A week ago, the Nieman Foundation hosted a fabulous event celebrating the Pulitzer’s Centennial. The theater was gorgeous, the stars A-list (Robert Caro, Laura Poitras and Bob Woodward, to name a few), the production flawless. As someone who just moved east from Los Angeles, I thought it felt a little like the Oscars, but with journalism celebrities.
The next day, the foundation hosted a little gathering for this year’s Nieman Fellows, and five Pulitzer-winning former fellows graciously agreed to talk about their honored stories. It had the feel of one of those famous Oscar after-parties: more relaxed, but also more exclusive, somehow.
For one of those chats, we did something a bit special: a “live” annotation spotlighting “Zepp’s Last Stand,” by Madeleine Blais, who won the Pulitzer for feature writing in 1980. But instead of dissecting the whole story, like we do for the regular Annotation Tuesday! feature, we drilled down and talked for 10 minutes about just one thing: the lede.
Here it is, in all its simple glory.
There was indeed one of us who hesitated and did not want to fall into line. That was Joseph Behm, a plump, homely fellow. But he did allow himself to be persuaded, otherwise he would have been ostracized. And perhaps more of us thought as he did, but no one could very well stand out, because at that time even one’s parents were ready with the word ‘coward.’”
—All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
All his life Edward Zepp has wanted nothing so much as to go to the next world with a clear conscience. So on Sept. 11 the old man, carrying a borrowed briefcase filled with papers, boarded an Amtrak train in Deerfield Beach and headed north on the Silver Meteor to our nation’s capital. As the porter showed him to his roomette, Ed Zepp kept saying, “I’m 83 years old. Eighty-three.”
At 9 A.M. the next day, Zepp was to appear at the Pentagon for a hearing before the Board for Correction of Military Records. This was, he said, “the supreme effort, the final fight” in the private battle of Private Zepp, Company D, 323rd Machine Gun Battalion, veteran of World War I, discharged on Nov. 9, 1919—with dishonor.
Until I started researching Pulitzer winners for a series we just wrapped up on Storyboard, I hadn’t realized that they didn’t give a feature writing award until 1979, which seems unfathomable to me. It should have been a category from the get-go!
But in my research, I discovered that Maddy not only won the second-ever Pulitzer for feature writing, but was a finalist the year later.
Before we focus on the lede, here’s a funny story from Maddy on the winner in 1981:
Now, on to the annotation. I had sent Maddy some questions before we chatted. I only wish we hadn’t run out of time, because there were a couple more I was dying to hear her talk about.
Kari: Talk about the decision to start with an epigraph. Was that quote from “All Quiet on the Western Front” always in your head as you reported, or did you come across it later?
“I was becoming personally more and more aware of the notion that feature writing at a newspaper could be literary, and could line itself up with literary antecedents, and there was no shame in that. So I fought to have this quote lede my story, and the editors agreed with it.”
Kari: What’s so wonderful about this is that you paint a portrait of him in just three paragraphs. You even manage to get the “nut graf” in there in the most elegant way possible. How many versions did it take to get there?
“When it came time to write the lede, I realized that I was trying to form my own aesthetic, my own system of what I think works in prose and is both beautiful and powerful. By this time I had come to the notion that the quieter the lede, in some ways, the better.”
“I had a teacher in graduate school who told me I loved language too much.”
“Every lede is an engine … and every piece of writing is a journey.”