My first experience with the awarding of prizes occurred when I was about 12 years old. I had been playing the piano since I was five, and I had achieved an impressive degree of proficiency. Our apartment was within walking distance of the Brooklyn Museum, where there is an indoor court used for concerts and lectures. The museum announced a piano competition for residents of Brooklyn, with a substantial cash prize. My mother decided -- and rightly so -- that this was a golden opportunity.

The competition was duly held. The two finalists were a young man in his twenties, and yours truly. After the final showdown, it was obvious to me that he was nowhere near as good as I was. The reaction of the audience showed that they thought the same. Then the winner was announced by the organizer and sole judge, a man with the title "The Musicologist of the Brooklyn Museum." Imagine our indignation when the other fellow was announced the winner.

My mother was not one to capitulate gracefully. She went to confront him, dragging me along. He was a pretentious man, complete with long hair, moustache and goatee, and string tie, very like the illustrations by Phiz of Mr. Mantalini in Nicholas Nickleby. He explained to us that it had been obvious to him that I was by far the better pianist, but he felt that my opponent would be better able to take advantage of his victory, whereas I was too young to do so. This was so blatantly unfair, and so transparently false, that we were struck dumb. In any case, there was no appeal.

To this day I do not know whether that scandalous decision was dictated by the man's snobbish antipathy to child prodigies, or his antisemitism, or simply his brainlessness. I walked away from that competition empty-handed, but it taught me an important lesson. The awarding of prizes is governed not so much by the accomplishments of the aspirants, as by the bigotry and stupidity of the judges. Having learned my lesson, I never entered another competition. For many years, however, I have watched others as they became embroiled in the dilemmas of awarding and receiving prizes, and made fools of themselves. My observations have taught me even more on the subject: 

This is undoubtedly the most prestigious of them all. You would think that those who award it would be especially careful to do the right thing. But the first fact that springs to my mind is, that they never awarded it to Mahatma Gandhi. Who were the candidates that they deemed more worthy than he?

On the other hand, they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Yasser Arafat, the terrorist, the mass murderer, whose contributions to humanity were the hijacking of passenger planes and cruise ships, and suicide bombers, and the massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games. The prize was awarded him in 1994, after he had signed the supposed peace agreements at Oslo, in spite of the fact that the signing was immediately followed by an unprecedented wave of terror attacks on Israel, and no peace of any sort resulted.

In 1973, the peace prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger for signing the Paris Peace Accords, which were ostensibly a cease-fire, but actually an admission that the USA had lost the Vietnam war. Shortly afterward, North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam and forcibly united the country under communist rule, thus making a mockery of the prize.

In 2009, the peace prize was awarded to Barack Obama -- apparently merely for being elected president of the USA, because at that point he had done nothing for or against world peace. Obama himself was disconcerted and baffled by the absurdity of it, but participated in the absurdity by accepting the prize.

The list of great writers who were not deemed worthy of this prize reads like a who's-who of literary giants. In alphabetical order: Capek, Chechov, Ibsen, Joyce, Kafka, Mark Twain, Nabokov, Proust, Tolstoy, Zola. On the other hand, the list of literature laureates is full of the names of nonentities, never heard of on the world stage before or since. 

This prize was never awarded to Dmitri Mendeleyev, the designer of the periodic table of elements. He died in 1907, and Nobel Prizes began to be awarded in 1901, so there was plenty of time to honor him, but the pigheadedness of one committee member prevented this. Likewise, this prize was never awarded to Lise Meitner, who was no less responsible for the discovery of nuclear fission than Otto Hahn, and probably more. But since she was only a woman she was automatically relegated to the status of assistant.

On the other hand, the physics prize was awarded in 1905 to Philipp Lenard, one of the founding members of the Nazi party, an advocate of what he called "German physics" and an adversary of "Jewish physics" by which he meant Einstein's "Jewish fraud of relativity." In 1919, the physics prize was awarded to Johannes Stark, who was later a government official in the Nazi regime, responsible for the "racial purity" of "German physics."

In 1965 Duke Ellington was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Music, but was denied the award because the jury's recommendation was invalid: they had commended him for his body of work and not for a specific composition. No music prize was awarded that year.

On the other hand, in 1920 Louis Seibold published a detailed interview with President Woodrow Wilson. Actually, Wilson had suffered a stroke and was incapacitated. The interview was entirely fabricated, with the help of the president's wife. Seibold was awarded the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Reporting.

In 1931 Walter Duranty published a series of articles praising Stalin and his policies. About the famine in the Ukraine caused by Stalin's collectivization policy, in which some 10 million people starved to death, Duranty wrote: "Any report of a famine in Russia is... malignant propaganda. The food shortage... has, however, caused heavy loss of life." He was awarded the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for these gems of mendacity. The Pulitzer board has consistently refused to revoke the prize.

In 1980 Janet Cooke published an article describing an eight-year-old heroin addict living on the streets of Washington DC. City officials searched for him without success. Nevertheless, she was awarded the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Subsequently, when the story was shown to have been a fabrication, she returned the prize.

The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in spite of its impressive name, seems to be no better at judging than any of the other august prize-awarding bodies. For example: Charlie Chaplin was never awarded an Oscar for best actor. Orson Welles was never awarded an Oscar for best actor or best director. Citizen Kane was not awarded an Oscar for best picture. The Wizard of Oz was not awarded an Oscar for its special effects.

The following is a partial list of those who were never awarded an Oscar for a specific movie. Some were honored for "lifetime achievement" -- a sheepish belated admission that they were unjustly ignored when they were in their prime. In alphabetical order:
Abbott and Costello, Lucille Ball, Irving Berlin, Fannie Brice, Tony Curtis, Sammy Davis Jr., Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Greta Garbo, Paulette Goddard, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Michelle Pfeiffer, Edward G. Robinson, Peter Sellers, Mae West.

There was a proposal to award the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics jointly to Thomas A. Edison and Nicola Tesla for their huge contributions to the practical uses of electricity. (Edison: light bulb, fluoroscope, phonograph, microphone, motion pictures, etc. Tesla: electric motor, arc light, loudspeaker, radio broadcasting, remote control, radar, etc.) But they were mortal enemies. Both refused to receive the prize jointly, and each swore he would not accept the prize if the other received it first. The 1915 prize was awarded jointly to William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg for their work in X-ray crystallography.

Something similar happened during the deliberations of the committee that was to award the 1994 Israel Prize in Music. (I know about this of my own knowledge -- never mind how.) There were two obvious candidates, two outstanding musicologists from the same university. But they were mortal enemies. The committee members were cowards. They did not even dare to suggest to those two dinosaurs that they might share the prize, nor did they dare to award it only to one of them. Instead, they awarded the prize to a hack who concocted background music for the theater. He had never been heard of before; he shook hands with everyone at the awards ceremony; and he has never been heard of since. 

               However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry 
               again, the Dodo suddenly called out "The race is over!" and they all crowded 
               round it, panting, and asking, "But who has won?" 
                         This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of   
               thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead 
               (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), 
               while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, "Everybody has won, 
               and all must have prizes." 
                        "But who is to give the prizes?" quite a chorus of voices asked. 
                         "Why, she, of course," said the Dodo, pointing to Alice with one finger; 
               and the whole party at once crowded round her, calling out in a confused   
               way, "Prizes! Prizes!"