November 20, 2019

Everything Happens in Princeton: Thoughts On George Kennan and Marie Yovanovitch

By Stuart Mitchner

God has sent his creatures into the world with arms long enough to reach anywhere if they could be put to the trouble of extending them.
—Thomas Chatterton 1752-1770

It seems that the long arms of Wordsworth’s “marvelous boy” have reached into the second decade of the 21st century. While I’ve been unable to learn whether the saying attributed to Chatterton was of his own making or simply, as one source says, “one of his favorite maxims,” the very idea that the authorship is in question accords with his legend. If he seems an unlikely time traveler, he has a claim on this particular day, having been born in the city of Bristol on November  20, 1752. It’s also hard to imagine a figure from the past more relevant to the hoax-and-witch-hunt chaos of this fake-news-conspiracy-theory-tainted age than the 15-year-old who invented a 15th-century poetry-writing priest named Thomas Rowley, fabricating Rowley’s Middle English manuscripts artfully enough to convince certain literary authorities that his forgeries were authentic.

Better Than Marvelous

Any thought of devoting an entire column to Chatterton came to an abrupt end last Friday. The marvelous boy was no match for the marvelous woman who, in the words of the New York Times, had been “Plunged Into the War Zone of U.S. Politics.”

Not that I would have called Marie Yovanovitch “marvelous,” a word I seldom use. She was better than that, better than the infectious superlative William Wordsworth and Cole Porter put into the transcendental conversation. Was she beautiful? strong? quietly compelling? She was better. She was sympathetic. The beauty was in her bearing, her poise, her integrity, the way she made her case, told her story, weathered the patronizing tone of interrogators doing their polite best to avoid taking her seriously.

“How Does It Feel?”

During the recess, my first impulse was to mark the occasion by listening to songs about her namesake, from Tommy Dorsey and Randy Newman’s romantic Maries to Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” except sweetness had nothing to do with it. What counted was the energy and excitement of the music, and the refrain, “Now, where are you tonight, sweet Marie?” Imagine running that line at the bottom of a desolate nocturnal street scene in Kiev the day after the “bad news” ambassador was flown out of the country.

Another Dylan lyric came to mind when Chairman Adam Schiff put her on the spot, asking, in effect, how does it feel to be threatened by the president. After she provided the word he wanted (“Well, it’s very intimidating”), the Times sensationalized it in a banner headline that turned the heroine into a victim: “Ex-Envoy ‘Devastated’ As Trump Vilified Her.” That headline bothered me so much that I took the paper upstairs Saturday morning and spread the front page open on the table next to my desk, where it’s been glaring at me ever since, as if to remind me what the subject of this column should be. If she’s a victim, let Dylan sing the chorus, “How does it feel, how does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home, like a rolling stone?”

The Princeton Connection

But that was before everything gravitated to Princeton. Only hours after the hearing did I learn that Marie (“Masha” to her friends) had in fact found a home here, graduating with the Class of 1980, with a major in history and Russian studies. More than once during her testimony, most significantly in her opening statement with its eloquent account of everything a foreign service officer should be, I was thinking of our Hodge Road landlord George Kennan and how impressed the esteemed historian, statesman and former ambassador to the Soviet Union would have been by her deportment, how much he’d have admired her, especially in contrast to a political reality so horrendous that Kennan, even in his most profoundly pessimistic moments, surely could not have imagined it.

My next thought was of of the times my three-year-old son and I may have crossed Marie’s path, on McCosh walk or in the courtyard of Chancellor Green, where the sight of a child in a stroller was somewhat uncommon, at least between 1978 and 1980. I dropped him off and picked him up every day at Nassau Presbyterian, his first nursery school, which was located in the midst of what Scott Fitzgerald called “the loveliest riot of Gothic architecture in America, battlement linked on to battlement, hall to hall, arch-broken, vine-covered–luxuriant and lovely over two square miles of green grass.”

“A Princeton Companion”

At that time we lived in the second-floor apartment of a half-stucco, half shingled house on Patton Avenue, a few blocks up from the lake where Albert Einstein used to sail his dinghy. Around the corner on Princeton Avenue was the rambling house in which Saul Bellow, John Berryman, and R.P. Blackmur had all lived at various times. I walked past Scott Fitzgerald’s eating club on my way down Prospect Avenue to Firestone Library, where I was helping PU secretary emeritus Alexander Leitch complete work on an encyclopedia of the University called A Princeton Companion (Princeton Univ. Press 1978). Besides doing my best to make the articles readable, I researched and wrote the entries for, among others, Einstein, Blackmur, and the Council on the Humanities. One task I helped initiate and particularly enjoyed was tracking down and compiling the lists of various congressmen, cabinet officers, ambassadors, and presidents related to the entry, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” which took its title from Woodrow Wilson’s Sesquicentennial oration. That I gave most of my attention to the “Ambassadors and Ministers” category no doubt had something to do with repressed wanderlust since it gave me an excuse to type up the names of faraway lands on the secretary’s ancient but wonderfully responsive Underwood in his office on the third floor of the library, which I had all to myself every night, free to go from the Ivory Coast (John F. Root) and Mauritania (Holsey G. Handyside) to happily banging away on an impossibly long and defiantly unpublishable novel.

When I typed in George F. Kennan ‘25 under Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R., all I knew was that he lived in town and was based at the Institute for Advanced Studies.

Only in Princeton

One day a Patton Avenue neighbor called with the news that his wife was giving a piano lesson to Stalin’s granddaughter and did I want to stop by and meet her? I knew he wasn’t kidding. This was Princeton, where such things could happen. Olga was about six, with a Buster Brown haircut and a round face. A Warren Zevon album was on the stereo. As soon as I sat down, she threw me a big Mickey Mouse ball and then a small yellow ball, both of which she kept in play while running around the room, terrifying an otherwise unflabble cockerspaniel.

Two years later, this being Princeton, the center of the universe, we moved into a Hodge Road carriage house behind the home of the man who had guided Olga’s mother Svetlana through her transition to the United States after she defected in 1967. In fact it was George Kennan who had convinced her to come to America in the first place. I wish he could have been there listening to these lines from Marie Yovanovitch’s opening statement:

My service is an expression of gratitude for all that this country has given my family and me. My late parents did not have the good fortune to come of age in a free society. My father fled the Soviets before ultimately finding refuge in the United States. My mother’s family escaped the USSR after the Bolshevik revolution, and she grew up stateless in Nazi Germany, before eventually making her way to the United States. Their personal histories—my personal history—gave me both deep gratitude towards the United States and great empathy for others—like the Ukrainian people—who want to be free.”

Portions of this article appeared in slightly different form in my July 19 2006 Topics of the Town piece, “Two Princeton Streets, Sycamore Trees, and George Kennan.”