Isn’t it strange what we choose to preserve — or not preserve — from our near and distant past? Most of us can prove the point by walking into our own basements and looking around. Or we can look into the way Princeton is handling the legacies of two of its most famous residents — Albert Einstein, who lived and worked in town for the last 22 years of his life, and Paul Robeson who was born and raised here until he was 9 and kept in touch with family friends in town for the rest of his life.
Robeson — a man of more talents than most of us realize — has a street (actually just part of a street) named after him and has a bust and a plaque in front of the Arts Council building, just up the street from his childhood home at 110 Witherspoon Street. Unless I am missing something, that’s it in Princeton for the all-American football player, lawyer, Broadway star, and political activist.
Einstein would roll over in his grave (quiver in his ashes?) if he knew that part of him did not meet its final end in 1955 in Princeton. His brain — through some strange set of circumstances beginning at Princeton Hospital — ended up for many years pickled in a jar and resting on a professor’s shelf in . . . Kansas. You can follow the yellow brick road to check that one out (and discover that parts of the brain apparently have been returned to the Medical Center).
But in Princeton, if you want to reflect on the life of this famous resident, you can visit a small repository of reference material located at the back of . . . a clothing store on Nassau Street. Robert Landau, proprietor of the store that specializes in Icelandic woolens, is the hero who has assembled the material in hopes that someday it can be pulled together at a suitable location (U.S. 1, June 26, 2002).
Strange, but true. In Princeton it may be that the town fathers have spent more time and money trying to preserve (and now recreate) the historic Mercer Oak at Battlefield Park than they have to preserve the memories of Einstein and Robeson. This is despite the fact that in the four years since the Historical Society launched its website (www.princetonhistory.org), roughly 60 percent of the inquiries have been about Einstein.
But just last week the Historical Society of Princeton announced that the Institute for Advanced Study has donated some 65 pieces of furniture — including Einstein’s "treasured" music stand and his "favorite tub armchair" — that had been in Einstein’s house at 112 Mercer Street.
The story of how the furniture got to America from Nazi Germany is a story in itself. But to me what is more interesting is what the Historical Society intends to do with it: "The fact that this great man lived with these pieces every day in Princeton makes this gift of inestimable value to historians, students, and the interested public who will be able some day to see them at the Historical Society," said director Gail Stern in a press statement. "We are discussing plans to create a long-term interpretive exhibition, including some of his furniture, that explores Albert Einstein as a humanitarian, scientist, and Princeton resident. In the interim, most of this furniture will remain in storage. We will reach out to the community for help with storage, conservation, and our long-term plan for a permanent display."
Translated that probably does not mean volunteers showing up with paint stripper and wire brushes but rather it means money — probably to relocate the offices of the society to a location outside of the Bainbridge House and make room there for an Einstein center. It will take a lot of planning and a lot of funding, and it will happen in a matter of years rather than months. As I have argued before, the Historical Society could get off to a good start with the $500,000 earmarked for an Einstein statue — a tribute Einstein might appreciate as much as a brain in a jar.
In any case, this furniture is a good start and may provide the critical mass for a final resting place for the Landau material.
Now a word about Paul Robeson. If he had been white, people might now be comparing Bill Bradley to him. As in "Bradley, an impressive record in both sports and politics — if he had just made it as an entertainer he would be right up there with Paul Robeson."
But instead most of us just know snippets of information about this amazing life. Some attention will fall his way in January, when the Postal Service honors him with a stamp as part of the Black Heritage Series. We could all learn a lot about American and world history, the arts, and matters of race through an interpretive exhibition focussed on Paul Robeson. The perfect place, ironically, might be at the Arts Council, which is fighting the residents of Robeson’s old neighborhood for permission to expand its presence on its admittedly small lot. Whose side would Robeson take — the arts or the neighbors?