Think of a favorite novel and you will also think of the characters in that novel. The same is true for short stories and even nonfiction feature stories. Character counts, and that’s true for a community, as well.
Years ago, when people were just beginning to discover U.S. 1 and found that it had something to offer, some of them tried to bestow the credit upon me. But I (obviously trying to promote the business side of the enterprise) deflected the praise. “A newspaper is only good as the community it covers,” I would tell people. “And we at U.S. 1 are lucky to be covering a very good community, the greater Princeton business community.”
The lineage of Princeton characters was pretty well established long before U.S. 1 came along: Einstein (who else would go first?), Paul Robeson, Robert Wood Johnson (or any of the other Johnsons and their spouses) and Chris Reeve (or any of the other show business celebrities who first learned their craft as Princeton school kids), all pop to mind. But, as anyone who has spent a few hours at a corner bar, a coffeehouse, or a neighborhood beauty parlor can tell you, those captains of industry do not by themselves make up the fabric of a community. There are others, as well, sometimes known only by their first name or nickname, who also shape that community.
The trouble is that, when the history of the town is written and committed to perfect binding, it usually looks like the Chamber of Commerce membership roster, or the wall of celebrity photos at the Nassau Inn’s Taproom bar.
Not so, however, with the new book titled “Legendary Locals of Princeton,” by Richard D. Smith, a researcher and journalist. Smith’s book, written in partnership with the Historical Society of Princeton and published by Arcadia Press, features all the obvious legends of Princeton, as well as many of the others who have helped give the town its distinct coloring.
Smith will read from his work, and no doubt explain his methodology in deciding who would be a “legendary local” and who would not at the annual meeting of the Historical Society of Princeton, this Wednesday, February 5, at 7 p.m, at the Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street. (This event is fully booked, but Smith has signed up for several other appearances — see below.)
Smith is an indefatigable researcher, as I noted in a 2009 column on his definitive biography of Bill Monroe, “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ — The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass,” published by Little Brown in 2000. That book was informed additionally by the fact that Smith, like his subject, is an accomplished mandolin player.
And so the new book is informed as well by the fact that Smith is a “local” himself. A graduate of the Hun School, Smith studied at Dickinson College, the New School for Social Research, and then Emerson College, from which he received a BA in mass communications in 1975. I wasn’t thinking of “local legends” at the time, but my description of Smith in my 2009 column might have qualified him for a spot in his own book: “Like lots of people toiling in the world of journalism, Smith also has another life (or two or three) to pursue when he’s not strapped in front of a word processor. Smith worked at U.S. 1 back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but also found time for masters track (shot put or discus, I recall), historical research (including some trips to Scotland to investigate the myth of the Loch Ness Monster), and music (performing on the mandolin).”
Perhaps his own eclectic background is what made Smith so appreciative of characters of all kinds. I’m not sure too many visiting historians would have noted the role that Mary Watts’ store on Route 206 or Urken’s Hardware on Witherspoon Street played in the town. Anyone might have picked Pulitzer Prize winning writer John McPhee for the section on literary luminaries in town. Smith did that and coupled it with a photograph of McPhee’s high school English teacher, Olive McKee, “who staunchly schooled her students in sentence and story outlining.”
When you think of “local lore,” you might remind yourself that a lot of it is inaccurate. I spent several paragraphs in this space a few years back talking about Albert Einstein’s encounter with a Princeton High School student named Henry Rosso. I assumed that the student was the man who later became the proprietor of Rosso’s Cafe, a workingman’s bar on Spring Street. I discovered later that there were two Henry Rossos in Princeton at that time — the other one got the homework help from Einstein.
Some of you may have heard another bit of Princeton lore and thought it must be apocryphal — that a glib Princetonian ordered his gravestone epitaph to read “I told you I was sick.” Smith did the research and a photo of the headstone is in his book. William H. Hahn Jr., vice president of sales for the Jammer door company in Trenton, was born in Princeton in 1905, died in 1980, and is buried in Princeton Cemetery.
Local lore can also be narrow in its focus. If someone were relying on my column in U.S. 1 as a source for local legends, they would come away thinking that the only black person who ever lived in Princeton was Paul Robeson, the legendary athlete, actor, singer, and statesman. More recently the town honored another of the pillars of the black community, Albert Hinds, a man of many talents who died at the age of 104 in 2006. Today the bustling plaza next to the Princeton Library is named in Hinds’ honor.
Smith features Robeson, Hinds, and a broad sampling of other African-Americans. As Smith writes, Shirley A. Satterfield, born and raised in Princeton, provided a window into that part of Princeton: “Her urge to educate others and her personal connection to the history of Princeton’s black enclave — along with her frustration and concern that it was being ignored and lost — has led her to preserve irreplaceable artifacts, photographs, printed materials, and all-important memories of her neighbors. Today she is a pillar of the Historical Society of Princeton and leads popular walking tours of the Witherspoon Street neighborhood.”
Every true Princetonian will pore over this book and immediately think of at least one “local legend” missing from Smith’s line-up. Smith asks for forgiveness at the outset, and notes that he deliberately steered clear of characters from Princeton University, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the Sarnoff Labs, institutions already chronicled in various books.
If I could have squeezed in one more character it would have been Bill Blackburn. Who’s he? To know that answer first you have to know Svetlana Alliluyeva, whom Smith lists in his book. The daughter of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Svetlana defected to the west in 1967 and soon moved to Princeton, living here for about six years. Bill Blackburn, a political firebrand who followed Svetlana to Princeton. His political views caused him to detest the well-heeled patrons of Lahiere’s restaurant on Witherspoon Street. The literal high point of Blackburn’s time in Princeton may have been when he climbed a tree outside the entrance to Lahiere’s and attempted to urinate on diners as they left the restaurant.
But don’t print that. I need to check it out with my sources, who I hope to meet up with soon at one of those downtown bars or coffeehouses.
Editor’s note: In addition to his February 5 appearance at the Nassau Club, Smith will sign books at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street on Thursday, March 27, at 6 p.m. He also will appear at the Princeton Library’s “Author’s Day” on Saturday, April 12, from 1 to 4 p.m.