What’s new? Ask your teenage kid that question and you might get a shrug and a frown. If you’re lucky. Ask a writer that question and — once the writer gets over his or her personal sense of reserve — you can get an astonishing range of stories.
I was armed with a story of my own the other day when I headed over to a book signing for Evan Thomas, the former Washington bureau chief for Newsweek and bestselling author who has just published his ninth book, “Being Nixon: A Man Divided.” Thomas has Princeton connections — he served a five-year term as Ferris Professor of Journalism at the university. The signing was at the home of Lanny and Sarah Jones. Lanny is a journalist and author himself (former managing editor of People and the man who defined the Baby Boomer generation in his 1980 book “Great Expectations”) so I expected to run into a good cross-section of Princeton’s literary crowd.
U.S. 1’s cover story on the Lindbergh exhibit now on display at Morven had just been printed, and I had a personal Lindbergh story to share. So I was armed for this party. But I was also charmed by a succession of writers and editors and poets and publishers who dropped in to toast the author.
Lindbergh came up early in a conversation with Ed Tenner, former science editor at the Princeton University Press and the author of “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences,” and several other books that take a counter-intuitive view of technology. Our chatter about the Lindbergh exhibit gave way to a discussion of collective memory — does the young generation know who Lindbergh was or what made him famous (at least to previous generations)?
Tenner noted how several generations of Americans know the story of Lizzie Borden thanks to the playground rhyme that described her alleged actions back in 1892. Tenner started the rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an axe/ And gave her mother forty whacks.” Lanny Jones, who happened by at exactly that moment, picked up the next line: “When she saw what she had done,/ She gave her father forty-one.”
At that point the Dutch writer Pia de Jong joined the conversation. Lizzie Who? But de Jong had her own story to share: How she delicately broke the news in a Princeton Echo column about the resilient family of 9/11 hero Todd Beamer. De Jong’s October column described a soccer game on September 11 of this year at Princeton High School, where she noted the presence of Lisa Beamer, the mother of one of the Princeton players and a teammate of Pia’s son. I knew that Beamer’s other son has been a starter on the high school football team. But the coaches, acting protectively on behalf of their players, hoped no one would shine light on the 9/11 connection. I never could figure out a good reason to present that Beamer connection. But de Jong did.
A few minutes later I spotted a person who had just appeared on the cover of the Echo. It was the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tracy K. Smith, director of the creative writing program at Princeton University.
Some time ago I read a story in the New York Times about how Smith and her family spent their Sundays in Brooklyn, where they lived until recently. What is their new family routine in Princeton, I wondered. “I never thought I would come to love McCaffrey’s,” she said. But before she could elaborate on that story she had to run. It was time to give her twins a bath.
Appropriately, the reigning raconteur of the evening was Evan Thomas, the author being honored. His informal talk to the group was peppered with stories about his subject, the former president.
Judging from Thomas’s accounts, being Nixon wasn’t easy. He was a dark figure in public but when he came back to the family quarters in the White House he would be whistling and often order up a movie. He watched more than 500 at the White House. His favorite was not “Patton.” It was “Around the World in 80 Days.”
He made himself a major player on the world stage and made sure he got the credit — not Henry Kissinger — for opening up relations with China. But in small groups he was painfully shy. Thomas met him at a small reception in 1988. When he was introduced Nixon immediately said, “I want you to know that your grandfather was a great man.” Thomas speculated that Nixon compensated for his shyness by doing his homework, and discovering that the journalist’s grandfather was indeed Norman Thomas, the Princeton alumnus (Class of 1905) and six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America.
Toward the end someone asked Thomas if more insights will emerge about this president who has been studied so much by so many. “Is there more?” Thomas asked rhetorically. “There’s always more. I’m the 13th Nixon biographer and there will be 13 more.”
As the gathering broke up I realized I never did finish telling my Lindbergh story. But, since stories are my trade, I will do it now. I was writing a profile of Anna Hauptmann, the widow of the accused Lindbergh baby kidnapper, who vigorously maintained her husband’s innocence until her death in 1994 at the age of 95. He was victimized by anti-German sentiments, made worse by the press’s reference to him as Bruno Richard Hauptmann, even though he never used “Bruno” in everyday life.
The day of the Evan Thomas book signing, my colleague Vincent Xu was interviewing Scott Berg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer (who will appear at McCarter Theater Saturday, November 21, to discuss the Lindbergh saga). Xu shared my Anna Hauptmann story with Berg, who responded with one of his own.
In researching his 1998 biography Berg had also interviewed the heavily shielded widow. She told Berg that Hauptmann only used Richard and she never even knew that his full name included Bruno. If you didn’t even know his full name, Berg recalled responding to her, then what else don’t you know?
So there’s another story in the Lindbergh saga. As Thomas said, there’s always more.