Lunch with the Pulitzers

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Illustration by Mark SteeleIt’s the classiest award in America,” said Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau after he won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. “No dinner, no acceptance speeches, no TV show. They just call you up and say, ‘Good going, the check is in the mail.’”

The Pulitzer Prizes, awarded annually by the Graduate School of Journalism, are the pinnacle of achievement in American reporting, letters, and music. But for most of their 94-year history, they were not known for pomp and circumstance — or for flaxseed-encrusted salmon.

Then, in 1984, the Pulitzer Board decided it would be more fitting to honor the recipients at an awards luncheon. Ever since, the winners have received their formal citations, as well as their $10,000 checks, over salad and chardonnay.

So it was that on May 24, in the Faculty Room of Low Memorial Library, more than 200 guests gathered to clink glasses and chat. This year, six of the winners were Columbia alumni or professors, or both — almost certainly a record.

Among the celebrants was Assistant Professor of Medicine Siddhartha Mukherjee, who won for general nonfiction with The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. When the winners were announced on April 18, Mukherjee was in a bookstore. “Oddly enough,” he said, holding a glass of white wine, “I was buying Kay Ryan’s book.” That book was The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, this year’s winner in the poetry category.

Zhou Long ’93GSAS also was caught off-guard. He became the first Asian American to win the prize for music, with Madame White Snake, an opera that draws on a Chinese folk tale while combining Eastern and Western musical traditions. When a friend called to congratulate him, he hadn’t yet heard the news and was skeptical. “I said, ‘Let’s check the Internet,’” he recalled. “I thought maybe I was a finalist. But my friend said, ‘No, you won!’”

As the crowd proceeded into Low Rotunda for the lunch proper, each of the 31 winners carried a light-blue Tiffany gift box. Inside was a commemorative piece of crystal bearing the recipient’s name and category, and a likeness of Joseph Pulitzer.

Then there were the nonmaterial perks. “A Pulitzer Prize comes with naming rights,” said Pulitzer Board co-chair Kathleen Carroll, executive editor and senior vice president of the Associated Press. “From this day forward you will no longer be Joe Smith and Jane Brown. You will be Pulitzer Prize winner Joe Smith and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Jane Brown.”

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