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At the New Yorker Festival, They're Droll but Not Dry

By Richard Leiby
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page D03

The fifth annual New Yorker Festival, which offered highbrow literary, musical and artistic events all weekend in New York -- panel discussions such as "Remembering Joseph Brodsky" and " Malcolm Gladwell Talks About the Power of Thinking Without Thinking" -- would not be complete without some scenes from a cocktail party that might have come from a New Yorker cartoon.

So, in a TriBeCa bar on Friday night, we find Steve Martin and Salman Rushdie engaged in deep, animated conversation with veteran Washington investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and his psychiatrist wife, Elizabeth. Unfortunately, Martin is not wearing a white suit and doesn't have a fake arrow jutting from his head, but let's imagine that anyway. Let's try to get a quote worthy of a caption:


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"I have never met so many stupid people in my life!" Martin declares.

Thank you. Now, over to Rushdie, who is clean-shaven and also in an indulgent mood. "Here's my quote: 'I have never met Steve Martin,' " he says.

Sy Hersh has taken off his Armani tie, which everyone assures us is the only one he owns. Out on the patio, Sy's daughter Melissa smokes a cigarette and says we may report that she attended the party. But prefaces everything else she says with a ground rule she probably learned at age 5: "Off the record."

Now over to author Chris Buckley, who is talking with a friend, marketing exec Liz Paley, whom he describes thus: "She is willowy and big-budgeted."

Hamilton Fish, president of the Nation Institute, sidles over and tells of hearing Buckley on C-SPAN radio recently and thinking the Republican writer was John Kerry. "The disembodied voice was very close," he explains. "It's that patrician Massachusetts accent."

Writers Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers, the artist Christo and actress Anna Deavere Smith are here somewhere, but our efforts to find them are waylaid on account of tequila. Lobster and lamb are served to guests on little porcelain spoons. Joyce Wadler, who writes the New York Times's "Boldface Names" column, tells us she rarely wants to go to parties anymore, but finds this one exceptional.

By 2 a.m., legendary cartoonist Ed Koren is talking worriedly about whether his son might face the draft if President Bush is reelected. Fiction writer ZZ Packer is bumming smokes and expressing amazement that the president used the word "vociferously" in the debate with Kerry.

Then Packer hails a cab, so we never get to ask her, "Are you related to ZZ Top?" You'll just have to imagine seeing that in a New Yorker cartoon sometime soon.

Grays Days Ahead for Washington?

• Name game: Coming up with a moniker for Washington's new baseball team is simple -- if you're only joking. We've heard wags proposing the Washington Exposés, the Spins, the Lobbyists, the Insiders, the Potomac Snakeheads, Beltway Bandits, etc. etc. But more seriously, financier Fred Malek, one of the Washington Baseball Club bigwigs hoping to own the team, told us the other night, "I think it will be the Senators." Should his group end up with the franchise, he promised, "we will listen very closely to what the fans want."

Making a political point, Mayor Anthony Williams has already dissed the old team name: Washington has no representatives in Congress, so he doesn't want to see Senators on the field. And, for others, the name Senators stirs memories of not only failure but of segregation. Williams favors naming the team after the Homestead Grays, a Negro Leagues team that began playing most of its home games here in the early 1940s and enjoyed enormous support from Washington's black community.

But we wondered: Where did the Grays get their name? Probably from their uniform color, history prof Rob Ruck at the University of Pittsburgh told us, but he called it "an unusual name for a black team at the time." Christopher Rehling, a Washingtonian who runs the Web site RemembertheGrays.org, said his "best guess" was that the name came from the color of the team's socks (as in White Sox and Red Sox).

The Grays started out as a group of Pittsburgh area steelworkers who played recreationally in the early 1900s as the Blue Ribbons, says Brad Snyder, the Washington author of "Beyond the Shadow of the Senators: The Untold Story of the Homestead Grays and the Integration of Baseball." His book, published last year, is considered the definitive account of the Grays, but he told us he never discovered the name's origin.

As for his preference, Snyder said: "The Nationals would be fine. The Monuments would not be a bad choice. The Grays would be great."

An Eyeful for Ifill

• Lobbying the media: If she wasn't one already, PBS's Gwen Ifill is now a famous face in Cleveland, where she'll moderate Tuesday's debate between Vice President Cheney and challenger John Edwards. A Washington interest group that doesn't like the No Child Left Behind Act paid for six billboards that encourage Ifill to pose a pointed question to the veep candidates: "Ask them why we pay $1.5 billion to label our top schools failures," the signs demand.

The Communities for Quality Education advocacy group also delivered a press release and a basket of red apples to Ifill, moderator of PBS's "Washington Week" and senior correspondent for "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." But she wouldn't bite when we asked if she would be asking the question.

"This came in handy in the newsroom on the night of Jim's debate," she said of the gift. "I, of course, in the interest of journalistic neutrality, did not consume a single one."

With Anne Schroeder


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