The New Fireside Chats Preview

For those of you not attending the Fourth Annual FDR Memorial Lecture this Saturday, I thought you might enjoy seeing a sneak preview of the The New Fireside Chats web casts I’ll be introducing there:

Of course, this is just an early version the trailer (well not so early, its the 15th one, actually) but I can’t tell you how excited we already are about this project – scheduled guests include nationally known scholar Skip Gates, who’ll talk about race relations in FDR’s time and what it means to be black in 2011, at Harvard and beyond; Nobel laureate Amartya Sen will visit to discuss the pluses and minuses of New Deal economic policy; historian and PBS scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin will be on hand to talk about FDR’s early years;  Ambassador John Gunther Dean ’44 will review the tremendous ups and downs of four decades of diplomatic service – and that’s just for starters. We’ve been sending out invitations to a whole host of folks from both sides of the aisle, to come in and discuss politics, religion, history, the arts, world events, you name it. With any luck, we’ll be posting one or two new broadcasts each month.

And finally, returning of the subject of this weekend’s lecture by Cynthia Koch, we have just five seats left, so if you wish to attend, email me immediately to reserve your spot.

The Fourth Annual FDR Memorial Lecture and Reception

We are delighted to finalize plans for the Fourth Annual FDR Memorial Lecture and Reception at Adams House, Harvard College, this coming April 30th 2011 at 4:30 PM. This year we are truly honored to welcome Dr. Cynthia Koch, a huge friend to the Restoration, and Director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, who will be offering an intriguing view of how FDR led the nation during the Depression through popular education, overcoming fears and political obstacles by explaining clearly and directly to the American people how often unorthodox policies might improve their daily lives. (Something we could well do with more today, I fear.)

Our longtime supporters will note that this April, we are moving to our previously announced schedule of alternating years of full banquets and receptions; on the 30th, we will be hosting Dr. Koch’s lecture in the Lower Common Room, followed by a cocktail reception in the Conservatory. Fear not though: our famous FDR raw bar remains – yum – and as always delicious hot hors d’oeuvres and a happily stocked bar will greet attendees. Dress this year: comfortably casual.

Note: as the LCR seats only 80 persons, we are on completely first-come, first-served basis this year, with Foundation supporters given preferred front row seating. Please email me ASAP to reserve your place at Tickets are $35; payment will be at the door, by check or cash only, to benefit the FDR Suite Restoration. Reservations required.

The New Fireside Chats

Our new television set...

We’re very excited here at Adams House to announce what we hope will be the beginning of a very long tradition: The New Fireside Chats – a series of web-televised chats with well known figures in academia and politics about the events that shaped our history, and continue to shape the world today. Set hearth-side in our extremely comfortable Morris chairs, and hosted by yours truly with a different guest each episode, segment topics will originate from some object or theme in the Suite, and move outwards from there.

The origin of this idea is comically mundane, in hindsight: a month or so back, I was hanging pictures in the Suite, and stepped down from the ladder to admire the results of my labor. “Michael,” I said to myself, “this almost looks like a television set…”

A TELEVISION SET! Indeed! What a great way to fulfill our educational mission!

So, since then I have been wearing my best PBS hat, nagging my contacts in the industry about what equipment we need to acquire (about 7K worth ahem ahem, for which we’ll need to raise large portion), how to arrange the lighting (basic three-point TV illumination, not that complicated), who’ll man the cameras & sound and edit the pieces (our students) and who our guests will be: First up, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin! (And for those of you wondering, yes, we will be inviting experts from both sides of the aisle  – out goal is to foster debate, whatever that debate might be.) Invitations have been extended to Adams Senior Common Room Members Skip Gates to discuss historical race issues at Harvard, as well as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen to explore the ramifications of New Deal economics on today’s markets. Four-time Ambassador John Gunther Dean (Adams ’46) will be with us over his 65th in May to talk about US foreign relations, New Deal forward;, and Dr. Cynthia Koch, Director of the FDR Presidential Library, our speaker at the FDR Lecture this year (April 30, details coming Monday), will be discussing FDR as Educator in Chief. And that’s just for starters…

We hope to film our first segment in May, and release approximately one per month

So, as they say in the TV biz, stay tuned!

The Widow

“Having a good time was of major importance in those days at Harvard. Customary procedure was to study for ten days with a tutor before an examination and never open a book for the rest of the time.”          Lathrop Brown to Pare Lorentz, 1949

Over the last few weeks, as time and funds permit, I’ve been slowly framing a series of 16 prints we acquired last year, from a charming but extremely tattered 1903 volume entitled Harvard Celebrities. Written and illustrated by a classmate of FDR’s, this 30 page book parodies in picture and verse Harvard characters of the day. While some are still easily recognizable – Nathaniel Shaler, the famous naturalist, for example – others are far less so. Here’s one that I found intriguing:

Now from the text, and from Lathrop’s chance comment above, I had a general idea of who this might be, but imagine my delight when I discovered the following article from the October 1917 Independent, telling me not only who this was, but revealing a portrait of a Harvard long gone:

An Unofficial University Just Outside Harvard’s Gates

THEY call him “The Widow,” no one knows why. Whatever he is called he is, in his own single person, Harvard’s chief competitor. In moments of indiscreet candor members of the Harvard Faculty have confest that the college has tried, and tried in vain, every possible means of dislodging him—even to flattering him out of the way with the offer of a chair in the college. But he never could afford the honor. The highest paid professors in Harvard get a meagre $5000 a year. “The Widow” is reputed to enjoy an income of $20,000 a year—perhaps more. Nobody knows. [Editor’s Note: For comparison, Harvard Tuition in 1903 was $150 per year.]

So he remains what he is—president of himself. For he is in his own university, with his own staff of fifteen professors, and his own dormitories, conveniently stationed just outside the famous Harvard “Yard.” The one concession he makes to Harvard is to permit his students the use of all of Harvard’s facilities—the Bursar, the Yard, the Gym, Soldiers Field, even the classrooms if they please. Even Harvard’s degrees. All “The Widow” pretends to supply is the best known substitute for a Harvard education.

If you find that it would be pleasant to be a Bachelor of Arts but for certain annoying obstacles in the way; if you find your studies interfering with the pleasures of the theater or the athletic field; if the exams are approaching and certain to find you embarrassed how to meet them; if you are the son of a rich man, a little spoiled and unaccustomed to work—what do you do?

You visit the Widow Nolen.

AND straightway you come under the eye of a remarkable man. Two generations of Harvard men know him, by reputation if not by personal experience of his bewildering fund of knowledge and his even more bewildering gift of handing it out to you in one exquisite, highly concentrated pill of information. In the Harvard records he is William Whiting Nolen, A.B. ’84. During five more years in the Graduate School he drew down an A.M. in ’86. Then to make a thoro job of it, he put himself thru the Law School besides. No one has discovered why he slighted the Medical School, the Dental School, the Veterinary School, and the Bussey Institute of Agriculture. Except for these trifling omissions, his education is fairly complete.

But in Harvard he learned much more than Harvard teaches deliberately. He learned, besides, the peculiar psychology of the Harvard professor. He learned how the Harvard professor teaches. Most important of all, to himself at least, he learned to gage, and with an accuracy that is uncanny, precisely what questions any given Harvard professor is most apt to ask.

Suppose an exam catches you a trifle innocent of history or literature. Suppose you have never dipped into some obscure book like “Vanity Fair.” To repair this natural oversight you join one of the Widow’s famous “seminars.” It is chiefly by these seminars that the Widow’s fame and fortune live.

These meetings are organized with wonderful psychological cleverness. Fifty students will be admitted to a room in the Widow’s establishment. The room is stark naked. Not a picture is on the walls to distract your eye. Not a sound is heard, except the Widow’s voice, to break your attention. You sit in silence with a pad of paper on your knee. Naturally every man jack in the room is frightened to death for fear of flunking, and the Widow begins with that advantage to himself.

HE needs no other advantage. No one sleeps when the Widow is speaking. One reason why his patients nearly always pass the desired exam is because the Widow has a marvelous faculty for making his talks interesting. Any professor might learn from him there. In an hour he will range over an entire history course. All he pretends to do is spot in the high lights, the main events, the leading figures. But it is all a wonderfully clear and compact digest of the course to be covered. Easy as this may be to remember, and remember even beyond the day of the examination, the Widow will finish by retracing his talk in a still more wonderfully clear and condensed conclusion.

In a literature course he will outline the periods and give the substance of every book required in the course. He will give you the message, the philosophy, the teachings of every author. And all this in the space of one hour! “Around the World in Eighty Days” reduced to sixty minutes! And yet the Widow has been known to lecture for five hours on end without a break.

In a complicated course he may supply a few “keys” for the memory, for he has invented a complete system of mnemonics. With almost hypnotic effect he will hang up a chart laying bare, say, the whole secret of a course in trigonometry. Or he may make the Word “Nawb” serve as a symbol for a whole period in history. A fool word in itself, it sticks in the memory by reason of that very fact, and faithfully bobs up in the mind during the exam, to stand for the names of Napoleon, Wellington and Bluecher, and their influence on the nineteenth century.

Or suppose a student on the eve of a German exam finds that he has opened nary a one of the books required for outside reading in the course. The Widow will welcome him to a cubicle in his establishment where he will be made comfortable with cigars or cigarets. The chair is restful. Everything is provided to leave the student’s mind open to treatment. Then in comes one of the Widow’s faculty of assistants. In the course of a single evening, while the student has nothing to do but sit back and drink it in and try to remember it all, this assistant will go thru that list of books and give a nutshell account of the contents of each one.

It is a college education in capsule form.

The one fault to be laid against a Nolen degree is that this mass of information is not guaranteed to stick in the mind for longer than the three hours of the examination. It is apt to be written on the mind in vanishing ink. Still, there is nothing to prevent a student from remembering it all if he can. The Widow charges his price and offers his commodity, to be taken how you please.

His income is his own business, but he certainly drives a thriving trade. If you want a whole evening with one of his assistants he will charge you $5 for the-services rendered. To join one of his hour-long seminars costs each man of the fifty present $2.50. And during the exam period the Widow and his faculty are busy day and night. Another of his rush seasons opens when the boys from the prep schools begin to congregate for the entrance exams. For these the Widow even maintains a dormitory, a nursery, for the fatherly care of the backward. It is a prep school in itself, with a course reduced to three or four weeks. For such services the Widow charges accordingly, with his prices based on the backwardness of the case. Since his patrons come mostly from the rich, his charges are probably in proportion.

Toward his assistants, however, he is reputed to be generous enough. He picks the brightest men he can get, and pays them well. You are taxed $2.50 for an hour with one of them, and of that $2.50 the Widow collects fifty cents. The $2 goes to the assistants.

OUTSIDE his crowded hours of tutoring Mr. Nolen finds time to indulge a nice taste in old furniture and objects of art—and his rooms are thickly strewn with superb specimens. And often, out of an income ample beyond his own simple needs, he exerts himself in behalf of the poor student. More than one man has had from Mr. Nolen other aids to a Harvard degree than great gobs of information only.

Such is the familiar figure of many jibes and of more caricatures than have been aimed at any other college celebrity

“Dead or dying, drunk or sleeping,

Nolen puts you thru; But gratitude takes early wings when Nolen’s bill is due.”

So runs a famous lyric lampooning the high tax that Nolen levies on laziness. And so he daily and serenely takes his stroll along the Charles, comfortable and corpulent, carelessly drest, with the never-absent Boston terrier that is almost as familiar a figure as he.

As a final aside,  perhaps the aspect of all this I find most remarkable is that such levels of discovery are even possible. Ten years ago, before the age of the Internet search, only extreme good luck would have directed me to an Independent article a decade and a half after the fact, one citing the very book I held in my hands. But now, if you know how to frame the right question, a few staccato taps and clicks often yield the most astounding answers, from half a continent or more away.

Suddenly, the term “world-wide web” has true meaning.

I wonder what the old Widow would have thought about that…

A Missing Place…Revisited

Wow! Of all the topics we’ve covered recently, my previous post certainly caught everyone’s attention, and rightly so. Thanks to so many of you who commented below or wrote me directly. It’s always wonderful to have that level of response.

So, a few updates: Several of you eagle-eyed folks tracked down two more African American faces in the crowd, and Renny Little pointed out quite a number of missing places if you look closely enough – however, only our lone black man sits by himself. At the request of several of you, I did a little poking around the Archives last week, and I believe I can now tell you who our man is. May I introduce James Graham Wolff, ’04:

Born Cambridge MA 1881; prepared Boston Latin school; AB 1904 LLB (Boston YMCA Law School 1911)

From the 25th Class report: Wolf graduated from the Boston Normal School [a teacher’s college, Ed.] in 1907, and received a certificate to teach in the Boston public schools. The following September he accepted the position of clerk in the office of District Attorney John B Moran, at the same time studying for his LLB.     He writes: “For sixteen years I was attached to the District Attorney’s office, Boston, and since resigning I have engaged in independent practice with a special attention to conveyancing. During the war I was recommend for the Training School for Infantry at Camp Pike, Arkansas, but the Armistice was declared before I was called. Meanwhile, I served on the Boston Committee for Public Safety, including the subcommittee on recruiting. I have always been interested in public affairs, and have been active in many political campaigns  sometimes openly, sometime behind the scenes. Otherwise I have lived very conservatively all my life within five miles of the University, and for many years but one mile from Harvard Square.”

From 50th Class Report: “Last January I retired after four years as Assistant Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and on retirement was one of the five assistants who were presented with gold cuff links for outstanding service to the District Attorney’s office. My father, who came down from Dartmouth to the Harvard Law School and was a practicing attorney at Boston for many years, was an outstanding officer of the Grand Army of the Republic, rising to be Department Commander of Massachusetts and Judge Advocate General of the national body. My library, which has accumulated for three generations, has now been greatly depleted by the donation of a large number of volumes to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.”

Wolff married twice, once in 1915 (widowed) and again in 1948. No children are recorded.

All in all, quite a testament to courage in that day and age.

And on one final note, while I was poking around, I found Lathrop Brown!

FDR, however, is still at large!

A Missing Place

One of the most delightful aspects of my “job” with the FDR Suite Foundation has been the interaction I’ve had with our students over the last four years. They are an incredible group of young adults at that wonderful point in life where nothing seems impossible and all roads remain open – their energy and enthusiasm are palpable, and provide a tonic for older, wearier bones. Our students are also incredibly, incredibly diverse, in a way that many of you who still remember the tie-and-jacket-clad all male Harvard of old might find almost unfathomable. Even I, who lived in Adams during the fast and free – and now almost legendary – 1980s am impressed. Looking out over the dining hall, the sea of faces is almost kaleidoscopic: Asian, African, Caucasian, Indo-European, European, Native American, of every kind and creed imaginable. There is no one of anything. And the interesting point is, our students take this state of affairs entirely for granted, as if Harvard had always been that way. Of course, if asked, they’ll certainly acknowledge that history must have been far different. But I don’t think they comprehend how different, and sometimes that bothers me; for to measure the worth of such intangibles, don’t you need some personal understanding of the opposite? Can you truly appreciate heat without knowing cold? Sweet without sour? Light without dark? Life without death?

No, I don’t believe so. Not fully. Nor do I think you are fully able to appreciate the expansive man Franklin Delano Roosevelt became as President unless you understand the much more narrow ‘Frank’ Roosevelt at Harvard, along with his highly restricted and closed off college world.

So… long story short, when I give tours of the Suite, I’m always looking for poignant illustrations of how rarefied life in Westmorly Court was, and how different the Harvard College of 1904 is from today’s Harvard University – The Gold Coast with its maid service, private clubs, breakfast in bed, bootblacks and doormen;  the $50 Harvard tuition; the $500 Westmorly rent (the equivalent of some 35K); the gaslit rooms with flickering hearths; the neighing four-in-hand at each street corner; the 10 days it took to reach Europe by steamer,  or the 6 days to the West Coast by steam engine (if you were lucky)….  Remarkable changes all, but still only charming facts and figures to the young.

And then one day a few weeks back, I came across this, or more precisely, I came across this once again, for I personally hung the full size version of this picture in the Suite last fall. (Click on the image to expand the photo.)

Now, I’ve looked at this picture a hundred times at least, in a fruitless search to find FDR and Lathrop in the sea of faces. (FDR, almost assuredly, is there somewhere. The man never missed a photo-op in his life.) But what struck me as I passed the other day was how uniform those faces were. Surely, there must be someone of color somewhere? Seemingly not… But then, wait, up there on the very last row, far to the left…

Sure enough. One proud black face, and next to him… a missing place. And then I noticed something else I had never seen before. A man standing – the only man standing – in the top row, behind the seated figures.

While we can’t be sure, does this seem a likely coincidence to you, that the only face of color in a sea of white is the only one with no one sitting next to him, and that the sole standing man has somehow missed the one remaining seat a few spots down to his right?


I must admit that this discovery – perceived though it may be – has removed some of the pleasure this picture once held for me. Rather than playfully searching for Frank and Lapes as before, my gaze now inevitably wanders to that sole black face, sitting all alone, and I think to myself: what a courageous and remarkable person you must have been to attend a College where people chose not to sit next to you merely because of the color of your skin!

Still, as with most things, there’s a silver lining, I suppose. That perfect example I sought of how much life at Harvard has changed? It’s now just a mouse click away.