Leech, Margaret (1893–1974)

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Leech, Margaret (1893–1974)

American historian who was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for history, and the only woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for history twice (1942 and 1960). Name variations: Mrs. Ralph Pulitzer. Born Margaret Kernochan Leech on November 7, 1893, in Newburgh, New York; died on February 24, 1974, in New York, New York; daughter of William Kernochan Leech and Rebecca (Taggert) Leech; attended private schools in Newburgh and Poughkeepsie, New York; Vassar College, B.A., 1915; married Ralph Pulitzer (a newspaper publisher), on August 1, 1928 (died June 14, 1939); children: Susan Pulitzer Freedberg ; Margaretta Pulitzer (died in infancy).

The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for history, one for her comprehensive study of the nation's capital during the Civil War, Reveille in Washington (1941), the other for her biography of President William McKinley, In the Days of McKinley (1959), historian Margaret Leech was born in Newburgh, New York, in 1893 and began writing at a young age. In 1901, at age eight, she composed a short poem on the occasion of McKinley's assassination:

I am oh so sorry that our President is dead,
And everybody's sorry, so my father said;
And the horrid man who killed him is a-sitting in his cell
And I'm glad that Emma Goldman doesn't board at this hotel.

Leech attended private schools and graduated from Vassar College in 1915. Her first job was with the Condé Nast publishing company, answering letters from disgruntled subscribers who had not received their magazines. She later worked for various World War I fund-raising organizations and was on the staff of Anne Morgan 's American Committee for Devastated France.

During the 1920s, Leech began writing novels, Her first, The Back of the Book (1924), concerning a refined young woman working in New York, drew extensively from her own experiences. A second novel, Tin Wedding (1926), written from the point of view of a woman on her tenth wedding anniversary, and a third, The Feather Nest (1928), about possessive mother love, followed in rapid succession. All three books were praised for their sound characterizations, their perceptive selection of detail, and their grace and clarity of style, qualities that Leech would develop more fully in her later

work. In 1928, Leech deviated from the novel form to collaborate with Heywood Broun on Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord, a biography of the famous reformer and crusader against obscenity. Based on solid research, the book was praised as factual as well as lively and witty, and became the first choice of the Literary Guild for that year.

Also in 1928, Leech married Ralph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World and son of Joseph Pulitzer who founded the Pulitzer Prize. Her marriage, combined with her own stature as a writer, gave her access to an even wider literary circle, which grew to include publishers, playwrights, journalists, and actors. The Pulitzers had two daughters: Margaretta, who died in infancy, and Susan.

Following a collaboration with Beatrice Kaufman on an unsuccessful play, Divided by Three (1934), Leech embarked on the gargantuan project that would ultimately bring her fame. For a period of five years beginning in 1935, she investigated life in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. Conducting her research at the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress, she examined letters, memoirs, photographs, newspaper articles, and government documents. The resulting Reveille in Washington, 1859–1865, which was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly before being published in book form in 1941, brought into vivid perspective a disquieting time in American history. "Despite its color and dramatic vigor," wrote MacKinlay Kantor, "few other histories of any nation or period bear more hammer-marks of an implacable concern for the grim and bitter truth." The book became a bestseller and received the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1942.

Leech worked 12 years on her second book, In the Days of McKinley (1959), which John Morton Blum called a "first-rate study of a second-rate President." Working slowing and "most ostentatiously," as she put it, Leech provided a graphic and comprehensive portrait of an epoch in American history as well as a fresh and independent view of her subject. "Miss Leech's engaging volume is not the last word on McKinleyism," wrote William Miller in the New York Herald Tribune (November 1, 1959), "but on McKinley himself it provides illuminating and pleasurable reading." In addition to receiving a second Pulitzer Prize for her book on McKinley, Leech was also awarded the Bancroft Prize by Columbia University.

Leech, who was widowed in 1939, was described as a direct and brisk woman. When not at work, she enjoyed travel, the theater, and good conversation. Her overwhelming pleasure, however, was in research and writing. "There's a challenge in taking something obscure and trying to find out what you can," she told Lewis Nichols. Margaret Leech died on February 24, 1974.


Kantor, MacKinlay. New York Herald Tribune Books. August 31, 1941.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1960.

Nichols, Lewis. The New York Times Book Review. November 1, 1959.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Leech, Margaret (1893–1974)

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