November 21, 2012

The Fountain and the Top Hat: Woodrow Wilson’s Star-Crossed Quest

I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am carrying a volcano around with me. My salvation is in being loved.

—Woodrow Wilson, from a letter to Ellen Axson

When I saw the floodlit, misty, gloriously chaotic fountain facing the Woodrow Wilson School one night not long after we moved to Princeton, I didn’t know its name, but I had a notion of the story it was telling. I’d been learning about Wilson’s triumphs and tribulations while working on Alexander Leitch’s A Princeton Companion. I thought of it simply as Wilson’s fountain even after learning that its official name was the Fountain of Freedom and that its stated message was “to symbolize Woodrow Wilson’s vision of lasting world peace” or, according to another source, “to symbolize man’s quest for peace and freedom.”

While it’s possible to connect the quest for freedom with the force field of water splashing, jetting, gushing up and down and in and out of the craggy contours of the 20-foot-high bronze sculpture, it’s a real stretch to imagine a “vision of lasting peace” in all that tumult. Everything’s at cross purposes, like a massive celebration of disorder and conflict, with the jets coming and going every which way, some at angles, spilling mist and spray in all directions. There’s joy, poetry, and music in the play of light and the sound made by the water, but the total effect is best reflected in the title “Woodrow Wilson: A Complicated Man,” the election-of-1912-centennial site honoring the Princetonian who on the eve of his election as governor of New Jersey in 1910 said “men are not put in this world to go the path of ease; they are put in this world to go the path of pain and struggle.”

Speaking of pain and struggle, consider how Caligariesque the sculpture becomes when the water’s shut off. This bleak, twisted mass sculpted by James Fitzgerald (1910-1973) could just as easily serve to mark a battle scene where great losses were sustained.

Achievement and Adversity

It’s a short walk from Wilson’s fountain to Wilson’s top hat, which can be seen in Firestone Library’s Milberg Gallery exhibit, “The Election for Woodrow Wilson’s America.” Too bad the display can’t be on the main floor where more people could view that lustrous black topper. It’s also worth a trip to the second floor to see a photo of a handsome 20-something Wilson sporting a mustache or maybe to read the letter from 1884 when he was courting Ellen Axson, in which he writes, “I’m making a fright of myself for your sake. I am letting my hair grow long for the sake of the look you want.” Jump ahead 31 years and there’s a more familiar President Wilson beaming, in his element, at the 1915 World Series between the Red Sox and the Phillies.

I keep coming back to the top hat. What a sheen it has, so dark, so deep, so rich. But it looks too somber, too grounded somehow. Too much J.P. Morgan, not enough Fred Astaire. It needs to be blown about or perhaps tossed into the fountain’s stormy vortex and set bouncing and bobbing until the topper’s dancing on the top. Though the exhibit commentary informs us that Wilson wore this hat when campaigning for the presidency, most photographs online show him wearing it or its mate in Europe, at Paris and Versailles with Lloyd George and Clemenceau. Wilson is glowing, the Great War is over, he’s signed, sealed, and delivered it, and put the U.S.A. on the center stage and now he’s got big plans for world peace.

(Dream on, says the fountain. Stay the course, says another spray. Keep fighting, says a jet shooting in from the side.)

James Chace’s book, 1912:Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs — The Election that Changed the Country (2004), begins with Wilson in his glory, enjoying a hero’s welcome in France, flowers raining down on him, the streets of Paris thronged with “the largest number of Parisians ever to welcome a foreign leader,” banners reading “Honor to Wilson the Just,” reporters writing “No one had ever heard such cheers …. Oh, the immovably shining smiling man!” All through December 1918 it was more of the same, cheered in England, treated like a king in Rome, where he was “met with near-hysterical demonstrations,” and “blew kisses to the crowd.”

Not so fast, says the fountain, don’t forget that back home the Republicans have won both houses of Congress and are denouncing the “shining smiling man” — “Mr. Wilson has no authority whatever to speak for the American people.” Same old, same old, achievement blown to a mist by adversity. Think of what Senate leader Cabot Lodge and the Republicans did to Wilson’s dream of the League of Nations. The chapter, “Woodrow Wilson: The Conservative as Liberal,” in Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition (1948) is full of references to Wilson’s combative character, his volcanic intensity and need to be loved (as in the quoted admission from another letter to Ellen Axson). The chapter also features phrases from Wilson’s 1912 campaign that could be taken from media coverage of the campaign of 2012: “the middle class is being more and more squeezed,” “the interests that have squeezed out the middle class are the same that control politics,” “the laws do not prevent the strong from crushing the weak,” and “the business of government is to organize the common interests against the special interests” [Wilson’s emphasis].

In his way, Wilson seems nearly as unlikely a president in 1912 as Obama was in 2008. Even now, consider how improbable it would be for someone like Wilson to be elected and sworn in on Inauguration Day: a scholar, an intellectual, historian, author of numerous academic texts, a visionary who, in Hofstadter’s words, “learned to look upon life as the progressive fulfillment of God’s will and to see man as ‘a distinct moral agent’ in a universe of moral imperatives.” If anything, such a person seems as far out of the mainstream as an African American with a Harvard degree, two books under his belt, and a more practical, flexible concept of priorities and imperatives.

The Movie

My sense of Wilson, the flawed hero striving for the greater good (that star-crossed quest for peace played out in criss-crossing streams of his fountain), has little in common with the depiction of the 28th president in Darryl F. Zanuck’s wartime biopic Wilson (1944). As James Agee put it in his long, typically brilliant August 19, 1944 review in The Nation: “With the best intentions in the world, Hollywood took a character and a theme of almost Shakespearean complexity and grandeur, and reduced the character to an astutely played liberal assistant professor of economics.” What follows is a litany of similarly fatal reductions of themes and events: “the millennial, piteous surge of hope and faith which bore Wilson to Paris,” “the colossal struggles between Wilson and Clemenceau and Senator Lodge,” “Wilson’s terrifying, possessed trip around the United States,” all reduced to “a high-grade sort of magazine illustration.”

Wilson was the most expensive film ever made in Hollywood up to that point, costing even more than Gone With the Wind. In fact, Zanuck was so devastated by the resulting box office disaster (it lost millions) that he decreed that Wilson never be mentioned again in his presence. The film does include numerous Princeton touches (students serenading Wilson with “Old Nassau” after he’s been elected) that may move all but the most jaded alums. The rub is that a true Princetonian named Jimmy Stewart might have saved the day if he hadn’t been serving in the U.S. Air Force at the time. Instead of Alexander Knox, a little-known actor with minimal presence, you’d have had a major star who would have brought his tensely suppressed fire-in-the-belly ferocity to the part.

The Fountain Rules

The last image you see in the Milberg exhibit is an extraordinary piece of pointillist photography from 1918 by Arthur S. Mole in which 21,000 officers and men at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe Ohio have been assembled to form a “living portrait” of Wilson. The photographer climbed a 70-foot-high tower to shoot the picture of the human tide he’d shaped to the president’s approximate likeness. It’s a magnificent image, but it doesn’t really do Wilson or his story justice. For that, go to the fountain — or to the various Princeton exhibits and events marking the 1912 election centennial ( On December 8 (2 p.m. and 4 p.m.), The Historical Society of Princeton is hosting a walking tour of places in the community that were a part of Wilson’s life as a student, faculty member, and president of the University. $7 adults; $4 children. To register, call (609) 921-6748 x102, or email

The Harper’s Weekly cover is on view in the Milberg exhibit, which runs through December 28. The man in the rear is Wilson’s vice-president, Thomas R. Marshall of Indiana, who during a Senate debate once famously announced, “What this country really needs is a good five-cent cigar.”