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PEN Center USA awards fete Elmore Leonard

December 3, 2009 | 10:05 am


The PEN Center USA literary awards, held Wednesday night at the Beverly Hills Hotel, made for an odd intersection of worlds. Book people are somewhat less glamorous than movie people -- more glasses, lower heels, generally less camera-ready -- but at this event, they're cheek and jowl. Two attendees who slipped out a little early found themselves waiting at the valet stand next to Warren Beatty, who just happened to be at the hotel -- Hollywood really does go to the Polo Lounge.

The PEN event itself didn't have quite that star power, but it did have Elmore Leonard, the author of close to 50 novels, on hand to receive PEN's lifetime achievement award. Leonard, whom friends call Dutch, said he first stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1969 -- in what might have been a maid's room -- for $28 per night. He was working on adapting one of his books for the screen, and at night would go up Sunset Boulevard to catch the Grateful Dead at the Whiskey A Go-Go. That movie didn't turn out so well, but later pictures made from his books, did: "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight," "Jackie Brown," "Mr. Majestyk."

Presenting the award to Leonard was his longtime friend, the legendary movie producer Walter Mirisch ("The Magnificent Seven," "In the Heat of the Night"). In his carefully prepared introduction, Mirisch said Leonard has "an uncanny ear for crooks, cops and babes"; near the end, he turned the page and came up blank. A long, uncomfortable silence stretched as Mirisch checked through his papers, apparently missing the final page of his speech. "To hell with it," he finally said, smiling, to relieved laughter, and ad-libbed his way through the end.

Another Hollywood hybrid winner was screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who's already taken home an Oscar for "Milk," for which PEN also honored him. In case anyone in the audience thought that getting a post-Oscar award was moot, Black told a story of having been surprised to find himself uninvited to speak at a Michigan college by an unfriendly administrator after being welcomed by the English department. The notice of the PEN award prompted him to do something positive, and rent a nearby theater to screen "Milk" and discuss gay rights. He said he'd seen anti-gay graffiti elsewhere in his travels -- "You A Fag" it read. "Well you're right," he said, "but at least you could have given me a verb." 

Other honorees last night included L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez for his book "The Soloist." See the complete list after the jump.

PEN Center USA Awards 2009:

Lifetime Achievement: Elmore Leonard
Award of Honor: Ben Goldhirsch, GOOD
First Amendment Award: Liz Garbus and Sheila Nevins for "Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech" (HBO)
Fiction: Kim Barnes for "A Country Called Home"
Creative Nonfiction: Steve Lopez for "The Soloist"
Poetry: Seido Ray Ronci for "The Skeleton of the Crow"
Children's Literature: Kathi Appelt for "The Underneath"
Literary Journalism: Karen Olsson for "Before and After" (Texas Monthly)
Translation: Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover for "Selected Poems of Friedrich Holderlin"
Drama: Marisela Tevino Orta for  "Braided Sorrow"
Research Nonfiction: Leslie T. Chang for "Factory Girls"
Teleplay: George Mastras for "Breaking Bad: Crazy Handful of Nothin'" (AMC)
Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black for "Milk"

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Movie producer Walter Mirisch, left, with friend and honoree Elmore Leonard. Credit: Amy Graves / Wireimage.