Prize writers

Sharing her late husband’s love of literature, Elizabeth Rea brings today’s best writers to U.Va.

By Mary Blair Zakaib
Rea.

Rea.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Richebourg Rea.

Ann Beattie, the Edgar Allan Poe Professor of English and Creative Writing, has won a $30,000 Rea Award for the Short Story, established in 1986 by the late Michael M. Rea to honor writers who have made significant contributions to the short story form. Beattie was the first writer to come to U.Va. as part of the Rea Visiting Writers program, which also was established by the Rea family.

What do Tim O’Brien, W.S. Merwin and Jamaica Kincaid have in common, other than being some of America’s best storytellers? They’ve all been Rea Visiting Writers at the University of Virginia.

Among the top names in poetry and fiction, the Rea Visiting Writers come to the University for week-long residencies, during which they give a lecture on their craft and work closely with MFA students in U.Va.’s distinguished creative writing program.

The Rea program was launched in 1987 with a $5,000 gift from the late Michael Moorhead Rea (Col ’52), and it has continued with the support of his wife, Elizabeth Richebourg Rea. Their annual gifts, now totaling $25,000 a year, have helped make U.Va.’s creative writing program the fourth in the country and one of the top-ranked graduate programs at the University, according to U.S. News and World Report.

“We owe much of our reputation and stature to the Reas, who fund our visiting scholars,” says Lisa Russ Spaar (Col ’78, Grad ’82), director of the creative writing program. “Outside voices stir things up for all of us and raise the level of our program. These authors become mentors to our students. They help demystify the writing life and occasionally help our students and faculty secure contracts for books.”

Devoted patrons of art and literature, the Reas have long been fascinated with stories and storytelling. For Mr. Rea, a businessman turned collector, every painting, every chair, and every first edition he acquired held a story. For Ms. Rea, an art curator turned photographer, each of her “relationship portraits” (candid depictions of fleeting moments) tells a tale.  “We are both collectors of memories,” says Ms. Rea.

Mr. Rea died in 1996, but his desire to advance the work of gifted writers lives on, thanks to Ms. Rea, who faithfully sustains the visiting writers program year to year in her husband’s memory. “Michael loved his experience at U.Va. and wanted to do something to help aspiring and established writers. He would be thrilled to know that he’s still having such an impact,” she says.

A Storyteller’s Past

Michael Rea took great pride in his Irish heritage, which Ms. Rea believes was the source of his love for literature. “Michael was descended from Irish storytellers,” she says. “He considered them forerunners in storytelling due to their innate sense of humor and timing.”

Although he hailed from an Ivy League family (his father went to Yale, and his grandfather attended Princeton), he was drawn to the University of Virginia, in part because of its longstanding association with great writers. Ms. Rea remembers being taken to see Edgar Allan Poe’s room the first time she came to U.Va., and her husband liked to recall a visit by William Faulkner, who later became writer-in-residence at the University.  “All he had to do is stand in front of the class, and it would be inspirational,” he said of the Nobel laureate.

Mr. Rea enjoyed all forms of writing but had a special fondness for the short story. “Every word, every sentence has to count,” he once said. “When it’s done right, it’s close to poetry. When I pick up a good short story, it thrills me.” He attributed his taste for short fiction to his service as a Marine in north China during World War II. As he later told writer Frank Conroy, in “a combat zone, you don’t have time to read anything long. Short stories more or less kept me sane.”

After the war, Mr. Rea became a writer in his own right, making his first foray into short fiction while at U.Va. According to his son Oliver, his subjects often included tales of his family, which was prominent in the iron ore and steel business at the turn of the last century. By the time he graduated from the University, he had developed a passion for collecting stories told through art and literature.

Among his interests were first editions of American short stories, of which he amassed some 100 volumes. “He loved the idea of a book as a beautiful art object and the feeling of holding a first edition in his hands,” says Ms. Rea. In the early 1980s, after stints in advertising, real estate and broadcasting, he moved to New York, where he paired his affection for art and literature in a short-lived publishing venture, Sweetwater Editions, which released two leather-bound imprints. That’s when he met Elizabeth.

One afternoon, he stepped into the gallery of Leo Castelli (a giant in the New York art world) to look at works by Joseph Cornell, the Queens artist whose enigmatic boxes often contain fragments of stories. She had just been recruited from the Museum of Modern Art to become the gallery’s new director and to represent the Cornell estate.

“Michael walked in, dressed in a tweed jacket and tilted Irish hat, and that was it: love at first sight,” she recounts. They soon married and moved into a cathedral-vaulted apartment on the Upper East Side, where she still lives today. Together, they started an impressive collection of paintings of mid-twentieth-century artists, including Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Jasper Johns. Mr. Rea, who had been a trustee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art while in Washington, D.C., was named a trustee of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York and the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.

In the same way he supported artists by buying their paintings, he sought to help writers and the short story form itself, which he felt was being ignored by publishers. In 1986, he created the Dungannon Foundation, named after his family’s ancestral town in Ireland, which he once visited and where his elderly aunts still reside.  Today the foundation funds the $30,000 annual Rea Award for the Short Story, arguably the nation’s most coveted prize for short fiction. Recipients include Eudora Welty (1992), Richard Ford (1995) and U.Va.’s own Deborah Eisenberg (2000). But not all the winners have been famous; in fact, most are struggling writers admired by their peers. His only requirement was that they be originals who, he once said, “have made a significant contribution to the short story form.” As he once put it: “I’m not interested in clones of Hemingway.”

A year after establishing the Rea Award, he gave his first annual gift to help writers and writers-in-training at the University.

Eight years have passed since his death, but Ms. Rea carries on their mutual love of stories through their gifts. “Piecing together the truth in a short story or a photograph or painting is the fun part,” she says. “Perhaps Michael and I just realized that life is short, and that not all stories have a beginning, middle, and end. We simply need to take comfort in the stories along the way.”

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The Rea Visiting Writers Program brings one writer of fiction and one poet to the Grounds each year for a weeklong residency. In addition to scheduled talks and readings, which are free and open to the public, writers work closely with students in classes and workshops during their stay. Rea funds also provide the support for other readings during the year by both emerging and established writers who make brief visits and meet informally with students.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2005 edition of Envision.