Poetry Dateline: 12/31/09.
Billionaire Ruth Lilly died yesterday at age 94. Ruth Lilly was the reclusive heir to the fortunes of Eli Lilly & Co. founded in 1876, the inventor of Prozac. Ruth Lilly was a well known philanthropist, giving away an estimated $800 million to charitable organizations throughout her life. She has a library, a hospital wing, and a theater named after her. She was also a poet. What most people don't realize is, Ruth Lilly spent much of her life in a mental hospital and she was actually not in charge of her own money. In 1981, Ruth Lilly's brother forcefully put her fortune under the guardianship of National City Bank (then called Merchants National Bank) and from then on her checks had to be approved by one of their lawyers; a court later also declared Lilly incapable of managing her own property. Ruth Lilly then became physically ill. While she was sick and unable to get out of bed, Ruth Lilly's "guardian" was met with allegations of questionable spending practices, involving hundreds of thousands of dollars used for political contributions and lavish trips for Lilly's employees and their families. It seemed like everyone was having a party at Ruth Lilly's expense.
In 2002, Ruth Lilly apparently donated what was then estimated to be $100 million to Poetry Magazine, a monthly journal that Lilly had sent her poetry to for publication only to be met with rejection. One of her "guardian" lawyers explained this obscene donation by claiming that Lilly doesn't take rejection personally, and that she is a loyal fan of the magazine. Poetry Magazine, published in Chicago, had survived for 90 years without such riches. At the time, Poetry Magazine had an annual budget of $500,000, a circulation of 12,000 copies, a staff of four employees, and it was published out a cramped space donated by the Newberry Library. Even so, it stood tall and proud as America's largest and most respected poetry magazine.
Questions would soon arise whether or not Lilly indeed intended to give such an outrageous amount of money to one single poetry organization, since she couldn't walk, had a feeding tube and had trouble comprehending when her "guardian" signed off on it. It has been speculated that she actually intended to give one million dollars to one hundred different "poetry magazines" but that her family, who would eventually be awarded guardianship, misunderstood what she was trying to communicate. One source, who quotes an Appellate Court's published opinion, claims that there were actually as many as twenty different sophisticated wills drafted for Ruth Lilly, wills that involved charitable trusts and limited liability companies, but her guardians believed that executing the most recent will would be too complicated and would involve too much work and too much risk. According to the source, her guardians took advantage of an Indiana law that allows for the creation of an estate plan for a "protected person." They honored only one will, a will that was written in 1982. When the will that was honored was written, Lilly's intention was to donate a percentage of her estate estimated at $5 million to Poetry Magazine. However, when it was finally put into motion, it was twenty years later, and Lilly's fortune had grown by 1000%, thus turning Poetry Magazine's percentage into an unintended, shocking amount of money.
On the surface it appears that Poetry Magazine, now known as The Poetry Foundation, has been using Ruth Lilly's money to "turn millions of people on to poetry." Concerns have been raised, however, among poets throughout the country that the bizarre gift hands a monopoly to one particular type of poetry. Here in Chicago, smaller poetry organizations have been forced to compete with the Poetry Foundation's aggressive programming and its sudden desire to be seen as a Chicago, as opposed to a national, organization. In full disclosure, recently, slanderous fliers, which encouraged people to start using the "official blog" of the Poetry Foundation's Printers Ball for poetry news instead of ChicagoPoetry.com, were distributed in mass quantities.
Soon after receiving the fortune and setting up The Poetry Foundation with it, Poetry Magazine attempted to sue National City Bank because the gift, which was primarily composed of stocks, lost 35% of its value by the time the bank decided to sell. Eventually it would be discovered that, despite the ups and downs in the stock market, Ruth Lilly's donation to Poetry Magazine was actually valued at over $200 million, double the amount that was first projected. The attempted legal action nevertheless demonstrated that Poetry Magazine had undertaken a sudden shift in ethics, from being about quality poetry to being about the management of money.
Two months after receiving the unheard of gift that abruptly changed Poetry Magazine's ethics, Joseph Parisi, who dilligently and honorably worked with the magazine for 27 years and who was then its editor, resigned. Some time later, a Wall Street "dynamo" poet named John W. Barr (who helped found the disgraced Dynegy Inc. and who once worked for Enron) was shipped in from New York and was declared the President of the new Poetry Foundation. Within weeks upon arriving here, before having done a single thing for Chicago, Barr was named as one of the Top 50 Lit people in Chicago by the publication New City.
Today, the death of Ruth Lilly has finally opened the door to the wave of harsh criticism that has secretly been directed toward John Barr. An article in today's Chicago Tribune describes the "recriminations" and "bitter quarrels" that followed Barr's arrival. The Tribune describes in great detail the "disputes over the organization's mission and how the windfall was being spent." According to the article, more than half of the Poetry Foundation's trustees have resigned, some in protest, some claiming they were forced out for raising issues of conflict of interest. Claims have also been brought up that Poetry Magazine has been wasting Ruth Lilly's money at an alarming rate, ridiculously spending more than a million dollars on a website, renting a lavish space on North Michigan Avenue, handing out over $3 million in prizes and reading fees to popular mainstream poets, and paying its now 20 employees $2 million every year in salaries. The Poetry Foundation also plans to build a $25 million mansion in the Gold Coast with accommodations for visiting poets of its choice and a stage to host readings on. An ex-trustee accused the Foundation of acting like a "private club" and using Ruth Lilly's money for "personal gratification." Complaints of questionable governance and management practices were again raised when Penny Barr, wife of John Barr, who admits she is "not versed in poetry," was paid $23,000 by the Foundation for setting up a poetry contest.
The Illinois State's Attorney is looking into allegations of poor "fiscal practices, conflict of interest, nepotism and playing fast and loose with the rules of charitable organizations." However, proving that the Poetry Foundation is violating any laws will be difficult, since Ruth Lilly's "guardians" handed Poetry Magazine her fortune "with a very broad mandate for how it was to be spent." Even though Ruth Lilly was an honorary trustee of the Poetry Foundation, it is questionable whether or not she knew she was a trustee while practically in a vegetative state, because she never attended a single board meeting.
Sources: Chicago Tribune and USA Today
Note: ChicagoPoetry News Flash: the non-profit Poetry Foundation is under investigation by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office, after Madigan received complaints from former board members concerning the alleged "mishandling of its millions." Click Here for the REWRITTEN STORY. **Updated 01/02/10