Where everyone deserves 15 minutes (or 15 words) of fame

Photo Illustration: Steven Veach; photos, from left: AP Images (Michelle Obama ’85); CORBIS (Samuel Alito ’72, Booth Tarkington 1893, Adlai Stevenson ’22); Courtesy Amazon.com (Jeff Bezos ’86); Corbis (Frank Stella ’57, Meg Whitman ’77, Norman Thomas 1905)

 

The item posted by the Class of 1985 in the Jan. 28 issue of PAW caught the eye.  

Its typeface was larger than usual for Class Notes, and it betrayed a little more breathless enthusiasm than might be considered cool, but the message came through clearly:

SHE’S IN!

WHOOPS, I MEAN HE’S IN!

Just a few days ago, MICHELLE ROBINSON OBAMA took her place in history as the premiere first lady from Old Nassau!

Survey after survey of PAW readers has shown that Class Notes is the most popular section of the magazine, the first place to which many of our readers turn. Truth be told, class secretaries often have to scrounge for material — but every so often there’s some real headline-grabbing news. That is one of the unspoken bonuses of graduating from a university like Princeton, from which a good number of alumni will go on to positions of national or even international importance. The Class of ’85’s report about Michelle Obama may have been the most significant of those in recent years, and it raised the question of how other classes have reported achievements by their members.

Perhaps it is a matter of taste, but such notices are best done with a touch of understatement. The very first issue of PAW, dated April 7, 1900, contained just such an item. There on page 10, the Class of 1893 noted, “The Gentleman from Indiana, by Booth Tarkington, has passed the 30th thousand, and is selling faster than ever.” Tarkington went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes for The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. Any number of similar items could be culled from the PAW archives, acknowledging new governors, senators, Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, and even Nobel laureates. The Class of 1920 displayed similar nonchalance in April 1955, when it reported that “John Harlan was sworn in as an associate justice of the Supreme Court on March 28,” and proceeded to list all the classmates who had turned out for the ceremony.  

Some achievements, however, are just too big for understatement. Thus, the Class of 1953 noted in November 1969 that “by the time you receive this PAW issue, Commander ‘Pete’ Conrad will be approaching his liftoff for Apollo 12. On this flight, ‘Pete’ will have the opportunity to take two moonwalks of three and one-half hours each. He will be on the moon for approximately 32 hours!!”

Publishing achievements have received a large share of recognition in Class Notes. In the May 19, 1920, issue, the Class of ’17 noted, “Our own F. Scott Fitzgerald startled the literary world, as well as many other worlds, in more ways than one, in his novel entitled This Side of Paradise, which has been published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.” After adding that Fitzgerald also was being published regularly in the popular magazines, the class secretary went on to discuss classmates in the insurance business. Ho hum. Five years later, Fitzgerald appeared again with a short note: “My novel, The Great Gatsby, came out in New York this morning.”

In the March 17, 1941, issue, the Class of ’32 took pride in the achievement of one of its members. After reminding classmates about an upcoming class dinner, the notes added, “Congratulations to Jim Stewart on the outstanding achievement of the year,” noting that he had just won the Academy Award for best actor in The Philadelphia Story. In that less-sophisticated world, it seemed necessary to make clear what an honor this was. “As this is probably the highest award of merit which a movie actor can be given,” the notes explained, “there is no doubt as to the general recognition of Jim’s ability.”

A quarter-century later, in the Oct. 11, 1966, issue, the Class of 1957 apprised classmates of Frank Stella’s recent appearance in a PBS special in which he showed off some of his work. The famous minimalist must have been something of a mystery to readers, for the note went on to explain that “Frank’s creations are of large dimensions, strictly geometrical in content, and sometimes on non-rectilinear shapes. The geometry is even more complicated and interesting than Mondrian’s.” Less than two months later, the class gave another update, quoting a letter from a member of the Class of 1913 who pronounced that Stella’s work “didn’t seem to me to require extensive ‘understanding,’ as do the works of such sloppy draftsmen ... as Motherwell, Chagall, [and] Pollock, who fatuously claim to have ‘meaning.’” The writer concluded with the ultimate endorsement. “If I had a big house and a big wall (instead of an apartment), I should be happy to hang a Stella.”

The late Jeff Moss ’63, who wrote “Rubber Ducky” and numerous other songs, made many appearances in Class Notes. His class followed him from his earliest days, when he was writing for Captain Kangaroo, until Jan. 27, 1970, when it informed readers that Moss “writes material for Sesame Street, the new and successful children’s TV show.” Later that year, the class noted that “Rubber Ducky” had zoomed up the pop charts and earned Moss two Emmy Awards.

Even in defeat, Adlai Stevenson ’22 was a source of pride to his classmates. Shortly after the 1952 presidential election, which Stevenson lost decisively to Dwight Eisenhower, class secretary George Cooke ’22 noted that “Our boy lost this one, but not for any lack of his record or ability.” Four years later, when Stevenson lost again, the class was ready with a poem, paying tribute to “AD STEVENSON,” who “ably and vigorously / Carries on in our time / The ancient tradition of / Nassau Hall / As a Seminary of Statesmen.” It was signed simply: “From the men / Who figured they had solved / All the world’s problems / As undergraduates with Steve / On the Princeton campus / Thirty-five years ago.”

The Socialist views of Norman Thomas 1905, espoused in six presidential campaigns, no doubt were anathema to his staunchly Republican classmates, but the class always reported his activities with admiration. “[A]lthough defeated for the Presidency of the United States on the National Socialist ticket,” secretary C. Ames Brooks noted shortly after the 1928 election, “[Thomas] has stated ... that he and his party are greatly encouraged by the results attained and that they have great hopes for the future.” When Thomas challenged Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, class secretary Alfred Ely noted Thomas’ “very active campaign as a presidential candidate” as well as a “very complimentary editorial” in the Washington Star.

On the other hand, the Class of 1939 made only a passing reference when one of its former members, John F. Kennedy, won the White House. Kennedy had attended Princeton for only five weeks, yet the Jan. 13, 1961, issue contained a reproduction of a 1935 Christmas card featuring a photograph of Kennedy and his roommates, Ralph Horton and Lemoyne Billings. After providing updates on Horton and Billings, class secretary William Bardusch noted that “‘Ken,’ it is understood, is a Harvard man.”

Over the last century or so, many accomplishments that might have been marked in Class Notes have instead been covered in PAW as news items in their own right. The most famous examples relate to Woodrow Wilson 1879, whose election as president of Princeton, governor of New Jersey, and president of the United States received a lot of coverage in the pages of this magazine — but not one word in the Class of 1879’s notes. Wilson’s class did, however, continue to follow his progress as an author.

Some events that seem important in hindsight don’t make it into Class Notes; the alumni involved apparently never took the trouble to report them. The Class of 1986 proudly noted Jeff Bezos’ selection in 1999 as Time’s Person of the Year, but Bezos must not have submitted anything in 1994 when his new, online book-selling business — Amazon.com — opened. On the other hand, when Meg Whitman ’77 came to campus in the spring of 1999 to deliver the G.S. Beckwith Gilbert ’63 lecture, Class Notes identified her as CEO “of eBay, an Internet company that has become the largest trading place in the world.”

That is one of the things that make Class Notes interesting: catching up on the latest accomplishment of, say, Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito ’72, then scanning those columns of Celeste regular 8.5 type, searching for names, and wondering who will make the news next.

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.