90 minutes, but jeez, don’t be such philistines. It’s The New Yorker.

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