Gordon Parks, the renowned photographer, and artist who died in 2006 described his work as the “common search for a better life and a better world,” a statement that currently resonates more than ever. The Gordon Parks dinner is one of those evenings that celebrates the vast artistic achievements of the African American community as attendees from around the globe join hands to celebrate those that have made a difference in the world of culture and philanthropy.
Thursday, May 19, 2022, won’t soon be forgotten as the halls of Cipriani 42nd Street were replete with epic talent and heroism. Beginning at 6:30 PM over 300 eclectic individuals paid a minimum of $1,500 per ticket to salute extraordinary honorees Darren Walker, Laurene Powell Jobs, Mark Bradford, and Spike and Tonya Lee.
The evening began with a crowded red carpet and cocktail hour that was reminiscent of pre-pandemic days when socializing and embracing were the norm. Enthusiasm abounded as many attendees had not seen each other in over two years.
Those who graced the event included luminaries: Anderson Cooper, Ari Melber, Maxwell Osborne, Judy Glickman Lauder, Swizz Beatz, Sherry Bronfman, Marc Mezvinsky (Chelsea Clinton’s husband), Eve Jobs, Questlove, Sheila Nevins, Leonardo DiCaprio, and dozens of others.
Unfortunately, there were also some no-shows including usual attendees Alexander Soros and Leonard Lauder who were elsewhere as well as past honorees Peter Beard and John Lewis who passed away in 2020 – I could feel their palpable absence as I was present during their tributes in 2013 and 2017.
It is hard to absorb the happenings of the past two years as a cataclysmic pandemic gripped the nation along with a record number of mass shootings-the latest of which targeted the African American community. The celebration was bittersweet and full of melancholy with a dramatic performance by “Black Thought” followed by opening remarks by Kasseem Dean, aka Swizz Beatz, the legendary music producer and husband of Alicia Keys. Beatz had the best line of the evening remarking, “there is a lot of money in the room tonight, wow I like this, don’t get shy tonight.”
The crowd was nervously laughing at this offhandedly honest remark. Beatz, Maxwell Osborne, and Spike Lee were undoubtedly the best-dressed men of the evening as they continually up their fashion game with elaborate sartorial getups that put the “f” (standing for fun) back in fashion. Beatz also echoed a sentiment that resonated with me as a photographer: emphasizing the importance of pictures that allow one to capture an evanescent moment.
Executive Director Peter Kunhardt heralded the exciting collaboration between Howard University and the Gordon Parks Foundation, with Howard acquiring over 250 photographs by Gordon Parks that range from the 1940’s through the past four decades that followed.
One of those subjects, Cora Taylor, who was photographed by Parks in front of an ice cream parlor at the age of 19 in Alabama, surprised guests with a special appearance after having been anonymously snapped by Parks in 1956 as part of a story in Life magazine detailing the onerous Jim Crow laws.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis delivered a spellbinding speech to salute his friend Darren Walker who heads the $16 billion Ford Foundation which fights for international social justice. Another standout honoree was Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the legendary Steve Jobs, and a philanthropist and innovator in her own right.
The magnificent Laurene, who was accompanied by her supermodel daughter Eve, is a graduate of Stanford and Wharton Business Schools and a former Goldman Sachs associate. Laurene, a Cheryl Ladd doppelgänger, spoke eloquently of the fight for justice-receiving a lengthy standing ovation at the conclusion.
The live auction was led by the renowned Hugh Hildesley as enthusiastic guests bid on a number of paintings one of which was a Gordon Parks photo of Malcolm X who would have been 97 on May 19th – which was his birthday. With an estimated value of $25,000 Anderson Cooper quickly bid up the price to $100,000 with an astounding $200,000 being the ultimate bid. Leonardo DiCaprio even made a brief cameo at the event looking splendid in a suit and tie as guests hovered around-anxious to get a photo with the legendary actor.
The dinner was followed by Spike and Tonya Lee being greeted with an ovation with Spike handing the microphone to his tall and beautiful wife, Tonya, who spoke of her and Spike’s similarities as the offspring of school teachers and their desire to “uplift their race.”
The evening concluded with the hilarious Anderson Cooper introducing renowned contemporary artist Mark Bradford. Cooper commented that he felt as if he and Mark had been on one long date and that the two had bonded “like most gay men” over the shared love of talking about their mothers.
Bradford made his remarks brief as he noted most of the women were tired from donning Spanx and short dresses all evening. At the relatively early hour of 10:30 PM guests headed home with a full stomach and an even fuller palate of ideas and abstractions to contemplate.