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Eileen Ahearn, a Tribute

Scott Manning - March 22, 2023

Director Peter Sellars, literary consultant Eileen Ahearn, and 2016 MacDowell Medalist and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison are seated around a breakfast table having a spirited discussion.

Director Peter Sellars, literary consultant Eileen Ahearn, and MacDowell Medalist and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison at Hillcrest Medal Day morning in 2016. (David Macy photo)

When Eileen Ahearn passed away at the age of 75 in January, many writers lost a great friend and champion. So did MacDowell.

Suffice it to say that without Eileen, we would not have enjoyed Toni Morrison’s presence for our highest-attended Medal Day ever in 2016. We would also not be in possession of Beauford Delaney’s portrait of James Baldwin (54, 58, 60), which graces the entrance to our library that bears his name.

Eileen began her career in book publishing as a typist at Random House in the early 1970s. After leaving the typing pool, she became secretary to Toni Morrison, who at the time was an editor at the company’s flagship imprint. This relationship turned into a lifelong bond with Eileen acting as Morrison’s close advisor and friend.

She also made a career in publishing by developing an expertise in contracts and rights. Many writers are indebted to her for ensuring that royalties were paid more accurately and fairly.

At the same time, Eileen’s long friendship with famed writer and MacDowell Fellow Baldwin led to her taking over as administrator of his estate. Anyone interested in rights to Baldwin’s work — from the producers of If Beale Street Could Talk to Jake Gyllenhaal — had to first encounter the formidable, yet always fair, Eileen.

It was obvious that my longtime friend and colleague Eileen would be MacDowell’s crucial link to Morrison and the Baldwin family.

After introducing Eileen to former Executive Director Cheryl Young, the three of us worked for months to convince Morrison that a five-hour drive each way in a hired car would be a pleasant day trip. In the end, Eileen offered the key suggestion that we invite Morrison’s great friend and collaborator Peter Sellars to speak at the ceremony. Knowing that he would be there, Morrison said yes.

Eileen’s introduction to Gloria Karefa-Smart and the rest of the Baldwin family yielded their surprise donation of the inspiring Delaney portrait that greets Fellows whenever they enter our library.

Eileen was that rare person who shifted attention away from themselves so others could shine, and we are honored to shine a light on her as a key player in MacDowell’s history.