Thomas Pynchon, enigmatic and reclusive author of "V" and "Gravity's Rainbow", never returns the calls of strangers. He made an exception, however, for Kenneth Hope, who doles out the MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, the famed "genius" grants.
Last week Hope contacted Pynchon and 30 other individuals, three from the Washington area, to tell them they had each won a no-strings, five-year grant that varied -- according to the age of the recipient -- from $150,000 to $375,000. The total payout:$9 million.
The reaction to such news was not hard to predict.
"I was flabbergasted," said Alan Walker, 49, a paleontologist at Johns Hopkins University who spends several months a year on digs with Richard Leakey and was awarded $300,000.
"The MacArthur Foundation just lifted me up," said Max Roach, jazz percussionist, composer and professor of music, interviewed a few hours before he was to play at a rally for Jesse Jackson in Atlanta. "It was a blue day dealing with students, and then I get a phone call that just knocked me out of my seat."
Roach, like many of the winners, has already decided what to do with the money, in his case, $372,000. "I'd like to realize the dream of having a music school in Bedford-Stuyvesant," Roach's old neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. But most of the winners, three-quarters of whom are professors, had the opposite desire. "One of the things I can do is cut down my teaching load," said Walker, who spends three months a year teaching anatomy to medical students at Johns Hopkins. "It's a terrific slog."
After making plans to reduce teaching commitments, "we went out and bought useful exercise equipment," said David Alan Rosenberg, 39, a military historian at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, and a former resident of and frequent visitor to Washington, who received $250,000.
"We figured it would be nice to live through the next five years. I expect at some point I may want to add to my house and build a library. Which will permit me to get more books. A laser printer wouldn't be bad, and I always wanted a Burberry raincoat."
But the prospect of money was not the only thing that pleased the winners.
"I was stunned," said Rita Wright, 52, a professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary who got $315,000.
"It was only after a few hours that I had this great sense of relief. It was uphill for a long time, and now there was ... a sense of validation ... the feeling that what I was doing was being acknowledged."
For Wright, who studies the structure of ancient societies from clues gleaned from their pottery, there was also a sense of personal triumph. After high school, Wright worked as a secretary and married. "My goal always was to complete my college education. I didn't have the opportunity at the time."
She finally enrolled at Wellesley College at the age of 39, and then entered graduate school at Harvard, all while raising two daughters.
Others saw the award as a stamp of approval for their field. "I think it's tremendous that the foundation has chosen to recognize the field of agriculture," said I. Garth Youngberg, whose Institute for Alternative Agriculture studies organic and other low-input agricultural technologies.
"I find this very encouraging. Society needs to be more aware of the critical role agriculture plays in all of our lives."
Five years ago, Youngberg, 50, then the only organic farming specialist at the Department of Agriculture, was let go. This year, coming on top of the first congressional appropriation for alternative agriculture research, the $305,000 MacArthur grant is evidence that society is ready to listen to Youngberg's ideas. "As we have become aware of the environmental impact of agriculture, the rising cost of production, the issues of food quality and safety and the gradual demise of the family farm and small rural communities, these are all issues that relate directly to the manner in which we farm," Youngberg said.
Though the foundation puts no obligations on the winners, none expressed the intention to take time off or change careers. The plans of Eddie Williams, 56, head of the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington and the recipient of $330,000, were typical: "The award will allow me to accomplish some of my life's ambitions while continuing to allow me to work at the center as its president."
For Williams, an expert on black voting patterns, these ambitions are "to travel, to write about some of my past experience, to do some delving into my own background and past, which I never had the time and resources to pursue."
The MacArthur award is probably the only grant that someone like the publicity-phobic Pynchon, whose award totaled $310,000, could ever win. There is no application form -- the grant recipients are selected by an anonymous 15-member committee from proposals submitted by 100 anonymous nominators, an arrangement that a secretive author must certainly admire.
The other winners of the grants are:
Charles Archambeau, 54, a University of Colorado at Boulder geophysicist whose work on theoretical and practical seismic wave theory has made major contributions to the detection of nuclear weapons tests ($325,000).
Michael David Kighley Baxandall, 54, a professor of art history at Berkeley specializing in European art from the 15th to 19th centuries ($325,000).
Ruth Behar, 31, a University of Michigan cultural anthropologist specializing in the traditions of witchcraft in Mexico and Spain ($210,000).
Ran Blake, 53, a jazz pianist, composer and teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Blake's work has included suites inspired by such films as "The Wild One," "Rosemary's Baby" and "Vertigo" ($320,000).
Charles Burnett, 44, of Los Angeles, an independent filmmaker whose 1982 film "My Brother's Wedding" was praised for its portrayal of urban black family life ($275,000).
Philip James DeVries, 36, of Austin, Tex., a lepidopterist concentrating on the butterflies of Costa Rica ($235,000).
Andre Dubus, 51, of Haverhill, Mass., a chronicler of the lonely middle-class lives of New Englanders and expatriate Southerners in "The Last Worthless Evening" (1986) and other books ($310,000).
Helen T. Edwards, 52, of Batavia, Ill., head of the Accelerator Division of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and an expert in particle accelerators ($315,000).
Jon H. Else, 44, of Portola Valley, Calif., a documentary filmmaker and producer who has worked on documentaries including "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years" (1987), "Disposable Heroes: The Other Side of Football" (1985) and "The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb" (1980) ($275,000).
John G. Fleagle, 40, a professor of anatomy at the State University of New York at Stonybrook and a primate paleontologist ($255,000).
Cornell Fleischer, 37, a historian at Washington University in St. Louis who studies the Ottoman Empire ($240,000).
Getatchew Haile, 57, of Waite Park, Minn., a linguist studying the ancient languages of Ethiopia ($340,000).
Raymond Jeanloz, 35, a University of California-Berkeley geologist and geophysicist whose work attempts to link modern physics with geophysics ($230,000).
Marvin Philip Kahl, 53, of Sedona, Ariz., an ornithologist and photographer specializing in long-legged waterfowl ($320,000).
Naomi E. Pierce, 33, of Princeton, N.J., a biologist specializing in plant-insect coevolution ($220,000).
Stephen J. Pyne, 39, of Phoenix, a professional forest-fire fighter and environmental historian at Arizona State University whose 1987 meditation on Antarctica, "The Ice," was widely praised by critics ($250,000).
Hipolito Roldan, 44, head of the Hispanic Housing Development Corp. in Chicago, a private nonprofit group that finds housing for low-income Hispanic families ($275,000).
Anna Curtenius Roosevelt, 42, of New York, a great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt and scholar of prehistoric Amazon culture ($265,000).
Susan Irene Rotroff, 41, a professor of classics at Princeton who studies early Greek pottery ($260,000).
Bruce D. Schwartz, a Los Angeles puppeteer who draws from Japanese and European traditions($215,000).
Robert S. Shaw, 41, an Urbana, Ill., physicist who originated the study of chaotic systems with a paper on dripping faucets ($260,000).
Jonathan Dermot Spence, 51, a Yale University professor of Chinese history ($310,000).
Noel M. Swerdlow, 46, a historian of science at the University of Chicago who has analyzed the works of Ptolemy and Copernicus ($285,000).
Gary Alfred Tomlinson, 36, a musicologist at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Monteverdi and other Renaissance composers ($235,000).