Sometimes on the radio I hear the name of a woman who with her husband supports Public Broadcasting programs on the national level. On one occasion I helped this philanthropist find her way on a long, winding, and difficult course.
At the time she was vice chair of the trustees of the City University of New York. A new chancellor of the university was being installed, and she was to lead the academic procession in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. My job was to get the procession to its starting point at the back of the auditorium for its march down the aisle to the stage.
I knew the route from a similar role each year in the commencement exercises of the college I worked for, a minor unit of the City University. Of the sizable committee planning the installation, I was the sole master of the concert hall’s backstage and front-of-house mysteries.
It was a humid July morning. All the academic dignitaries were directed to the rooms in the basement where chorus and orchestra members ordinarily assembled to prepare for concerts. From there, a dreary staircase led up to the concert stage and also, by going up a second flight, through an unmarked doorway, around the upper corridors and down other flights of stairs, to the back of the auditorium.
Then our procession would grandly enter and march down the aisle to the front. They would either walk up a short set of stairs and take their seats onstage, where the trustees, politicians, and the new chancellor were already seated, or sit in the front rows of the auditorium.
Mrs. Everett, by virtue of her office, would lead the procession, followed by the distinguished guests, all in their diverse, sometimes comical caps and gowns. Since this was the City University of New York, the Universities of London and Paris were represented, London by the distinguished intellectual and author Sir Isaiah Berlin and Paris by someone important from the Sorbonne, the formal name of which is the University of Paris.
The principal speaker for the day was historian and one-time presidential adviser Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., at that time a City University professor. He had put on his cap and gown and was lining up with the other intellectual heavyweights, followed by guests from other universities, dozens of college officials, and hundreds of faculty members from the CUNY campuses.
When I got the signal to begin—the audience were settled in their seats and the orchestra had begun playing a series of marches—I rushed to the stifling staircase where our dignitaries had been standing for well over half an hour, victims of an organizing-committee member’s anxiety. I led the single-file stream of global brainpower up the two flights, through the unmarked door, around the upper-story corridors, and down the stairways to the door at the back of the auditorium. At this point Mrs. Everett was on her own, going down the aisle with everyone following her, as the audience stood to show their respect.
I watched the ceremony from a seat on an upper level—the greetings from a number of European and American city universities and platitudinous addresses by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and the newly installed chancellor. It had been a long, hot day, with an early start, and it wasn’t easy staying awake.
Then it was over and the orchestra started playing. As the audience stood respectfully, Mrs. Everett was leading her august recessional parade up the aisle to the back door.
Oh, my God, I realized. Despite the months of planning for this event, there was no plan for them to be led anywhere after the ceremony. No one had thought about getting them back to the area where they’d left their garment bags and other belongings.
By the time I ran down to the lobby, Mrs. Everett had emerged from the door, beginning to wander around, with her hundreds of charges behind her. The lobby was otherwise empty, since the guests inside were standing at their seats. There were no Avery Fisher staff around, since we had impressed them early on with the thoroughness of our planning.
I rushed to Mrs. Everett’s side, said, “This way,” and led her and the procession up the stairs, around the corridors, through the unmarked door, and down the flights of stairs.
My fantasy has been that if not for me—the Pied Piper of Avery Fisher Hall—then Sir Isaiah Berlin, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the man from the Sorbonne, and all the others would still be wandering the confounding corridors of the concert hall. Much of the world’s intellectual activity would have been suspended, which might not, when you think about it, have been a bad thing.