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John Adams, Ron Chernow, Virginia Dajani, and David Sedaris Receive Highest Honors

Contact: Ashley Fedor

(212) 368-5900

NEW YORK, May 16, 2018—The American Academy of Arts and Letters has announced the recipients of its four highest honors for excellence in the arts, to be given at the annual Ceremonial next week. Writer Ron Chernow and composer John Adams have won the Gold Medals in Biography and Music, respectively. Arts administrator Virginia Dajani has been awarded the Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts, and writer and humorist David Sedaris has won the Medal for Spoken Language.

Given each year in two rotating categories of the arts, the Gold Medal is awarded to those who have achieved eminence in an entire body of work. The Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts recognizes individuals who have rendered notable service to the Academy’s disciplines. The Medal for Spoken Language is presented to those who set the highest standard in the use of language on the stage, in radio and television broadcasting, or in public speaking. This year’s recipients were chosen by the members of the Academy.

Gold Medal in Biography

Gold Medal in Music

Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts

Medal for Spoken Language



John Adams ranks among the most beloved and frequently performed American composers of his generation. He began composing at the age of ten, and by age fourteen his works were being performed. Adams made his mark in Western music by developing a post-minimalist style, beginning with his piece Shaker Loops in 1978. He has composed the groundbreaking operas Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic, and The Death of Klinghoffer, among others, in addition to numerous orchestral, chamber, and electronic compositions. Adams is a highly sought-after conductor, having appeared with the world’s major orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is a winner of several Grammy Awards and the Pulitzer Prize in Music, and was elected to Academy membership in 1997.


Immensely gifted historian, biographer, and master psychologist, Ron Chernow is the author of major works of history and biography: The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance (National Book Award for Nonfiction); The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family (George S. Eccles Prize for Excellence in Economic Writing); Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.; Alexander Hamilton (a biography adapted into the celebrated eponymous Tony award-winning musical); George Washington: A Life (Pulitzer Prize for Biography). His biography of President Ulysses S. Grant was published in the fall of 2017. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Biography and was elected to Academy membership in 2018.


Following an already distinguished career as the Municipal Art Society’s Director of Special Projects and Editor of its journal The Livable City, Virginia Dajani served for more than a quarter century as the respected and beloved Executive Director of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She transformed the institution by establishing new awards, expanding its campus, and opening its doors to local community groups—thus rendering extraordinary service not just to the Academy but to all of the arts represented in its membership.


David Sedaris is a humorist, comedian, writer, and frequent radio contributor to NPR whose broadcasting career began with a reading of his essay “Santaland Diaries.” His work regularly appears in the New Yorker, and he has published eleven essay collections. One of America’s preeminent humor writers, he brings his own words to life on the stage and fills performing arts centers and symphony halls around the world. His latest book, Calypso, comes out from Little, Brown & Company this month.




The American Academy of Arts and Letters was founded in 1898 as an honor society of the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers. Early members include William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Julia Ward Howe, Henry James, Edward MacDowell, Theodore Roosevelt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John Singer Sargent, and Edith Wharton. The Academy’s 250 members are elected for life and pay no dues.

In addition to electing new members as vacancies occur, the Academy seeks to foster and sustain an interest in Literature, Music, and the Fine Arts by administering over 70 awards and prizes, exhibiting art and manuscripts, funding performances of new works of musical theater, and purchasing artwork for donation to museums across the country.

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