I was looking for a cab the other night in New York, preferably one of those old-fashioned Checker cabs, just to get myself from Penn Station to the River Club on the eastern tip of 52nd Street to attend a memorial service for an old friend of mine.
But things are never simple and I hit town just as cabbies were changing shifts and just as a drenching rainstorm sent water cascading through every intersection in town. I ended up walking the entire distance, a 45-minute trek that got me there soaking wet from toes to knees but just in time to recall the life of T. Harding Jones, who died July 31 at the age of 57.
If you were in Princeton in the early 1970s you might recall Harding Jones, the 1972 Princeton alumnus who was the point man in an uprising of conservative alumni against the liberal leaning university administration. The youthful Harding Jones, who proudly displayed a photo of himself shaking hands with President Nixon at the White House, was executive director of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton and the editor of its often vitriolic magazine, Prospect.
It’s hard to imagine an editor and his magazine more vilified than Harding Jones and Prospect. The Concerned Alumni railed against the erosion of traditional values at Princeton, the advent of trendy (and almost always liberal) courses and programs, the declining admission rates of all-around good students who used to be the big men on campus, and many other changes sweeping the campus. At one time or another women, gays, and minorities all came under Prospect’s harsh light — one of Harding’s successors as editor even “outted” a gay undergraduate.
Three years after I graduated from college in 1969, I returned to town as a freelance writer and began contributing to the Princeton Alumni Weekly, the established alumni magazine. Undergraduates dissed Jones with a single word: T. Hard-On Jones, they called him. University administrators I interviewed for the PAW were more circumspect: It’s not that we are against criticism, Nassau Hall folks patiently explained, it’s just that CAP is incorrect in virtually every statement it makes.
Recalling that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, I decided to look up Harding, whom I had known slightly when I was a senior and he was a freshman on the business board of the Daily Princetonian. When I met him I gave him some editorial advice: First, I told him, tone it down a little — let a few facts speak for themselves. And second commission me to help rewrite some of the angry submissions so that people could at least understand what the writer was so angry about.
I ended up subletting an office from CAP at 240 Nassau Street (trading rent for minor editing chores), and I became a first-hand observer of CAP and its editor.
Harding, an only child whose father had died shortly before he entered college and whose mother remained in Middletown, Ohio, where the family had run the Harding Jones Paper Company, was the consummate socializer. Late nights at the office turned into parties, dinners were arranged at Harding’s Palmer Square apartment, and trips to New York were launched on a whim, with everyone piling into Harding’s trademark blue Checker cab — that was the cab I was hoping to see last week in New York.
In the early 1970s Princeton men were a’twitter over a freshman from Illinois who had won the Miss Chicago beauty pageant. Brains and beauty, the admissions office crowed. Soon Miss Chicago was joined in town by her two equally smart and handsome older sisters — and all three of them became part of Harding’s circle.
By the 1980s Harding decided it was time to move on. He had converted to Catholicism and his “preachiness” offended a few of his longtime friends. CAP, meanwhile, had lost any steam it had on the Princeton campus (the organization had to turn elsewhere, mostly Dartmouth, to find the zealous young conservatives needed to edit Prospect).
If Harding ever came back to Princeton I never heard about it, even though Princeton began to espouse some of the same values that Jones and Prospect had advocated 30 years before. The mission statement for one new academic program led by constitutional law professor Robert George sounds like it was lifted from an early edition of Prospect magazine.
But Jones was no longer interested in politics, I had heard. He was now in New York, pursuing a career as a theatrical agent. That was another side I had seen a glimpse of in Princeton — he sang onstage once at the old Nassau Inn Cabaret, and I could easily imagine him moving in those circles in New York.
I thought immediately of Harding when the controversy arose over Supreme Justice Sam Alito’s involvement with CAP at the time of his nomination. Alito was a college classmate of Harding’s, and he listed membership in CAP on a resume. The subsequent media attention put all of CAP’s old rhetoric back in the spotlight. But Harding was barely mentioned in the news reports.
He avoided the spotlight then, and he avoided it again when he died. I learned at the memorial service that he swore his closest friends to secrecy when he told them he had cancer — he didn’t want the news to ruin his talent agency business. In the media his death was noted only by a small paid notice in the New York Times.
At the memorial service I met Harding’s new circle of friends: mostly gay men involved in the New York theatrical scene. I asked one of them the obvious question: Did Harding avoid Princeton so that he would not have to reconcile his new friends with his old conservative political rhetoric? Perhaps, this new friend told me. Harding was always discreet about his sexual orientation.
Conservative politicians today are not always kind to gay causes. Rudy Giuliani is taking a beating for supporting same sex civil unions. And Senator Larry Craig is just taking a beating. Princeton in the 1970s must not have been easy for a young Republican defending traditional values who was also searching for his own identity.
In New York Harding seemed to have it both ways. He apparently had stuck to his Catholicism and to his traditional conservative values, engaging in political banter with his mostly liberal theater friends much as he had with Princetonians 30 years ago, except these new friends remained friends. Though his mother died many years ago, Harding had discovered some second cousins in Connecticut who became a second family — “he was our very own Auntie Mame,” one of the cousins noted, fondly recalling Harding’s weekend visits.
My guess is that, free of both the real and self-imposed restrictions of Princeton, Harding Jones gained a fuller life. But it’s only a guess: The Checker’s last trip to New York, alas, was only one way.