Meyer Berger didn’t come from money.
He came from the margins of the Lower East Side. About a century before it was fashionable to come from the Lower East Side. He had 10 brothers and sisters. His father was a tailor from the former Czechoslovakia. His mother ran a candy store.
When Mr. Berger was 12, poverty pulled him out of school. And he entered into the newspaper industry. It was there, despite bad eyesight and chronic stomach ulcers, that he would happily remain – with a brief break as a sergeant in World War I – for the rest of his days.
He worked his way up and over to The New York Times where he wrote columns about New York. He could do the bright lights, big city stuff. But his heart was in the stories on the margins: the unknown violinist or church electrician or Book-of-the-Month Club president.
Mr. Berger’s colleagues at The Times would call him ‘Mike’ and describe him as “constitutionally unable to dismiss anyone.”
And it was at The Times, on the evening of September 6, 1949, that Mr. Berger filed the 4,000 words for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.
The piece was about Howard B. Unruh, a troubled man in Camden, New Jersey, who shot 13 people on the morning of September 6, 1949.
Mr. Unruh didn’t come from money. His father had left. And his mother, Rita, worked as a packer for the Evanson Soap Company. She and her 28-year-old son lived together in a three-room apartment in a two-story house.
Mr. Berger was assigned the story around 11am on September 6. He took the first train he could to Camden, spent six hours there, interviewed some 50 people. Then, in two and a half hours and 4,000 words, Mr. Berger wrote up the story. He got it in at 9:20pm on September 6, an hour before deadline.
Months later, it won Mr. Berger the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, which came with $1,000.
And Mr. Berger, who knew of life on the margins, quietly sent the $1,000 to Mrs. Rita Unruh.