Think of the A-list celebrities who have lived in Princeton over the years and the names that come to mind would surely include Einstein and Oppenheimer, writers John O’Hara and Peter Benchley, architects Michael Graves and Jean Labatut. All men.
Women come to mind a full beat later. Joyce Carol Oates is a huge literary name, but a private person who doesn’t play the celebrity game. Others who cross my mind are women who were “civilians,” as people in the gossip game call non-celebrities, when they lived in Princeton and became celebrities later. There’s a first lady in that category — who knew Michele Robinson when she studied at Princeton with the Class of 1985? Who knew Sonia Sotomayor (Class of ’76) or Elana Kagan (1981) as undergraduates, before they rose to the Supreme Court. Lisa Halaby was the daughter of Pan Am Airlines CEO Najeeb Halaby when she was among the first women admitted to Princeton in 1969, nine years before she became Queen Noor of Jordan.
Basia Johnson arrived as an aspiring art history student and maid at the home of Seward Johnson Sr. before she became the mistress of Jasna Polana. Barbara Kline Johnson, the wife of Seward Johnson Jr., the sculptor, was an artists’ agent and collector with a special interest in scrimshaw. She and Seward were divorced after a scandalous episode in which he hired detectives to enter his own home to uncover an affair and she — assuming the detectives were intruders — shot one of them.
Women who arrived in town with a pack of paparazzi on their heels are much rarer.
Brooke Shields was one. Svetlana Alliluyeva was another and — as you look back at her life and times through the prism of the just published biography, “Stalin’s Daughter” — certainly one of Princeton’s most flamboyant characters bar none.
As the New York Times review of the book on June 14 noted, “in 1967, 14 years after Stalin’s death, Svetlana Alliluyeva created an international scandal by defecting to the United States, only to return to the Soviet Union in 1984, then run away again in 1986, each escape taut with cloak-and-dagger suspense worthy of any spy thriller. She fell in love disastrously and often, had three children from three of her four failed marriages, published several books, made a million dollars, lost a million dollars, moved from home to home with the restlessness of a nomad . . . before dying nearly destitute in Wisconsin, at the age of 85 . . . The historical context of Alliluyeva’s unsettled life, the immense monstrosity of Stalin forever looming behind her, makes her story impossibly haunting.”
What makes it equally striking is that so much of it is set in the quiet Princeton of the 1970s and early 1980s.
At one level Svetlana’s story is one of foreign relations at the highest level. Princeton resident George F. Kennan, with his carefully constructed policy of containment of the Soviet Union, did not want to jeopardize that balance by the arrival of the ultimate defector.
In 1967 Kennan, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union and then a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study, was consulted by the U.S. State Department as it grappled with how to handle the defection. Kennan took an interest in her memoir, “Twenty Letters to a Friend,” and arranged for his Princeton neighbor, attorney Edward Greenbaum, to represent her in the book deal. (It turned into million dollar deal, which was ultimately squandered.)
Other Princeton luminaries become involved in the intrigue: U.S. Attorney General Nick Katzenbach and Princeton historian Robert Tucker, who read her manuscript.
And some Princeton residents simply provided neighborly assistance. Hella McVay taught her how to make ice cream cones for her daughter (the result of Svetlana’s brief marriage to architect Wesley Peters). Mrs. Urken of the hardware store always welcomed her warmly. Svetlana became close friends of Rose and Philip Shand — a new assistant minister at All Saints Episcopal Church.
But at another level, Svetlana’s story is one of over-the-fence gossip and cocktail party chatter — much of it set, once again, in Princeton. As a young journalist living and working in Princeton at the time, I got my share of tips about the seemingly out-of-control Russian defector. I didn’t know what the hell to do with the gossip, but Rosemary Sullivan, the author of “Stalin’s Daughter,” did.
Her book chronicles the wild bursts of behavior that may have been a natural reaction to being freed from the shackles of Soviet oppression.
Consider this pre-Princeton background, quoting again from the New York times review by Olga Grushin: “Born in 1926, Svetlana lived through the purges and the war. She experienced not only her mother’s suicide but also the disappearance of most of her relatives into gulags. . . . Her first love, the prominent screenwriter Aleksei Kapler, was sent to labor camps when Stalin learned of their courtship. Her half brother Yakov perished in a German P.O.W. camp after Stalin refused a prisoner exchange to save him.”
The woman called the “little sparrow” by her father stretched her wings in Princeton. Sullivan recounts the time in December, 1967, when Svetlana — “in an antic mood” — put out wine and snacks on the table at her new home at 85 Elm Road and called the police emergency number. When the cops arrived Svetlana shouted “Merry Christmas” and invited them in. They declined.
But the interactions with the police were not all social. Svetlana became enamored with a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School, Louis Fischer, an author who had lived for nine years in Russia and who had once interviewed Stalin for six hours in 1927. “At 41, she must have felt 16 again. Indeed, she behaved as if she were,” Sullivan writes. When the relationship soured, the behavior turned tempestuous indeed. At one point Svetlana tried to enter Fischer’s house by knocking out glass panels on either side of the door. Fischer called the police, who found her hysterical with bloody hands.
As NPR commentator and best selling author Cokie Roberts (who certainly knew of Svetlana in Princeton because of her visits to her sister, Barbara Sigmund) writes in a blurb on the back cover of Sullivan’s biography: “The intrigue surrounding Stalin’s defection from the Soviet Union to the American Embassy in New Delhi is just the beginning . . . If it weren’t for the pages of scrupulous footnotes and the many interviews Rosemary Sullivan pursued, you would be convinced that this was fiction. But it’s a true story, thrillingly told.”
In what has to be one of history’s great ironies, Svetlana left the legacy of the Soviet Union and her tyrannical father behind, only to end up eventually married to a member of the Frank Lloyd Wright cult, called the Taliesin Fellowship, in Arizona. The leader of the fellowship was Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, herself a Russian and a follower of the Greek-Armenian mystic, G. I. Gurdjieff.
As biographer Sullivan recounts the story, the marriage of Svetlana to the architect and Wright disciple Wesley Peters may have seemed like a whirlwind romance for the 40-something divorcee, but in fact it was a contrived trap arranged by Olgivanna. In November of 1969 Svetlana began receiving “persistent letters” from Wright’s widow, urging her to come to Arizona and visit the “fellowship.” Svetlana, already planning a trip to the west coast, decided to stop in Arizona for a week. “Truthfully, she was desperate to put Louis Fischer and Princeton gossip behind her,” Sullivan writes.
Svetlana’s connections with Peters and the Wright circle cost her much of her life’s savings and led her eventually to Wisconsin, where she died in 2011 at the age of 85. She would have been better off staying in Princeton. I certainly wouldn’t have gossiped about her — at least not too much.