Walter Isaacson’s Extra: ‘Steve Jobs’ Author Speaks at Dan’s Lit Prize

Walter Isaacson Cartoon By Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon By Mickey Paraskevas

It is amazing to me how the cream of the literary world is pitching in to make the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize a success. The reason, I think, is neither me nor the paper. It is the fact that this competition, which allows just about anyone familiar with the eastern end of Long Island to enter a nonfiction essay and try to win this prize, helps promote good writing in America. The prize for our competition is one of the largest—if not the largest—for nonfiction in the country.

This is the third year we have run this competition. Each year the format is the same. The contest opens in the spring, hopefuls go to and enter essays of 600 to 1,500 words there (the contest closes July 21), prominent judges read them and grade them, and then we hold the awards ceremony in late August on a Saturday afternoon at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton. We give out $5,000 and a trophy to the winner. There are two runners-up prizes of $500 each.

In the first year, Len Riggio, the Chairman of Barnes & Noble, gave out the prize. The keynote speech was read by two=time Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Caro, and the winning entry, by James Keith Phillips, who is a Shinnecock Indian, was read by Emmy winner Pia Lindstrom.

In the second year, Pia again read the winning entry. Author E.L. Doctorow of Sag Harbor gave the keynote address, and the award was presented by Martin Shepard, the prominent book publisher to Susan Duff for her essay “Moving Through Water.”

Earlier this year, I began preparing for the awards ceremony again. I secured a date with Ruth Appelhof, the executive director of Guild Hall and the John Drew Theater, for Saturday afternoon, August 16. I also secured a reader for the winning entry. It will be Academy Award winning actor Mercedes Ruehl.

For the keynote speaker, I reached out by email to Walter Isaacson, the author of numerous biographies, the best known of which is the #1 New York Times bestseller Steve Jobs. His prior biography, Einstein, also was a #1 bestseller, and, as it happened, I have enjoyed reading both of theseand also all the other biographies he has written.

I know Isaacson personally as well, for both of us have participated in the Artist-Writers softball game held on the sandlot ball field in Herrick Park in East Hampton every year in August. He plays second base for the writers. I umpire from behind the mound.

In any case, I wrote Isaacson at length about the literary event at the John Drew Theater and asked him if he would deliver the keynote speech. I got a disappointing reply.

“Gee, Dan, I am sorry, but I may still be in Colorado then. I can’t commit because I need to remain flexible due to my Aspen Institute duties. All the best, Walter”

About a week later, still wrestling with who else I might ask, I discovered that the date for the awards ceremony was the same day as the Artist-Writers Game. My first reaction was shock. Our advertising had now gone out. Our press releases. Our stories had been in the paper about August 16. There was no changing it. But then I looked into it further.

The game starts at 2 p.m. and usually lasts 3 hours. Our event starts at 4:30 p.m. and is over by 5 p.m. On the other hand, the John Drew Theater is just a quarter-mile down Main Street from the ball field. Obviously, if I got everything set up at the event, I could umpire at least the first inning, maybe the second, and be back there by 3 p.m. But what about Isaacson? Well, he had spoken and he had turned us down.

“I understand,” I wrote. “This is the day, by the way, of the Artist-Writers Game, if that makes any difference. Hope it does. But probably not. We will miss you.”

His reply startled me.

“Is it after the game?”

The thing about the Artist-Writers Game is that many of the participants will move mountains to attend it. I recall years ago when
Malcolm Forbes, the publisher of Forbes magazine at that time, held a huge, wildly expensive weekend-long birthday party for himself in Morocco. His guests would be brought in by private jet. Then at the end of the weekend, they would be jetted home.

That year, the multi-millionaire Mort Zuckerman, who owned The Atlantic and U.S. News and World Report, was jetted over at the beginning of the weekend, but then jetted back to New York so he could pitch for the writers at the game in East Hampton. That is just one example.

Bill Clinton has been in this game. So have Christie Brinkley, Roy Scheider, Alec Baldwin, Paul Simon and about a hundred more regulars.

In any case, what I was getting back from Walter was that whatever else came along with his Washington-based Aspen Institute, he’d be sure to be in the Hamptons on the Saturday of the Artist-Writers game.

And that gave me this crazy idea. It was a long shot. It hangs on the fact that lots of people play in the game, more than there are positions for. And so the coaches, with clipboards, swap players in and out. Only a few players play the whole game. So here is exactly what I wrote Walter Isaacson:

“Game begins at 2 p.m. Crowd begins to settle in at John Drew Theater at 4:30 p.m. and we begin at 4:45 p.m. with your remarks. I would introduce you. It would likely be around the fourth inning (if the game starts around 2:45 p.m. after the introductions and the anthem, etc.) We’d text you, chauffeur you over the quarter mile to the stage entrance, have the car wait 10 minutes while you spoke (in uniform), and chauffeur you back. I’ll be at the game too, but will leave after the first inning’s umpiring to go to John Drew.”

Here was his answer.

“I’m happy to do this. All the best, Walter”

Walter Isaacson, in full baseball uniform, perhaps covered with dust from a slide into second, will appear at the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize awards ceremony to deliver the keynote speech at precisely, or approximately, 4:15 p.m. Whatever is going on at that moment, perhaps the music accompanying the seating of the crowd—this event is standing-room only—will be interrupted by a brief introduction from me and then this speech, delivered by Mr. Isaacson with perhaps his baseball cap askew, after which he will be bundled back to the game by his specially selected chauffeur.

I have thought long and hard about who that chauffeur might be. That person will have to be out in the parking lot with the motor running at precisely 4:15 p.m. They will have to leave the car and fetch Isaacson from either the dugout or from out in the field. And they will have to ferry him over to the theater, then wait, then bring him back.

I can’t do this. I have to be at the event. Who do I trust? I briefly thought to ask one man I trust, the Mayor of East Hampton, Paul Rickenbach, who gives the grand introduction at the game, to do this, but I decided I didn’t want to burden him with it. In any event, he might decide to ask a police officer to drive Isaacson back and forth in a police car—which might be okay but which might turn out to get him and the chief in trouble. And so I asked my wife, Chris. When she says she will do something, she does it. She will be there, and she will offer him a delightful ride over and back.

August 16 is going to be some day. 

To enter the Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction, visit Deadline for entries is July 21.


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