Harlan Ellison Refuses Cleveland Honors

Fans would say Harlan Ellison is Cleveland’s most distinguished native-born writer and an obvious choice for the Cleveland Arts Prize. So why did Ellison reject his 2009 CAP for lifetime achievement in such a deeply offended tone, calling the award a fraud and a sham? According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Ellison objected to having to pay for his and his wife’s travel and lodging expenses from their Los Angeles home to Cleveland for the awards event in June.

He also objected to an unsigned letter he received from Cleveland Arts Prize Executive Director Marcie Bergman, which stated he would have only three minutes for his remarks….

“I confess to being startled by it,” Ellison said.

He also wondered privately why there was money for a cocktail party honoring the winners, but none for travel expenses. The reason, Bergman said in response to The Plain Dealer’s question, is that the party is being donated.

The Cleveland Arts Prize has been awarded annually since 1960. Former CAP President Diane Tittle tried to explain in a letter to the editor:

During my tenure as CAP’s leader, we purposely chose not to honor Cleveland-born artists living outside the area, in part because we did not have the resources to underwrite travel expenses, in part because we wanted to shine the spotlight on individuals who had made a commitment to living here. This policy, regrettably, barred Ellison from receiving an award. CAP’s desire to rectify that has resulted in the unfortunate misunderstanding reported in Sunday’s Plain Dealer (“Ellison turns down arts prize”).

[Thanks to Andrew Porter for the link.]

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3 thoughts on “Harlan Ellison Refuses Cleveland Honors

  1. I read recently that between the Madoff theft and the larger economic crisis coming out of the residential mortgage crash, the charitable awards season in New York has been affected, too.

    It seems one of the criteria for being a mainstream charity award recipient is how much fund-raising you could do for the awarding charity through how many dinner tables you could get your friends and business associates to purchase at, oh, say $10,000 per table, or how much testimonial space you could get them to buy in the evening’s program book. Of course, it’s never spoken of that boldly, but rather an unspoken understanding.

    As a result, the charity social season is collapsing as too many previous awardees and previously-potential awardees are no longer able to raise that sort of money.

    Mr. Ellison is a direct man, and while charitable in his own right has never been part of that mainstream charity circuit. I think very possibly what’s happened here is that the Cleveland Arts Prize, apparently very much a mainstream sort of charity, was operating under the same unspoken understanding as the ones in New York. I think it likely he takes an award to be an award, not as a request to put the arm on your friends, and that’s why the anger and conflict.

  2. Your elision of this seems an odd choice, Mike:

    When Bergman called Ellison to tell him about the honor, she asked if he knew anyone in Cleveland who would like to take an ad in the program book.

    “I confess to being startled by it,” Ellison said.

  3. It’s hard to get a feel for the reporter’s Q&A with Ellison from the published article. He was incensed by what happened. Yet the only direct quote speaks of being “startled,” uncharacteristic understatement for an angry Ellison.

    The several provocations for his meltdown are pieced out in the article, the last of them the ad query. I was having a hard time accepting that Ellison was “startled” by such an ordinary practice. He may have been by the idea that he’d be imported across country for anything less than a full-on speech.

    Anyway, my edits were an attempt to reconcile Ellison’s condemnation of the award with the tepid quote. Maybe it didn’t work.

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