Mrs. Pulitzer and Her Prizes
In 1957, the name Mrs. Ralph Pulitzer began appearing among the Library’s Board of Trustees. It was a modest credit for a brilliant and respected author.
Ralph Pulitzer himself was the son of Joseph Pulitzer, the famous publisher of the New York World sometimes credited with inventing modern mass media. Fittingly, Joseph Pulitzer’s will founded the prestigious Pulitzer Prizes, first given a century ago. (Their 2017 winners get announced today.) The prizewinners, by the way, are selected by completely independent juries organized by Columbia University, not by members of the Pulitzer family.
Ralph Pulitzer inherited the World and its sister companies and wrote books including a photographic report from the Great War trenches, Over the Front in an Aeroplane.
Another New Yorker interested in the European war was Margaret Kernochan Leech, who in 1915 graduated from Vassar and worked for Condé Nast and as a fundraiser for the American Committee for Devastated France. During the 1920s Leech befriended members of the Algonquin Round Table and published three sweet society novels like The Back of the Book. In 1928, she married Ralph Pulitzer. They had a daughter, Susan, but polio carried her off in infancy. Ralph Pulitzer himself died of complications from surgery in June 1939, just after his sixtieth birthday.
Twice bereaved, Margaret Leech could be forgiven had she simply stepped offstage then, at the age of 46. Instead, she completed her first magnum opus, Reveille in Washington 1860-1865. A scholarly but readable description of life during the Civil War, Reveille in Washington was published by Harper in 1941 and won the Pulitzer Prize for History. It is touchingly dedicated “For Susan Pulitzer.”
In 1960, during her service on the Library Board, Ms. Leech published her other major history book. In the Days of McKinley walked off with not only her second Pulitzer but also the prestigious Bancroft Prize. The Library’s copy of this monumental history of the McKinley era and the Spanish-American War sports an inscription to our Head Librarian at the time, Sylvia Hilton. Board notes say that Ms. Leech appreciated the contributions of the Library’s collection to her research.
Ms. Leech lent her social and literary insight to the Library until her death from stroke in February 1974, at the age of 80. Arnold Whitridge, Chair of the Board, wrote, “I am very sorry to announce the death in February this year of Mrs. Ralph Pulitzer, Library Trustee since 1959[sic]....She was the third woman trustee to be elected to the Board and she served on the Executive Committee for many years.”
In the sidebar at left: Ms. Leech's official Board of Trustees portrait. Click on the image for a larger version.
Margaret Leech is far from the only Library member to have been honored with a Pulitzer Prize; she's not even the only two-time winner. Other member writers who’ve taken home that coveted award include
- Willa Cather for One of Ours, 1923 (Novel)
- Stephen Vincent Benét for John Brown’s Body, 1929 and Western Star, 1944 (Poetry). Benét and his wife Rosemary Carr both served on the Library’s Board.
- John Hersey for A Bell for Adano, 1945 (Novel)
- W.H. Auden for The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue, 1948 (Poetry)
- Sheldon Harnick (with Jerome Weidman, George Abbot, and Jerry Bock) for Fiorello!, 1960 (Drama)
- Barbara W. Tuchman for The Guns of August, 1963 and Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45, 1972 (General Nonfiction). Ms. Tuchman was a Library Trustee in the 1980s.
- Frances FitzGerald for Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, 1973 (General Nonfiction)
- Robert A. Caro for The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 1975 and The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, 2003 (Biography or Autobiography). Mr. Caro is a current Library Trustee.
- John Cheever for The Stories of John Cheever, 1979 (Fiction)
- Wendy Wasserstein for The Heidi Chronicles, 1989 (Drama). Ms. Wasserstein liked to tell us that she wrote much of this play on the Library’s fifth floor.
- Stacy Schiff for Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), 2000 (Biography or Autobiography)
- Gregory Pardlo for Digest, 2015 (Poetry)
We’re also proud that our New York City Book Award anticipated the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Our Book Award winners this year include David M. Oshinsky; his Polio: An American Story won the History Pulitzer in 2006.
Big thanks to Barbara Bieck and Cathy McGowan for research help with this article.