Pen Quivers After Writer Ken Auletta Bites the Hand That's Been Paying the Bills: Flashy Takeover Mogul Saul Steinberg

updated 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In New York City literary circles, a writer without a cause is like a woodpecker without a tree. And to some members of the International PEN, a writers' organization that champions literary freedom around the world, the flamboyant financier Saul Steinberg is a giant sequoia. Steinberg made millions in the 1980s during the Wall Street takeover frenzy, while his third wife, Gayfryd, spent it almost as fast. For Saul's $1 million 50th-birthday party last year on Long Island, Gayfryd, 40, hired scantily clad actors to pose as old-master paintings. It was all a bit vulgar for New York's old-line philanthropies: Steinberg has not been invited to join the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though he is a large contributor.

The ambitious Steinberg social style didn't bother Norman Mailer, who approached the couple in 1985 to be the angels for PEN's American Center, of which he was president. Gayfryd began organizing fund-raisers and roped in her society friends. Last year she was made president of the newly created Friends of PEN.

In Gotham, though, no good turn goes unpunished. So even while the PEN budget was ballooning from $300,000 to $1 million, some members had misgivings about the source of the largess. The ink hit the fan when new PEN executive board member Ken Auletta, a New York Daily News columnist who has covered Wall Street, confirmed to a New York magazine gossip columnist that he considered Steinberg a "pretty sleazy character." Aghast, current PEN president Larry McMurtry dashed off a letter to Auletta telling him that "sneering at the patrons we as an organization have persistently solicited seems to me a dreadful breach of manners."

McMurtry also drafted a letter of apology to the Steinbergs. Most board members, including William Styron, Frances FitzGerald and Robert Caro signed it. But others, including Gay Talese, E.L. Doctorow and Jules Feiffer, refused. "It is unseemly for an organization of writers to become a toy of the very wealthy," says Doctorow.

In any case, the apology wasn't enough to keep Gayfryd from resigning. In a prepared statement, she said the controversy "has, I believe, hampered my effectiveness." Auletta, who also wrote Steinberg, now says, "I am sorry if she is in pain." Tossing around the word "sleazy," he notes with regret, focused the controversy "on the person of Saul Steinberg, when obviously the issue is much broader than individuals. I am bothered when writers are treated like trophies or pets."

The fight will certainly go more rounds on Sept. 25, when the PEN board convenes. In one corner will be such writers as social satirist Kurt Vonnegut, who says, "If I publicly express scorn for people who have taken so much out of the economy and put so little in, I'd be hypocritical to ask them for money." In the other will be the likes of Norman Mailer, who has said, "If Vonnegut, Doctorow and Auletta...want to contribute an amount equal to what the Steinbergs put in, they can put their money where their mouths are and quit complaining."

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