“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