Christian Gauss’ forgotten diary illuminates campus life at a tumultuous time

Photo illustration: Steven Veach; Photos: 1926 Nassau Herald, Princeton University Archives

Thirty years ago, Ernest Bartell ’27 wrote an angry letter to PAW denouncing the modern University as “a moral morass — wide-open sex, drug and alcohol abuse, stealing, the Honor Code a shambles.” Everything had been rosier in his day. But George Chaikin ’31 vehemently disagreed: Princeton was much better now, he said. Ostracized as a Jew, he had watched the antics of fellow students from afar: Prospect Avenue parties with New York chorus girls as dates, after which “the back streets of town were littered with contraceptives.” Students flocking to speakeasies in Trenton, pilfering from the U-Store, flouting the Honor Code. “Twenty-five dollars given to me by Dean Gauss to buy a railroad ticket was stolen from my dresser drawer,” he wrote. Other alumni joined the debate; Carrington Tutwiler ’31 “never saw a contraceptive” or a chorus girl, only chaste future wives. Arthur Campbell ’33 was ready to swear under oath that the campus was more wholesome back then.

Who was right? How can a historian discern the truth about the ’20s after 80-plus years? Eyewitnesses are fast disappearing — at last year’s Reunions, only one survivor of the decade was present, the remarkable Malcolm Warnock ’25, who enrolled just months after F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 published This Side of Paradise, wellspring of Princeton’s flapper-era mystique. Fortunately, a new source recently has come to light: the diary kept by Christian Gauss, lying forgotten amid his papers in the Rare Books and Special Collections in Firestone Library — snippets were published decades ago, but the bulk apparently never has been examined. Gauss was in a perfect position to observe this period of excitement and change. The diary also illuminates the private life of Gauss, “the most famous dean in America” (according to news coverage of his death) and mentor of Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson ’16.  

Brought to Princeton as a preceptor by Woodrow Wilson 1879, 47-year-old Gauss became dean of the college in 1925, a job he held for two decades. His diary, spanning 1926 to 1929, provided grist for popular books and articles he was writing to supplement a meager income — he was “scraping the bottom of the pan” to educate four children. Those books, including Life in College and Through College on Nothing a Year, earned him national renown. The diary shows a man worked to the bone: He continued to teach Romance language courses and chair the department even as he served as helpmate to University president John Grier Hibben 1882 and as a one-man disciplinary committee. Depression-era students sang:  

Professor Gauss he teaches French;
Dean Gauss he judges on the bench;
Mister Gauss don’t write for fun;
He’s got three jobs and we’ve got none.

Gauss’ interactions with students, parents, trustees, and faculty were myriad. In the diary, one catches glimpses of legendary characters, including Dean Henry B. Fine 1880, killed by a car while bicycling on Nassau Street at dusk. News came in a telephone call to Gauss, holed up in the third-floor study of his home, the Joseph Henry House. He paused to remember his friend Harry, always so terrified of death. Fine was “one of the sturdiest characters I ever knew, grimly just to himself and others,” Gauss mused. “I find I think of the rigorous Latin word for oak, quercus. There was something rugged solid about him, tall, straight, never swaying. ... Not soft-spoken and winning ... but just upright, without temper. Scrupulous in honesty.”  

The most vivid diary portraits are of some of the 2,200 undergraduates, always Gauss’ special concern. William K. Selden ’34 remembers the personal impact Gauss made in those long-ago years: “A stupendous man,” he calls him, who “made a very big difference in my life.” (Gauss chose Selden as his assistant after graduation.) Colleagues urged the dean to spend less time with undergraduates and more in scholarly research, but he genuinely enjoyed young people. A shy man, he found students easier to approach than their elders because they lacked a hard outer shell; moreover, as an expert on the Romantics, he was philosophically biased against age, which “disciplines” and “narrows” the soul: “The genius is the unmastered personality,” he wrote. Gauss looked for natural geniuses among the undergraduates, especially writers, and the attention he paid them was rewarded by undying devotion, as the letters of Fitzgerald and Wilson show.  

Gauss’ zeal for sport was legendary. He always occupied the same seat in Palmer Stadium, high up by the press box, tapping his cane. He recalled in his diary how he had been devoted to athletics as a undergraduate at the University of Michigan and how he later cherished his contacts with Princeton athletes — including Hobey Baker ’14, whom he got to know by chance when crossing the Atlantic. “I have always loved men more than books,” Gauss wrote. “My memories of Hobey are treasurable and I begrudge no moment of the many hours that it was my high privilege to spend with him.” Gauss also idolized star football coach Bill Roper 1902, and the diary shows that he considered himself a kind of coach, too, responsible for “undergraduate conduct and morale.”

He was drawn to the human drama of McCosh Infirmary. When he was tired, interacting with the students there always revived him. He watched 25 appendectomies a year, admiring the bravery of the young sufferers. The first incision made him queasy, along with the doctor’s groping for the appendix among slippery intestines, and he needed a brisk walk afterward to clear his nose of the stench of ether. Some cases at McCosh, such as bites from polo ponies, were symptomatic of the preppy times. Others were patently bogus, meant to escape an exam — ingesting 50 gingersnaps simulated fever; stuffing tobacco under the eyelids mimicked pinkeye. Yet often the illnesses and injuries were terribly real; students not infrequently died in the infirmary, including a sophomore who fell from the scaffolding of half-finished McCarter Theatre.

Gauss’ diary captured the fast-changing times. The black campus nights alumni remembered, wanly lit by sputtering lamps, had given way to dazzling electricity. Old-timey songs were forgotten, replaced by blaring radios, and Gauss ordered aerials off Gothic dormitory roofs as historical anachronisms. The world inched closer: The campus had 300 telephones, linked by 290 miles of wire and served by a battery of “switchboard girls” in the east wing of Nassau Hall. Manhattan offered the lure of meeting pretty dates “under the clock” at the Biltmore. As recently as 1914, only six undergraduates had cars; now there were so many that Hibben and Gauss banned them as a safety hazard (the death of Dick Humbird at the wheel in This Side of Paradise often played out in real life). The prohibition lasted 40 years.

Old Tigers — the most venerable was a Confederate veteran of the Class of 1858 — lamented to Gauss that the school had gotten too big, cynicism had killed class spirit, traditions were abandoned. Non-Princeton men dominated an expanded faculty. Academics gave way to sideshows as students picked courses that were easy (“roaring guts”) and avoided their opposite (“bitch kitties”). They booed and jeered at football games, sang songs laced with profanities and innuendo. Gauss whispered to Edmund Wilson about “students drinking, whoring, gambling ... setting fire to haystacks in the fields and making bonfires on Blair Tower.” Their snowballs broke thousands of Gothic windowpanes every winter. When the “Christian Student” sculpture was knocked over in 1929, it was seen as proof for many alumni that the place was going to hell. Undergraduates sang:

Oh, Gauss made a speech and fired a few,
But the student of bronze has departed from view.

The dean contended with a never-ending round of mischief: food fights in Commons, breaking the borough’s electric lights, setting blazes and then ambushing the responding firemen. In this age of Prohibition, undergraduates distilled gin in dormitory rooms or patronized the bootlegger who parked in front of Patton Hall with a trunk full of Scotch. Once, a bright freshman from New York was hauled in for having thrown a drinking party in his room on Bank Street. Gauss suspended him for a week, describing him in his diary as “a little common and inclined to be tough.” José Ferrer ’33 later starred in Triangle Club and became one of America’s great actors.  

Princeton saw no drinking-related homicides like the one at Dartmouth, where a student shot another over bootlegged whiskey, but some students were serious alcoholics, including one in the Class of 1927 whom Gauss visited in the infirmary. Flailing with delirium tremens, a severe form of alcohol withdrawal, the young man had broken his medicine vials on the tile floor. Now he sat on the edge of his bed in pajamas and blanket and loudly hallucinated about being in a café in Paris, flirting with girls and jiving with the jazz musicians. He died the next day.

In a steady stream, undergraduates in academic or disciplinary trouble trudged up the worn stairs at the west end of Nassau Hall to meet with the dean of the college. Gauss joked that there were two dean’s lists — the one parents were proud of, and the “unpublishable” list of chronic underperformers and mischief makers that Gauss kept in his drawer. The latter had 80 to 100 names, plus another 200 recurrent but less serious offenders. Eyeing the perpetrators across his desk, he always aimed to be kind: “Most boys are good boys,” he believed. The “greatest art of a dean is to say ‘no’ so politely and good-naturedly that it does not hurt” — a skill he passed on to Selden, who recalls of his brief stint in Nassau Hall: “I learned how to chastise students with a smile and have them happy when they left my office.”  

As homogeneous as an old-fashioned prep school, Princeton nonetheless was torn by factions. Jewish students faced anti-Semitism that came in waves, Gauss noted. A constant source of friction was the desire to emulate the rich — who were very rich indeed, to the amusement of the dean, the thrifty son of an Ann Arbor baker. A Mellon from Pittsburgh came into his office to demand permission to leave early for vacation — he was taking his pals on a yacht to Havana. Some boys should never have come to Princeton, Gauss felt, including one from the Midwest who became an instant “social pariah” for his fuzzy hair, “fishy” eyes, and protruding ears. Gauss urged his parents to remove him from the University — immediately. He sought to head off disasters, recounting how one sophomore was so disappointed by the results of bicker that he bought a rope. Another youth, suffering from chronic illness, went through with the deed, pulling a cord around his neck and drinking poison as he kicked his dorm-room sofa out from under him: “He was a terrible sight as I went in ... to take him down.”  

The diary details a surge in psychological problems, owing to “the speeding up of modern life and the disappearance of old-fashioned points of support, like the home.” Gauss learned to beware the “greasy grind,” the hardworking drudge who “may turn on you unexpectedly and cause you more trouble than his seemingly more active fellow.” He spent much time dealing with “the unhappy boy, the psychopathic case,” often a child of divorce.  

Raised Victorian, he struggled to understand a changed society. Gauss graduated from Michigan in 1898, “the Indian Summer of the age when college spirit, class spirit, and college customs had reached the highest point in their development” — and he deplored the cynicism made fashionable by H.L. Mencken, whose American Mercury lay curled in many a Tiger’s trouser pocket. It was a “superiority or American Mercury complex” that kept students holed up in their dorm rooms on game days with sour faces, pretending to be 50 at 20 — displaying what Lynn Carrick ’20, writing in PAW in 1928, called “a sophistication born of vicarious or imaginary suffering.”  

In the diary, the 1920s foreshadow the 1960s: One truant told Gauss his young life was “like a kaleidoscope that someone else is turning.” “Your God is a has-been,” he added. “To us life is only moments. ... We do not know love, we know sex. We do not want sentiments, we want sensations, speed, stimulants.”

Loosening sexual mores astonished the prudish dean. Students heard frank lectures in biology class by day and watched racy movies at the Garden Theater by night. In precept, he had his pupils discuss the innocent, convent-dwelling Emma in Madame Bovary. A junior shocked him by saying Emma had “diverted her sex instincts into religion.” Gauss marveled, “There was no sense of impropriety or brashness. ... In the past 10 years this has become a perfectly normal form of undergraduate thought.” On the tennis courts below new Walker Hall — where Christian Gauss dormitory stands today — players wore shorts and went shirtless. When a lady in town complained that a student clad only in underwear was peeping with binoculars at girls in a parked car on Nassau Street, the senior was hauled into Gauss’ office. The field glasses were necessary, the student explained: He was nearsighted. “What is decency, anyway?” he added defiantly. “How can you tell where it begins?”  

As baffling as students could be, Gauss forgave them much. Not so with faculty, who knew better. As professors age, he observed, they become crabbed in attitudes and manners and incapable of understanding youth. Of 300 faculty members, only 10 ever had volunteered to speak to prospective students. “We may be scholars and men of the world, but we are frightfully out of touch,” he wrote. When a student was found drunk in the street, it turned out he had been at a party given by a history professor. “Ordinarily it is none of my business how members of the faculty behave, though they are sometimes worse than undergraduates,” the dean noted.  

He found a calling in mediating between troubled boys and angry parents. Constantly he tried to show elders that one must not underestimate “the depth of the canyon between the parents of 50 and sons of 20.” Adults blamed the recent war, but Gauss said that one of the worst cases he ever saw of a father-son rift came before the war, in 1911, over Freud. “It is not then a postwar psychosis, and the present postwar generation will most certainly 20 and 30 years from now be faced with the same difficulty.” A prescient guess, given that most of the boys of ’29 would be parents in the ’60s.  

Gauss delighted in happy transformations. Freshman Ruel Garside ’30 seemed “a slovenly spineless bad boy,” but when Gauss ran into him as a junior in his military uniform (for a field artillery course), he found the student “a man now.” “I’ve been going through muddy water,” confessed a deep-voiced, dark-eyed Southerner, Arthur Glenn Andrews ’31. Gauss thought the attractive young man seemed doomed to tragedy and early death — but Andrews pulled through, served a term in Congress, and died last September at 99.  

Among hundreds of Christmas cards Gauss received every year, many were from boys he had expelled. Ralph K. Ritchie ’34 tells an anecdote about hard-drinking classmate and future sportswriter Arch Murray: “He said he got more white slips summoning him to the dean’s office than any other miscreant in history — but he loved the man like a father."

After Gauss died in 1951 — waiting alone for a train at New York’s Penn Station, he dropped dead from a heart attack and had to be identified by papers in his briefcase — he was eulogized for his erudition and kindness. Edmund Wilson and other alumni called him one of the great influences in their lives. The diary Gauss left behind confirms their high opinion of his warmth and humanity. Visiting Gauss in 1920, Wilson recalled “watching his clear green eyes, as hard and as fine as gems; I heard him speak of books and politics and people, with his incredible learning and his cloudless mind. ... I was swearing again an oath that I had many times sworn already: That, so long as I should live, I should honor nothing but Gauss.” The dean’s diary shows that he valued these occasions, too. As busy as he was, he always had time for students struggling to find their place in a changing world: “I do not regret one moment that I have spent with them.” 

W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 is the author of Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency.