The Literati and Their Servers


The right to free labor, one of the most sacred rights of man.

—Supreme Court Justice

Stephen Field, 1875

Salman Rushdie did not exactly cross the Hotel, Restaurant and Club Employees union picket line outside PEN’s gala fundraising dinner May 12. He snuck in the back way. But such caution is understandable since an Iranian hit man can still go to heaven by whacking Rushdie.

So far as I know, however, no mullah has hurled a fatwa at Carl Bernstein or any of the other literati who dissed the former Rainbow Room workers fired by the Cipriani restaurant royalty because they belong to a union.

The Carl Bernstein story is particularly intriguing. I heard it from Local 6’s John Turchiano, but didn’t use it because I couldn’t get a less partisan substantiation. I asked a Times reporter who was there. He said Turchiano had told him about it but he himself hadn’t seen Bernstein inside. “But if John says it happened,” the Times man said, “it happened.”

Now, however, the coauthor of All the President’s Men has verified the story, in an interview in the May 24 New York Observer. As it was originally told to me, Bernstein was handed a union leaflet as he neared the entrance of the Cipriani 42nd Street catering hall. He made a show of reading it carefully, agreeing with it, and spiritedly walking away.

“Bernstein doesn’t look like Dustin Hoffman,” Turchiano told me, but we recognized him, and as he left, refusing to go in, we all cheered him.”

But, like Rushdie, Bernstein slipped into the back entrance. “I took the chicken’s way out,” he told Frank DiGiacomo of the New York Observer. “I told myself that if there were no pickets [at the back entrance], I would come inside. It’s hardly an elevated stance. I wish I could be more principled about it.”

In a previous column, I noted some of the other illuminati who hurried on past the picket line. Peter Jennings and Sean “Puffy” Combs have been added to the list. And Frank DiGiacomo notes that the bristling champion of freedom of the press, Steve Brill, walked on in, as did Grove-Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin and ABC Entertainment executive vice president Susan Lyne. But ABC officials have considerable practice in crossing picket lines.

Also, in addition to the organizations I listed last week that canceled major events at the Ciprianis’ restaurants because of the union’s action, DiGiacomo reports that a tribute to Geraldine Ferraro, Gloria Steinem, and others, scheduled for June 7, has been canceled.

As I wrote last week, PEN’s executive director, Michael Roberts, knew about Local 6’s deep grievance against the Ciprianis by early February; John Turchiano had left a message at PEN three weeks before the gala was to take place. No one, says Turchiano, returned his call.

But in its statement explaining—in the cadences of a Clinton press secretary—how this unfortunate contretemps came to be, PEN baldly stated it had had “less than forty-eight hours notice” that those noisy picketers would be present to dampen the glow of the evening.

A reporter I respect, Gay Talese, formerly with the Times, has been a leading member of PEN for some 30 years. Talese refused to cross the picket line at Cipriani 42nd Street on May 12. Later he told Frank DiGiacomo:

“What’s comical and what’s sad is the pretense to idealism that knows geographical limitations. PEN has always had more compassion for faraway places than the issues at home.”

(An exception, I would say, is PEN’s work in American prisons.)

“Right there…outside of Cipriani 42nd Street,” Talese continued, “there were fellow Americans who have legitimate grievances.”

Talese recognizes “the great work” PEN does for writers imprisoned around the world, but he also calls for “people who respect liberal causes to take a stand—not vacillating or finding excuses to saunter into this gala dinner.”

In the May 19 Voice, Richard Goldstein went beyond the PEN guests’ callousness toward the fired waiters and other former workers at the Rainbow Room, exploring the glib hostility of much of the New York media to organized labor.

This mechanical stereotyping is most evident on the tabloids’ editorial pages, but often the news coverage is indifferent to and indeed ignorant of the most basic labor grievances. Not that all union leaders are in the principled tradition of Eugene Debs, but the honest unions are covered as badly as police brutality used to be. Forget television, except for NY1, which is well worth watching on this issue.

Three columnists for the Daily News actually do illuminating reporting on labor unions—Tim Robbins in his “Working Papers” column, Juan Gonzalez, and Jim Dwyer. But no New York paper covers labor in its news pages as extensively as the late A.H. Raskin used to for The New York Times.

Meanwhile, Toni Goodale, who chaired this year’s PEN gala, tells the Daily News that the event will be held next year at Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater.

“The very idea that PEN survived the labor dispute, ” she said cheerily, “will make for a more attractive event next year.”

Unless workers at Lincoln Center are on a picket line.