On Thursday afternoons, U-M’s finest writers—professors, lecturers, undergrads, and M.F.A.s—gather to talk shop, sip coffee, and munch on cookies. They do so under the world-weary eyes of playwright Avery Hopwood, namesake of both the lounge where they gather and U-M's most generous writing prizes. But even the Hopwood winners among these coffee drinkers are unaware of the contribution to their boon made by Avery Hopwood's monkey, Peppy.
By his own admission, Avery Hopwood, a 1905 U-M graduate, wrote to cash in. His first play, penned while he was still at U-M, begat a string of often-risqué hits, primarily farces with titles such as Getting Gertie's Garter. In two short decades Hopwood rose to be a renowned millionaire with at least 36 Broadway plays to his credit. Many ran for hundreds of shows; few are remembered today.
Hopwood was realistic about the enduring impact of his plays, inspiring him to leave provisions in his will for his writing awards, specifying that “the new, the unusual, and the radical shall be especially encouraged.” Shortly after his 46th birthday, Hopwood suffered a heart attack while vacationing in France, leaving millions to his mother, Jule Hopwood, and grief-stricken monkey, Pep Squeak.
Hopwood had bought this monkey almost 12 years earlier. According to Jack F. Sharrar, author of Avery Hopwood: His Life and Plays, monkeys “were popular pets with the smart set during Hopwood's time,” especially rhesus monkeys, “like the monkeys that taunt Chaplin in his film The Circus.” Peppy was Hopwood's constant companion in the speakeasies and cafés of Jazz Age New York, occasionally appearing in his letters and diary entries, as well as those of close friends such as Carl Van Vechten.
Peppy was hysterical at Hopwood's funeral. “When I visited Hopwood's cemetery in the early 1980s,” Sharrar recounts over email, “the sexton told me that one of the groundskeepers often spoke of Hopwood's funeral because the monkey ran all around the site during the service.” Jule Hopwood followed her son to the grave by about eight months, passing along a $10,000 trust fund for the monkey. Back then, that sort of money could have bought three 1928 Chrysler Imperial Sedans, with enough left over to pay for seven year's rent on a nice house. Peppy died within the year, and his estate joined the remainder of the Hopwood fortune in funding the Jule and Avery Hopwood Creative Writing Awards.
As was tactfully noted in a 1931 issue of the literary magazine Gargoyle, “Avery Hopwood has been dead several years. One of the reasons for the delay in appropriating the funds he left was that a portion of the money was indefinitely set aside to care for a pet monkey . . . It finally died.”
This year's Hopwood awards were presented on April 20 in the Rackham Amphitheatre. Poet Elizabeth Alexander delivered the annual Hopwood lecture. For more information, please see the awards page here.
Who has won a Hopwood?
Some of the winners from throughout the years:
Max Apple (1963, 1970 )
John Ciardi (1939)
Sidney (Cid) Corman (1947)
Mary Gaitskill (1981)
Steve Hamilton (1983)
Robert Hayden (1938, 1942)
Lawrence Kasdan (1968, 1969 , 1970)
Laura Kasischke (1981, 1982 , 1983, 1984)
Elizabeth Kostova (2003)
Arthur Miller (1936, 1937)
Frank O’Hara (1951)
Marge Piercy (1954, 1956 , 1957)
Betty Smith (1931)
Nancy Willard (1955 , 1956, 1957, 1958 )
Beth Tanenhaus Winsten (1996)
[ ] denotes multiple awards won in given year
Source: Hopwood Winners: 1931-2005