This article was originally published in the April 2018 Princeton Echo.
An essay collection where memory meets history
Longtime Princetonian and writing professor Mimi Schwartz characterizes her new memoir, “When History Is Personal,” as looking both inwards and outwards. Through a loosely chronological series of 25 essays, Schwartz explains in her preface, “I look inward, as memoir does, to make sense of my world of family and friends, and I look outward to connect my story to the world I live in … but always as I experienced it, from where I stand today.”
Starting with her childhood in Queens as the daughter of two immigrants who escaped Hitler’s Germany and continuing past the death of her husband, longtime Princeton electrical engineering professor Stuart Schwartz, in 2011, the author picks poignant moments from a lifetime of memories and connects them with the world around her.
A graduate of the University of Michigan and UCLA, Schwartz moved to New Jersey in the 1960s, living first in Glen Acres, the planned interracial community off Alexander Road in West Windsor, before moving to Princeton in 1970. She taught creative writing at Richard Stockton University until her retirement in 2005, but has not stopped sharing her knowledge.
She leads two workshops on memoir writing at Princeton Public Library on Tuesdays, April 3 and 10, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. titled “Beyond the I: When Memoir Meets History.” She also appears at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street on Wednesday, May 16, at 6 p.m.
Reprinted below are excerpts from “When History Is Personal” relating to Schwartz’ early years living in Princeton.
Off the King’s Highway
Off the King’s Highway, now called Nassau Street, you’ll find a cul-de-sac of six houses — and we’re #4, second house on the left. It’s the white Colonial, circa 1902, with black shutters, a large front porch with pillars, eight wooden steps that ice over every winter, and a cherry red door that was black in 1970 when we moved onto Evelyn Place.
There’s a button in our hall next to the kitchen that rings on the third floor, calling the servants. I press it now and then, hoping someone from the past will appear, but so far we’ve received only written messages: “Helen was here, 1922,” scrawled beneath three layers of wallpaper we stripped off the dining room wall. And “How’s the old Princeton house? I lived in it from 1944-58,” handwritten across the top of a charity solicitation letter from Chicago a few years back.
No servant has descended the steep back stairs our children discovered while Stu and I were in the basement inspecting the furnace with Mr. Mackle, the last owner. In dreams, those stairs lead to hidden, velvet chambers; in real life, they end at the little bathroom on the second floor.
From the dining room window, you can see what was Evelyn College, now a two-family house. It spans the cul-de-sac like an old queen with outstretched arms, and looked very tired for years — until Jeremy and Debra bought her right side. They found a photo of the original trim in red and green and wanted authenticity (he’s a historian), but settled for deep green and gray, with touches of reddish brown — and convinced Paul, the owner of the left side, to follow suit.
It looks good, luckily, because the oak tree that shielded the front view died after the town laid new water pipes under its roots. By the following spring, half the branches didn’t bloom, and the tree commissioner — who had assured the neighborhood “the oak would be fine” — cut it down and planted two spindly birches I can’t get used to.
At the Quarry’s Edge
Evelyn College, founded in 1887, was the first school of higher education for women in New Jersey and Harper’s Bazar [sic] predicted “our country shall come to speak with equal pride of the sons and of the daughters of Princeton.” It was to be Princeton University’s sister school, what Radcliffe was to Harvard — except Evelyn College folded ten years later because of “moral turpitude.” Or so the story goes, the one about its girls meeting Princeton University’s boys in the old quarry behind the college.
Natasha, who lived for fifty years on the college’s right side (where Jeremy and Debra now live), had a photograph of the last Evelyn College class: a dozen or so young women in Victorian bonnets, corsets, and dresses with scores of buttons. There was so much to undo and take off! I can’t imagine the logistics of making love on the rocky ledge before a steep drop. Whatever the “moral turpitude” — Stolen kisses? A few beers? — I’ve told this story first for years, preferring its rhythms of turpitude and scandal to the other story of the college going bankrupt after a diphtheria (or some say influenza) outbreak.
Recently I discovered a third story at the Historical Society of Princeton that I find most convincing. Miss Elizabeth D. McIvaine, quoted as the head of Evelyn College, blames “the opposition of Princeton University to any work for the higher education of women.” Her father was the Princeton professor who enlisted his fellow professors to teach the Evelyn girls classes in classics, astronomy, ethics, psychology, and metaphysics — the same courses, with the same rigor, as they taught the Princeton boys. The girls did well, evidently too well. The boys complained. Princeton University withdrew its support. Diphtheria struck. People whispered of drinking, boisterous songs from the quarry, and trysts in the hotel on Linden Lane, one street over:
Eva, Eva, l – y – n
Eva, Eva, let me in!
So it seems that all the Evelyn College stories are true when you piece together the shards of fact scattered here and there.
Princeton University, three blocks up the street, admitted undergraduate women in 1969, one year before we bought our house. My husband, who had just gotten tenure in Princeton’s Engineering School, had no women taking his courses. Twenty years later, there were a half dozen or so; but by 2006, when Stu retired, half of his courses and five of his last six PhDs were women. He liked that, an MIT boy, Class of ’61, who regretted the dearth of women beside him in wind tunnel labs. He especially liked, as did I, that Princeton’s first woman president, Shirley Tilghman, spoke at his retirement party.
So thank you very much, Evelyn, whoever you were. And thank you, Miss Elizabeth D. McIvaine, who continues for me (despite a new story I just heard) as president of Evelyn College — and as builder of our house with its back stairs of dreams.
Side Porch Sherry
At first, in 1970, our cul-de-sac seemed full of “old” ladies who were probably younger than I am now. There was Natasha, the widow of a famous mathematician, remarried to a New York composer. The James sisters next door with their white, white hair, curled tight. And Mrs. Kahler, with a heavy German accent, stooped and solemn-faced.
Only Barbara, Paul’s wife, was under thirty like me when we moved in. Between us we had five kids under age seven, who would play Hide and Seek and Pop a Wheelie, while we sat under the ceiling fan on my side porch, drinking afternoon sherry. After two glasses, we didn’t hear anything but our giggles, and that seemed fine (the cul-de-sac was pretty safe from cars and no one worried about strangers then). We’d sip and talk, feeling quite civilized, until there was a big shriek for help, or it was time to call in the gang, give baths, make dinner.
Barbara, nee Boggs, came from a well-known Southern political family; politics was in her blood. With her quick wit and irresistible smile, she soon became freeholder and then mayor. Which meant our street was plowed first when it snowed. Even better was the can-do energy she infused in everyone: to be an upbeat community. Benches started appearing everywhere, and we became outdoor people who walked, biked and sat in outdoor cafes whenever it was over 55 degrees. Restaurants kept adding tables on their section of sidewalk, and we would have been dancing in the streets by now if Barbara had lived.
It happened so fast: a spot on the eye, melanoma, a black patch — until she added sequins, and then purple, red, and gold patches, one for every outfit. They made us smile, we got used to them, expected new bursts of her energy — and then she was gone. It seemed impossible. She was fifty-one and full of life, and she died when I, the one who had had breast cancer, was alive — and all around us, the elderly ladies thrived.
Natasha, until well into her eighties, took the New York bus on the corner to the Courant Institute to translate mathematical articles from Russian. Mrs. Kahler, high into her eighties, hitched a ride with us to New Hampshire. And the James sisters, late in their seventies, assured us at every Labor Day picnic how much they loved to hear Julie play the piano in spring when our windows were open.
Then one day, the James sisters were gone to separate nursing homes. By choice or necessity no one knew. Then Natasha died followed by Mrs. Kahler. Paul, Barbara’s husband, became the oldest on the street, with Stu next in line until Dick and Scotia moved across the street. Dick, a filmmaker, is five years older than Stu and hauling his video equipment in and out of his van daily. Very reassuring, as are Barbara’s wooden benches. There are five on the way to the center of town, and Stu and I stop to sit on them, especially when a red-and-purple sunset lights the whole sky above the town: Barbara’s favorite colors.
Reproduced from “When History Is Personal” by Mimi Schwartz by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2018 by Mimi Schwartz.