Students rehearse a scene from the 1936 Triangle show, “What a Relief!”
PAW Archives
Creativity in troubled times

“If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow,

Why, oh why can’t I?”

— Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz, MGM, 1939

Whether it’s War and Peace, I, Claudius, or Henry V, using fictional historical exempla to recall exotic ages past is a major weapon in the assault of the entertainment biz on our comfortable (and often shallow) fixation on our own day-to-day speed bumps. These Princeton history columns exist for much the same purpose, with the significant exception that I stick slavishly to demonstrable fact (to the editors’ knowledge, heh, heh) and try to label potential lessons as such, sacrificing some literary subtlety and complexity for the sake of clarity.

Now, “lack of subtlety” might as well be a general term for “series television drama,” and also why more folks discuss Game of Thrones around the office K-Cup machine than, say, PBS’s magnificent Frontline. We are, at root, dramatic creatures who are suckers for imaginative flights of fancy, requiring only modest effort to be entertained, but significant resources and connivance to be educated. This is why we so deeply admire documentarian Ken Burns and his merry band, who seem through magic (which is actually insanely detailed stick-to-itiveness) to make the reality of the past as irresistible as a Three-by-Three Animal Style at In-N-Out Burger, for you Hollywood types. The scripted TV program that can do that (let’s assume that Hogan’s Heroes wasn’t all that accurate) had been almost nil, and then in 2007 along came Mad Men. Masquerading as a vivid soap opera, it held up the floodlight to much of the real 1960s through social attitudes, drop-ins of historical events, and wonderful detail that would make Burns proud. They even made sure the copious cigarette butts in the ubiquitous ashtrays were authentic to the period.

So, being a smash hit, it has inevitably spawned imitations — although given the discipline and huge effort involved, fewer than you might expect. The latest, and one of the most ambitious, puts Princeton in a large way into an attempt to reanimate the 1930s, a decade that most of those who were there would just as soon forget. There are only 105 undergrad alums left who were on campus at any time in that decade, and in many senses they were in a world that was still the Jazz Age frozen in time, but simultaneously looking straight into the abyss.

In the 1920s, Princeton came back from the World War with energy, money, and a huge range of aspirations. They included the four-course plan, the final piece in Woodrow Wilson 1879’s 20-year-old academic vision; six new academic buildings and a grand new observatory; a more closely residential environment, with nine new Gothic dorms and even an expansion court at the new Graduate College; a colossal icon in the new Chapel; and perhaps as important, for good or ill, a sort of aspirational vision baked into the daily experience courtesy of This Side of Paradise in 1920, certainly a worthy rival of Mad Men in its own time. Of course, it seemed both current and indeterminately nostalgic at the same time — it still does today in many ways — and resulted in F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917 in his literary guise being epitomized as the Princetonian, despite the inconvenient truth he had not even received a degree. The Great Gatsby in 1925 simply cemented that image into place forever, and when college resources and expansion vanished in the ’30s, became essentially unchallenged.

1920: The Jazz Age begins
After the market crashed in late 1929, prior donor commitments were honored to the degree of completing the new Fine Hall and Observatory, but after 1934 campus growth was completely dead, not to revive until Dillon Gym arose to replace the incinerated University Gym in 1947 and Firestone Library at long last opened in 1948 to revolutionize undergrad education again (and fulfill the Four Course Plan’s promise, 30 years after it had first been needed). In the ’30s fortunes were lost, students vanished between semesters as families became destitute, and the treasurer and trustees’ finance committee became daily foci of the administration. J. Douglas Brown 1919 *28, a brilliant young industrial-relations economist, became one of the prime architects of Social Security for the Roosevelt administration. Undergraduates reflected the fatalism and cynicism of the age: When World War veterans marched on Washington in 1936, demanding their combat pay which had been delayed for decades, the Princeton students created Veterans of Future Wars, which demanded upfront payments for those who would (and in reality, did) fight the next war, on the theory it would be easier to spend it while still alive. The movement instantly went national.

It is a tribute to presidents John Grier Hibben 1882 *1893 and Harold Dodds *1914, their administrations, and the trustees that any institutional improvements at all took place. Those who were Wilson loyalists gamely added modest pieces that eventually became the Woodrow Wilson School; Dodds in fact was the first head of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), as it was known, in 1930. It was unique in American education of the time, but had essentially no space of its own. The undergrads’ longstanding desire for academic music programs finally bubbled over, in no small part because of the new McCarter Theatre in 1930 and great Triangle Club, Glee Club, and Band enthusiasm; there was an AB and even an MFA offered by 1940, but the first building including minimal facilities would wait until 1963. And perhaps most astonishingly, in Palmer and Fine halls Dean Luther Eisenhart (who had originated the four-course plan) and his successors created the premier math and physics faculty on the planet, hustling at every step: They leveraged the Bamberger’s department store money supporting the new, independent Institute for Advanced Study by “magnanimously” hosting its faculty — including Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Hermann Weyl, and Oswald Veblen — in Fine Hall. They built a cyclotron out of spare research funds by putting it in a rehabbed ventilator room in the bowels of Palmer.

But that resourcefulness, however inspiring, doesn’t represent the broader public fixation of the era, which galvanized the campus as well — escapist entertainment. The silliness of Triangle was never more needed, and drew brilliant people like Joshua Logan ’31, Jimmy Stewart ’32, and Jose Ferrer ’33; student plays flourished at the new McCarter; the University scraped up enough money to hire Fritz Crisler and field nationally dominant football teams with prominent stars like Josh Billings ’33 and Pepper Constable ’36; a young Ella Fitzgerald sang at the Prince-Tiger dance; Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds showed the astonishing power of network radio and the scientific cachet of Princeton too; Princeton’s baseball team became part of the first televised sports event in America, presaging the next addictive diversion. And the Prospect Avenue clubs reinforced a total dominance of campus social existence; their shameful treatment of the few Jewish students the college had deigned to admit betrayed an imperious knowledge that desperate frivolity was the power center of the age.

1941: Into the abyss
Which is what our friends at Amazon Studios (hi, Jeff!) concluded when they chose to source a 1930s-iconic Mad Men from the ultimate in bittersweet literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. The novel was completed after his death at 44 by his Triangle friend Edmund Wilson 1916, one of America’s foremost literary personages of the time, and abetted by their old friends, the Scribner publishing family and editor Max Perkins. If those names trigger something more recent for you, yes, indeed, the consulting producer on the new series is A. Scott Berg ’71, biographer of Perkins, Triangle stalwart, and lifelong Fitzgerald aficionado. Inspired by the tragic young studio mogul Irving Thalberg at MGM — who hired both Fitzgerald and Stewart — and his dominating boss Louis B. Mayer, it portrays the Hollywood dream factory as the glittering Mount Olympus of the age, with encroaching evils — the new studio unions, failing banks, a Hooverville camped on the doorstep of the studio lot — endangering its consuming drive to dominate the minds and dollars of the mass populace. Which was, of course, the goal of Madison Avenue in the ’60s too. Strikingly, the talents of both adman protagonist Don Draper, a career-making role for Jon Hamm, and those of Monroe Stahr, the Thalberg character portrayed by Matt Bomer, involve intuitively knowing how to speak with lightning effect to “those wonderful people out there in the dark” (as Norma Desmond put it in Sunset Boulevard, just before they hauled her away). These two characters, conceived 70 years apart, seem to imply that, in the American Century, the true power of the country stemmed less from its army, its constitution, and its technology than from the siren-song allure of its dream world on the screen. The triumph, if you will, of The War of the Worlds and This Side of Paradise over cyclotrons, observatories, and quantum mechanics. It is possible that the amazing Fitzgerald, who defined the Jazz Age, may well have held the key to understanding the Depression as well.

In the culmination of the ’30s, after all, we were desperately hoping that, somewhere over the rainbow, the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.