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Pulitzers in the Sun

Who would have thought Florida was a haven for winners
of Joseph Pulitzer's prestigious prize?

Florida usually calls to mind images of oranges, sun-drenched beaches, Jai Lai matches, bikini-clad spring-breakers and retirees from New York. Turns out the state also has been literally crawling with Pulitzer Prize winners. They've been spotted everywhere, from Pensacola to Key West. According to the tourist literature, Key West has been called home by more of them — both per capita and per acre — than any other place on the planet.

The mechanics of the prizes, which were first awarded by Joseph Pulitzer (right) in 1917, are fairly complicated but it's fair to say the Prizes fall into two categories, "journalism" and "other." The "other" includes awards in poetry, fiction, history, biography and music. Floridians have captured around 50 Pulitzers in each of the two categories. The exact number is difficult to calculate; for example, three-time winner Jeff MacNelly (1972, 1978, 1985) regularly wintered in Key West but received his Pulitzers for political cartoons in the Richmond News Leader and the Chicago Tribune. MacNelly also was the creator of the hugely popular cartoon strip "Shoe."

The earliest Pulitzer Prize winner associated with Florida was the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, known to her friends as Vincent, who won her Pulitzer in 1923 and for a time lived on Sanibel Island. The only manuscript of her Conversations at Midnight burned in a fire at the Palms Hotel on Sanibel in 1936, forcing her to recreate the poems in time for publication the following year. Sanibel's other noted prizewinner, the editorial cartoonist Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling (1924, 1943), took the first of his Pulitzers in 1924. Darling was also an impassioned conservationist and his efforts to protect Sanibel's wetlands are evidenced in the J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge that today covers one third of the island. That same year the poet Robert Frost (Key West) was awarded the first of his four Pulitzers (1924, 1931, 1937, 1943).

Florida's most recent prizewinner (2003) was the Cuban-born, Miami-raised playwright Nilo Cruz. His Anna in the Tropics, a romantic drama about a family of cigar makers set in Ybor City (Tampa) in 1930, was commissioned and premiered (2002) by the New Theatre in Coral Gables. Each year more than 2000 applications for Pulitzers are received by the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City and passed on to a distinguished panel of judges who then make only three nominations in each of the 21 Pulitzer categories. Being an also-ran can be almost as prestigious as winning in the Pulitzer competition. The playwright Edward Albee (Coconut Grove), already a three-time Pulitzer winner (1967, 1975, 1994), was a "nominated finalist" along with Nilo Cruz in 2003.

Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics was the first Latino play to earn the prize, but it was only one of a number of Florida firsts in the Pulitzer world. Edna St. Vincent Millay was the first woman to win a Pulitzer. In 1983, Florida composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich became the first woman to win the prize in Music. Zwilich, who teaches music composition at Florida State, also holds the first Composer's Chair established at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Florida's best-known living Pulitzer Prize winner is of course the Miami Herald's inimitable Dave Barry who captured his Pulitzer in 1988, "for his consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns." The year before Barry received his prize he wrote about the Pulitzers in his column: "At certain times each year, we journalists do almost nothing except apply for the Pulitzers and several dozen other major prizes. During these times you could walk right into most newsrooms and commit a multiple ax murder naked, and it wouldn't get reported in the paper, because the reporters and editors would all be too busy filling out prize applications. 'Hey!' they'd yell at you. 'Watch it! You're getting blood on my application!'" At that time, Barry didn't think much of his chances to cop a Pulitzer: "Unfortunately, the only category I'd be eligible for is called 'Distinguished Social Commentary,' which is a real problem, because of the kinds of issues I generally write about. 'This isn't Distinguished Social Commentary!' the Pulitzer judges would say. 'This is about goat boogers!'" Barry obviously was wrong about the judges and by extension wrong about Joseph Pulitzer, the man who dreamed up the Prizes and whose fortune still funds them. Pulitzer wouldn't have had the slightest problem with a story about goat boogers.

Born in Hungary in 1847, Joseph Pulitzer came to the United States in his late teens and served for a year in the Union Army's Lincoln Cavalry before becoming a journalist. At 25, he switched from reporting to publishing and in 1878 bought the nearly bankrupt St. Louis Post-Dispatch which he turned around in short order. Five years later he bought the New York World and proceeded to boost its circulation to more than 600,000, apparently by bedazzling readers with an odd combination of hard-hitting investigative reporting and a brand of unbridled sensationalism seldom seen even today. Pulitzer's rival in those days was William Randolph Hearst, the owner of the New York Journal, and the two fought a bitter circulation war during the last years of the 19th Century.

In 1895, Pulitzer's New York World began running a cartoon strip by R. F. Outcault called "The Yellow Kid" that quickly became a national sensation. Hearst promptly offered Outcault substantially more money and hired him away from Pulitzer who, without skipping a beat, hired a new cartoonist to continue the strip for the World. For three years "The Yellow Kid" ran in both the World and the Journal — along with a record amount of exaggeration, bickering and outright fabrication — and the papers became known as "the yellow papers." By the turn of the Century the phrase had evolved into simply "yellow journalism." Joseph Pulitzer died in 1911. In his will he bestowed an endowment of $2 Million for the establishment of a School of Journalism, one-fourth of which was to be "applied to prizes or scholarships for the encouragement of public service, public morals, American literature and the advancement of education."

Nine Florida newspapers and/or their journalists (the prizes can be awarded to individuals, groups or entire staffs) have earned Pulitzers since the prizes were first awarded in 1917 — the Gainesville Sun, the Jacksonville Journal, the Miami Herald, the Miami News (formerly the Miami Daily News), the Orlando Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post, the Panama City News-Herald, the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune. The Miami Herald is by far the numerical winner with 17; the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami News are tied for second with five each. With the exception of Dave Barry, Florida's journalism winners may not be national celebrities but the work they produced has had international impact. Just a few notable examples: Howard Van Smith's articles in the Miami News about conditions in a migrant labor camp (1959), Hal Hendrix's reports in the Miami News on the Soviet Union's installation of missile launching pads in Cuba (1963), Dallas Kinney's photographs of migrant workers in the Palm Beach Post (1970) and Liz Balmaseda's commentary on political and social conditions in Cuba for the Miami Herald (1993). The last Florida journalism Pulitzers (2001) were won by the staff of the Miami Herald for its coverage of the Elian Gonzalez story and by Miami-based Alan Diaz of the Associated Press for his breathtaking photograph of armed U.S. federal agents seizing the Gonzalez boy from a closet in his relatives' Miami home.

As for Pulitzer winning Florida authors of books, poems and plays, Key West wins the numerical competition hands down. The most widely acclaimed authors on the Key West list are the poet Robert Frost, the novelist Ernest Hemingway (1953) and the playwright Tennessee Williams (1948, 1955). Hemingway lived in Key West for 10 years during which time he worked on For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, and To Have and Have Not. His Pulitzer, curiously, was for The Old Man in the Sea, generally thought to be a lesser work. Tennessee Williams said about his Pulitzer winning A Streetcar Named Desire: "We arrived in Key West and occupied a two-room suite on the top of the Hotel La Concha and it was there that I really began to get Streetcar into shape. It went like a house on fire." Other authors on the Key West Pulitzer list include the poets Elizabeth Bishop (1956), Richard Wilbur (1957, 1989) and James Merrill (1977), novelists John Hersey (1945) and Alison Lurie (1985), the playwright James Kirkwood (1976), author of A Chorus Line, and the biographer Joseph P. Lash (1972), author of Eleanor and Franklin.

Elsewhere in the state the Pulitzer winning author list includes novelists James Gould Cozzens (Stuart, 1949), Alan Drury (Maitland, 1960), John P. Marquand (Hobe Sound, 1938), Marjorie Kinnan Rawling (Cross Creek, 1939) and Edwin O'Connor (West Palm Beach, 1962), poets Richard Eberhart (Gainesville, 1966, 1977), Donald Justice (Gainesville, 1980) and William Rose Benet (St. Augustine, 1942), playwrights Thornton Wilder (St. Augustine, 1928, 1939, 1943) and George Abbot (Miami Beach, 1960) and historian MacKinlay Kantor (Sarasota, 1956). The list is not all-inclusive. There is not sufficient space here even if it were possible to compile one. The best place to get the complete lowdown on the history and rules of the Pulitzer Prizes — to dig out who won which Pulitzer when and for what — is the official Pulitzer Prize web site at www.pulitzer.org.