Pulitzer-winning Weingarten speaks at UMass to journalism students

By Matthew M. Robare

Courtesy of pulitzer.org
Gene Weingarten, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, spoke to an audience of University of Massachusetts students and faculty about his life and forty year career in journalism yesterday in the Cape Cod Lounge.

A self-described “shambling wreck of a guy,” he has Theodore Roosevelt’s jowls, Kurt Vonnegut’s “perpetually-stoned look,” Mark Twain’s mustache and movie critic Gene Shalit’s hair. He said he was neurotic about being perceived as the kind of person who cares about his hair.

“I feel old,” Weingarten said. “One way the feeling can get worse is if you’re standing in a room full of intelligent, sophisticated people born in 1991. My car was ‘born’ in 1991.”

He added that instead of feeling old, he decided to feel wise and so set out to write out his guidelines on how to write, but as he did it started to seem familiar: he had written the same thing as the introduction to his new book, “The Fiddler in the Subway,” which left him “feeling old and senile.”

Back in the early 1980s Weingarten became the editor of The Tropic, The Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine. There he met a young woman who had just won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing: Madeleine Blais, now Acting Director of the UMass Journalism Program. He said that he was not qualified for the job. “Not only were Maddie and I not in different leagues,” he said. “She was batting cleanup for the Yankees and I was in the bleachers, a wad of gum under the bench.”

“Miami in the 1980s was scary,” Blais said in her introductory remarks “making it a great place to be a reporter.”

According to Blais, Miami in the 80s was plagued by racial unrest and drug violence. “In the midst of the tumult,” she said, “Gene Weingarten and Dave Barry invented the Tropic Hunt, a city-wide scavenger hunt that reclaimed the streets of Miami for whimsy and amusement.”

Weingarten’s career began as a student at New York University, living at the University Heights campus in the Bronx. There he ran the student newspaper, The Heights Daily News, skipping classes and was “on enough drugs to stupefy a rhinoceros.”

When a city worker was shot in the head trying to break up a fight between two street gangs, Weingarten went to interview him and the worker promised to show him the Bronx gangs that weren’t being reported on by any of the major New York papers. The gangs were made up of 12-15 year old children armed with machine guns and plastic explosives trying to retake the streets from heroin dealers who controlled their parents.

Then he went down to “New York” magazine and waited four hours to talk to the editor, Sheldon Zelaznick, who finally came out of his office yelling at the writer who was supposed to be doing the next week’s cover story and Weingarten sold his street gang story.

“I don’t believe in God,” Weingarten said. “I’m an atheist. But I do believe in a god of journalism.”

He said that every time he acted on instinct or impulse, out of sheer desperation or last-minute panic, things came out better for him in the end.

This past April, Weingarten was awarded his second Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, becoming the first person ever do to so. He won for an article he wrote for The Washington Post Magazine, called “Fatal distraction – kids, cars and hyperthermia,” about parents who accidentally kill their children by leaving them in hot cars.

He said he did the story because his editor called and said “A baby has died in a hot car in Virginia because her parents left her in the car.”

As soon as he started he knew it would be a good story – because of his strong emotional connection to it.

“I almost killed my daughter that way,” Weingarten said.

On the day it was his turn to take his daughter Molly to daycare, something he didn’t usually do, he made the wrong turn on the freeway and drove to the Miami Herald’s offices instead. He was busy and distracted, he said.

“As I was about to get out,” Weingarten said, “Molly said something and that’s the only reason she’s a veterinarian today.”

It left a heavy scar on his soul. He did not tell his wife until he was working on the story. She was concerned for him because he was waking up screaming and in a cold sweat every night. He said he understood the shame parents who weren’t so fortunate felt. When it was published the story received vitriolic and cruel comments, mostly saying that the parents it happened to were inhuman monsters who did it on purpose. Weingarten explained that such comments were a psychological defense by people who needed to distance themselves from the parents, make them into monsters to reassure themselves that it could never happen to their children.

Weingarten said that when he told Molly about the time he almost left her in the car, when the story was published, she laughed because nothing had happened.

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