Imagine an American poet and memoirist who never went college but befriended some of the great literary heroes of his generation and then died at the age of 90 with no children as heirs of a huge estate that was worth millions.
That would be Donald Windham, who died in 2010 — some 20 years after the death of his lifelong partner Sandy Campbell — and asked his lawyers to set up one of the richest literary awards program in the world. Ensorcelled yet?
He chose Yale University to run the annual program and he left enough money behind to fund the program for, well, for a long time to come. Maybe 100 years.
And the accidental philanthropist himself never went to Yale, and never even went to college. After high school in the South, he made a beeline for Manhattan and never looked back.
Think of the Windham Campell Prizes as a kind of MacArthur “genius” grant for writers — fiction writers, non-fiction writers and playwrights — who do not have to apply for the awards and get notified about winning out of the blue as a complete surprise.
This year, the third year of the program (its that new, and that’s why you probably never heard of it before), the $150,000 prizes went to nine writers from around the world. Last year, there were eight winners. None of them applied, and none of them knew the windfall was coming. Until the phone rang.
“The prizes were started by a very wealthy man who unexpectedly donated his entire estate to Yale, which is not even his alma mater,” a publishing industry source told this reporter in a recent email. “To do something like this, well, it doesn’t happen very often.”
Since the program is just three years old, it’s still a low-profile thing and not the kind of event to make headlines on the front pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post.
Michael Kelleher, who is the program director at Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, oversees the annual awards program.
Officially, the prizes are known as the Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes. They might get nicknamed one day as the ”Windy Camp” awards. who knows?
This year’s nine winners were chosen in three categories: fiction, non-fiction, and drama.
The 2015 winners are: in fiction, Teju Cole, Helon Habila, and Ivan Vladislavić; in non-fiction, Edmund de Waal, Geoff Dyer, and John Jeremiah Sullivan; and in drama, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Helen Edmundson, and Debbie Tucker Green.
De Waal, a British artist and author, said the 2015 prize is a Godsend. “I still cannot believe the news,” he said.