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.
Lewis was to change his mind about accepting prize money soon afterward, however.
Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Lewis received a check for $446,350. He promptly cashed the check and never commented further upon the evils of literary awards.
Baker is a man with a gentle sense of humor. He said he was always inclined to agree with the high standards set by Mencken and Lewis, and with their thoughts about the tawdry nature of the Pulitzer Prize.
But then one day Baker received a telephone call.
"You've won the Pulitzer Prize," the voice on the other end of the telephone said.
"I underwent a remarkable enlightenment," Baker explained. "I realized that the Pulitzer might be a wonderful prize to win after all." He went on:
"There is a hunger in us for something more than the money standard," he said, "for some assurance that our lives have not been merely successful but valuable." The awards were presented by Columbia University president Michael Sovern. Applause for each winner rolled over the old theatre. Among the winners were 11 women journalists. The Pulitzer committee announced that the figure represented the highest number of women winners in the history of the prize.
I was surprised when Neil Simon stepped onstage to accept the award for his play Lost in Yonkers. Simon is the most successful playwright of the era and yet he seemed humbled at receiving the prize.
I watched the self-effacing manners exhibited by Susan Faludi of the Wall Street Journal, who won for explanatory journalism, and Marje Lundstrom and Rochelle Sharpe of the Gannett News Service, who won for national reporting.
They didn't fool me. I realized how good they must be at their jobs and how hard they had worked on the stories that won them their prizes. And I realized they seemed ill at ease only because climbing on a stage is not the thing they do for a living.
I remembered how I had felt. All I had worried about was whether my new suit fit well enough. We always find a way to worry about the unimportant things.
My sentimental favorite among the winners was the novelist John Updike, who won for Rabbit at Rest. Updike is a tall, slim man with gray hair cut short. He wore a tan, single-breasted suit that looked like it came from J. Press or Brooks Brothers. He stood erect with his hands folded in front of him as the citation was read.
He accepted it politely and walked quickly from the stage. I wanted him to speak. Something inside me wanted to hear him tell how he felt about getting this award, which for a novelist is one of the highest possible.
But Updike walked back down the steps and into the audience without saying a word.
I thought about the great piece Updike had written years before about Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox hitting a home run in his last at bat at Fenway Park:
"He ran as he always ran out home runs--hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept and chanted `We Want Ted' for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. . . . The newspapers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters." After the ceremony, there was a reception in a huge tent which had been set up on the Columbia campus's South Field.
As the hundreds of people stood in line in the late afternoon sunshine, they could hear piano music playing tunes from A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park With George, Oklahoma and Of Thee I Sing, which were all Pulitzer Prize winners.
The food and the drinks were fine. Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times stood with a drink in his hand near the entrance so that no one could miss seeing him.
I saw some people I knew and some others who were famous in the field of journalism.
I spotted Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times, one of the true legends of modern journalism. Salisbury won a Pulitzer in 1955 for a series based on his six years in Russia.
He should have won another for his reporting from behind the lines in Hanoi during the Vietnam war, but it was denied. At the age of 70, Salisbury and his wife undertook a march across China to simulate the one made years before by Mao's army. And just recently, he went to cover the student riots in China and wrote a book about it in less than a month on his old portable typewriter.
I have seen him several times over the years but never met him, never told him how much I admired his work.
Jack Higgins of the Chicago Sun-Times was there. He is a tremendously talented cartoonist who worked freelance for years and then for low wages before he got his first real break by winning the Pulitzer in 1989.
Winning the prize convinced his bosses that Higgins was rated highly by others. His salary quickly accelerated. He had lost some hair, but he seemed as happy as ever.
I saw people from television who had won Pulitzers in the past and are now regulars on news shows: Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune and Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times.
I saw Jimmy Breslin, who won in 1986 for what the judges decided were columns "consistently championing the ordinary citizen." We had covered several stories together. I went over to say hello.
Breslin must have mistaken me for a bill collector.
"What hotel you staying at?" he demanded.
I told him.
"Fine," he said. "I'll drop by tomorrow." With that, Breslin lifted his drink high and moved to another area of the tent like a politician working the crowd.
Norman Mailer was there, too.
There was a madcap time in New York when Mailer and Breslin had run on the same ticket. Mailer ran for mayor and Breslin for head of the city council.
Now Mailer has just published his latest novel, Harlot's Ghost, about the CIA. It is so long that it is the first novel in the history of American publishing to be sold for more than $30 a copy.
Mailer recognized Christina the Lawyer first. He raised his glass, which contained club soda, and moved forward.
There was a cover story about Mailer in the New York Times magazine that very day and he was happy about it.
"I liked the writer," Mailer said, "but you never know until the story comes out whether they liked you or not. He was very fair." Mailer mentioned the time I had come to his house in Massachusetts to interview him years before.
I remember it well. No wonder he remembered. It came just about the time he had published what he called his biography of Marilyn Monroe. Everybody else panned the book. I may have been the only writer in America who said it was wonderful.
Suddenly I ran into Jim Hoge.
When I worked for Hoge in Chicago, people who didn't like him would say that he looked like Robert Redford. Hoge did look like Redford, but he was bigger and much stronger looking.
When Hoge ran the Sun-Times, the newspaper won five Pulitzer Prizes in a period of eight years. That was an unprecedented pace for a newspaper that wasn't the New York Times.
We shook hands. I realized once again that I really liked him. The only thing that had kept us from ever really hanging around together was the fact that he was unfortunate enough to be my boss. It has always been necessary for me to avoid bosses whenever possible.
Hoge was one of the first people to kiss Christina the Lawyer after we were married. He wanted to throw a party and invite proper people, but we never got around to giving him our list.
Recently Hoge got blown out of his job as publisher of the New York Daily News. He is now at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He also sits on the Pulitzer Prize board.
"You look fine," I said.
"So do you," Hoge said.
I wanted to tell him something that had been on my mind for years. I thought this might be the right time. I wanted to thank him for nominating me for the prize.
We march through life with a bravura front. But deep down, we understand that nothing really happens unless there is someone behind you pushing your cause. Hoge did that for me at an important time. And I never really thanked him or let him know I understood.
Maybe this was the moment. But just then a man rushed up from the side and introduced himself noisily to Hoge.
The moment had passed. It was, after all, just a cocktail party. It was not the time to say anything serious.
A little later, Christina the Lawyer and I headed out of the tent.
The man on the piano was playing the opening song from A Chorus Line. I remembered the words:
"God, I hope I get it . . . " Abe Rosenthal was still holding court near the entrance to the tent.
When things work in New York, you immediately begin to think you have a charmed life.
H.L. Mencken referred to the Pulitzer Prizes as "imbecilities repeated annually."
I went over to say hello. Jimmy Breslin must have mistaken me for a bill collector.
Norman Mailer had published what he called his biography of Marilyn Monroe. I may have been the only writer in America who said it was wonderful.
The only thing that had kept us from ever really hanging around together was the fact that he was unfortunate enough to be my boss.
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