Gene Weingarten to discuss Pulitzer past with UMass Tues.

By Matthew M. Robare

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Weingarten will visit the University of Massachusetts this afternoon at 4:00 p.m. to speak to students. Weingarten was awarded his second Pulitzer in feature writing earlier this year for a story about parents who accidentally leave their children in cars on hot days, killing them. He won his first Pulitzer, also in feature writing, for “Pearls Before Breakfast,” a story he wrote for the Washington Post about internationally-renowned violinist Joshua Bell disguising himself as a street musician and going unrecognized outside a Washington, D.C. subway station.

Weingarten is coming to UMass at the invitation of journalism professor Madeleine Blais, a friend since they worked together on The Tropic, The Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine. Weingarten was the editor there from 1985 to 1990, before he moved to the Washington Post, where he’s been ever since.

“As an editor, you learn a little bit from everybody,” Weingarten said. “I learned a lot from Maddie Blais about how to write a feature.”

Weingarten also has a new book out, a compilation of his feature stories called “The Fiddler in the Subway,” which takes its name from his first Pulitzer-winning feature. When he won his second Pulitzer earlier this year, he became the first person to win the prize twice for feature writing.

“Minutes after winning my first Pulitzer I got an email from [Doonesbury cartoonist] Garry Trudeau that read ‘Congratulations, the euphoria will last until your next deadline,’” Weingarten said. “That exactly sums it up.”

He added that winning a Pulitzer is “mostly how other people treat you,” and “mostly luck.” He said that he had seen pieces better than anything he has ever written never win a prize.

For “Pearls,” Weingarten spent two days riding the Washington Metro looking for a place Bell could play. It was January, and had they performed inside a station, Bell would have been arrested. Eventually Weingarten settled on L’Enfant Plaza, where the Metro station exited into a shopping mall and open-air arcade where Bell and his invaluable Stradivarius violin would have some protection from the weather and the law.

“The story was unimaginably simple,” he said. “Essentially, I was reporting on what happened.”

Weingarten is well-known as a humor writer for the Post, writing a regular column titled “Below the Beltway.” While editor of The Tropic, he hired Dave Barry, who wrote a nationally syndicated humor column until 2004 and won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1988. Barry remains the only person ever to win a Pulitzer for humor writing.

Weingarten said Barry is his only humor influence.

“I discovered Dave and edited his columns for the first seven or eight years,” Weingarten said. “That really informed all of my humor writing.”

He has also been critical of the changes to journalism brought about by the Internet.

“I am a curmudgeon simply by virtue of my age,” he said. “I complain about a lot of things.”

He said he hopes there’s still room for humor columns, but that “nobody has the money to pay for things like them,” and that his favorite column was one where the Post paid him to go to a whorehouse, a massage parlor called Happiness Tanning, located across the street from Ford’s Theater.

Several years ago, Weingarten attempted to interview Bill Watterson, creator of the classic comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.”

“Basically I decided he was the best reclusive interview to be had,” Weingarten said. “I’m knowledgeable about comics and he drew the best comic strip of all time.”

He said he had an “in” he thought would get him close to Watterson: He knew a woman who grew up with the cartoonist’s wife and found his address with that information. Weingarten then flew out to Watterson’s hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

“I ordered a first-edition copy of a classic children’s book called ‘Barnaby’ by Crockett Johnson about a little boy and his fairy godfather only he could see,” he said. “I think that Watterson had it in mind when he created ‘Calvin and Hobbes.’”

Even though he knew Watterson’s address, Weingarten decided to respect his privacy and went to Watterson’s parents. He gave them the book and a note for Watterson with a phone number and a message saying he was prepared to “wait until Hell froze over” for an interview. The next day, around noon, the phone rang, but it wasn’t Watterson. It was Watterson’s agent. “He told me ‘Bill won’t talk,’” Weingarten said.

Gene Weingarten, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Washington Post columnist, will be speaking about these experiences and more in the Cape Cod Lounge at 4:00 pm today.

Matthew M. Robare can be reached at [email protected]