PEN Center USA's 23rd annual literary awards festival went off without a hitch at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Monday night -- except for the small fact that its lifetime achievement award winner, Joan Didion, was not in attendance.
"Unfortunately, Joan Didion's doctor advised her at the last minute that she could not travel to Los Angeles," PEN said in a statement Tuesday.
On Monday night, it was California Gov. Jerry Brown who delivered the news, taking the podium early in the night. Brown and Didion share a Sacramento childhood, and as a young governor, Brown was featured in "Many Mansions," an essay that appears in her 1979 book "The White Album." On Tuesday night, Brown lauded Didion's writing as "without cant, without cliche," that "speaks to life as we all experience it."
As if to make up for her absence, a parade of stars was in attendance. Harrison Ford, who was prepared to present her the award, spoke somewhat extemporaneously instead. "I just want to tell you all how much her friendship has meant to me," he said. Forty years ago, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, were "The most sophisticated people I knew."
Then a carpenter, Ford was hired by Didion and Dunne to build their beach house in Malibu. "I was the first thing they saw in the morning and the last thing they saw" -- he paused -- "before cocktails."
Didion and Dunne, whose 2003 death was the subject of Didion's National Book Award-winning memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking," gave Ford "support and validation that I'm grateful for," he said. "She means a lot to me, and I wish she were here for me to tell her that."
In Didion's stead, Anjelica Huston read a message from the author. "So many people in this room are part of my deepest life," she said, including Harrison, Bret Easton Ellis and actor-director Griffin Dunne, whose documentary-in-progress about his aunt was shown, in part, featuring Didion reading her work.
Those who did make it to the event included Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winner, who was given the First Amendment Award for his writing on social justice, including the books "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt" and "The World as It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress." Filmmaker Oliver Stone presented Hedges the award.
Mark Boal, who won the screenplay award for "Zero Dark Thirty," took the podium with thanks. "For me, PEN writers were like the New York Yankees of writers," he said. Then he acknowledged the contribution that Kathryn Bigelow had made to the film -- "I share this award with you," he said to the director, who was sitting at a front table. "That said, I'm going to keep it."
Danny Strong won the teleplay award for his script for "Game Change," which aired on HBO. "If 10 years ago someone would have told me I was going to win a writing award the same day Joan Didion was getting one," Strong said (10 years ago, Strong was an actor on the television show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), "I would have asked what prescription drugs they were taking. And if I could have some."
There were many literary award winners; some took the presence of the stars in their midst in stride. "I'm not going to accept this award until Harrison Ford gives me a kiss on the cheek," joked Ramona Ausubel, who won the fiction award for "Nobody Is Here Except All of Us."
Gilbert Hernandez, who received the graphic literature award for his outstanding body of work, looked elsewhere, citing the surreal yet accessible work of Charles Schulz's Peanuts comics as a precursor to the very different "Love and Rockets" he created with his brother. "I learned the language of comics but knew there was something else to say," he said.
Other award winners included Amanda Auchter for poetry for "The Wishing Tomb"; Joy Harjo for creative nonfiction for her memoir "Crazy Brave"; Michael Harmon for children's/young adult literature for "Under the Bridge"; Ed Leibowitz for journalism for the article "The Takeover Artist" in Los Angeles Magazine; Steh Rosenfeld for research nonfiction for his book "Subversives"; Dan O'Brien for drama; and Randol Contreras, who recieved the University of California Press' Exceptional First Book Award for "The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream."