Happy Birthday George F. Kennan: A Hodge Road Reminiscence
A magnum opus eighteen pages long? It must be a poem. Or perhaps something concise and mathematical. If it's the work of a Princeton scholar, it must be Einstein. Not so. The manuscript currently on display at Firestone Library, page by separate page in a series of glass-topped tables occupying the center of the main exhibition gallery, is a telegram sent to the U.S. State Department from Moscow in February 1946 by a diplomat attempting to tell "official Washington" the "whole truth" about the Soviet Union. The author is longtime Princeton resident George F. Kennan, who celebrated his one-hundredth birthday this past Monday. The occasion will be formally observed this Friday, February 20, in a day-long conference at the University, with opening remarks from Secretary of State Colin Powell.
In the first volume of his Memoirs (a more representative magnum opus), Mr. Kennan's account of the composition of the eight-thousand-word telegram "all neatly divided, like an eighteenth-century sermon, into five separate parts" is a charactertistically dry assessment of his intentions. According to the commentary provided at the Firestone exhibit, those eighteen pages rank in the annals of U.S foreign policy with "Washington's farewell address, the Monroe Doctrine, the Open Door Notes, and Wilson's Fourteen Points."
An Unconventional Landlord
In Memoirs: 1950-1963, George Kennan describes his Hodge Road home: "a sturdy, spacious turn-of-the-century structure standing, amid ample grounds, on one of those shady, sycamore-lined streets, once quiet and still beautiful, that are peculiar to Princeton." For the first six years of the eighties, my wife, our son, and I lived in the apartment above the garage on those ample grounds (the offhand reference to a "once quiet" Hodge Road is pure Kennan).
During his time in the foreign service, his medium was the dispatch. During the time we lived behind him, while he was writing scholarly works and making his presence felt in, among other places, the op-ed pages of the New York Times, he would send the occasional dispatch our way. These did not, needless to say, concern grave issues or affairs of state. Here is the first one we ever received:
"Would you mind doing us a small favor: namely, to set our trash can out to the curb on Friday morning and replace it later.
"We would be much obliged. I shall leave the can outside so that you can see which one it is."
In the summer of 1980 when we found whose garage we were renting the apartment above, my wife and I were not quite sure what to expect. Not surprisingly, our landlord was somewhat intimidating at first. No less formidable was his wife Annelise. We soon found that they were both formidably lovable.
One morning not long after we moved in, I was absorbed in the chapter on wartime Germany in our landlord's memoirs when the doorbell rang and there he was in person, urgently in need of someone to drive him to the train station because his wife was unexpectedly unavailable. I had just been reading the passage describing his journey through a blacked-out Berlin to what appeared to be "a dark and deserted house" that contained instead "the ultimate pleasant discovery" of "a wife and a coziness all the more pronounced for the vast darkness and uncertainty of the war that lay outside."
At that moment I would gladly have driven him all the way to New York or Washington (or Berlin, if it were possible). The only problem was I couldn't get the Kennan Volvo to start. After some patient coaching from the owner on its idiosyncracies, I finally had it going and was about to head down the driveway when Annelise suddenly appeared. At this turn of events, he gave me an amused glance and an affectionate push on the shoulder. His response to the sitcom aspect of the moment suggested the seasoned perspective of an observer who could see all the angles of a situation, including the more ridiculous ones, no matter how deeply embroiled in it he might be.
The day before the incident with the Volvo we'd had a long talk while having coffee on the patio behind the big house. No doubt because we were both from the midwest, we talked about writers from the region, and he told me how F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise had lured him to Princeton. Such was his attentive presence (surely a good diplomat has to know how to listen) that I gave him the story of my life in just under ten minutes. For his part, he showed the same enthusiasm he refers to in his memoirs when describing himself as a Princeton freshman, either very aloof or else carried away by his subject.
I still remember his excitement when telling me how the fictional description of a train ride in Doctor Zhivago captured the essence of the period more accurately and truly than any historian could have managed. When we talked about his book Russia Leaves the War, he admitted having added some less than strictly factual touches, like the goat in the closing scene ("There's always a goat in that part of the county").
Later, after we had developed a Sunday routine where we took turns in going downtown to buy a shared copy of the Sunday New York Times, he left us another dispatch, this one to the effect that since his children were in the house that Sunday "the entire 5 lbs. of woodpulp, suitably decorated with advertising matter" was all ours.
We were very fortunate to have those six years with the Kennans. The apartment was both airy and cozy, I had an advance to write a novel, my wife was working in publishing, and my son was just starting school. When the book I had written in the little house behind the big house was published, it was Annelise Kennan who intercepted the UPS delivery man so that she could personally present it to me.
Finally, consider the moral and diplomatic implications of the following situation. Your landlord is raising your rent. As he comes over with the revised lease, you have been reading about him in Tom Wicker's column in the Times. In fact, you've been reading about him everywhere because he has just won the Einstein Peace Prize and is being hailed as the one sane voice speaking out against nuclear madness. Even if you had any reason to quibble, how are you going to bicker about a rent-hike of $25 a month with a man who is busy trying to save the world?