“He Decided to Conquer the Place that Had Conquered Him”: Peter Putnam ’42 *50’s Princeton, Part II

In Part I of this two-part series, I told the story of how Peter Putnam ’42 *50 lost his sight in a suicide attempt and fought for the right to return to Princeton University and finish his degree. In this second installment, I detail the life Putnam lived as a student, an employee, and an alum of Princeton University after his return.

Peter Putnam ’42 re-entered Princeton University over the initial objections of the administration, bringing along with him a new companion, Minnie, the first of many guide dogs. (Undergraduates quickly dubbed Minnie “the first co-ed in Princeton history.”) Though Putnam would be known as part of the Class of 1942 in perpetuity, he was a junior when he came back in his original graduation year.

Whether he set out to prove his detractors wrong or it simply happened, Putnam defied their low expectations at every turn. Putnam participated in campus life, with some limitations. He did not, for example, eat with his peers at Commons, his academic record notes tersely, “because of physical disability.” Based on his later writings about not being granted entry to many places in Princeton because of his need for a service dog, it’s possible he wasn’t permitted in the dining hall because Minnie was not allowed to go along. However, he threw himself into opportunities that were available, earning local celebrity for reasons far beyond his constant canine companion. As the Princeton Alumni Weekly put it in 1957, “he decided to conquer the place that had conquered him.”

Triangle Club elected Putnam its president in 1942. He supervised the last of Triangle’s productions during World War II, a show that might not have been possible without him. “Time and Again,” unlike most other Triangle Shows before it, had no Christmas tour, and was only performed locally. Triangle membership that year included students on accelerated programs who had little time for extracurriculars. Putnam ended up writing most of the script himself, playing the role of a World War I veteran in the first scene, and handling the administrative tasks for the show like managing the budget and securing permissions from various stakeholders to stage the production.

Illustrations from the Nassau Sovereign, November 12, 1942, including a reference to “Boss Putnam.”

The song “Here I Sit with the Physically Unfit” from “Time and Again,” written by William K. Zinsser ’44, may give us insight into how ableism would have pervaded Putnam’s experiences at Princeton, even in spaces that seemed otherwise welcoming. In the lyrics, a woman seeking a man to love at a time when most were away at war complains about her options. After the woman notes “I’m left to be protected/By the rejected/But I’m feeling tepid/T’ward the decrepit,” she goes on to list a variety of disabilities that she finds unappealing, including blindness.

I’m left behind

With the lame and the halt and the blind back here

Ev’ryone who isn’t knock-kneed is flying a Lockheed

Ev’ryone without myopia is in Ethiopia

But I must be sweet

To the guys who have got flat feet back here. Continue reading

“A Fairyland and Hell to Me for Years”: Peter Putnam ’42 *50’s Princeton, Part I

This is the first in a two-part series on the life of Peter Putnam ‘42 *50 in Princeton, before and after he lost his sight. This first installment focuses on the events leading up to the incident in which he was blinded and his fight to return to Princeton University afterward.

Peter Putnam entered Princeton University in 1938 with a talent for academics, but lacking in direction. Because he had long expected to join the Army, he had also assumed he would attend West Point, like his father before him, but the elder Putnam suggested his son find a less frustrating career. The looming threat of war may or may not have influenced the Putnams; in any case, an uncle and other relatives had attended Princeton, and many of Putnam’s classmates were headed there, so it seemed like the default place for him to go. Decades later, Putnam described his 1938 arrival at Princeton University as entering “a fairyland and hell to me for years to come.”

While in college, Putnam was engaged in an internal war with himself, alternately taking advantage of the pleasures offered to a privileged young man in the Ivy League and becoming frustrated when no consequences for his hedonistic lifestyle materialized. He drank and partied his way through a few years, and his photographic memory meant no real need to study in order to pass his classes. Putnam was not a stellar student, to be sure, but he was still doing relatively well, earning grades that would have allowed him to graduate with honors, whether he applied himself or not—and mostly he did not. In a letter to the Dean of the College, Putnam later made some references to family problems contributing to his feelings of despair, without detailing what they were.

A bout with appendicitis and mononucleosis in his junior year deepened Putnam’s depression. He began fantasizing about playing Russian roulette with a revolver to which he had access, wrote a suicide note, and carried bullets to be prepared for the moment he would call it quits on life. He deliberately isolated himself, quitting his extracurriculars and moving into a single room. When Houseparties weekend came in 1941, Putnam went to visit his parents instead of socializing. There, he attempted to carry out his plans.

Telegram from Peter Brock Putnam, May 6, 1941, informing Princeton University that his son had been shot. Undergraduate Academic Records (AC198).

Putnam survived the gunshot, but his vision did not. The bullet severed his optic nerves. Although coming out of a 10-day coma reportedly jolted him out of his depression, giving him a sense of purpose and new goals to work toward, he would now be followed by a double stigma of mental illness and physical disability in an era when neither were granted legal protection against discrimination. He would spend the rest of his life in Princeton contending with both. Continue reading

A Look Into Asian American Writing at Princeton and Its Focus on Interracial Dating: Racial Preferences of Campus Couples in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s (Part 2)

By Christina Cho ’24

This is a continuation of a two-part series that broadly explores how discussions of “Asian American” identity and interracial dating overlap in student publications found in the University Archives. In Part 1, I examined a magazine called The Seedling and attempted to contextualize its underlying motive and somewhat ambiguous language. Here, I continue my discussion of Asian-white relationships using various examples of student writing from the 1980s through the early 2000s. I then examine an article from The Daily Princetonian that features an Asian-Black couple. The article shows that we need to consider other identities alongside race when discussing interracial dating.

Additional University Archives Sources on Interracial Dating

The student writing I found on Asian interracial dating from the 1980s generally focused more on the ambiguous acceptance of interracial dating on campus, rather than on specific racial pairings. The following are the earliest articles on interracial dating I found in The Daily Princetonian:

  • “Qualms, myths, tensions stymie interracial dating” (November 19, 1982): “Interracial couples just aren’t that common at Princeton.” In the article, a student notes that although students of different races can “‘be friendly with each other and eat together,’” they “‘don’t go to the same parties’” and “‘don’t date the same people.’” The article contextualizes this comment, asking students the reasons why interracial dating is uncommon. The article presents Princeton as a “fragmented community,” citing, for instance, how “for many whites, social life revolves around the [eating] clubs, while for blacks, the Third World Center and Princeton Inn dances are the main sites of social activity.”
  • “Interracial dating: Students meet mixed response to relationships” (December 4, 1986): This article points to a similar tension between students’ descriptions of how accepting Princeton is of interracial relationships. The article includes interviews with Asian students, such as “Kelly,” who discusses her experiences dating both Asian and non-Asian men, concluding: “I encountered the same boy-girl relationships in both situations […] all guys are the same.”

Photo from Princeton: Our Perspective, 1981. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 294, Folder 7.

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A Look Into Asian American Writing at Princeton and Its Focus on Interracial Dating: The Seedling (Part I)

By Christina Cho ’24

This is a two-part series that broadly explores how discussions of “Asian American” identity and interracial dating overlap in student publications found in the University Archives. In Part 1, I examine a magazine called The Seedling and attempt to contextualize its underlying motive and somewhat ambiguous language.

Finding The Seedling

After reading “A Brief History of Asian and Asian American Students at Princeton,” I wanted to learn more about the Asian American students who attended Princeton before me. During my search for Asian American perspectives in the archives, a magazine called The Seedling particularly caught my attention. As I’ll discuss in this post, The Seedling approaches the subject of “Asian American identity” from an angle I was not expecting. 

The Seedling, February 1985. Davis International Center Records (AC344), Box 1.

Arthur Yee ’84 founded The Seedling in 1981 as a newsletter for the Asian American Students Association (AASA). In the 1980s, AASA was making a conscious effort to address its political inactivity, which had followed a period of intense activism in the 1970s after changes in AASA’s leadership. In 1981, AASA held an emergency meeting to discuss its many “organizational problems” and the “prevalent apathetic attitude of Asians and other students on this campus.” The Seedling demonstrates a way in which AASA renewed its commitment to community-building among Asian American students.  Continue reading

Secret Societies at Princeton in the 19th Century

by Iliyah Coles ’22

A couple of decades after The College of New Jersey (which became Princeton University in 1896) was first established, there were only two known social clubs in existence at the school. These were “the well-meaning club” and “the plain-dealing club,” which eventually evolved into the Whig and Cliosophic societies that we still recognize today. The two societies merged in 1928 and is now known as Whig-Clio. In the 1760s, these two clubs were the biggest part of social life at the college, and students usually joined one or the other. As time passed, though, more and more alternatives to these two clubs began to emerge. Many of them were well-known among students and faculty alike. Others, however, were more underground and became closely-kept secrets. These secret societies ultimately changed social life at Princeton, and sparked a debate about whether or not the school should discourage them.

The presence of secret societies was not fully made known until around 1852, with the rise of Greek life on campus. However, the Princeton University archives contain written letters from students to faculty, pledging to resign from secret societies that date back to 1832.

Student pledge to withdraw from all secret societies except the American Whig and Cliosophic Societies and not to join any other secret society while students at Princeton, November 17, 1832. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 212, Folder 18.

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A Brief History of Latinx Students at Princeton, 1880s-1990s

Although we are always continuously learning and expect to have more to say on this topic in the future, in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month we are presenting this brief history of Latinx students at Princeton University prior to this century.

It’s never clear who the “first” person of a given demographic might be, but here are some early records we have for Latinx students:

Pedro Rioseco, Class of 1888. Historical Photograph Collection, Alumni Photographs Series (AC058), Box SP12.

  • Pedro Rioseco, Class of 1888, was born in Cuba, where his father had been a cigar manufacturer. Rioseco attended secondary school at Fewsmith’s Academy in Philadelphia. At Princeton, he helped start a Spanish class and was known as Peter.
  • Harold Medina, the son of a Mexican immigrant father and a mother of Dutch and Swiss descent who banned Spanish from their home, came to Princeton in 1905 to join the Class of 1909. Medina struggled to fit in at first, but eventually found a robust social world on campus, joining the fencing, gun, and water polo teams and securing a position on the editorial board of the Princeton Tiger. Medina later had a long career as a federal judge as an appointee of the Truman administration, ultimately sitting on the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1951-1980.
  • A Puerto Rican student, José Vicente Ferrer de Otero y Cintrón, better known as  José Ferrer, was a member of the Class of 1933. He was born in San Juan, but his family moved to New York in 1914. At Princeton, Ferrer was involved in a few different aspects of show business. He directed an orchestra that played for student dances, the Pied Pipers, and Triangle Club gave him some further training for his future career as an entertainer. Ferrer became famous for his portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway and later on film, for which he won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award, making him the first Latinx recipient of an Oscar. In 1985, Ronald Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Arts.

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West Meets East: Japanese Themes in Princeton’s Graphic Arts of the Late 19th Century

If you spend as much time immersed in the University Archives as I do, at times you will see intriguing patterns emerge. I have seen repeated examples of an unusual theme in the graphic arts associated with the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was named until 1896) in the late 19th century and early 20th: a variety of seemingly out-of-place Asian imagery. For example, a menu for what is clearly Western-style food, written partly in French, features a drawing of potted bamboo and a person in a kimono. One finds drawings of Asians in the Bric-a-Brac’s section headings, though not in settings where any logic would imagine they would truly appear at this time, such as working as clerks in the Registrar’s office. The appearance of the “Mikado” eating club in the 1896 Bric-a-Brac, however, should clear up any confusion about the origins of these themes.

Class of 1870 reunion dinner menu, June 20, 1881. (Click to enlarge.) Princeton University Class Records (AC130), Box 7.

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10 Movies Filmed on Princeton University’s Campus

By Iliyah Coles ’22

Princeton is known for is its aesthetically-pleasing architecture. To some producers, the campus environment makes it an ideal location for shooting a movie. Here is a list of 10 movies that were filmed on Princeton’s campus.

Varsity (1929)

One of Paramount’s first dialogue films (a “talkie”), Varsity was directed by Frank Tuttle and starred Charles Rogers. The main character, Jimmy Duffy, is a college student, who happens to be the janitor’s (Pop’s) son but doesn’t know it. Pop was an alcoholic and was ruled as unfit to parent, so Jimmy was separated from him as a child. Pop watches over Jimmy in college as he grows up and falls in love. Phillip Holmes ‘30 and Charles E. Arnt, Jr. ‘29 were both Princeton undergraduates who appeared in the film, and later were in several other movies. The Princeton sets built during Varsity were also used in the film She Loves Me Not (1934), for which Arnt was the technical director

First page of a letter written to John Grier Hibben by Eleanor H. Boyd, November 16, 1928. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 394, Folder 7.

Many people were offended by the film, including a woman who wrote to John Grier Hibben about the way in which Princeton students were portrayed. She described the plot as “[…] a portrayal of a Princeton student in one drunken debauch after another.” Following the public outcry, the film was pulled in February 1929. No known copies were preserved Continue reading

How Bicycles Changed Princeton, 1860s-1910s

Bicycles are seemingly ubiquitous at and around Princeton University in our time. The ever-present sight of bicycles parked near campus buildings or cyclists making their way across campus or along the D & R Canal raises no eyebrows; their absence, as with the absence of other forms of traffic, was one of the most noteworthy aspects of local life during the COVID-19 shutdown of 2020. Yet there was once a Princeton where bicycles were unknown, and their appearance presented a concerning novelty.

Bicycle in Princeton, ca 1880s. Historical Photograph Collection, Student Photograph Albums Series (AC061), Box 186.

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“Wear ’Em”: Princeton University’s First Gay Jeans Day

The events of October 11, 1989, Princeton’s first “Gay Jeans Day,” reverberated far beyond the confines of a 24-hour period. Both then and much later, the day highlighted attitudes among students and alumni toward the LGBTQIA+ community as they existed in the late 1980s. The Princeton LGBTQIA+ Oral History Project (AC465) further gives us insight into the long-term impact, as well as a glimpse into the lives of closeted Princetonians we can’t see in the records made at the time.

With pink flyers stenciled in black letters, organizers of Princeton’s first Gay Jeans Day urged the campus to “wear ’em” without further details. Many took it to mean that wearing jeans would be a declaration of their own homosexuality. The idea wasn’t well-received. As quickly as they could put them up, organizers reported, their flyers would be torn down.

Gay Jeans Day flyer, 1989. Lesbian Gay Bisexual Alliance Records (AC037), Box 1, Folder 5.

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