Ghosts of Holiday Parties Past

The 2015 office holiday party passed peacefully last week at the Edison Ballroom in Manhattan. I had some sushi, talked to colleagues, sipped a Diet Coke and skipped the desserts that always tempt me. The DJ played the immortal 1981 dance favorite, “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League. The song, freighted with hooks and the mysteries of past relationships, sent my mind spinning back over the ghosts of holiday parties past.

Working in New York for most of the past 35 years, I’ve had my share of holiday parties at swanky locations, among them Tavern on the Green, the Marriott Marquee in Times Square, the Waldorf=Astoria, and surely other places. At one of the first ones, 1981 or 1982, I imbibed the screwdrivers a little too much and found myself green around the gills when I returned to my studio apartment in Brooklyn. As soon as I walked in the door the phone rang. The caller was Rena, an elderly German-Jewish friend, a woman I knew through Project Dorot, which connects young New Yorkers to elderly Jews. She wanted to know if I had a nice time at the office party of my then-employer, Quick Frozen Foods magazine.

“I’m sorry, Rena, I can’t talk right now,” I said before reaching for a trash can.

“Oh dear, oh dear!” she said with alarm in her heavy Berlin accent. But I slept it off and put her mind at ease.

If that was the low of holiday parties, the high, in several senses of the word, came in December 1996. After a gruesome year of unemployment after being laid off from my last job in journalism, I had landed a position in the firmwide communications department of Price Waterhouse, then the smallest but best known of the Big Six accounting firms.

PW lived up to its quality reputation with the 1996 holiday party held at the Rainbow Room at the top of 30 Rockefeller Center. As a fan of art deco, I found the building breath-taking, and the event itself marked a graceful return to employment, if not life stability. I wore a suit (which PW employees did as a matter of policy in what I now recall as days of high formality in corporate attire) and felt I had slipped into a 1930s high-society film.

I strolled around the Rainbow Room and looked at New York on a snowy night. That’s what I recall most clearly — the snow falling and blurring the lights spread before me. After the family-wracking challenges of unemployment, that 1996 holiday party marked a new beginning, the end of a year of chaos and the start of another of hope and stability. From high above New York, I stood, I hoped, at the end of a rainbow.

The rainbow receded, its colors slipping beyond my grasp for more years. The family and the job changed in ways I couldn’t imagine. Oddly enough I eventually worked for a law firm right there in 30 Rock, and I walked through that art deco lobby every day. Over the past 20 years of holiday parties, I’ve smoothed out the wretching lows and the snow-dome highs to find a pleasant balance that matches a life lived moderately. That’s a positive place to be.

And I’ll always have the memory the snow pelting down beyond the windows of the Rainbow Room, suggesting magic.

 

 

 

Farewell, My Woody Woo: Princeton Plays the Game of Names

Students who occupied Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber ‘83’s office in stately Nassau Hall in November must have felt they hit the protest jackpot. After 32 hours of sit-in, the Black Justice League (BJL) had Eisgruber’s signature of a deal that called for study of their demands, starting with “the legacy of Woodrow Wilson on this campus.” The name of former president of both Princeton and the United States now defiles a residential college and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (a/k/a Woody Woo, WWS or the Wilson School). His thin-lipped visage also adorns a mural in a dining hall in Wilson College.

Here’s how the University Press Club summarized the action steps:

Demand 1- Concerning Woodrow Wilson

President Eisgruber will write to the Head of Wilson College about removing the mural of Woodrow Wilson. It’s ultimately up to Professor Cadava, but Eisgruber will say his personal opinion (that it should be removed).

As for Woodrow Wilson’s name throughout the rest of the University, President Eisgruber promises to email Katie Hall, the chair of the Board of Trustees, to start discussions with the Black Justice League (BJL) about Wilson’s legacy on campus. President Eisgruber also promises toward greater ethnic diversity of memorialized artwork on campus.

Ridding Princeton of the troublesome Wilson will be easy. Finding replacements could be almost impossible as Princeton plays the Game of Names. That’s the problem Eisgruber and the Board of Trustees will encounter as they try to balance the BJL demands with the needs of Princeton as a 259-year old institution and the views and pocketbooks of thousands of alumni.

Let’s look at the obstacles, and then some of the leading contestants.

Left to the administration and the alumni, straightforward options for new names would emerge, based on a combination of civic significance and donations to the University. Recent examples would be Whitman College, named for Meg Whitman ’77 after a $30 million donation, the Frist Campus Center, Icahn Laboratory, Bloomberg Hall, Lewis Library and more. Eric Schmidt ’76 (Google) and Jeff Bezos ’86 (Amazon) donated millions for endowed technology programs. Every Princeton class has entrepreneurs, public servants, business leaders and artists who could endow a building or program. Given my modest finances, I may be able to endow the Wallach ’80 Memorial Urinal Cake Dispenser at Building Services, but I’ll do what I can.

The troubles begin if protesters get to apply the heaviest thumb to the scales of selection in the Game of Names. Given veto power on new names, the BJL will, I imagine, concoct a vetting process with a rigor and pitilessness rivaling the Spanish Inquisition. Woe to those Tigers whose interrogations uncover the slightest implication in any deed or thought, public or private, that could be construed to show racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, colonialism, heteronormativity, white privilege, climate change denial, Zionist tendencies, suspicious use of Yik Yak, or excessive enthusiasm for the First and Second Amendments. Readiness to write a $100 million check—my estimate of the minimum donation required to chisel your name across the Wilson School—would mean nothing against the taint of incorrect thinking. The proceedings in Nassau Hall would combine Stalinist show trials with The Maury Show, as in, “Bob, the political DNA results are in and you ARE a racist!”

Think about candidates for Woody Woo’s new name. They should be people of high-profile civic accomplishment and impact. Off the top of my head, I can suggest:

  • John Foster Dulles 1908, the Secretary of State under President Eisenhower.
  • Allen Dulles 1912, first civilian director of the CIA and a longtime diplomat.
  • George Kennan ’25, a diplomat and Ambassador to the USSR and Yugoslavia. He wrote the hugely influential “Long Telegram” and the article “The Sources of Soviet Policy,” which influenced U.S. policy during the Cold War. I had the honor of seeing Kennan in person in September 1976. As a freshman interested in Soviet affairs, I attended a discussion at Woody Woo on the topic of “Alexandr Solzhenitsyn as a Historian of the Russian Revolution.” That summer I had read Kennan’s book Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, so I knew about the legendary diplomat and thinker on Cold War issues. He sat in the seminar room and listened, then offered some cogent comments.
  • Donald H. Rumsfeld ’54, whose career in public service began as a U.S. Congressman from Illinois in 1963 and wrapped up 40 years later as Secretary of Defense for during George W. Bush’s fateful first term.
  • Ralph Nader ’55, who needs no introduction.

Except for Nader, all are non-starters. They are straight white male conservatives who led or influenced U.S. strategies in the Cold War or, in Rumsfeld’s case, the ongoing War on Terror. None would pass the vetting process for the new generation of anti-Wilsonians. I could see Rumsfeld getting alumni support, but given his role in the Afghan and Iraq wars, student demonstrators and their allies would never, ever go for the Rumsfeld School of Public and International Affairs. Well, what about the Senator Ted Cruz ’92 School, honoring a distinguished Wilson School grad?  Don’t even THINK about that macroaggression!

Reunions 352-edit

The Cruz School? Not yet. His rendezvous with destiny comes later . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A better bet: Nicholas Katzenbach ’45. An Army Air Corps flier and POW in World War II, Katzenbach was a law professor in the 1950s and served in the Justice Department in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, rising to Attorney General. As Deputy AG, he confronted Gov. George Wallace in 1963 during successful efforts to desegregate the University of Alabama. He also played a role in the Warren Commission investigation into the killing of President Kennedy.

Despite Katzenbach’s fine qualifications, I can’t help but think the BJL would demand a bolder direction, a definitive break from the WASP past. So my best guesses for Woody Woo: Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 or First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama ’85. Both would bring the gender and ethnic diversity that demonstrators want.

I’m placing my bet on Sotomayor. I heard her speak at the 2014 Alumni Day, when she received the, umm, Woodrow Wilson Award, the University’s highest honor for undergraduate alumni. She has an inspiring life story and a long legal career. Sotomayor impressed me as a confident, warm and fast-on-her-feet speaker who charmed the audience during a speech and Q&A at Alexander Hall.

Bottom line: Justice Sonia Sotomayor is a good all-around choice who could satisfy most stakeholders. Farewell, Woody Woo, hello SoSo! Sorry, Rummy.

Now, what about Wilson College? I know the place; I lived in 1938 Hall as a sophomore in a six-man suite of colorful characters, including one we nicknamed “Disco Tony” and another who had the complete Warren Commission Report. I made good friends at Wilson College, friendships that continue to this day.

Wilson College’s new name should go in a different direction from that of the Wilson School. Woody Woo is a sober place where students wrestle with fateful global issues. Wilson College is a dorm and social complex. The new name should break away from typical Princeton pattern of honoring individuals known for seriousness, purpose, industry, achievement and philanthropy. Princeton has plenty of that; what’s missing campuswide in building honors, as far as I can tell, is “fun.”

So if President Eisgruber and BJL want to win over wary Tigers, they should offer up a name that is a little less “Princeton in the nation’s service” and a little more “Princeton in the nation’s entertainment.”

Possibilities abound, from the late actors Jimmy Stewart ’32 and José Ferrer ’33 to director Ethan Coen ’79 and actor David Duchovny ’82. Director Andrew Jarecki ’85 causes a stir whenever he releases a documentary, such as Capturing the Friedmans, Catfish and The Jinx. Robert Johnson *72, who earned a master’s degree in public affairs from the Wilson School, founded Black Entertainment Television and has a stellar record as an investor, corporate board member and philanthropist. I don’t know anything about their politics, but the inquisition can uncover any counter-revolutionary tendencies, Some members of the Junior Anti-Sex League might take offense at Duchovny’s naughty 1990s Showtime series, Red Shoe Diaries. “Kidnap” episode, anybody?

To me, the most compelling choice would bring more gender diversity with a well-known name and face. This person may not have the right revolutionary chops, but I’ll nominate her anyway:

Wrap your mind around Brooke Shields ’87 College.

Shields majored in French literature, appeared in the Triangle Show and is a loyal grad. Granted, she joined the selective Cap & Gown eating club, made those sizzling ads for Calvin Klein jeans (“You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”) and starred in a series of racy movies—Pretty Baby, The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love—but Shields would be a big, bold, beautiful name in my brackets of the Game of Names. Not that Princeton needs more applicants, but the draw of Shields College could attract lots of positive attention at the high school level.

How these issues will play out is anybody’s guess. The ink was barely dry on the Nassau Hall agreement before other students formed the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, which won a splash of publicity as a counterbalance to the disruptions sweeping college campuses. President Eisgruber will meet with POCC soon. BJL and others will encounter other determined Tigers who are going to speak out on the Game of Names. The commentaries pro and con Woodrow Wilson speak to the passions of the moment.

While we’re waiting for the Game of Names to start, how about a traditional Princeton Locomotive cheer for my favorite candidate?

‘RAH! ‘RAH! ‘RAH!
TIGER! TIGER! TIGER!
SIS! SIS! SIS!
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
AHHHHHHH….
BROOKE! BROOKE! BROOKE!