July 7, 2004: Features
By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Seventy-five years ago this month, 461 members of the Class of 1929 received their diplomas and left Princeton. They went out into the world, found jobs, got married, had families, built careers, and experienced the joys, challenges, frustrations, and disappointments of life. Only seven of those 461 members survive, and the frayed banner of 1929, which has waved now for three-quarters of a century, soon will wave no more.
The great Class of 1929 – “great” because all Princeton classes consider themselves great – is not the oldest of the Old Guard classes (classes that have celebrated their 65th reunions), though it moves ever closer to the head of the line. Nor were its members especially close-knit or successful or loyal to their alma mater, though they were all those things. They endowed no buildings and produced no presidents, though many of them served the nation with distinction. In a sense, they are remarkable for being unremarkable, which is to say, they are just like us. If it is true, as someone once said, that watching the P-rade is like watching your life flash before you backwards, then we can see something of ourselves in them.
They were members of the largest entering class in Princeton history up to that time, paying an annual tuition of $980, plus a $5 matriculation fee. They were a homogeneous group: More than 60 percent came from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, more than a third had attended just three prep schools (Lawrenceville, Hill, and Andover), and two-thirds were either Episcopalian or Presbyterian. There were 11 Jews in the class and no Muslims or professed atheists.
Their Princeton was a more rigid place than today’s university. Attendance at chapel was compulsory, as was attendance at class – if a student had too many cuts, he was placed on probation and barred from extracurricular activities. The University handbook announced, “All students are expected to conduct themselves in a manner becoming of scholars and gentlemen.” Getting down to details, that meant no women in dorm rooms after 6 p.m. and no unattended women at any time.
The last class of the Roaring Twenties seems to have been a rowdy bunch. As freshmen the students were required to sit through a lecture on sex, but did not listen with the desired seriousness. “The lack of the slightest conception of the quality of courtesy on the part of what appears to be the majority of the Class of 1929 is startling,” the Daily Princetonian scolded. Brantz Mayor, one of the surviving seven, was president of Colonial Club and recalls how different Prospect Street was during Prohibition. “The business of consuming alcoholic beverages had to be very carefully done,” Mayor says, and then usually on trips to Trenton. Now 98, and a retired manager for Time-Life, Mayor and his wife still live independently. Dr. Orris Clinger, a psychiatrist who specialized in the treatment of alcoholics, was a member of Elm Club but says his favorite memories are of escaping to New York on weekends to go to the theater. In football, Princeton beat Yale three times during ’29’s four years, an achievement many recalled as their class’s proudest accomplishment.
The class’s preferences, recorded in the Nassau Herald, give some insights into their interests. Most members voted for Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential election. Their favorite movie was Wings (the first film to win the Academy Award for best picture); their favorite movie actresses, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. Thomas Hardy was their favorite fiction writer, Titian their favorite artist. They listed bridge as their favorite amusement, followed by movies, drinking, and women. Drinkers outnumbered teetotalers by nearly 5 to 1, the same ratio by which smokers outnumbered nonsmokers. One item in their class poll particularly catches the modern eye. Asked to pick their easiest course at Princeton, class members favored Modern European Economic Problems, a subject that soon would become much more complicated.
The Class of 1929, of course, had the historical misfortune of walking through FitzRandolph Gate and straight into the teeth of the Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash in October after its members graduated. “Like many others, I had a job down on Wall Street selling securities, but it didn’t last very long,” recalls Robert Garland, now 96, who went on to a successful career as a yacht broker. An item in the PAW Class Notes that first fall explained that “in view of the heavy and unprecedented liquidation in the securities markets of New York,” no class dues would be charged.
Though world affairs affected the men of 1929, their lives were dominated by domestic concerns. One of their first entries in PAW reported, “The Class is doing its best to get engaged or married, from all reports.” At the class’s 20th reunion, more than 90 percent of those responding to a questionnaire said they were married, though more than 6 percent had been divorced. For ’29, at least, love really was perennial, for shortly before its 60th reunion, one member of the class, Erik Barnouw, married the widow of his classmate Fred Allen.
Professionally, the members of the Class of 1929 became businessmen and writers, doctors and lawyers, successes and failures. John D. Rockefeller III, the noted philanthropist, was probably their most prominent classmate. Jacob Beam served as the American ambassador to the Soviet Union. Price Day became editor of the Baltimore Sun and won a Pulitzer Prize. Dud Webster became a Catholic priest. All are now deceased.
Classmates maintained their ties to Princeton over the years, taking a special interest in the Art Museum, which they helped to complete. At their 20th reunion, 231 men returned, wearing tiger costumes as their theme. Their 25th was celebrated in 1954 at a cost of $75 for the weekend, considerably less than the $700 it cost members of this year’s 25th-reunion class. Still hale a quarter of a century later, eight members celebrated their 50th reunion by rowing together on Lake Carnegie.
Death, though, is also part of the story. Two members of the class died in automobile accidents within eight months of graduation. Four were killed during World War II. As they moved into their 60s, 70s, and 80s, news of retirements, travel, and golf games began to give way to class memorials, as old friends succumbed to heart attacks, disease, and increasingly, just old age.
Those few who remain are for the most part still active in mind, if not necessarily in body. Robert Garland says he still swims nearly every day at a neighbor’s indoor pool, though having twice sailed across the Atlantic in his day, he has given up yacht racing. “It wasn’t any fun anymore,” he says. “All the people I sailed against are dead.”
Si Lopez, the current class secretary and a retired chemist for DuPont, remains sharp at 95, as he explains in his preferred method of communication: e-mail. “One of my sons bought me an iBook,” he writes. “E-mail is so much easier than writing and mailing.”
The surviving members of the class are modest. “I have no words of advice for the Class of 2004,” Lopez writes. “They are all probably smarter than I am. But cut down on the alcohol.” Asked the secret of his longevity, John Wanner, a former government lawyer, now 96, remarks simply, “Pick the right parents.” Brantz Mayor, whose mother lived to be 99, would surely second that. “God, no!” is Garland’s emphatic response when asked if he has any regrets. The surviving classmates have perhaps seen too much to claim any special virtues for ’29. “No, there wasn’t anything unique about us,” says Stephen Emery, whose son, Stephen Emery Jr., graduated from Princeton in 1971. “Other classes were pretty special, too.”
Age, distance, and infirmity kept the seven from marching in this year’s P-rade, though they were represented by Mary Willard, standing in for her late husband, Tom. At a luncheon for the Old Guard that Saturday morning, two members of the Class of 1925 – Malcolm Warnock and Leonard Ernst, who would carry the silver cane awarded to the oldest returning alumnus – came together with a widow of the Class of 1904, links in a chain that spanned a full century.
Proud as they are of their association with Princeton, none of the seven remaining members of the Class of 1929 regularly attended Reunions, and it seems unlikely that any of them will march in the P-rade again. In a recent issue of PAW, Si Lopez wrote that he might suspend regular submissions to Class Notes for lack of news. With the remaining class members over the age of 95, there simply is not much left to report.
If so, the class itself deserves the last word. The class poem, written by Price Day when class members were all barely in their 20s and life stretched out before them, provides a fitting coda:
And boys will come, year on far year,
Always as we. They will not know
We have been here, or care; but go
After a space as we have gone.
And still the old walls sleep in stone.
And still the dogwood blooms, and still
The first greens dot the northward hill
In scattered rhythm. Do not speak
Too much of these; oh do not break
The silence that will hold them shrined
In the locked chapels of the mind.
But leave, while yet the Old North bell
Sounds us, unknowingly, “Farewell.”
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is senior writer at PAW.