Last Monday, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) hosted their annual fundraiser at the Standard Hotel in New York’s Meatpacking District. Acting as Master of Ceremonies, Ben Greenman, editor at The New Yorker, introduced each speller, referring to the group as “language professionals.” As Judge Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, read off definitions and etymologies of words such as “blunderbuss” and spellers such as Jessica Anya Blau, Jonathan Ames and Elissa Schappell relinquished their seats and sat in the penalty box, it was clear that the evening’s fundraising event wouldn’t be your average bee.
1. Smug mug? Jonathan Ames, Rob Spillman, Elissa Schappell & Jeffrey Lependorf. 2. Previous champ Ben Greenman.
According to Ben Greenman, spelling bees were originally held in the great wide open: “Many years ago, when the Spelling Bee was still held outside, there was a contestant who was also an aviator and inventor. He had tested an aircraft of his own design and crashed, and the accident left him with a neurological deficit, unable to pronounce the letter ‘K.’ He competed anyway, bravely, with a horn that he honked in place of the letter. As luck would have it, his final word was ‘kakistocracy.’ He spelled it correctly but a flock of geese attacked the crowd, blinding four. That is why we spell inside today.”
CLMP executive director Jeffrey Lependorf offered an alternative history: “We’ve come a long way since our first Bee in 2005, which took place in a lounge on an upper floor of NYU’s Bobst library. When we started we simply sold tickets, which we still do, but now we also have real angel sponsors like Harper and Penguin to make this a real fundraiser for us.”
As the slide whistle signifying a wrong answer sent spellers like Lev Grossman, Bruce Feiler, and Bernice L. McFadden to join their compatriots, the word “blunderbuss” pared down the group to the remaining three: Rosanne Cash, Sara Nelson and Patricia Marx.
1. Behold Lependorf and his stash of books. 2. Champ Rosanne Cash in crown and gown.
After a break during which raffle tickets for prizes were sold, it was down to the wire between Cash and Marx, as both spelled “caparisoned” incorrectly. In the end, though, Cash remained unshaken by the mixture of tricky and seemingly straightforward words to win this year’s contest. Upon being crowned, she confessed “I played Carnegie Hall and I wasn’t this nervous.”
Hardly anyone was surprised by her victory. “It’s clear from all her writing, whether songwriting or prose, that she has a great love for the language and what it can do when used properly,” Ben Greenman said.
Victory also came from plain old competitive experience: “I did win a spelling bee in seventh grade…and I do subscribe to Visual Thesaurus,” Cash jokingly explained. But will it come again as easily next year? Only time will tell.
—Eric Nelson is a fiction writer and curator living in Ridgewood, Queens. He writes a weekly column for Bushwick Nation called “From the Wood to the Wick.”