- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

“We can call him a ‘Renaissance man,’ but that’s not enough. He’s a man for any age: a dreamer who doesn’t stop dreaming and who brings his dreams to reality — and they have been our dreams, as well.”

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, speaking of John W. Kluge at the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress blew a bundle on its bash celebrating the opening of the new John W. Kluge Center. And why not? When one of the country’s most generous philanthropists bestows $60 million to endow a scholarly facility, it’s definitely time to pull out all the stops.

Jazz musicians, trumpeting heralds, strolling strings and actors impersonating Abe Lincoln, Amelia Erhardt, Groucho Marx and other American icons were all part of the extravaganza (“everything but twirlers,” former Texas majorette Mary Ourisman observed) as 300 VIPs arrived for cocktails in the Jefferson Building’s flower-bedecked Great Hall Tuesday night. All very grand, of course, but for those in the know, the real action was in a side chamber where the 88-year-old honoree sat in an armchair to receive friends and admirers, with his wife, Maria, and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington controlling the flow.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sens. Ted Stevens and Christopher J. Dodd, National Endowment for the Humanities chief Bruce Cole, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Nancy Brinker, philanthropist Ken Behring, writer Irving Kristol, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Bill and Buffy Cafritz, Albert and Shirley Small, Frank Perdue, Esther Coopersmith, Lucky Roosevelt and former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger were among those paying court to the man whose impressive gift will allow the world’s greatest minds to make better use of the world’s greatest repository of human knowledge.

Although some of the funds were used to renovate a 12,000-square-foot facility where distinguished resident scholars will explore the library’s 120-million-item collection and interact with Congress, Mr. Billington stressed that the donor was hardly a bricks-and-mortar type of guy.

“He’s a man of ideas and people and wanted to gather the great minds of the world together,” Mr. Billington said before noting that the gift also would endow an annual $1 million Kluge Prize to honor achievement in human sciences — fields such as history, literary and art criticism and anthropology, which have never been recognized by the Nobel Prize or other comparable awards.

“It’s the greatest kind of philanthropy because it helps develop the human spirit as well as the human mind,” said historian John Hope Franklin, who has been working to finish his autobiography since he signed up as one of the first scholars in residence last summer.

Later in the domed and gilded 16-story-high Reading Room, guests watched a film about Mr. Kluge’s life narrated by actor James Earl Jones and heard poems read in his honor by Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Singer Tony Bennett, a longtime Kluge pal, also performed perennial favorites in what was billed as the first-ever performance in that sacrosanct space.

If the sight of the longtime crooner singing “Fly Me to the Moon” from a makeshift stage beneath statues of St. Paul and Herodotus may have seemed a bit incongruous to some, no matter. As one wag observed, “The party is in honor of the biggest donor in library history, and if he wants Tony Bennett, he gets Tony Bennett.”

Guests dined on crab, shrimp, lamb and baked Alaska in the Great Hall Mezzanine, where further entertainment included a performance by mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar and the first-ever playing of the “Library of Congress March” (reconstructed from an unfinished John Philip Sousa score) by the Virginia Grand Military Band.

A lot of effort, to be sure, but the guest of honor was well-pleased.

“It was the surprise of my life,” Mr. Kluge told guests late in the evening as he took a few moments to reminisce about his hard ascent from impoverished immigrant to billionaire businessman.

“My sophomore adviser at Columbia once told me, ‘You’ll either be a great success or you’ll be in jail.’ Between her remark and now, boy did I work hard.”

Mr. Kluge’s $60 million gift to the library represents less than 1 percent of his current $10.5 billion estimated net worth, so it is highly likely there will be other benefactions to come.

“You can’t take it with you,” he said with a smile before heading off to the dance floor with his wife for a final kick of the heels at evening’s end.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide