Seventeen years ago, Mary Moss Greenebaum imagined—and then conjured into being—a writers’ forum that has deeply impacted the cultural life of Louisville, Kentucky (and, we might add, some 160 other cities). She is the first activist we have chosen to profile for our new series “Women Who Have Made a Difference,” a celebration of women whose vision and zeal have changed the world for the better. —Ed.
In 1995, Mary Moss Greenebaum, New Yorker by birth, Kentuckian by choice (she moved to Louisville 45 years ago, when she married), was struck with a galvanizing idea—one of the many that have energized her throughout her lifetime.
Greenebaum knew, to her regret, that “the world sees Kentucky as a hopeless state.” How to change that perception? What about setting up a nationally recognized Author Forum, bringing the world’s great authors and thinkers to Louisville and matching them with equally distinguished interviewers? “I knew right away that each session should be interviews between two great minds,” she tells us. “These book events should be high-end enough to garner the attention of national publishers and attract PBS affiliates to carry the forums as well.”
But the “powers that be” said it couldn’t be done. Every time she put forth the idea, potential sponsors presented her with a laundry list of previous cultural efforts that had failed. Even more daunting: Kentucky was not a hot book market. What high-end publisher would ask its authors to waste their time flying to Kentucky?
But wait! Greenebaum happens to be “a force of nature, with the largest Rolodex in the world. She keeps it lean and mean, and I don’t know anyone who has accomplished so much with such limited resources.” So says Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen, a native Kentuckian and WVFC’s publisher, who is on the Kentucky Author Forum’s board.
Pictured above: At the Kentucky Author Forum in 2000, Elie Wiesel and forum producer Mary Moss Greenebaum.
Step One: Perceive the Need
Greenebaum’s ideas had borne fruit before. When she was at the UN she created a magazine about small-scale industry in underdeveloped countries. She began her career in Kentucky as a TV journalist covering consumer and environmental issues; she believes she was the first TV journalist in the U.S. who was solely dedicated to those subjects. (The Ralph Nader group lauded her for her early work in its book Proudly We Hail, under the heading “People Acting Alone.”)
Then, as special assistant to the mayor of Louisville, Greenebaum persuaded him to create Summerscene, a summer cultural program for children—the first of its kind in the state. Its corporately funded small trucks, packed with artist’s materials and performers, enhanced the lives of children and families over the summer months in all of the city’s public parks.
In the mid-1980s Greenebaum started the first free SAT training program for juniors and seniors in Louisville—and got the founder of the Princeton Review to travel to Louisville to teach.
“The designation given to me in the Nader-inspired book, ‘people acting alone,’ strikes me now as prescient,” she acknowledges. “My intrinsic inclination is to identify a problem—a vacuum of sorts—and proceed to fill it. Other women identify with this method of making change as well.
“Once I had the Author Forum idea in my head, I asked for support from a wonderful friend, Owsley Brown, then president of Brown-Forman, an international wine and spirits corporation in Louisville. He saw the value of a forum created at this level. We agreed that the worldwide university tradition—of bringing in great minds to campus and making them available to the community as well—was the route to take. The then-president of the University of Louisville was willing to take a chance on this! He agreed to fund one pilot. Thus was born the University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum.”
But there was a problem. Unsure whether she would find a sponsor, Greenebaum had no author for the pilot.
“To search for one, I flew to New York and made a stop at Knopf. Paul Bogaards was the principal guy to see. I sat myself down on a box of books in the hall outside his office, having no appointment. He finally emerged to ask what I was doing, sitting there. Ultimately, after a discussion, we agreed that Senator Bill Bradley, who had just published Time Present, Time Past: A Memoir, would be our forum’s first interviewee. Eleanor Clift, a real pro, was my choice as first interviewer. She was superb. Not only that: Bradley allowed at the end of the interview that he might just run for president.”
“You Get Just One Try”
“Where to hold the inaugural forum? Having no money, I implored Marlow Burt, the executive director of the newly minted Kentucky Center, to let me borrow the theater for just one night. Publicity? I (more or less) lined up The Courier-Journal editorial staff, giving them the opportunity to discuss the political scene with Bradley, earlier on the appointed day—and snared public radio for his interview. An independent bookstore ordered the books for signing. Public television, which had little money to spare (and I had none), agreed to tape this first event. No promises for the future.”
Bradley and Clift inaugurated the forum on May 13, 1996. “During those first years, I worked 24/ 7 with one devoted assistant, Lois Herden, who is still by my side. During that first season we welcomed Katharine Graham, Hillary Clinton, John Updike, Neil Simon, Sister Helen Prejean. Each author was paired with a perfect interviewer.
“The staging was arranged through a generous and highly creative Louisville interior design firm, Bittners, Inc. What I had dreamed of was a library setting, with a partners desk, couches and oil paintings, books to the ceiling, old Persian rugs. And they did it. They have done it ever since, for 16 years. They created for the University of Louisville Author Forums an atmosphere that allowed people in the audience, sitting in the dark, to feel as if they were eavesdropping on a personal and in-depth conversation that they never expected to hear.
“And it worked. The university went on to fund the forum and eventually share its cost with two supportive companies, Brown-Forman and the Humana Foundation.
“Pulling off four sessions a season sometimes feels akin to staging four coronations. The scheduling seems impossible. Without two extraordinary associate producers, Melissa Bernstrom and Jan Weintraub, the pieces could never assemble. The best interviewers are as busy as the authors, if not more so. The theater, which now has our technical television needs installed permanently, has to be secured. We reach 10,000 people on our mailing list, by mailer or email. For print interviewers, we fight for the best features writers at The Courier Journal. All the authors, from Elie Wiesel to Jared Diamond to Ray Kurzweil to Sandra Day O’Connor to Madeleine Albright, are pre-interviewed by the Courier in advance of their coming. Book reviews educate the public about the upcoming book.
A Never-Ending Feast
“If we want the latest on medicine, we want to grab Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel, for his work on how memory is laid in the brain. Or Siddartha Mukherjee, with his incredible life of a cancer cell (interviewed by Harvard’s head of stem cell research, David Scadden.) For the world of politics, David Plouffe, who gave us Barack Obama, seemed right—and Richard Wolffe, from CNN, was a perfect choice for his interviewer. David Hockney, the renowned artist, needed an interviewer as astute as Michael Kimmelman, cultural editor at large for The New York Times. Michio Kaku, the physicist, and Ray Kurzweil had crowds waiting to line to hear about the next world, soon to be upon us. Andrew Ross Sorkin gave a forum on finance, interviewed by Bethany McLean.
“This incredible adventure—the one that would ‘never work’—has ‘overflow rooms’ set up with live video on every occasion. Our theater holds 620, and that is never enough. KET, our state public television station, tapes each session, and PBS affiliates rebroadcast the forums to some 160 cities across the nation, under the title ‘Great Conversations.’
“I am grateful every day for the president of our University, James Ramsey, who is behind the major support of this forum, in partnership with our two corporate friends, Brown-Forman and the Humana Foundation. And, just as I imagined at the very start, every author visits the university for a master class or for a highly attended Q and A. To encourage student attendance at the evening interviews downtown, we offer highly reduced tickets on a limited but generous basis.
“How are we doing? I think the quality of the authors we have been able to attract for nearly two decades indicates that we do what we do well. Our best evaluations are from those authors who participate in our forums. Madeleine Albright, for instance called to say that ours was ‘the best book event I have ever been to.’ And when Penguin’s senior vice president of public relations told Publishers Weekly that we were “the best thing west of the 92nd Street Y,” that was a joyous moment.
“I am deeply honored to have been chosen as the first woman for the Women’s Voices for Change series “Women Who Have Made a Difference.”
“It has been extraordinary to see the impact that the forum has made on this community, and to see Louisville and the University of Louisville become part of the cultural landscape. All women know that the most important aspect of making change as an independent woman is finding people who believe in your vision and support it, once they understand its value—and to mentor others who will see that the vision continues.
“It has been especially gratifying to be a part of drawing the University of Louisville further into the cultural life not only of Kentucky, but of communities around the nation.”
If you wish to see whom the University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum has introduced—not only to the university community there, but to the community as a whole, go to www.kentuckyauthorforum.com A click on “Past Authors” will update you. Full-length interviews are available there. —Ed.