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Keene Prize for Literature

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The University of Texas at Austin awards the Keene Prize for Literature of the College of Liberal Arts annually to a student who “writes the most vivid and vital portrayal of the America experience in microcosm.”  The prize’s benefactor was E.L. Keene, a 1942 graduate of the University, the press release noted, who was a chemist for Revlon.  His last will and testament set forth his intention that the prize “encourage the writing of good American literature” and “enhance and enrich the prestige and reputation in the world market of American writers both now and in the future.”

     His alumnus status and work at Revlon were among the only details of Keene in U.T. donor files, and, with no close surviving relatives, it’s been difficult to assemble a picture of the man.  The language of his will is forceful, even passionate, about writing and its place in American culture. This is curious given his career as a chemist.  After earning a biology degree at U.T. and no contact with the University for the next 50 years, why did he endow a $1.7 million writing prize?  His mysterious largesse evokes the old 1950s television series The Millionaire in whichthe unseenJohn Beresford Tipton reached his hand from a leather chair to dispense a check for a worthy but unsuspecting beneficiary.

E.L. Keene
E.L. Keene

     Here’s what can be gleaned of his early life:  born in 1919, E.L. was the eldest of three sons of an old North Texas ranching family.  Census records trace his family to Dallas and Arlington in the 1920s and 1930s, with his maternal grandmother noted as a household member.  It’s not clear at what point his parents separated, but friends say he worshipped “Granny,” who took care of him when his mother divorced and had to work.  His close friend Frank Roman believes this early hardship shaped Keene’s famous frugality and he remembers E.L. saying, “Once you have only beans to eat—day after day—you never forget it.”

    Whatever his childhood circumstances, E.L. graduated from U.T. in 1942.  The only other evidence of his time here is a 1937 Cactus yearbook photograph of the Longhorn Band, in which he is noted as playing trombone.  His face is indistinguishable among the tiny, blurred images in the brass section. 

E.L. Keene as a Baby
E.L. Keene as a Baby

    By the mid-1950s, Keene was living in Hollywood, where Roman met him at Max Factor in 1960, and the two became fast friends.  Keene’s forte was lipsticks color-matching.  Roman and his wife recall visits during these years from E.L.’s younger brother (a cosmetics salesman, and like E.L., never married), his mother, and Granny.  Roman recounts with great fondness the unveiling of a rather expensive oil portrait E.L. commissioned of Granny, whom he describes as “the salt of the earth.”  This painting was among the few personal effects Keene made provision for in his will.

     This youngest brother preceded him in death and was memorialized by E.L. with an endowment to Columbia University for a scholarship in journalism.  Family and friends agree he was largely estranged from his other brother, although E.L. provided for him in his estate.

    Keene and the Romans relocated to the east coast in the mid-1960s, E.L. to work for Revlon labs and settle in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where he would live until his death in 1993.  They often attended the theater and museums in New York City.  His friend Rose Marabetti also recalls his love of art and the theatre, particularly music.  “I know he had an organ, and, I believe, played a bit.”  (His Hammond organ was bequeathed to the Salvation Army in memory of his father.)  Malcolm Arnoult of Fort Worth recalls visits he and his wife Billye, E.L.’s second cousin, paid to Keene’s east-coast home, “filled with books, art, music.” 

    E.L. did well for himself in stocks, but did not live lavishly.  “I often egged him on to take trips, safaris, buy a convertible.  He never did.  He saved his money,” Roman writes.  An account of his estate at the time of his death reveals he drove a six-year old Camry, and detailed among his stocks, bonds, real estate holdings and other investments are items as small and carefully tracked as a $3.84 refund check for his cancelled New Yorker subscription.

    Frank Roman believes E.L.’s secret ambition was to write a novel:  “Once in a while he would take out some sheets of paper to show that he’d started on this project.”  Sadly, these pages don’t survive to tell us anything about his literary ambitions.

     The Arnoults’ daughter Sharon provides a revealing personal letter from E.L, who visited her in Austin in 1985.  "I was completely recaptivated by Austin and its exciting heart, the U.T. campus.  I just must return, not later than this Fall,” he wrote to her afterwards (there is no record of a subsequent visit).  He gives an account of his recent reading (Bruno’s Dream, The Tale of Genji, Ars Poetica) and closes with, “I love book people.  They are my kind of people . . .   Your cousin, the scribbler.”

    The picture of Keene that emerges is unfocused in many ways, but what is clear is his love of the arts, and his generous spirit.  In spite of estrangements and distances, he wished in his final gestures to honor and memorialize his family.  His friends, who were beside him at his death from cancer at age 74, were laurelled in his will with appellatives such as golden-hearted and a perfect friend.

     Malcolm Arnoult admits he and his wife were puzzled by the peculiar generosity of the writing prize.  “It was, I suppose, his bid for immortality, and when we realized how he felt, we did not attempt to dissuade him.”  Frank Roman says, “I am glad that the monies will allow these young men and women to further their dreams and become the writers that E.L. never did.  They will become like the children he never had.”

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

     From first news of the bequest in 1993, the Keene prize fostered controversy on campus, too.  A few faculty members complained that it exceeded their annual salaries.  University attorneys looked into a possible reinterpretation of its terms:  did it have to go to one student, or could it be divided among many deserving writers, or used for a broader program to promote creative writing?  But the legal stipulations were clear:  one student, one prize.  Several years passed while the estate was settled and the University explored the best ways to administer such a hefty award, but time did nothing to quell opinion.  Everyone discussed the effects it might have on a student:  would it mean validation and encouragement, or produce a kind of writerly stage fright?  The only other similar student award is Washington University’s Sophie Kerr prize, approximately $60,000 per year to a graduating senior.  For years, rumors have circulated about the Kerr Curse—“a stiff case of writer’s block and a lifetime of literary frustrations”—a confabulation which college administrators dismiss as a “myth of alliteration.” [“Sophie Kerr’s Curse,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Apr 22, 2005]

     As the announcement date drew near, one entrant dreamed her phone rang in the middle of the night and a mechanized voice intoned, “You’ve won the Keene.”  Stricken, she dropped the receiver, which spewed forth viscous green bile that ran over her shoes.  James Magnuson, MCW director and resident writer among the five Keene judges, suffered a classic anxiety dream the morning of the award announcement, in which he ran panicked across campus, late for the ceremony.  He found himself instead in a vigorous aerobics class, into which he earnestly joined in coat and tie before realizing, this can’t be the right place.  Finalist Seth Harp also dreamed he overslept and missed the event.  He woke up and checked his alarm clock.  Again.

     Brian Hart’s sister dreamed that his second-grade teacher won the prize.  Brian himself read his horoscope in the Austin Chronicle that morning:  You’ll receive a “reward” whose value will consist almost entirely of its power to generate jokes and story material. [“Freewill Horoscope,” 5/12/2006 c. Rob Brezsny]

     University officials didn’t know how many entries to expect, but a mere 124 applications came from the 50,000 student body.  A panel of five judges pared it down to a winner and four finalists, whom Liberal Arts Dean Richard Lariviere lauded for their brilliance, each fully deserving in his own right:  Jake Silverstein, a spring 2005 M.F.A. graduate of the MCW; Mike McGriff, also a spring 2005 M.F.A.; senior economics major Seth Harp; and first-year Michener fellow George Brant.

    If Brian Hart’s sister was prophetic, no one can figure out how—“I just remember that teacher giving me detention,” he says—but his horoscope was perhaps ironically accurate.  Brian, in only his first year with the Michener program, received the Keene Prize.  The committee was unanimous in their support for his story, “The Dog with the Broken Teeth, the One that Fetches Rocks,” set in the hard-living, working-class world of rural Idaho.  “The wonderful dialogue and closely observed world of Brian’s work won us over,” Lariviere said.

—Marla Akin

With thanks to Frank Roman of Garden City, N.J., Sharon Arnoult of Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Rose Marabetti of New York, Malcolm Arnoult of Fort Worth, and James Kunetka and Sue Leander of U.T. Office of Development.

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