Wurtzel, Crichton & Yoo: Inside The Delightful ‘Harvard Crimson’ Archives
In my case, this year’s Internet experience didn’t suck, exactly, but it was — at least in the precincts I frequent — drearily focused on the predictive. Ninety percent of what I read, excluding pornography, maybe, was either authored by, a celebration of, or a brief against Nate Silver. And that’s nice! On balance, that a smart, gay adopted son of Brooklyn is a big deal is a good thing. But oh, how I wish we purveyors and consumers of the written word would spend a bit less time quantifying the probability of future events and a bit more time salvaging our culture’s diminishing paper trail. We will assuredly regret neglecting our back pages.
I sound like white-haired Henry Larson of Home for the Holidays, who, amid a Thanksgiving dinner grace, shakes a fist at the inevitable as he observes that “thousand-year-old trees are falling over dead — and they shouldn’t.” But they will, as surely as our tree-pulped books, newspapers and magazines will, in turn, vanish along with the ozone layer. This breaks my heart. My son is nearly three months old. When he’s my age, what are the odds he will be able to get his hands on obscure, brilliant works such as John Howland Spyker’s Little Lives or an issue of The Noble Savage?
Of course, he may not want to. Not everyone mourns the absence of newspapers and books you can hold in your hands, or believes we ought to digitize these crumbling pages. But I am increasingly obsessed, increasingly complete-ist. At risk of self-aggrandizement, it does matter that young Maureen Dowd was a peerless metro reporter and that Tobias Wolff buried a great first novel. Shouldn’t a future assessment of these writers take this into account?
Efforts to solve this archival problem are underwhelming. It seems our best hope is a Google Roomba. So I’m not optimistic, particularly with the long-term digitization prospects of newspapers. Even The New York Times archive, which professes to be “complete,” has gaps the size of the South Pole–Aitken basin. If one believes the Times search engine, the word ‘rape’ did not appear in print for nearly a century.
So: The bar for online archivization, set at dirt-level, is easily cleared by the Harvard Crimson, the university’s daily paper. I discovered it this year, and have now spent hours trawling through its archives. While there’s very little from the early years — only one clip from Franklin D. Roosevelt (‘04), for example — but the post-World War II era is quite thorough; Crimson president E. Benjamin Samuels says that “above 90 percent” of that period’s clips have been put online. There is no subscription required, so for the price of a smile one gets a delicious peek at generations of whiz kids, mastering the upside down pyramid on the way to success in journalism and elsewhere. Aside from singing Yoda, it’s my favorite thing on the Internet (which, ugh, we are still capitalizing?).
Herewith is some Crimsonalia I treasure.
DAVID L. HALBERSTAM ‘55
The multi-decade atrocity that would make Halberstam’s name, the Vietnam War, would begin the year he graduated, so there’s more Summer of ’49 than The Best and the Brightest in his Crimson clip file. Via Jack Bohrer, a perfect lede from November 18, 1954:
When Army visited New Haven some ten days ago, it broke several things: 1, the Elis’ six game winning streak; 2, fullback Steve Ackerman’s collarbone, and 3, it would seem, much of Yale’s October bred confidence.
Halberstam occasionally detoured: he rounded up the campus reaction to Earl Warren’s imminent appointment to the Supreme Court and wrote about Cambridge’s lean police force. At least once, he tried his hand at theater criticism. He hated Janet Green’s Gently Does It, but praised Mabel Taylor, who played the family servant; “she is provincial, she is hunched over, she is always properly subservient and sufficiently stupid.”
Nearly a half-century later, Halberstam told a Crimson reporter he was a “terrible student,” but “I was good at The Crimson, and it was the one thing I was good at.”
MICHAEL CRICHTON ‘64
Or J. Michael Crichton — as his byline appears in the Crimson (he shared the given name with his father, who he described as a ‘first-rate son of a bitch’). What’s striking about his contributions is his knack, already well developed in his late teens, for dramatic pronouncements about the Earth and its inhabitants. Nearly twenty years before he decried the notion that humans could destroy the planet as “intoxicating vanity” — mighty convenient, you might say, for a skeptic of global warming — he suggested in a review of Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis that man “may indeed destroy himself. But we need not feel that it is a foregone conclusion, or that it is our particular destiny.”
To be sure, there was a lighter side to J. Michael. His profile of Smith College students contains a quote so good it’s a shame he didn’t stick with journalism:
One small, defensive-looking girl, when asked what she did when a big Dartmouth animal got out of hand, smiled and said, “It’s really quite simple. If he is being very obnoxious, you just pull back, look him straight in the eye, and say coldly, ‘Frankly, you don’t appeal to me at all.’ It never fails.”
The next year, he reviewed Tom Jones (“a wild, ridiculous, engaging film and seems sure to become a minor classic”) and covered a student lunch with Dr. Benjamin Spock, during which the Crimson correspondent was careful to note the doctor’s remarks on the drawbacks of a fame particular to an author whose Baby and Child Care had sold fifteen million copies: “It can be quite disturbing sometimes. There’s always the woman with the most illbred brat on the block, who boasts she raised the child exactly according to my instructions,” Spock told the undergraduates of Lowell House. “I really tremble to think what I’m apparently responsible for.” Crichton, a Crimson colleague recalled upon his death, “was a master of all the disciplines.”
PETER W. KAPLAN ‘76
The New Republic put it well recently: Peter Kaplan, they said, is seen as “a spokesman for the hoary charms of screwball comedy and ink-stained fingers.” The Crimson archives reveal that the one-time New York Observer editor has always been that guy, even when he was barely old enough to drink. [Here’s where I disclose, needlessly, that a decade ago I was Kaplan’s editorial assistant. Mostly this meant answering his phone and telling Nikki Finke “he isn’t unavailable.”] This review of The Day of the Locust is the work of an undergrad with the soul of Harold Ross:
I wish that when John Schlesinger had made Day of the Locust he had paid a little attention to S.J. Perelman … so that he could understand at least a little bit about satire. Satire is not soap opera, which this new movie is. I wish he had taken West’s images and terseness somewhere, anywhere. I wish he had a sense of the crazy and of the really grotesque, not just the horrible. None of this says very much about the film I’m afraid, because there will be a good evaluation of it in this paper by someone else on Monday. But if you were thinking of seeing it over the weekend, my advice is: don’t, I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.
The “advice” dispensed by 21-year-old Kaplan is cadged from a 1928 New Yorker cartoon captioned, but not drawn, by E.B. White. It would go on to be well-quoted in the Observer, three times by Michael Thomas alone.
GROVER G. NORQUIST ‘78
Norquist’s Crimson tenure is marked by a willingness to cover just about anything, be it a proposed addition of a neon news marquee to the beloved Out of Town News (which is still in business, somehow!), a Harvard-Radcliffe track meet or the news that Harvard’s business school enjoyed a bump in applications.
It’s hard to recognize the now-ubiquitous anti-taxer in the young reporter, but there’s a hint of his politics in, of all places, an ode to cross-country skiing. It was a diversion about which he was passionate:
The hard waxes generally come in small foil cans while the soft waxes, or “klister” in Swedish, come in tubes, like toothpaste. (The hardness of a wax is determined by the proportion of wax to resin, and the klister is almost entirely resin.)
The waxing chart above is a demonstration of how snow conditions and temperature combine to determine the optimum wax.
While you may be anxious to begin skiing and want to rush out and outfit yourself with Norway’s finest, the temptation to buy immediately should be fought.
Norquist, who would famously yearn to shrink the government to a drownable size, concludes that one of the joys of cross-country skiing, as opposed to downhill, is it “doesn’t require ten-dollar lift tickets, two hour rides in search of ‘skiable snow,’ or equipment that would bankrupt the U.S. Treasury.”
When I contacted him recently, Norquist said he considered joining the Lampoon, but chose the Crimson because it was the summer and “there was nothing else to do.” Nicholas Lemann, now the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was the top editor, and there was a fight between Eric Breindel and Jim Cramer to succeed him. Lemann chose Cramer, says Norquist, because “even though Breindel was a good socialist, he was a Zionist, which put him beyond the pale.” (Lemann disputes this.1) Politics, says Norquist, were also an obstacle to his ascension at the paper. “I could never have moved up too much. Everybody knew I was conservative-libertarian.”
ELIZABETH L. WURTZEL ‘89
In 1971, Dr. Preston K. Munter, associate director of the University Health Services, told the Crimson, “I think Harvard people had their adventure in drugs, and probably the message that enough people were harmed by drugs finally got through.” Seventeen years later, in the opening paragraph of her story about finals clubs, the paper’s music critic would prove him wrong:
I have drunk their liquor, snorted their cocaine, smoked their pot, popped their ecstasy, eaten their food and danced on their floors.
My alma mater, Boston University, gave me a semester’s probation for mere proximity to illicit drinking, so I’m dopily impressed by Wurtzel’s devil-may-care admission, and by Harvard, for declining to punish her for it.
Wurtzel’s work wasn’t always confessional; earlier clips were straight critiques of music, theater and movies. Please note her review of Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, for its description of Richard Pryor as “looking like a bloody, beached alligator with an afro.”
JOHN C. YOO ‘89
Regrettably, it is almost impossible to read Yoo’s Crimson clips divorced from his view, given as an official of the Justice Department under George W. Bush, that a president may legally have a child’s testicles crushed. But one of Yoo’s last columns, headlined “Thank God for Hot Dogs,” is delightfully obsessive:
You start with a kosher-style hot dog, sitting plumply in a steamed poppy-seed bun. The hot dog is not really kosher, but is all-beef with just a hint of garlic — all enclosed in a natural casing. It should come from the Vienna Beef Company of Chicago, if you are a hot dog purist.
Surround that with — yes, it’s true — pickle relish, yellow mustard, a few chopped raw onions, a slice of tomato, a deli-style pickle and some nice burning jalapeno peppers, and you’ve got your dog. Chicago Frank’s offers the dog for only $2.25, and if you use the $1 off coupons being distributed, that works out to the same price as five pinball games (for those of you figuring out opportunity costs). Also included are a handful of fries, hand-cut on the premises with the skin still on the ends, that make a mockery of the frozen icicles usually served in the Square.
I sent Yoo a late-night note asking what prompted the column. He replied: “Mr. Green: Anyone who claims they remember why they wrote a college newspaper story, or that they even wrote such a story, either has too little to do or is lying.”
• An April 26, 1973 announcement of a concert in Kirkland House: “Mozart and Bartok quartets and the Schubert string quintet. James Buswell and Annie Kavafian, violins; Yo-Yo Ma and Madeline Foley, cellos; and Marcus Thompson, viola. Tickets: $1 with Harvard I.D. April 27, 8:30 p.m.”
• Arguably the most wonderful joint byline in journalism history; David Halberstam would win a Pulitzer in 1964, J. Anthony Lukas would win his first in 1968.
• A 2005 profile of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. “’I need servers just as much as I need food,’ says Zuckerberg. ‘I could probably go a while without eating, but if we don’t have enough servers then the site is screwed.’”
1 From Lemann: “No, that’s not true. The entire executive board of the Crimson elects
the next president, and the vote is secret. I cast my vote based on whom I thought would make the better Crimson President, not on ideology.
Having said that, I am still in touch with Grover regularly and I consider him a friend. He just sees the world somewhat differently from the way I see it. Also, if Eric was a socialist then (which I don’t remember him being; as I also don’t remember Jim Cramer being anti-Zionist), he sure wasn’t one within a few years! He was editorial page editor of the NY Post when he died.”
Previously in series: What Famous People Smell Like