It was a eureka moment. I was walking down Irving Street in Manhattan at the time. Going through my mind was a well-worn train of thought that went like this: “I feel that I am a passive spectator to the huge structural changes taking place in the arts and media. I want to change the way writers interact with their audiences. And I want to give writers a better stake in the fruits of their labor because it often seems that the value of writing is being priced out of the market place. And then there’s connecting the writers of today with the young writers of tomorrow. We need to do more of it, and in a more systematic way. But how?” And that’s when it came to me. There’s no literary coast guard to call on; start swimming or stop complaining.
As it happened, I was walking with Lucas Wittmann, my fellow producer of a year-long speaking series at the Players Club. He agreed; let’s bring together the team behind the series and start a literary non-profit – one that breaks new ground for writers in its aims and reach.
Two weeks later, on a sultry summer afternoon, six of us gathered in the offices of CoCollective: Patrick O’Hara, Caroline O’Hara, Elizabeth Uzelac, Lucas, Jonathan Barton, and me. We were already a close-knit group: Caroline is married to Patrick and I am married to Jonathan. We had cookies, water, and a large empty white board to fill. As we threw out ideas and made our points, Patrick wrote key words on the white board. Then he drew circles, followed by arrows, question marks, exclamation points and phrases underlined three times. This, he explained, is the refining stage, and don’t be surprised if it takes all summer. Which it did. Slowly and painfully, we discovered that there is a tremendous difference between the wish to make a difference and a coherent plan of action that will genuinely achieve it.
While the refining and conceptualizing was going on, each of us also went about securing the structural foundations of what was about to become the House of SpeakEasy. Jonathan started on the business and legal side, Elizabeth worked on securing the venue, Caroline and Patrick created the public face of SpeakEasy, while Lucas and I began a series of conversations with the literary community. Keeping track of our progress was Dorothy Mitchell, who volunteered at just the right time to become the executive director of the organization. The most amazing thing was how willing and supportive people were from the outset. We couldn’t have got off the ground, for example, without the extraordinary generosity of the law firm Hughes Hubbard and Reed. We never met the legal team, yet it volunteered hours and hours on our behalf, going through the long and tortuous process of trade-marking, incorporating, liability-insurance, contracts, and the all-important 501(c)3 application.
Next came the Board. Never having put one together before, I solicited the advice of David Mortimer, President of the American Assembly. Like anything else, there is a right way and a wrong way of going about these things. You have to be confident but also honest about your situation – which in our case meant that we didn’t quiet exist yet. David saw me through the initial steps, as I approached Paul LeClerc, Director of Columbia University’s Paris Global Center and former President of the New York Public Library, to be the first member of the board. All I had was a vision and a plan. But Paul agreed without hesitation, as did Susan Fales-Hill, Elizabeth Wagley, Camille Massey and Uma Thurman. It was five for five. They immediately set to work, helping to guide House of SpeakEasy through to going live.
Years ago, Hillary Clinton said ‘it takes a village’. She was right. The House of SpeakEasy has taken a community of dedicated and generous volunteers. Every thing we have achieved so far has been the result of somebody’s initiative and drive. It’s awe inspiring and humbling to see what a group of enthusiastic people can do when they all pull together.
If you would like to get involved, too, please email us at [email protected].
Founder of House of SpeakEasy