“Hazards Arising from Shortness of Life”

Back in 1975, I wrote a story for the Washington Post about a petition for legal fees filed by a lawyer for three Indian tribes with the U.S. Indian Claims Commission.  In requesting rapid payment of $3.5 million, the attorney noted that the case had dragged on not only for decades but for generations. Many of the lawyers on the case had passed on. Therefore, he argued, his claim required quick approval due to “hazards arising from shortness of life.”

This long-ago story came to mind recently, as I faced some personal challenges but also received some awards.  We canceled a trip to Italy at the last minute when my 93-year year old mother-in-law entered hospice care. Three nights later, I had a “mild” heart attack, and she passed while I was in the hospital. A few days after that, I was released, the proud owner of a new stent.

During my hospital stay, I learned of two awards from the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA): FIVE FOR FREEDOM: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army won for best book of history and biography, and my post “Pittsburgh: Never Again? Just Words” won the top award for blogs.  Next, I was informed that I’d won another award from yet another organization of journalists (embargoed until June 29, so that’s all I can say for now).  Finally, I was honored May 11 with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Washington Independent Review of Books, on whose board I sit, at our seventh annual authors conference.

Lest you think me a total narcissist, here’s what I said in accepting the last award, presented by Salley Shannon, president of the Washington Independent Review of Books: 

Thank you, Salley, for those warm remarks – grossly overstating my qualifications for this award.

However, I am forever grateful for and humbled by this honor, and I will gladly accept it on behalf of so many others who have done so much to make the Washington Independent Review of Books what it is today – a vital, living online community of authors, reviewers, readers, writers and lovers of all things books.

This whole operation began not quite ten years ago when a group of us, formally then the Freedom to Write Fund, were looking for something to justify our existence. The Washington Post’s standalone Book World section had just folded, and it seemed to some of us, gathered at the Old Europe restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue, that an online book review might help to fill the gap.

Frankly, it had the feeling of an old Andy Hardy movie, starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.  Like: “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!”

And quite a show it has turned out to be, as evidenced here, at our 7th annual conference.

For several years, my primary task was to organize panels and recruit panelists and speakers.

It could be challenging at times, as there were always last-minute cancellations and crises.

Like the time I had recruited my Post pal John Feinstein, the best-selling sports writer, to be our luncheon speaker. But when the time came for John to appear, he didn’t. I frantically emailed and phoned but got no response. Dave Stewart, then president of the Washington Independent, suggested I send him a text. Turned out John was at home in Potomac, upstairs in his pajamas in front of his computer and his cell phone was downstairs.

Thankfully, his wife was nearby, read the message and shouted up to him: John, aren’t you supposed to be somewhere?   John immediately called me and showed up 15 or 20 minutes later, appropriately apologetic and still able to entertain the by now late-lunch crowd.

I will admit I had great fun enlisting some of my Washington Post pals – even Feinstein. These included Bob Woodward and David Maraniss as keynote speakers, along with others such as Michel Martin, Peter Baker, Neely Tucker, Tom Shroder, Michelle Singletary, Mike Isikoff, Peggy Engel, Phyllis Richman and Kirsten Downey. And there were others: Marita Golden, Laura Lipmann and George Pelecanos, Chris Matthews and Susan Coll, who I knew well enough to invite.

But there came a time when I told Dave Stewart, “Look, I’ve run out of famous people I know to invite. You need to find someone else to do this job.”   (It was David, BTW, who captained the ship as president of the board of the Washington Independent for six years, and he deserves much credit for its remarkable success.)

So, after my six years, I was happy to pass the baton to Jenny Yacovissi, an author and WIRoB stalwart, who is largely responsible for today’s program.

I say largely because the conference committee, ably headed by Audrey Bastian, has also been absolutely amazing. Our registration this year set a record, and we had a waiting list for the first time.  So, please give the committee a round of applause.

The conference has enabled many new and aspiring, and even some old and published authors – including me – to find agents and obtain book contracts. The list of published books that began here is long and growing.  The conference is also the nonprofit Washington Independent’s single largest fundraiser, without which our online book review could not exist.

So, while I am grateful for this honor, I will accept it on behalf of so many who have put so much into this remarkable event.

And finally, last but not least, I am grateful to my wife Sandy Pearlman, whose love and support make my life possible each and every day.

News of this award generated quite a lot of buzz on Twitter and Facebook, where I was happy to read among the many messages: “Lifetime? Seems to me you got a lot of writing yet to do!”  I’ll second that. Stay tuned.


  1. Michael Putzel on May 15, 2019 at 12:41 pm

    Gene, congratulations—first, of course, on surviving the heart attack and gaining a stent; and second for piling up the awards on your magnificent job of research and writing of Five for Freedom. Condolences on the death of Sandy’s mother after a long and admirable life.

  2. Brenda Pitts on May 15, 2019 at 1:05 pm

    Gene, congratulations on your recent awards. You are very deserving of the honors! Brenda Pitts

  3. Jack Ventura on May 15, 2019 at 10:41 pm

    Gene, you may be humbled by your awards; I’m humbled just to know you after what you’ve accomplished. Life has its ups and downs, and it looks like you got hit with both in very short order. I’d say you’re entitled to some peace for a while.

  4. Patrice Gaines on August 5, 2019 at 6:31 am

    I’m late to the party. Congrats. Glad you’re still here. Love to Sandy

    • Gene Meyer on August 5, 2019 at 9:10 am

      Patrice, I’m also glad you are still here. Party on.

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