A Celebration Of William Kennedy's 90th Birthday

Feb 1, 2018

Albany author William Kennedy was honored Wednesday at City Hall on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

"I'm Paul Grondahl, the Director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany, and I'm overwhelmed by this great turnout. They're still coming in. We gotta leave room for them to come up and fill in around the stairways if they want. Free and open to the public is what we’re all about."

The rotunda was packed to the rafters as city hall highlighted the life, times and literary works of William Kennedy, who turned 90 on January 16th. The gathering celebrated the Pulitzer Prize winner’s impact on the city.  It also marked the 35th anniversary of the New York State Writers Institute, which Kennedy founded.

Political and civic leaders offered accolades and proclamations... 

Mayor Kathy Sheehan: "He is best known as a novelist, but he's also an historian, a journalist, a critic, an essayist, a poet, a philosopher, a screenwriter, a playwright and a treasured friend and colleague to many. Bill grew up in the city, in North Albany, left it for awhile and then was pulled back by his imagination. And he took it upon himself to become Albany's official fictional biographer. Just as Dublin had James Joyce, Albany has Bill Kennedy."

Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul first came to Albany as an Assembly intern :   "I was given a gift set to welcome me here, and it was your books on Albany, and I still have them on my nightstand."

NYS Senator Neil Breslin, Assembly Members Pat Fahy and John McDonald
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Senator Neil Breslin was joined by Assembly members Pat Fahy and John McDonald, presenting Kennedy with a proclamation along with a lighthearted nod to the city's Irish community.  "I would like to first indicate that Breslin, Fahy and McDonald is not the name of an Irish law firm in Albany, although it could be."

County Comptroller Mike Conners handed Kennedy proclamations.   "Just so you all know, Bill Kennedy is from the center of the universe. The reason for his brilliance: he's from North Albany and the grandson of Big Tim Carroll. What many people don't realize is that Bill's fictionized versions of politicians in all his books has really cleaned up what we're really like."

City historian and former Assemblyman Jack McEneny hailed Kennedy as:   "...an individual of unbelievable talent and love for his art and love for his community. He has always wanted people to become the best that they possibly can be."

McEneny emphasized that the author's "Albany cycle" of novels, eight books covering more than a century of city history, is recognized as having helped establish Albany as a culture center.   "But he also reached out and created something lasting more than anybody here, and that's in the Writers Institute. It put Albany on the map."

Kennedy's son Brendan produced a video tribute by "notable authors and friends" including remarks by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and actor/activist Mark Ruffalo.  "And keep your ass warm out there in the Francis Phelan Albany. It's freezing cold, buddy... keep fightin' the good fight."

A dramatic reading from Kennedy's "Roscoe" by members of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild alludes to Albany's infamous Democratic Party machine. "If they keep their dance halls open 24 hours, tax 'em twice. If they run a gyp joint, tax 'em triple. If they send prisoners to our jail, charge 'em rent at hotel prices. Keep the cops happy and let them have a piece of the pie, a small piece. Never buy anything that you can rent forever. If you pave a street, a 3-cent brick should be worth 30 cents to the city. Pave every street with a church on it."

Bill Kennedy gives closing remarks.
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

In his closing remarks, Kennedy said he was "immeasurably grateful for all the attention."   "Two previous mayors did honor me and I felt I should mention them. One was Tommy Whalen. Keys to the city. One from Tommy, Tommy Whalen and one from Jerry Jennings, and also in 2016, Mayor Sheehan herself gave me one. Brendan suggested that it might be time for the city to change its locks."

Kennedy mourned his friend, "drinking buddy" and former Mayor Whalen, who died before the two travel to County Cork Ireland to teach.  He mused about a collaboration with Mayor Erastus Corning on a biography that never got written. In proclaiming his love for the city, Kennedy said one novel led to writing another, and another.   "For all of them were about Albany, which as we all know, though I didn't always think so, has a fabulous mercurial history, and it's a great town, also a town that's seen an enormous trouble. And I decided I loved the place and would never leave it and never write about anyplace else."

Kennedy and his wife Dana also celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary Wednesday.

The NYS Writers Institute recently created an endowment fund in Kennedy's name to help sustain the mission of the non-profit institution. Donations made be made via the UAlbany Fund.