The Pulitzer Prize is the Academy Award for writers – whether they are from Idaho or Montana. Winning it means the admiration of peers and readers, recognition and validation of the subject matter, and a nice cash prize for the author. Like any contest that could define a career, there is the potential for heated debates and passionate disputes. For these nine Pulitzer winners, victory came with a big asterisk.
Journalist Walter Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize for 13 articles he wrote for The New York Times in 1931 about the USSR under Joseph Stalin. We say “wrote” but it was more like he took down what Stalin dictated to him. He gamefully excused the dictator’s genocide attempts by actually saying, in the paper, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” His cover-up of the murderous famine caused by Stalin’s programs has led to his dubbing as “journalism’s greatest liar” and “Stalin’s apologist.” The Pulitzer Board has twice considered revoking the award but declined to do so both times, to even the Times’ chagrin.
Give Ohio-born Janet Cooke credit: she knew a Pulitzer Prize-worthy story when she saw one. Except, of course, she didn’t see one; she fabricated one. In 1980, Cooke received a Pulitzer for her Washington Post article “Jimmy’s World,” the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict who had supposedly been hooked since age 5. Unfortunately for Cooke, the story was a little too good. The mayor of D.C. ordered a task force to search the city for the boy, who they obviously could not locate. As her story began to unravel, Cooke fessed up, resigned from the Post, and the Pulitzer was returned.
As it was the first time for a woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize, Edith Wharton’s 1921 win in the Novel category should have been a happy affair. Instead, controversy mired the proceedings, and even Wharton herself was disgusted with the Board’s choice. The decision of the three fiction judges to award the book to Sinclair Lewis for his controversial Main Street was overturned by the conservative head of the advisory board. He changed the wording of the award’s fine print from going to the best example of the “whole atmosphere of American life” to “wholesome American life” and gave the award to Wharton for Age of Innocence.
Robbed five years earlier of a prize that was rightly his, in 1926 Sinclair Lewis, from Minnesota, finally won a Pulitzer with his novel Arrowsmith … and he turned it down. “All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous,” he said in his refusal letter to the board. “The Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.” The “terms” he meant were the surreptitiously modified words “wholesome American life.” To Lewis, the phrase made the contest less about literary merit and more about “whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.”
In 2005, journalist and host of “Democracy Now!” Amy Goodman began calling for the revocation of William “Atomic Bill” Laurence’s Pulitzer Prize. Laurence had won the award in 1946 for his coverage of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. However, as Goodman revealed, “Atomic Bill” was on the payroll for the State Department at the time of his writing. His deployment to Japan was an effort on the government’s part to combat “negative” press by independent journalist Wilfred Burchett, who had shocked the world by describing the “atomic plague” that was killing Japanese well after the initial detonation. Goodman and others felt that 50 years of media silence on the effects of nuclear war were a direct result of Laurence’s writing.
OK, stay with us here. That no one was named the winner for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1974 was controversial because the fiction judges had unanimously settled on a winner. Their recommendation: the bizarre, 760-page World War II novel Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Pulitzer’s advisory board found the book’s graphic depictions of sex and drug use “obscene” and the complex, progressive style “unreadable.” Over the years critics have united behind the book, lending more poignancy to the controversial decision.
The photographer behind the iconic image of six soldiers planting an American flag at the invasion of Iwo Jima never could shake the popular belief that he had staged the famous photo op. Even being awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1945 was not enough for Rosenthal to dissuade people of the notion that it was based on a lie. Part of the trouble was a comment Rosenthal made when asked if he had staged the photo. Thinking the question was referring to a second photo of soldiers celebrating by the flag, Rosenthal had replied, “Sure.”
Like Joe Rosenthal, Bilal Hussein also won a Pulitzer for Photography, in 2005. But unlike Rosenthal, the controversy surrounding Hussein’s award was much more serious. Hussein had been hired by the AP in 2004 and trained in photography. The collection of 20 photos for which he won the Pulitzer aroused suspicion well before he received the award. Bloggers wondered how exactly he had managed to stumble onto scenes of terrorists shooting rockets and executing people in the street. Could he have been tipped off by high-ranking insurgents? Possibly, considering he was arrested and held for two years by U.S. forces in 2006 for “security reasons.” Hussein maintains he was simply doing his job.
Before he won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1997, Wynton Marsalis was already a polarizing figure in the world of jazz. Critics did not appreciate his complaints that jazz is under the control of a white establishment, or the fact that the media treated him like the genre’s official spokesman. But his Pulitzer win had its own niggling problem: the piece that earned him the prize may not have been eligible for consideration. Selections had to have premiered since at least March of 1996; Marsalis’ “Blood on the Fields” had premiered in 1994. He sidestepped this technicality by rewriting a saxophone part here and a percussion part there.