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Spending a Windfall

How does a MacArthur fellowship change lives? Six Chicago winners offered to tell us.

Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros

Fiction writer, essayist, and poet
Won $255,000 in 1995, when she was 40
Photo: Alan Goldfarb

“The award let me spend more time with my father, who was dying while I was in the middle of working on my book Caramelo. I also used some of the money to organize gatherings of MacArthur fellows who are Latino. I felt like I became my father’s daughter by becoming an organizer.”

 

Mary Zimmerman

Mary Zimmerman

Theater director and playwright (currently at the Goodman)
Won $240,000 in 1998, when she was 37
Photo: Liz Lauren

“The prize was like having an invisible bodyguard. It gave me confidence. I saved a lot of the money, but I also traveled to Egypt to research the opera Akhnaten, which I couldn’t have done otherwise. And MacArthur, along with [Tony-winning play] Metamorphoses, helped buy my house in Maine.”

 

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle

Photographer, sculptor, and installation artist
Won $500,000 in 2001, when he was 40
Photo: Nat Gorry

“I won the same day my wife and I were told by an adoption agency that we were in line to receive our son—but we had to finish remodeling our bedroom and bathroom first. Some money went there. And some went to create artworks, including an installation for the Museum of Modern Art in New York.”

 

Reginald Robinson

Reginald Robinson

Ragtime pianist and composer
Won $500,000 in 2004, when he was 31
Photo: Kymon Kyndred

“I bought a house in Ashburn and lived off the [rest of the] money while I produced two albums and worked on a documentary about the history of ragtime. Lots of ragtime musicians treated me differently after I won. They were like, ‘Oh, he’s a genius?’ They turned up their performances around me.”

 

Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon

Fiction writer and essayist
Won $500,000 in 2004, when he was 40
Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

“When the foundation called, I thought it was a debt collector. I paid off my debts [with the award money]; I didn’t have to worry about income. I spent a year in Paris and finished two books [the National Book Award finalist The Lazarus Project and the short-story collection Love and Obstacles].”

 

Mark Hersam

Mark Hersam

Materials scientist and professor at Northwestern University
Won $625,000 in 2014, when he was 39
Photo: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

“University labs require external funding, government contracts—and those come with constraints. So the award is going toward research with my students. We’ll use the funds to pursue new ideas and discoveries when they appear. It’s rare to have that kind of freedom.”

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