Princeton University is a warped, funhouse mirror image of Hollywood, where the oldest and least attractive people are the stars and the beautiful children of privilege pay high prices to stand briefly in their presence. Like Princeton, Hollywood is a destination for the ambitious – heroes on a quest to make it big. And Princeton, like Hollywood, markets a myth in which anything is possible for this tenacious protagonist.
The real legacy of Princeton for many graduates may be a higher alcohol tolerance, a command of a second language, business connections, whatever – but there’s a collective sense that after four years, Princeton will happen to you, and you will be more complete as a person. You may not believe the myth, but a lot of people on the outside do, and it’s one that the University administration and the Office of Communications, like those at any self-respecting Ivy League university, try to trumpet as loudly as possible within the confines of tact. In the admissions film “Beginnings,” the start of freshmen year at Princeton is portrayed as step of a mythic quest as initiates arrive in their holy city: birds sing, Nassau Hall stands glorious against the sunrise, an ethereal chorus chants “Sanctus” in the Gothic chapel. Professors and striving students speak about dreams and potential. “I’m going to determine who I am and who I’m going to become,” one freshman tells us.
As in Hollywood, celebrities like Woodrow Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison are central to the Princeton myth. A celebrity is an opiate of the masses, a person whose triumphs, tragedies, and gaffes are acted out on a grand scale with production values high enough to distract us from our real problems. And like Hollywood stars, the Princeton stars bring me comfort when I see them, even if the odds that I will speak or take a class with most of them are slim. Since there only so many stars, Princeton’s various agencies have multiplied their faces and words across the campus’ flat surfaces. The 100 level of the campus center is covered with the stars’ epigrams and sentence fragments. Recently, as I exited the third floor of the U-Store with $400 in books and supplies, I felt cheated. But as I descended the Stairwell of the Stars past those eighteen large photographs of coyly-posed, all-star professors, I was too transfixed by their intellectual contributions to harbor any ill will toward Old Nassau.
Princeton’s star system raises a powerful question. If a campus tour is the Princeton equivalent of the studio visit, what’s the closest we have to a star tour? You can buy a map of celebrities’ homes at the corner of Hollywood and Vine for six dollars. The truly devoted fan can go to Seeing-stars.com and not only track down where Phil Collins lives, but also find Lucille Ball’s final resting place or the last high school Demi Moore dropped out of. But what can you do in Princeton? Sure, Princeton has many historic homes on the tourist maps. You can see Einstein’s house and Aaron Burr’s grave, but they’re things of the past.
By going on a star tour, I would still be a tourist, still unsure of the land three blocks north of Nassau St., but I would also be a trailblazer, leaving most of the spectacle behind to see uncharted territory and put myself in the shoes of celebrated faculty, to see if the pressure of fame is written in an unkempt yard.
And would I be wrong to want to see where Joyce Carol Oates lives? Is this desire a few decades too premature? After all, a famous professor’s home in 2007 could be 2057’s historic site. (Trust me: the Historical Society of Princeton keeps a secret dossier of local celebrities’ addresses, waiting for the day that they die and become eligible for brochures.) For the record, in our legal system, going to look at a star professor’s home is not a crime; however, peering in professors’ windows, seeing them naked, and deriving sexual pleasure from the experience is another story.
Creating my short list of future historic sites was simplified by the fact that some Princeton stars do not want to be found by the masses. Many stars were easy enough to find with switchboard.com, but others, like Cornel West and Peter Singer have taken the curious step of having their numbers unlisted. This strikes me as a foolish attempt at privacy, since Intellius.com will give me all of Cornel West’s known addresses, past criminal charges, aliases (Councilor West of Zion), and tax information for a mere $49.95. If your concern is that someone is crazy enough to stalk you or do you physical harm, then $50 will not be much of a barrier. Of course, I am not crazy or rich enough to spend more than a few dollars on a story, so the malcontents dropped off my list.
So I took to the road with my driver to seek out eight of the University’s biggest stars. First on the tour was the home of Ben S. Bernanke, who is of more strategic importance to our country than either West or Singer and who has admirably not concealed his address. I was shocked to discover his home apparently unprotected by the Secret Service. However, to find his house, you must first navigate a maze of generic, whimsically-named suburban streets, which is hopefully enough to keep out all but the most determined fan or terrorist. I was at first disappointed and then reassured by Bernanke’s modest, vinyl-sided home. If the Chairman of the Federal Reserve lives here, then surely the U.S. economy, afflicted by reckless personal spending and debt, is in safe hands.
Next, the journey took me to Joyce Carol Oates’ house, hidden from the street by a high wooden fence. When I looked down the unobstructed driveway, I saw a white, single-story Modernist compound covered in bubble-dome skylights, a big disappointment for the romantic in me. To the relief of my image of Oates as the dark lady of American literature, a stand of tall evergreens stood between the house and fence where dark, brutal crimes could be perpetrated.
The one Princeton faculty member on the tour who seems to have confronted the burden of fame is Nancy Malkiel. The Dean of the College may not have reached the heights of college superstardom in your estimation simply because no other major university has adopted Princeton’s grade deflation policy, but like any true superstar, Malkiel had an aura and a home I couldn’t resist. Anticipating this, Nancy and her possibly famous husband Burton, have surrounded their home with no trespassing signs, expressly forbidding overzealous fans from hunting, fishing, and trapping, an especially vigilant precaution, considering that the Malkiel house is on a fairly small lot in the middle of Princeton.
Regardless of their potential as future spots for interpretive plaques, the majority of other Princeton professors’ homes I saw were unspectacular on the exterior. If my sample of eight homes is accurate, more than 62.5% of Princeton superstars live in respectable but boring houses that merely tell the tale of celebrities too busy or principled to indulge in nice amenities or landscaping. While my guess is that architecture professors buck the trend, in an academic culture that otherwise tolerates and nurtures eccentricities, conspicuous consumption of real estate is a bourgeois decadence, especially in a real estate market that makes it easy to spend over $800,000 on a nice mid-sized Princeton house.
Of course, I’m judging Princeton superstars too harshly for the lack of effort they put into their homes. I suspect that I took my star tour at the wrong time of the year. Maybe Elaine Pagels has hidden flower bulbs under her unpruned yews. What information could I glean for future biographers when Halloween and Christmas come around?
The star tour is no remedy for a troubled mind. But if you’re feeling claustrophobic, it may be time to get off campus and tackle the next stage of your Princeton quest. Maybe looking at faculty homes is an unredeeming activity in comparison to reading these stars’ literary or philosophical contributions to society, but if the alternative is one of those company-line campus tours under the whip of the admissions office, I think it’s obvious which approach is more insightful. If you want to feel closer to Princeton mythology-in-the-making, and if you don’t want to bother with actual travel, a star professor’s home could be calling.