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Ethan in the Lions' Den

How does the Public Library compete with other holiday-season benefits? Cue Mr. Hawke.

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"I don't want to kid anyone," says Ethan Hawke, whose trademark scruffy visage is staring out from a podium at the New York Public Library just as cocktail hour begins. Two hundred members of the Young Lions, a new junior benefit committee for the library, have taken their wine glasses with them as they settle into seats to hear Hawke read T. S. Eliot's poem Ash Wednesday and a portion of his second novel, still in progress. "I have no idea what the poem really means," Hawke admits, to sympathetic giggles from the mostly female and overwhelmingly blonde assemblage. "Every time I read it, I understand it less and less. But," he ventures gamely, "maybe it will go okay."

A far cry from the typical smoke-filled reading downtown at KGB, littered with bottles of Red Stripe and open packs of Camels, tonight's scene is an impressively posh coterie of writers, agents, book editors, and literary-minded I-bankers, all of whom seem to be charmed by the befuddled auteur before them. Agents and bankers may be used to pulling out their wallets, but struggling authors aren't usually known for their check-writing. Nevertheless, Young Lions program coordinator Hannah Griswold has had a surprisingly easy time turning them into philanthropists. That may be because of the boldfaced committee list, which includes Hawke, novelist Melissa Bank, The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, and George Stephanopoulos, who will be moderating a discussion on the future of political journalism next month. Co-chair Rick Moody led a panel in October with novelists Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, and Susan Minot. "Most writers are incredibly heartfelt about libraries. After all, we make the principal product that is stored in them," says Moody. "The New York Public Library has my eternal fealty."

While some surely have the love of literature uppermost in their minds, other attendees are happy to expense the $300 membership fee for its networking potential. Before tonight's program kicked off, the crowd -- more Upper East Side than the congregation at Moody's soirée -- exchanged cards and introductions as Hawke busied himself with the hors d'oeuvre and revealed how he settled on his material. "I read it one night," he said, dipping a mini chicken wrap into soy sauce, "and it just brought me pleasure."

At the podium, he moves on to his own work, about a young pregnant former model on the lam, as his wife, Uma Thurman, beams behind glasses in the front row. A blonde in the second row closes her eyes to listen. "His voice!" whispers her neighbor, clutching her black alligator Kelly bag. "He should just make the book-on-tape." Little, Brown, are you listening?


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