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Letters from an alumni about Johnny Poe 1895, tragic hero

November 5, 2003

Belated thanks to Mark Bernstein and PAW for his excellent article on Johnny Poe in the Sepetmber 10 issue. I was surprised only by the omission of the following Poe lore, told to me by my father many years ago: An Englishman, so the story goes, was visiting the Princeton campus during football season in the time of Poe, and passed by a game in progress, where he overheard students shouting "Poe! Poe! Poe!"  Curious, the visitor asked, "Is he any relation to the great Poe?" The students replied simply, "He is the great Poe."

Apocryphal or not, the story bears repeating.

David Kaplan '77
Seattle, Wash.

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September 23, 2003

Regarding Johnny Poe, one of Arthur Krock ’08’s favorite stories concerned Poe’s comment that life in the trenches in France wasn’t too bad until the German band would strike up “For God, For Country and for Yale.”

William W. Stevenson ’50
Charlottesville, Va.

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September 20, 2003

I write to second J. Wilson Morris' 61' call for a reexamination of just what "Princeton in the nation's service" means. And what I also read into it is a suggestion that PAW might approach some of our promenint Princetonians in a slightly less hagiographic fashion.

Many of us knew, worked with, and question the contribution of the dread Dulles brothers with their American global-hegemonic dreams and schemes. More recently, George Schultz and the other Bechtel boys, James Baker of oil interests, Messrs Daniels, Frist, and Rumsfeld, whom Mr. Morris mentions, all seem to have a possible smidge of self-interest. And perhaps those readers of the right might be interested in an alternate look at Norman Thomas, the standard bearer of the Socialist party or even poor old Adlai. 

However, I would say that one of the most interesting researches might be totally nonpolitical and that would be the weird little man who graced your September 10 cover, John Prentiss Poe Jr. He must've been a feisty bantam of a man - small even for a hundred years ago — to have made such an impact in two brief years on the gridiron, but what else did those letters reveal? Was there ever a love in his life? Male or female? Princeton has always been Anglophilic and when I was there in the early ’50s, many were the whispers of secret homosexual cliques or, more grand and scandalous, the equivalent of de Sade's Hellfire club of exquisite perversion.

Poe would certainly seem to have had an affinity for exclusively male companionship with his choice of professions: cow boy, miner, soldier. His motto, "If you won't be beat, you can't be beat." Oh? His frequent references — at least in the letters quoted — to his looks and grooming, his posturing in male uniforms and poses. He seemed to be a man constantly attempting to establish traditional macho manliness. What does that say about him and the sycophantic group who apparently admired him beyond measure? And what is one to make of that smirky, side-long glance at the sweet, little, Alice-In-Wonderland girl in one of the photos? Perhaps a little psycho-pathological speculation might not be amiss in your biographical pieces.

Samuel W. Gelfman '53
Los Angeles, Calif.

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September 18, 2003

Deep thanks for the story on Princeton's great adventurer, John P. Poe 1895.

It was my luck to have known his younger brother, Arthur Poe ’00, who often delighted in describing Johnny's predicament in a Central American port when, with an enemy army in hot pursuit, Poe had to escape quickly. Lo, there along the quay was a ship just ready to leave. Perfect — except that the captain made clear that Poe's passage would depend on how many pieces of baggage he had to take with him. "Fifty-four," was Johnny's prompt reply. The captain declined, the two argued, and finally the captain relented to the point of inquiring as to the nature of the baggage. Poe's classic answer, "A deck of cards and a pair of socks."

Your account failed to mention the splendid oil portrait of Johnny Poe, armed and bedecked in kilt of the Black Watch, looming over the brow of a low hill. The painting hung in Sophomore Commons near Holder Tower. The last I saw it was in 1939 before shifting to an eating club. Is it still there? If not, where?

John M. Ely Jr. ’41
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Editor's Note: The portrait mentioned by the letter-writer is in the Art Museum's storage.

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September 17, 2003

While reading Mr. Bernstein’s entertaining minibiography of Johnny Poe, I could not help thinking of another figure of that era, Winston Churchill. As young Winston thrust himself into military campaigns in India, the Sudan, and South Africa, he was able to do what Poe was not able to do. Winston made a living (both as a soldier and writer), he participated in battles of significance, and he probably was a lot happier than poor Johnny Poe, whose romantic spirit did not do him in. Rather his lack of professional military training, lack of a college degree, and an apparent inability to focus on long-term goals did. Winston, on the other hand, confided to several people in the late 1890s that he would be prime minister one day.

In this same issue of PAW, there was reference in the football preview that three of Prlnceton’s All-Ivy players were ruled ineligible this year. We wish them well and hope for their return to football, and getting their Princeton degrees, but better they follow the example of Winston Churchill rather than Poe.

Kerry H. Brown ’74
Tampa, Fla.

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September 16, 2003

Mark Bernstein's '83 "Soldier of Fortune" was both a refreshing and incisive piece. What I found impressive, however, was not so much Johnny Poe's struggle with his ambitions/demons but more so the literary quality of the snippets from his letters, etc. These from a young man who spent very little time at Princeton and, while there, was not terribly assiduous. Nonetheless, his erudition/phrasing are remarkable for an essentially high school education; one wonders if current Princeton graduates could write as well.

As a member of the Class of 1960, we arrived in the last year of Harold Willis Dodd's tenure. When one compares theme development/thought construction in his published speeches/lectures/essays with subsequent Princeton presidents one cannot help but find the latter's prose both pedestrian and equivocating and begins to understand the standards to which prior undergraduates were held, and possibly those to which they are currently held.

Stephen M. Nagy Jr. ’60
Sacramento, Calif.

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September 11, 2003

“The Legend of Johnny Poe” (cover story, September 10)  made for fascinating reading.   I would like to add another reference to Princeton  that comes from the “Breakfast in Princeton - USA” odyssey my wife and I made in 1996, when we visited  all  32 Princetons.

The article noted that in 1904 Poe  volunteered when the Kentucky governor called out  the militia  to suppress the “Black Patch (Tobacco) War”.  Princeton, Kentucky, is in the heart of the region that produces this tobacco, the principal ingredient in chewing tobacco and snuff. The American Tobacco Company, under James Duke, fixed the price of dark-fired tobacco under cost which provoked 5,000 farmers to organize and conduct civil uprisings and night raids that lasted for about four years. Though the town was  named not for our Princeton but for a local benefactor named William Prince,  could the Princeton name have influenced Johnny to volunteer in that particular region?

Ken Perry ‘50
St. Louis, Mo.

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