“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together.” —Joseph Pulitzer
Now known as one of the most distinguished prizes in America, the Pulitzer Prize might never have been. Here are some facts about how it started, and some interesting stories on those who’ve won it.
24. Freedom of the Press
The Pulitzer Prize award was established by Joseph Pulitzer in 1917 in an attempt to bring journalism up to his standards. They are awarded annually out of Columbia University in New York City, with winners receiving a cash prize of $15,000 (previously $10,000 before 2017) and a gold medal. Pulitzer allocated money in his will to be donated to Columbia University for the purposes of opening a journalism school and establishing the prize.
23. Becoming American
Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary, and as a teenager, he attempted to sign on with the Austrian, British, and French army, but was rejected by each. This led to him to enlist in the United States Civil War after being approached by a Union army recruiter. When he arrived in the states via Boston Harbor, he jumped into the water in an attempt to keep his enlistment bounty instead of having it go to the recruiter. This leap worked, and he would then make his way to New York and enlist there.
22. Humble Beginnings
After being honorably discharged from the Army, Pulitzer roughed it for many years, working jobs and sleeping on park benches. His big break, somewhat surprisingly, came after he criticized a move made during a chess game. The two chess players were editors of the region’s German-language newspaper, and they gave him a job at the paper Westliche Post. After years of working as a reporter, Pulitzer became a part-owner, marking the beginning of his newspaper empire.
21. Stint in Politics
Before building this newspaper empire, Pulitzer had a brief stint in politics. In 1870, he shot a building contractor during an argument with his old army pistol. Perhaps incredibly for today’s standards, he was simply fined for his action, and allowed to retain his political position.
20. Not the Nature of the Job
For many years, the Chicago Tribune, considered by many to be the best newspaper in the United States, refused to submit entries for the Pulitzer Prize. Colonel McCormick was running the paper at the time, and considered the awards to be a “mutual admiration society.” This lasted until 1961.
19. For Whom the Committee Chooses
Though Ernest Hemingway would win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 with his novel The Old Man and the Sea, he was supposed to win the prize earlier, in 1941, before the committee reconsidered his award. His novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was elected by the Advisory Board, but the president of Columbia University implored the Board to reconsider, as they risked an association between the explicit sexual content of the book and the university. They ended up giving no award.
18. No One Gets it
Though it doesn’t happen very often, another of the 20th century’s most acclaimed novelists had a Pulitzer Prize award reversed due to his work’s controversial nature. In 1974, Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow was recommended for the prize by the jury, only to be later overturned by the Advisory Board, and again no award was given.
17. Prestigious Few
There have not been many repeat recipients of the Pulitzer Prize, and only a handful have received four awards, the most anyone has won. These individuals are Carol Guzy for Photography, Robert Frost for Poetry, Eugene O’Neill for Drama, and Robert E. Sherwood for won it three times for Drama and once for Biography.
16. The Roots
Before publishing the Pulitzer Prize-winning Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley wanted to name the book Before This Anger, but was persuaded not to. Many thought that the book Haley was working on would prove to be great, and before it was even finished, screenwriters began writing the television adaptation of Roots.
15. Scandalous Prize
Shortly after he won the Pulitzer for Roots, Haley was accused of plagiarism in two separate lawsuits. He would settle one of the suits for $650,000, and acknowledged his direct lifting of passages from the 1967 novel The African.
14. Oscar Winners
38 of the Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards have been adapted from novels. This being such a high number, you’d imagine that many of these books were award winners, but only two of them have won the Pulitzer Prize: 1939’s Gone With The Wind and 1949’s All the King’s Men.
13. Bob Dylan
The first pop musician to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize was none other than Bob Dylan. When he won the award in 2008, it marked an attempt by the Pulitzer board to include more types of contemporary art, as before this classical music, and more recently jazz, were the only musical genres considered worthy. Dylan’s work stands on his own, but in what’s maybe the most influential act of his life, he also introduced the Beatles to marijuana, setting them on the road to Yellow Submarine and Sgt. Pepper’s.
12. A President’s Man
Before working as the principal speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan—penning the famous speeches “Ash Heap of History” and “Evil Empire”—Anthony R. Dolan won a Pulitzer Prize for Local Investigative Specialized Reporting in 1978 after he uncovered municipal corruption while working for The Stamford Advocate.
11. Two Timer
The conservative editorial cartoonist Nelson Harding is the only person to win the Pulitzer Prize in back to back years, in 1927 and 1928. Harding’s legacy hasn’t held up so strong; he was active as a cartoonist during the First Red Scare, and often depicted political radicals as violent terrorists.
10. Critic to Star
Roger Ebert became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Ebert would also go on to become the first film critic to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
9. Committee Switch
Brett Blackledge won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his series of work uncovering the cronyism, nepotism, and corruption in Alabama’s two-year college system. His work led to new safeguards set in place for public accountability, and he was initially a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his work. The committee would later change their decision and give him the prize for Investigative Journalism instead.
8. Triumph Over Difficulties
The playwright Wendy Wasserstein has won a Pulitzer for her work, but it was a long and hard road for her to become an iconic writer; she grew up with dyslexia. While she suffered through many difficulties, she would later claim that dyslexia was sort of a gift because it allowed her to easily think out of the box.
7. American Melting Pot
The 1980 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love won novelist Oscar Hijuelos the Pulitzer Prize, making him the first Latino writer to win the prize for Fiction.
6. To Be Black in America
Legendary poet Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for her second book of poems, Annie Allen, in 1950. Brooks said that being awarded the Pulitzer changed her life, and she gained widespread notoriety, inspiring many in the Civil Rights movement.
5. The Friendly Genius
Frank Gehry is one of the most celebrated architects in the world, and in addition to winning the Pritzker Prize, he also won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism at The New York Times. Funny thing is, though he has won the top awards for architecture and criticism, Gehry actually received a “B” in Art Appreciation at the University of Southern California. While at USC, Gehry was also forced to leave his Fraternity after attempting to pledge a black classmate.
4. Preserving Through Trauma
Louis Simpson was one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, but he experienced a long, winding road, and did not intend on being a poet. Long before he won the Pulitzer for poetry in 1964, he fought in WWII and suffered a breakdown from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
3. The Name’s Not Nellie
Though she published her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird under the name Harper Lee, Lee’s real name was actually Nelle Harper Lee. She decided to drop the Nelle, as she was concerned that people would mistake her name for “Nellie.”
2. Money Maker
Winning the Pulitzer for To Kill A Mockingbird did wonders for Lee’s life, and though she lived simply, she was made a multimillionaire by the novel’s success. With the book selling over 40 million copies in more than 40 different languages, Lee was making about $3 million in royalties before her death.
1. JFK and His Pulitzer
John F. Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize win is one of the most controversial in the history of the award. Years after his death, Kennedy was accused of secretly letting his speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, write the majority of the book. It’s generally agreed today that while the broad ideas and themes of the book were Kennedy’s, it was indeed written by Sorenson, who received no credit.
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