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UD is spending Christmas in a mansion with whistling radiators and servant-summoning technology…

… and broad sculpted staircases with immense stained-glass windows at the landings. I glance through a window and catch the ghosts of liberals past – Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith specifically – chatting on either side of the stone wall separating their big dreary Cambridge gardens.

A few yards behind these summoned luminaries looms the campus whose iconicity-to-actuality ratio UD has always found lopsided. The world dreams about Harvard, while Harvard itself stands in an almost-permanent bad weather snit, many of its major buildings brutalist and its central quads a dispiriting brickyard.

UD has always found these sorts of grandeur-to-ground-level gulfs bracing, refreshing, happy-making, as when she discovered that Phillip Larkin was a pissy old masturbator.

Hers is a common enough reaction. The most-praised portrayals of Winston Churchill show him as a shambling ass.


At the darkest, coldest time of the year, I am in an old house, beside an old campus, in a very old city. The operative words are dust and dusk. Weak sunlight gives out at around two o’clock by the brooding grandfather clock in the hall, and the already-drifting house settles into true REM sleep. Across from the clock, a fine empaneled library is a museum on its way to being a mausoleum. The bound words of the prolific JKG maintain, on its shelves, a stunned silence. What happened to the world?

Such is the delicacy of this preserved interior that whenever UD spills some tea or dislodges one of the ruglets on the stairs, she smiles and thinks I am UD, destroyer of worlds. But there is a praiseworthy piety – world historical, filial – that wants to keep things as they are. The servant-summoning technology still works: Press the Library or Third Hall button on the Clark and Mill Electric Co Cambridge and Boston panel, and out comes a chirp.


Ghosts, and catastrophes. You think less about the grandeur and more about the ground-level grief when you’re actually here: The young son whose death threw Galbraith into a tailspin. The gruesome public assassination of Benazir Bhutto, guest of honor at one of his celebrated garden parties. Galbraith’s son Peter spends his life pacing the aftermath of global atrocity.

You could say UD currently sits (she’s in the library at five AM) at the pinnacle of elitism; you could say she ain’t climbing any higher than atop this soft leather chair resting on one of the gargantuan rugs Galbraith or Galbraith junior brought back from India or Afghanistan. But it’s only the trappings. What’s been able to be held in amber. This place is the genuine Henry James (Harvard Law, 1872): The affluent society, expansive, sedate; and the cry of pain almost out of earshot.

Margaret Soltan, December 25, 2016 12:43PM
Posted in: snapshots from cambridge

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7 Responses to “UD is spending Christmas in a mansion with whistling radiators and servant-summoning technology…”

  1. Bernard Carroll Says:

    “The most-praised portrayals of Winston Churchill show him as a shambling ass.” And one who didn’t know when to quit. Check out Episode 9 of the brilliant series The Crown, where Winston rejects his official 80th birthday portrait and later burns it. It’s a haunting portrayal.

  2. Anon Says:

    I was thoroughly underwhelmed when I first arrived at Harvard — I remember walking into the yard for the first time and thinking “They’re just brick houses? What’s the big deal?” But after 15 some years in the hinterlands, the elitism really doesn’t look so bad (although I don’t miss the Cambridge grime).

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Barney: I saw it, and indeed had it in mind when I wrote that.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Anon: Glad I’m not the only underwhelmed walker of Harvard’s quads.

  5. Alan Allport Says:

    I don’t know whether the TV series depicts events accurately or not because I haven’t seen it, but it was Clementine who destroyed the Sutherland portrait.

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Alan: Yes – I read that as well. I think it’s accurate. Or she had it destroyed by people who worked for them….

  7. Bernard Carroll Says:

    Yes, it seems she did. Thanks for that correction.

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