Actor Alec Baldwin, former boxing champion Muhammad Ali and Hilaria Thomas Baldwin at Thursday's benefit.
GETTY IMAGES Enlarge
NEW YORK — Muhammad Ali owned the night without saying a word.
The boxing great was the guest of honor Thursday night at the 4th annual Norman Mailer Center benefit gala, which benefited the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, named for the late author. An old friend of Mailer, whose classic The Fight was an account of Ali’s stunning defeat of then-heavyweight champion George Foreman in 1974, Ali was in attendance to watch the first ever presentation of the Muhammad Ali Ethics Award. The $10,000 writing prize for college students is co-sponsored by the Mailer center and the Muhammad Ali center.
In his prime, Ali would have been saved for last Thursday. But he has suffered for decades from Parkinson’s disease and ceremony organizers decided to bring him on first in case he didn’t have enough energy to last the night. The 70-year-old Ali was not simply introduced, but unveiled.
Master of ceremonies Alec Baldwin moved from the front of the ballroom at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Manhattan to a small, curtained platform on the side as he recited Mailer’s very personal list of true geniuses: Charlie Chaplin, Fidel Castro, poet Ezra Pound, and, best of all, Ali.
As Baldwin led the black-tie audience in a chant of “Ali! Ali! Ali!,” the curtain was drawn and there sat Ali in a wide armchair, mute, and expressionless, but handsomely dressed in a tuxedo and white shirt. Attendees were moved, and unnerved, as Ali looked on impassively like an aging monarch while Baldwin, Oliver Stone, and Dick Cavett praised him and shared memories of the clowning, rhyming champ.
A brief clip from Cavett’s talk show was screened, showing Ali and rival boxer Joe Frazier jokingly lifting the lightweight Cavett in the air. The ceremony program featured an old picture of Ali, teeth gritted in mock determination, as he arm wrestled with Mailer.
Ali was helped to his table after the Ethics prize was given, Baldwin returned to the front and honorary awards from the Mailer center were handed to historian Robert Caro, novelist Joyce Carol Oates and the widow of publisher Barney Rosset, who died earlier this year. Ali stayed until the end. According to Mailer center president Lawrence Schiller, he was a fan of Oates, who has written often about boxing, and wanted to hear her speech.