Lucinda Franks accomplished something in 1971 that few journalists and no women had ever accomplished. She was the youngest person, 25, and the first woman to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.
Franks was shocked when she and her boyfriend watched the announcement come out of the teletype machine late one evening in the London bureau of United Press International, where she had been hired a few years earlier to work as “coffee girl,” allowed to write news on her own time.
“The day after the announcement, I strode in to the office expecting a few claps on the back, but instead, there was dead silence,” she recalled during a recent interview. “Nobody even looked up. Nobody said a thing. They just ignored me.”
The newsroom was populated with all men, save for the two fashion reporters, all who had worked a career seeking a Pulitzer, Franks said. “And here comes this young green horn and skips away with one.”
Franks had been called back to New York to do in-depth reporting on the Weatherman, a domestic terrorist organization made up of young, mostly rich, mostly college-educated members bent on taking apart the federal government. The radical group had grown out of a generation’s hatred for the government over the Vietnam War that was killing so many of their brothers. She was of that generation, a self-described hippy who had participated in anti-war demonstrations.
Franks and UPI reporter Thomas Powers, who did research on the Weathermen while Franks did the boots-on-the-ground reporting, got a double byline on the five-part series that won them the Pulitzer. The series told the tale of the Weathermen and one young woman in the group, Diana Oughton, who accidentally blew herself up making bombs in a New York townhouse.
The reception Franks received in her own newsroom shook her confidence in the prize. Out of misplaced guilt, she rarely told a soul she had won the coveted Pulitzer. While UPI executives flew in and threw a surprise party in her honor, the men in the newsroom remained stone cold, only speaking to her when necessary, she said.
Her mother, though, copied the award and framed the copies, hanging them in several rooms of the house, always introducing herself as the mother of a Pulitzer Prize winner, Franks recalled. “Only a few people and my parents made a fuss over me.” But that made up for the newsroom.
It was a few years before Franks picked up the five-part series and reread it. “I had kept it quiet when I returned to the states, then after rereading it, I realized it was a damn good story and I did deserve to win the Pulitzer.”
That prize, she said, opened doors for her throughout her career, which included a stint as an investigative reporter for The New York Times, then for the New Yorker. She has authored six books and is still writing, doing occasional pieces for the New Yorker and the Huffington Post.
The Pulitzer, she said, “was an incredibly powerful calling card. People look at you differently; editors look at you differently. It got me in places I didn’t even know I had gotten because of it.”