About five years ago, I was in the Library of Congress fast-forwarding through a scratched and dingy roll of microfilm of letters that had once belonged to Joseph Pulitzer II. As the documents rolled by, I spotted something incongruous. It looked like someone had taken a coin, maybe a ring, and placed it on a photocopying machine. I asked the head of the Manuscript Reading Room if it would be possible to bring out the original folder so we could see the item?
Soon I found myself looking at one of the most remarkable artifacts I would come across in my six-year odyssey of writing the life of Joseph Pulitzer, the father of the man whose papers I was examining that day. On the table was a tiny gold coin, affixed to a small chain and ring anchored to a handkerchief. The item had made two cross-Atlantic journeys before coming to rest for the past seventy years in a file folder.
It began its circuitous travels in the last year of the American Civil War, when Pulitzer came to the United States as an underage recruit for the Union Army. With his signing bonus money in his pocket, Pulitzer entered a New York jewelry store. He had a tiny hole drilled into an 1864 gold dollar, a small coin about a half an inch in diameter. A delicate chain fastened the coin to a gold ring, thereby making a device by which a woman could hold her handkerchief, then a fashion accessory in his native Hungary. On the reverse side of the coin, the jeweler engraved Elize’s maiden initials, “E.B.” Pulitzer mailed the resulting creation to his mother, better proof than any letter of his success in the New World.
In 1938, relatives in Hungary seeking to prove their relation to the wealthy American Pulitzers sent the ring to Joseph Pulitzer II. Holding the ring in my hands (gloved, of course) this many years later, I felt my first direct connection to the man whose life I was stalking.
James McGrath Morris is the author of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power and The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption, which was selected as a Washington Post Best Book of the Year for 2004. He is the editor of the monthly Biographer’s Craft, and his writing appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Observer, and The Baltimore Sun.