An Au Sable Forks Pulitzer: The Life My Father Chose

by Chip Pulitzer | From the Archives, October 2013

The author with his father atop Whiteface in 1998, courtesy of Susan Pulitzer


Spike Pulitzer (1941–2013) was a paradox, even to those who knew him well. He was complex yet simple, tough but tender, guarded and private, yet genuine and transparent. When exchanging gifts at Christmas he would preface many of his own with, “Now, before you open this, there’s a little explanation.” It drove us nuts. In retrospect, this made sense. To really understand my dad a little explanation was needed. 


It began with his name, or, more accurately, names. He was “Seward” on his driver’s license, “Bubba” to his colleagues in U.S. Customs and “Swambo” to his fishing buddies. To most he was “Spike.” People usually assumed he was called this because of his personality, but he acquired the name as an infant, born premature and weighing two pounds. Not knowing if he would survive, his father hastily scribbled the name “Spike” on his hospital crib. It was a term that meant a young tree or sapling. 


His background was also surprising, at least to those who only knew him later in life. The great-grandson of newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, he was a child of privilege. He was born in Manhattan and his early years were split between his family’s Florida beach house; their homes in New York’s Plaza Hotel and the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club, in San Diego; and, his favorite, their house near Au Sable Forks. 


His life knew two great tragedies. Tragedy is, after all, a part of most lives. But my father’s were somewhat unique in that it was within his power to avoid them—yet he willingly accepted both, and regretted neither. The first was Vietnam. When he enlisted in the Army he was 22 years old and 130 pounds. He joined the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division, was sent to jump school in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and shipped to South-east Asia. His unit saw heavy fighting, usually on night patrol in the jungle. The thinnest man in his platoon, and the only one who could fit into Vietnamese tunnels, he volunteered again, this time to check them for booby traps. He was lowered into the tunnels with a flashlight in one hand and a .45 in the other, an experience that left him extremely claustrophobic. He was wounded twice: the first when rocks kicked up by a truck he was helping push through the mud struck him in the head and the second when he was hit in the head by shrapnel. He had nightmares of Vietnam for the rest of his life. On a camping trip with the Boy Scouts he couldn’t find the zipper on our tent and tore the screen apart to get out. He later told me he had awakened and, in the darkness, thought he was in the tunnels again. 


The second great tragedy was the loss of his family, not from accident or illness, but from prejudice. In Au Sable Forks he fell in love with Susan Meconi. His parents did not approve because they believed she—the granddaughter of Italian immigrants and a small-town girl—was not pedigreed enough for their son. He married her anyway. He was disowned, struck from his parents’ will, and no member of his family attended his wedding. Or so he thought. Years would pass before he learned that his half-brother Sam had stood outside the church during the ceremony in a private gesture of brotherly love. To marry our mother, our father sacrificed family, fortune and a life of leisure, yet not once did he ever utter a word of regret. Not during holidays, when no one from his family wrote or called; not when weeks passed before he learned of his father’s death; not when getting in his car at 11 p.m. to drive 50 miles to the border to work the night shift so his children could go to college. Indeed, on more than one occasion he referred to his decision as the best one he ever made. Later in life, when Dad was finally able to reconnect with his mother, sister and the two sons of the then-late Sam, he cherished these relationships as only someone who had known life without family could. 


His dedication to his wife and children was legendary. It became a running joke that our father wanted to go to Disney World long after his children had outgrown it. But, to be sure, his love of such things was limited. There is an audiocassette that our mom recorded on a trip home from the Great Escape theme park in Queensbury. You can hear her asking what our favorite parts were, and you can hear our answers. “The rides,” I said. “Sleeping Beauty’s Castle,” my sisters responded. “And what was your favorite part, Spike?” she asked. “Leaving,” he said. 


When he described things it seemed like he was on a never-ending quest for superlatives. His daughter Morgan didn’t do some important jobs at work, she did all the important jobs. And Brooke didn’t just work at Harvard, she practically ran Harvard. Even my parents’ cat, Winston, wasn’t exempt. He wasn’t just a pet, Dad once said to guests, he was “like a third child.” Morgan indignantly reminded him that she actually was their third child. 


He was intellectually curious to a surprising degree. He had done graduate work in English literature and spoke nearly fluent French. He had a true passion for history and loved to share it with others, whether they wanted it or not. A friend of his once remarked, “If you ask him the time, he’ll tell you how to build a clock.” 


He also loved to be, for lack of the right word, “official.” One summer when I was in high school, he and I were fishing on Fern Lake. The sky was getting gray, and we heard on the radio that a thunderstorm warning was in effect, so we headed back to shore. Fern Lake is small and you are never more than a few minutes from shore anyway. There was another boat with two men in it between us and our camp, and Dad told me to steer alongside their boat so we could let them know. Being an easily embarrassed teenager, I pleaded, “Dad, c’mon, it’s just some rain, we don’t need to warn them.” But he was a man on a mission. I hesitantly drove to within 20 or 30 feet of their boat and stopped. Dad stood up, cupped his hands and shouted: “BE ADVISED! THERE IS A STORM APPROACHING!” Whether it was for fear of the storm or, more likely, fear of the crazy man in the boat, I cannot say, but they immediately hauled anchor and got the hell out of there. 


He was a man in search of justice in all things. He absolutely hated bullies. His sense of order and fair play even applied to the fish in his little aquarium. When a yellow angelfish he had named “Peach” was suspected of eating a smaller fish, we overheard him admonishing it: “Peach, I told you before, if you do that again …” Several weeks later my sisters and I asked him where Peach was. “I warned him,” Dad said. “I gave him one last shot and he blew it.” 
I never heard my father say, nor saw him do, a single dishonest thing. (With one exception: he routinely took more fish from Adirondack waters than is legal; but, in fairness to him, he saw this more as his role within the ecosystem than a violation of the law.) He had no business schemes, no ambitious investments. He cared nothing for money, really, except in that he could provide for his family.


His only material indulgence was that he liked to collect things. A lot of things. A partial list: knives, guns, tools, movies, paintings, oldies music, stamps, Native American art, Father Christmas figures, statues, fish for his aquarium and VCRs. The man could never have too many VCRs. Collecting was never an investment; it just gave him pleasure. He delighted in growing wildflowers and would plant them where they would grow best, which sometimes meant in the woods behind our house. At one point there were four or five little gardens hidden on our property. As a teenager I asked, “Dad, why do you bother? You can’t see them from the house. No one even knows they’re there.” He said, “I know they’re there.” 


My father owned more tools than any man, anywhere, ever has. That he didn’t use all of them, or even a fraction of them, was irrelevant. He needed them, just in case. His workroom is so full of tools in drawers, on shelves, in bins and on the wall it would sometimes take him an hour just to find the one he needed. Despite this he had an uncanny ability to detect when something was missing. I once borrowed a small screwdriver that was completely hidden behind a tin can and that I knew for a fact he hadn’t used in 20 years. Within 30 minutes there was a knock on my bedroom door: “Chip, have you seen that little yellow screwdriver?” It was as if, upon entering his workroom, he could sense a disturbance in the Force when something was out of place. 


He loved the Adirondacks, and fishing most of all. His passion was for finding hidden beaver ponds or mountain streams containing brook trout. He had done this with his father, and he told me many stories about him when we fished. There was never a hint of acrimony, just, “Watch this. This is how your grandfather used to get the ones under the alders.” 


We would bushwhack for hours, following a compass heading toward a beaver dam. He loved nature and craved the peace and solitude it provided. If you could hear a distant car or saw a single footprint other than your own it wasn’t true fishing. Before I was old enough to accompany him, he would often leave Mom with the location of his car, a compass heading and the words, “If I’m not back by five, give these to the boys.” 


I recall a fishing trip with my father in which he was also teaching me how to use a compass. We had mapped our course out the night before. To reach the pond required a long hike through very dense brush, with many sightings and course corrections along the way. It was incredibly hot and humid. I did the compass work on the way there, with Dad checking my headings and decisions as we went. We found the pond and I felt proud. Maybe even cocky. When we were done fishing and it came time to return, I took my first heading and showed him. But unlike before, he wouldn’t tell me if it was right. He just said, “Nope. You got us here. I trust you.”


I knew from the night before that if we were off by a single degree we would miss our landmark and never know it, continuing to walk into seemingly endless wilderness. I started to lose my nerve. I said, “C’mon, don’t be ridiculous. Just check it.” He wouldn’t even look at my compass. Instead, he calmly said, “It is important that you trust your instincts. It is important that you learn to find your own way.”


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