Illustrative Anecdotes

Late in the summer of 1970, I got the first of many telephone calls from the National Endowment for the Arts. A Miss Valli Xenakis, who identified herself as a Smith undergraduate in a summer job, telephoned from Washington to ask whether I would like to attend a “music policy conference” of the NEA at Wingspread in Wisconsin at the end of September. My immediate response was that she had called “the wrong Kostelanetz,” remembering another guy alive at the time, an orchestral conductor, whose last name resembled mine. I heard her partially cover the telephone’s mouthpiece as she asked someone else. No, she replied, it was me whom the NEA wanted. Since I had been to Wingspread the year before, for a conference in which and from which nothing happened, and since freelance activity was then (and still is) my principal source of income, I asked how much I would be paid. She said that she did not think there was pay for me, but she would ask. Who else would be there, I inquired? Gunther Schuller, Peter Mennin, Rudolph Serkin, among others. I recognized at least two of those men as presidents of music conservatories. Hold on, I said, going to Wingspread was part of a job that paid them healthy salaries each year. Someone else was subsidizing their participation, while no one would be subsidizing me. Since I did not have a conservatory, let alone a piano, I felt that this party was fundamentally not for me, thanks. (Before she hung up, I remember discovering that our ancestors came from neighboring cities in Asia Minor.) Miss Xenakis telephoned back a few days later to say that the NEA would give me a very modest sum that, given competing demands, my freelance economy found insufficient.

I had forgotten about this peculiar, but apparently inconsequential exchange until a party the following January 22nd, at the Manhattan home of Galen Williams and William Cole. Around 11:00 p.m., a smiling, graying gentleman introduced himself to me and asked to take credit for the invitation the previous fall. I asked why he or anyone else at the NEA should have wanted me to go to that conference. “We wanted you to be a nuisance” was his reply. I was less flattered than disgusted by such exploitative designs. Since everyone who knows me knows, first, that my ire goes only to profound sins and, second, that it takes a long time for my ire to boil, I was first surprised and then annoyed that someone else envisioned that I could be mobilized for such insidious purposes.

The Grants-Fix (1987)

I don’t think I’m doing a disservice exposing those who tried to kill the panelists’ grant to me, because, quite simply, if they didn’t want to be regarded as petty and malicious, as distrustees, they wouldn’t have done what they did. That they thought they were acting in secret is no better an excuse for them than it was for any other rogues in history. Not at all. One wonders how any of them would feel if he or she suddenly discovered several years after that they had been relieved of ten thousand dollars (and nearly robbed of much more) through no fault of their own, not by urban thugs but by purportedly distinguished citizens out to discredit their class and kind, incidentally illustrating vivaciously the old Woody Guthrie song that some guys will rob you with a six-gun, others with a fountain pen.

In response to an earlier version of this memoir, one councilor recently wrote me, “I do think we formed a lynch mob and discussed you without respect for you but with wanton disrespect. My memory of the incident is strong only in that I walked out disgusted with myself for being part of a lynch mob. You may quote me if you wish.” To him, in retrospect, the killing of the grant was not just a mugging, which would be my characterization, but a lynching, albeit in absentia thankfully. If, as is often said, a neo-conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, then consider that this episode was perhaps ingeniously designed to change my politics to resemble that of the self-defined conservative NEA councilors, so profoundly devious were their ultimate motives.

If only to illustrate their success at this last effort, shouldn’t I conclude this exposé by advocating the swift and immediate long-term incarceration of all muggers and lynchers, along with their accomplices, with no excuses for race, ethnicity, or class? Shouldn’t I add that all nouveau conservatives should support me in this prosecution, if only to distinguish themselves, in principle as well as practice, from self-conscious opportunists.

—“How An NEA Fellowship to Me Was Reduced and Nearly Killed” (1998)