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The Press: Hail to the Loser

4 minute read

With total predictability, the names of this year’s Pulitzer prizewinners* were emblazoned in the nation’s press last week. As usual, the awards evoked everything from applause to astonishment (see next story). Ironically, what made the big news was a Pulitzer non-prizewinner.

By unanimous vote, the Pulitzer Advisory Board handed the “distinguished biography” award ($500) to William A. Swanberg’s Citizen Hearst (Scribner; $7.50), a meticulously impartial study of the Hearst publishing empire’s progenitor. Instead of ratifying the board’s choice, however, trustees of New York’s Columbia University chose to overrule it by awarding no biography prize at all.

Popping a Precedent. Never before in Pulitzer history have Columbia’s trustees vetoed a board recommendation,† and never before have the annual Pulitzer prizes failed to anoint a biographer. To compound the mystery, the trustees popped their veto without bothering to inform anyone—even the advisory board—in advance. Then, as questions flew, the trustees took refuge in silence.

In countermanding the board, the trustees were within their rights. By the letter of Joseph Pulitzer’s will, which founded the annual prize contest, Swanberg’s biography seems patently disqualified on subject matter alone: William Randolph Hearst was hardly noted for teaching “patriotic and unselfish services to the people.” But if such literal considerations guided the trustees, they stood on shaky ground. They had, after all, endorsed the board’s decision to bestow the drama prize on How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a Broadway musical that for all its merits as a polished farce hardly meets Joseph Pulitzer’s injunction to “represent in marked fashion the educational value and power of the stage.”

The advisory board took defeat gracefully. With a nice impartiality, Columbia’s President Grayson Kirk voted for the Swanberg book in his capacity as an advisory board member, then voted against it as a trustee. “I don’t see why the trustees should be a rubber stamp,” said Board Member—and Atlanta Constitution Publisher—Ralph McGill.

Classic Comment. But dissenting voices were raised, among them those of Advisory Board Members Kenneth MacDonald, editor of the Des Moines Register and Tribune, and Editor Erwin D. Canham of the Christian Science Monitor. “My idea,” said Canham, “is whether this is a good biography, not passing judgment on Mr. Hearst himself. Maybe this category ought to be redefined.”

Maybe. But no such suggestion came from Loser Swanberg, or from his publisher. Both watched with satisfaction as sales of Citizen Hearst spurted, helped along by deliberately ambiguous ads: “We are delighted to hear that the Pulitzer Prize Advisory Board decided that this biography was the best published last year.”

*Drama: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; fiction: Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness; nonfiction: Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960; history: Lawrence Gibson’s The Triumphant Empire; verse: Alan Dugan; music: Robert Ward’s opera, The Crucible; public service by a newspaper: Panama City (Fla.) News-Herald; editorial writing: Thomas Storke of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press; local reporting under deadline: Robert Mullins of the Salt Lake City Deseret News-Telegram; local reporting not under deadline: George Bliss of the Chicago Tribune; national reporting: Nathan Caldwell and Gene Graham of the Nashville Tennessean; international reporting: Walter Lippmann; cartoon: Edmund S. Valtman of the Hartford (Conn.) Times; news photography: Paul Vathis of the A.P.

† Reminiscent of a 1941 incident in which Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler coldly refused to let his colleagues on the board send the trustees their choice for the fiction prize: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway’s controversial novel about the Spanish Civil War.

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