December 26, 2018

A Blast from the Past: Cats, Christmas Trees, Paul Krugman, and Princeton’s Donald Lambert

By Stuart Mitchner

This being my 15th year at Town Topics, and given how often anniversaries set the stage for my columns, the time feels right for a backward look. On this date in 2007, I began with an ode to Christmas and cats: “There are lots of nice moments this time of year, but maybe the nicest is when the cats first notice the tree in the living room. This is their fifth tree, so they seem perhaps a little less bowled over than in previous years, but no less appreciative. Brother and sister tuxedo look at the Fraser fir with big googly Felix the Cat eyes and then they cock their heads toward their benefactors as if to say ‘All for us?’ This is above and beyond the call of duty. Water in the stand, just for them. Nice packages to lie on, just for them. And how thoughtful, to hang all those glittery things on the branches, even though they know by now they aren’t supposed to use them for punching bags — except for the sister, who always has to knock off an ornament or two, in case her human slaves think she’s getting less crazed in her middle age.”

The rest of that column was about Hector Berlioz, whose music we still play when we’re trimming the tree. This year it’s a small, beautifully red-green-blue-and-gold lighted and decorated Eastern white pine that we managed to fit into the stand with a minimum of domestic fuss, not so much as a raised voice, in fact. The downside is that only one cat is still with us, and Nora, who once performed Nijnsky leaps and had a habit of sliding down the banister, is no longer willing to risk so much as a trip down the stairs to see the tree.

Learning from Krugman

Around Thanksgiving 2003, I was hired to write art and book reviews for Town Topics while copyediting the work of two staff writers. My first article of any substance was on then-Princeton resident Paul Krugman, whose New York Times columns had provided an amusing and instructive commentary on the Bush-Cheney years for faithful readers like myself. As I was writing about his book The Great Unraveling, my approach was already being influenced by his deceptively casual, upfront style.

The first example of the Krugman touch I remarked on was his knack for playing on the nuances of the culture, with allusions to Buffalo Springfield (“There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear”) and the way the sex change comedy Victor/Victoria reflected the changing poses adopted by the Bush administration. I also highlighted Krugman’s pithy, playful, sometimes bizarre, always readable analogies, such as the one comparing the circumstances of the 2000 election to the hiring of the contractor renovating your house: “Funny how he got the job: you checked the wrong box on a confusing form, and the judge – a close friend of the contractor – ruled that you were stuck.” Then there was Krugman’s way of making economics fun for novices by bringing in Charlie Brown and Lucy, Wily E. Coyote and the Road Runner, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Same thing for titles, a chore I had little interest in at this early stage in my journalistic career. No need to be dull and dutiful when you can let yourself go with “Bad Heir Day,” “Pants on Fire,” “California Screaming,” “The Sons Also Rise,” and “Flavors of Fraud.” The idea was to relax and enjoy yourself, no matter how daunting the subject.

By the time I got to the closing sentences, I was feeling Krugmanized enough to spread my wings and test my own voice, declaring that it would be a disservice to the author to portray him merely as hero to the left and villain to the right: “The truth is that anyone who reads this book with an open mind will see that Paul Krugman is a hero, period. In the spirit of far-out analogies, what he’s doing is a reversal of the old radio show character The Shadow, who had ‘the power to cloud men’s minds’ and thus make himself invisible. Krugman has the power to ‘uncloud’ American minds and make the truth visible.”

Reviving a Christmas Fantasy

Two issues later, with Christmas looming, I let myself go with a long piece titled “The Unsung Hero of Stride Piano, Princeton’s Own Donald Lambert,” a flight of fancy I’ll paraphrase here since it’s about a hometown luminary and has never been posted on our website. Again, following Krugman’s example, I got straight to the point:

“Here’s a Princeton fantasy. Picture a good-sized bar on Nassau Street, call it the Timeless Tavern, a large, smoky room with small electric candles on every table so you can see who’s who.” Like Krugman playfully assuming a culture without boundaries,  I pictured Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison sharing a table with Benny Carter, same for Eugene O’Neill and Paul Robeson, “fresh from a matinee performance of The Emperior Jones.” Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were on hand, as was Albert Einstein, “looking wind-blown from a turbulent afternoon on Lake Carnegie in his dinghy.” I also imagined musicians from the city in the audience, like Willie the Lion Smith, the Count and the Duke, who knew that the nondescript middle-aged black man sitting down at the keyboard was the great stride pianist Donald Lambert.

The first number, “Golden Earrings,” began unpromisingly “until the left hand comes to life, kicks the right hand from a trot to a breakneck gallop, and before the audience can catch its breath, the race is over, ending with an orgy of arpeggios. Everyone’s unbending their ears because it sounds like 50 pianos and there’s only one man doing all that damage, breaking the sound barrier.” As people wonder who is this guy, a few voices shout out “It’s the Lamb! Donald Lambert! A Princeton boy!,” meaning the town, not the university, where Lambert’s father was a janitor and his mother played piano at special events. Donald used to sit under the piano while his mom gave lessons, and by the time he was ten he was good enough to provide live accompaniment for Charlie Chaplin shorts at a local moviehouse.

After beginning with a fantasy, it was good to be able to do some research and end by stressing Lambert’s real-life
Princeton connections, finding that he’d lived at 23 Jackson Street (now Paul Robeson Place) and as a teenager at 28 Quarry Street. More than anything else, I enjoyed the chance to meet and speak with his grand-niece Leona Vernon, who was at his bedside when he died on May 8, 1962. After telling me about the ceremony at Princeton Cemetery, she recalled how it had been when Uncle Don came down to perform for the family and she got to sit with him as he played. You could tell by the lilt in her voice how it must have been to sit in the middle of all that music played by a man who one witness said could take “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “make it sound like he was playing in St. Patrick’s cathedral.”

Then and Now

The Christmas column from 2007 ended with the cats and the notion that at this time of year, “there’s always somehow room in the absurd, tense, frantic holiday element for a little poetry or music and a craving for something beautiful and unspoiled, whether it’s faith, devotion, love, mystery, or even the absurdity of hauling a tree into the house and decking it out with ornaments and lights while music composed more than 150 years ago is playing. It would be nice to think that by engaging in this simple, harmless ritual people are somehow contributing to the most positive essence of the season, regardless of their religion or politics or taste in music, and that on some level they’re as innocently in touch with the special holiday feeling as our cats are.”

At this point I couldn’t help summoning my inner Krugman, noting “that cats don’t care that certain grinches on Fox News are trying to politicize Christmas and further polarize an already deeply polarized country by claiming there’s a liberal conspiracy to destroy a Christian holiday. The cats don’t know about Scrooge and Marley or Bush and Cheney. All they know is that once a year we bring a tree in from the outdoors and hang lots of pretty toys on it, just for them.”

Now look where we are. I’m tempted to revisit one of my favorite descriptions of political chaos, one I don’t think Paul Krugman ever used. It’s from Dr. Seuss, spoken by the Fish in response to the shambles made by the Cat in the Hat: “This mess is so big and so deep and so tall, we cannot pick it up. There is no way at all!”

Hey, better to stick with the spirit of the season and wish everyone a happy holiday and a happy new year.