EYES ON THE PRIZE

I went back out of curiosity.
They were presenting this year's Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University in New York City.

It was the 75th-anniversary celebration of the Pulitzers, and they had actually taken the trouble to invite every previous winner to come to New York to attend both the ceremony and a cocktail party to follow.

As usual, Christina the Lawyer was in charge of transportation. She jumped into the street and commandeered a cab in front of our hotel and ordered the driver to take us posthaste to Columbia University at 116th Street and Broadway.

The driver sped around the southern end of Central Park and on up north past the theatres at Lincoln Center. We were lucky. It was Sunday afternoon and traffic was light.

We had been in New York City four days. This was the first cab ride that turned out not to be a small catastrophe both financially and logistically.

Previously, we had been caught in a massive traffic jam in the Holland Tunnel, detoured around the Brooklyn Bridge, stopped dead in our tracks in Little Italy and forced to flee from still another cab by a German-American-society parade which blocked the entire east side of Manhattan for three hours.

Each time we got into a cab, the same thing happened. The cab would drive for one or two blocks and then come to a dead halt in traffic. The only thing that moved from then on in those taxis were the meters.

"Why are we doing this?" I asked Christina the Lawyer. It was the same question I had asked her at the front door of each museum and theatre she had led me to in recent days.

Her answer was the same.
"If you remain reasonably alert, it should prove quite interesting to you," she said.

When things work in New York, you immediately begin to think you have a charmed life. We made it from our hotel up to the Columbia campus in about 12 minutes.

The line for the Pulitzer ceremony was just moving into the Karyn Bache Miller theatre when we climbed from the cab. Christina the Lawyer produced the tickets. Within minutes we were in our seats.

We were in the balcony in this very old theatre in which everyone was dressed as if for a church service or a graduation ceremony.

During the Pulitzers' 75 years, there have been 617 winners in journalism and 439 in letters and music for a total of 1,056. Actually, only 300 former winners showed up.

While waiting for the ceremony to begin, I looked over the program, which contained a listing of every previous winner and explained the entry which merited the award.

The first name I saw on the program was that of Herbert Bayard Swope of the New York World. He won the first Pulitzer for reporting back in 1917. It was for a series of stories titled "Inside the German Empire." If Mr. Swope were still alive, he'd be well over 100 years old. I looked around the audience. I didn't see anyone who seemed quite that advanced in years.

I did, however, see Abe Rosenthal, former managing editor and now columnist of the New York Times, sitting all puffed up like a pouter pigeon with huge, black, horn-rimmed glasses.

Edith Wharton won an early Pulitzer for her novel The Age of Innocence. She wasn't anywhere to be seen either.

But I spotted cheery Gwendolyn Brooks of Chicago, who won a Pulitzer for poetry in 1950.

I remember attending a party at her home on the South Side of Chicago in the Sixties. It was a literary gathering of a sort. The unexpected highlight of the evening occurred when novelist Jack Conroy, now deceased, buried himself under a wall bookcase which he had unwittingly pulled from its moorings and down upon his huge frame.

It is always strange to leave Arizona and come face to face with someone you could have encountered without leaving Sky Harbor International Airport.

One of the first speakers was Michael Pulitzer, editor and publisher of the Arizona Star in Tucson.

If nothing else, he cleared up something that has always been a sore point by quoting from a letter his father wrote to a radio station. It was about the pronunciation of the Pulitzer name:

"Please ask whoever is responsible to see to it that Elmer Davis learns proper pronunciation of the name `Pulitzer' in his announcement of what the next Pulitzer Prize Playhouse show will be," the letter said. "Out came Elmer with the pronunciation `Pewl-litzer.'" The proper way is PULL-it-sir, with the z sounding like an s.

Russell Baker, the New York Times columnist, was keynote speaker.
Baker is very Ivy League, very civilized. He is himself a two-time Pulitzer winner in the fields of both reporting and letters, the latter for his extremely readable autobiography Growing Up.

Baker spoke about some famous people who failed to win Pulitzer prizes. He listed F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara and the musicians George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.

He pointed out that H.L. Mencken, who never won a Pulitzer either, referred to the prizes as "imbecilities repeated annually." Warming to his subject, Baker explained how Sinclair Lewis, the novelist, actually returned the Pulitzer check for $1,000 while denouncing the prizes as dangerous.

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