Stanley Tennenbaum
American Original

Winter 1966 - Spring 1967

The most potent lessons I learned from Stan had naught to do with mathematics but what I shall dub AB, how to get from A to B, how the world REALLY works.

It is a given that one adamantly holds one’s life in one’s own hands, limited only by imagination and will, how does one achieve any particular goal, how does one get from A to B. These lessons I learned by close observation, by his example, hanging out with Stan through thick and thin, listening and watching, listening and watching, intently engaged in what Stan called my true education.

For even his closest friends and colleagues, Stan’s modus operandi, patently successful, was a mystery. To begin with, how could he without credentials (e.g. no PhD), accolades, or paper trail so handily navigate the academic world, secure positions seemingly at will (e.g. fully tenured professor at U of Rochester), even a position (of some nature) at the Institute For Advanced Study? (Stan told me that he could generally secure a position he was interested in simply by asking for relatively little money .... that may be true but certainly there is more to the story than that.) Additionally how could he, in his unceasing efforts to make his life as interesting as possible, come to know on a personal basis such a vast variety of people not only in mathematics but dotted about in every sphere of endeavor, particularly those of demonstrable skill and attainment.

First there must be the supposition that the world is susceptible to the real, and can be marshalled accordingly, second is the necessity to have the courage, self-belief to act on that. But then the nitty-gritty. The first understanding is that though the world has exceedingly complex structure, procedure, process, rules, law, culture this is constructed by man. It does not stand outside of him, it does not run itself. Indeed nothing happens that is not controlled, instigated, implemented, caused, enacted by man (I’m leaving out of course natural law, I’m talking about how human society works, hurricanes do happen after all). This the case, people lie on a spectrum from the independent, self-reliant, secure in their own minds, inner-directed (to coin a phrase) to otherwise, wholly dependent on others, hence other-directed, for thoughts and actions. It is the first that are susceptible to the real, they are much more aware the degree to which life is a question of human construct, they tend to run things, and they tend to be the best at what they do. So .... if you want to get something done, they are the ones to associate with. It is relatively easy to separate the wheat from the chaff, the first to the point, direct, unaffected simplicity, razor-sharp scrutiny, the latter of vague intention, pompous, pretentious, phony, inept. By way of illustration, discussing this in the house one afternoon, Stan held up two letters in relation to something he was trying to get done ..... the one from an eminent mathematician was casual, handwritten, a few lines, acerbic, the one from a university administrator typed, formal, flattering, flowery, waffling.

So, with these understandings, how do you get something done, how do you get from A to B. Start from the ground up. Clear your mind of all assumption, which mainly means to disregard all preconception of appropriate behavior as dictated by conventional, accepted (societal) protocols. So, the guy did solve Fermat’s theorem, indeed, stratospheric achievement, but he’s still a man, he’s not a god, you can talk to him. So he is Secretary of State, indeed, due recognition, but he’s still a man, you can talk to him. So he does run General Motors, yes, serious, but he is still a man, you can talk to him. Bring your imagination to bear. Keep B squarely in mind, try to find a route to B, however it violates the constraints of the ‘norm’, be they outside of you, or, more deeply, inside of you (in fact it is more the self-imposed limitations, your ‘place’ in society, your perception that it is ordered beyond your control, that upper-bounds your imagination). A small example but amusing of coincidence ..... Stan in Rochester, his B was to reach son Jonathan, now a graduate student at UCSD in San Diego, he without any notion of where he was or where he lived. Stab in the dark, he calls up the library, the phone answered by my brother Nat, also at UCSD, who had no idea who Stan was or that I had lived in his house, Stan’s mission to convince Nat to traipse the full way across campus to the math building in the middle of the night. One of Stan’s tried and true gambits, he offered Nat five bucks to make the journey, anything to accomplish the aim. It was only when Nat much later was mentioning this odd call from a very odd character that I connected the dots. (Nat, true son of his mother, undertook the quest, no payment necessary.)

The route to B will involve perhaps many people, carefully chosen according to the guidelines above ..... now you must convince, persuade, a matter of content but equally of form. In this Stan was an adept, a ninja master. He noted the preparation necessary, you must know the background, the history, the teachers of the person, you must really KNOW who you are talking to. Then, where the rubber meets the road, you must consciously present your case with clearly stated prefatory construction allowing the other person to gradually comprehend context and what it is that you are on about (as the British say), what you are seeking. (He once talked to me at length about the eyes and the ancient language they speak.) An instructive nugget, four of us, Stan, a French mathematician he was traveling with, John Flavin and I were having breakfast at a hotel near the U of R campus. Arriving after 10:00am, Stan asked for eggs and toast, the response from the waiter that breakfast was closed. Stan then engaged him (when this happened it was just Stan and the person he was talking to, no one else existed). As if to a four year old, ‘Do you have eggs in the kitchen? Do you have butter? Do you have bread? Do you have a pan? Do you have a stove?‘ ..... etc ..... until the man patently embarrassed, broke, the concept of breakfast being closed replaced by the reality of the easily available, nearly running to the kitchen to retrieve the request.

Absorbing these lessons through hundreds of encounters, they became part of me, the roadmap for my approach to AB, if you give a man a fish, you have fed him one meal, if you teach him to fish, you have fed him for life.

Stan was American to the core. With a reverence for the philosophical pilings on which the country was based, America was a necessary a priori setting, free, egalitarian, for the existence of a U of Chicago, bastion of unfettered inquiry. Trappings of such an institution, related to the American ethos included a faculty addressed as Mr, none of the German Herr Doktor, replete with the mysticism of anointed superiority and Valhalla remove, the insouciant and irreverent students, indicative of same, breath of fresh air. In dress and manner Stan affected American lack of affectation, casual guise. On a short road trip to Cornell, he acquired a kind of fishing hat to which he became immediately attached, so befitting the American intellectual, serenely trawling scholarly waters, only to have it lifted away by the wind as we over the speed limit hurtled back to Rochester, top down in the Ford convertible.

That said Stan, with his unrelieved insight, acutely understood, was unstintingly appreciative of, other cultures, brought home to me when a busload of French students, shepherded by an older male teacher, arrived on the Rochester campus, taking residence in one of the summer-empty dorms. Smitten with the unearthly vision that was one of the female students, I was bemoaning to Stan her unattainability when he suggested that I simply approach the male teacher in charge and say I was interested in one of his female charges. His point was that because the man was French, this was a very straightforward matter and he would, being French, arrange for me to take her away for the day. This I did, utterly surprised that the scenario played out precisely as Stan had said it would.

Fortuitously a day had been previously planned out with the Eberlein’s to a nature park a few hours drive away complete with long well-tended forest walks, open air restaurants and pool. Too young to know what I was doing, the day passed reasonably well, the girl maintaining a proper French cool. During one of the walks, Stan was engrossed in conversation with Eberlein’s wife, a vivacious woman, engagingly vibrant and brimming of curiosity, a source of wonder that she was married to Eberlein. Again I was astonished, the topic was the gospels of the New Testament, Stan effervescent in a dazzling display of ecclesiastical erudition, Eberlein’s wife matching him step for step in his discerning argument. All of us arranged later by the pool, Stan perhaps recalling earlier days, did manage a cautious dive off the low board, intense and careful as he swayed forward. (I made no further progress with the femme fatale as, a few days later, perhaps breaking some French protocol, I knocked on her dorm door, only for her to open it, utter one word, and close it again. Me in uncomprehending confusion, I later learned she had called me a ‘camel’, apparently the height of insult in French.)

Stan’s course that fall semester was Number Theory for which he used as text Andre Weil’s set of notes for his beginning course in algebra at the U of Chicago when Stan was there, about 30 pages. (Springer Verlag eventually published these notes as ‘Number Theory for Beginners’, still in print.) The usual Stan free-form, there were no exams, assignments, grades (A or B) dependent on you showing SOMETHING, a notebook would do, indicating you made a bit of an effort at learning the notes .... Class lectures were always surprising in content, non-contiguous ..... but ..... extraordinarily, absorbingly interesting, worth the price of admission. By this time Stan was regularly missing the lectures, spending considerable time I think at the Institute For Advanced Study. Sandy Segal was tapped to take over the lectures for a time, non-plussed by the (apparent) lack of conventional organization which confronted him, unfortunate in his choice of pejorative comments upon same, which I (‘solid citizen’ Stan later characterized it) of course felt compelled to redress. Stan’s house in Rochester was a way station for itinerants trekking from Harvard to Chicago, Cal Tech to MIT, Yale to Stanford. Mathematicians, philosophers, physicists, the home was rarely without guest, invariably interesting, me a silent but constant presence, understanding little but glued to the vigorous conversations. Generally at the top of their game, these were contributors at the expanding edges of knowledge, many of whom I came across in references in graduate school many years later, little knowing at the time their substantial achievements and prominence in the work they were doing, to me just really interesting people. John Myhill was a frequent visitor, playing the piano alone for hours on end, improvising, making it up as he went along.

Later in the fall Stan and Carol threw a huge Thanksgiving party, invitations to people all over the USA, most of whom pitched up including ‘the smartest man in the world’ as announced by Stan in a Number Theory lecture, from Chicago, a guy who finally did arrive by car after Stan was certain he wouldn’t make it, most probably sitting in an airport lounge, late for the flight, trying to figure out his next move. True to form, Stan mentioned to me later the fatal flaw, that even though of incomparable brilliance, should he not be able to solve something immediately, he left it aside. (Bill Howard, who didn't make it to the party through an amusing mishap, thinks this was probably Jack Towber of whom Paul Cohen used to say: "Towber is the only person I have ever met who is smarter than I am.") Ever sensitive, Stan ensured the presence of all of the younger mathematicians in the department and those visiting from other countries, Stan caring in particular for the young man from South Korea. The house was overflowing with guests staying the night(s), every bed and couch, the overspill finding refuge in nearby hotels ...... the din at high decibels, the party lasted days (and nights), no one slept, the intellectual excitement tangible ..... I tried to keep up, understood about 10% of what was said, kept drifting off as the hours padded by, would snap awake only to find myself in the same conversation, only moved further along. In a state of elation, irrepressible and unrestrained, Stan initiated proceedings with ‘I’ve been quiet for all these years, now it’s my turn to talk!’ ..... really?? ....... what could that mean?? .... with my experience of him, an image of Stan not talking produced immediate cognitive dissonance.

The most important thing in Stan’s life was his family, Carol, Jonathan, Sue, Peter, the bonds of tungsten steel. With deeply conservative ideation, the cohesiveness and integrity of the family was uppermost. Stan took pride in bringing home the bacon, under no circumstance would he council the thought of Carol working. He greatly loved his home life, loved being with the family, and (though he once commented that he wasn’t terribly interested in the kids until they could talk) was intimately involved with all of the children, ever watchful of their development, ever sensitive to the ebb and flow of their daily undertakings. His feeling was equally returned, unwavering love, loyalty, devotion.

With its relaxed air, sense of freedom, it was always a pleasure to be around the house. I was subsumed into that life, readily accepted, partook of all aspects, meals, activities. Sunday mornings were a case in point. Late morning I would be sent to the local deli to commandeer a largesse of bagels, cream cheese, pickles, pastrami, tongue, salmon, rye and whatever else. This would be centered on one of the mattresses upstairs (always casual, there were no beds in the house, mattresses alone ...... I had arranged mine so, thinking it was the height of romantic bohemia, before I was aware that this was the drill throughout the house) at which point the family would gather on the mattress, while Stan held forth, ever engaging, all contributing (and listened to), roiling, impassioned, involved conversation, a smorgasbord of topics surfacing , vying to be heard.

An exhilarating splurge enabled by the stipend accorded a U of R professor, Stan came home one day with a brash, sexy Ford Fairlane 500, convertible, black with red trim (I’m sure Carol could only see even more parking tickets in the offing.) The observant social critic in action, he commented on the aggrieved looks of envy he drew driving it around. At Stan’s level of abstraction, a car was not a cherished possession, not an ego investment, it was a thing to be used, hence when he was not using it then of course I could ...... many were the happy hours spent on clear, frozen Rochester nights, 2:00am, top-down in the knee-deep snow blanketing the completely empty parking lot of a nearby mall, racing, sliding, fish-tailing, braking, Disney’s hippo on skates sans the finesse. With his savage contempt for what passed for ‘education’ and his inviolate stance as to the damage it could do, Stan, the protective father, vigilant sentinel, closely monitored his children’s progress through the schools. Jonathan, 15 at the time, quiet, solemn, the obverse to Stan in personality, had become woefully disaffected with high school a year or two before, at which point Stan permitted him to leave high school, arranging for him to take university courses, normally two math courses and one language course each semester. Stan not at all ‘teaching’ him, but simply providing the environment, Jonathan thrived, worked exceedingly hard, and, not burdened with excessive course load, ‘really’ learned his subjects. That Stan’s notions regarding education were solid was rather dramatically demonstrated when Jonathan, certainly a smart kid but not outside a normal group of math grad students (his IQ tests ran from 135 to 150), at the age of 18 scored the highest on the entrance exams for the new math grad students at Cornell.

Peter, cherubic rapscallion, 10 years old in the 5th grade, was in personality much more in the mold of his father, rabidly competitive, a tightly wound bundle of ceaselessly uncontainable and irrepressible energy. Peter was a singular pleasure to be big brother to, many were the outings we had, sometimes with his little horde of friends, to the park to test the home-made rockets, down to the ping pong club, a bit of softball, teaching him on the front lawn how to box, at times a bit out of control in the old car, me the pilot, they the bombardiers, bomb bays open, posting ½ eaten ice cream cones into the oncoming cars, peeling around the corners, evasive tactics in play. And always for light relief feeding him mathematical puzzles and games, delighted in his rapid inventiveness. Peter of course had zero problems getting the school stuff (acutely empathetic, he always felt bad for the kid racing him in an arithmetic problem at the blackboard) but Stan noticed his increasingly unhappy disposition as the year unfolded and, after a talk, pulled him out of school to stay at home. So freed, he launched into a number of projects, the major one an exceedingly complicated race track for little Indy 500 cars filling (3-dimensionally) the whole of the living room, gradually gaining hegemony over the contiguous areas. (Stan, in wonder, said that (even) Jonathan had done nothing like that.) Peter’s unscheduled school holiday (which did him no harm at all) came to an untimely end when Carol, concerned mother, put her foot squarely down, never at ease with her children becoming ‘Exhibit A’ and ‘Exhibit B’ with respect to Stan’s thoughts regarding education.

Sue never really had the contretemps with the school system the boys had, a light hearted, sweet spirit content with her flute, duets floating through the house when my younger sister Marit visited, her flute in hand.

As we eased into the spring semester, Stan was spending more and more time at the Institute For Advanced Study (unofficially), away from Rochester much of the time. Although I really never thought that Stan was not at any time fully in control, blinded perhaps by idolatry and the belief that his rational powers at all times obtained, it was noticeable that, in highly conventional manic-depressive terms, he was on an upswing that was gradually but inexorably gathering steam. Others noticed it, Eleanor his graduate student worriedly commented. Sleep was becoming impossible, restless energy out of nowhere, rage at the way things were (in the educational systems) and all those that aided and abetted the status quo, and the variance with how things could be. Fulminating with plans and visions, the correctives, the solutions.

On a minor note there was Hans Bethe 75th birthday, Bethe then at Cornell. As a measure of respect Stan (out of whole cloth) envisioned a great celebration to be held at the U of Rochester, home to one of the if not the best physics departments nationally. To be held over a number of days, physicists, mathematicians, particularly his friends and colleagues would come in his honor, there would be talks, seminars, tributes, and evenings out. There was the small matter of who could and would pull this together. Stan, already overextended, necessarily defaulted responsibility to the math department, this very much like a major leaguer handing a baseball instruction book to a little leaguer saying, ’OK, read this and then sub for my position’. Total shambles of course but events too far along to back out, invitations already sent including to Bethe. The ‘celebration’ hopelessly degenerated into a pathetic showing, Bethe arriving to give the only seminar, no one though apparently the wiser as to what the event could have been.

On a major note however, it was Stan’s dream that he would create a ‘true’ university, a U of Chicago but without the Achilles’ heel. For Stan, a goodly way along the upswing curve, the U of Rochester was ripe for the pickings, the campus was there, the faculty was not there but would be attracted as had happened at Chicago, the money was there, a phoenix could rise on the ashes of a terminally flawed institution. Very actively (though unilaterally), Stan began putting his plans into action, talking it up with various departments, the administration, soliciting their support, putting himself of course on a collision course with the (substantial) entrenched interests, notably the president at the time, W Allen Wallis, a student in the dept of statistics at U of Chicago when Stan was there, one for whom Stan had nothing but disdain. The juggernaut rolled, only the details of collision left to be determined. These occurred at a faculty meeting with the president, I don’t know the agenda. As reported by Anil Nerode, Stan listened, became upset, walked to the front, and spit on the president's shoes .... He walked out. He then resigned his fully tenured position.

The theme of Stan leaving a group, resigning a position is a recurring one. It occurred again a few years later when shortly after being given a position (of some nature) at the Institute For Advanced Study, where he had been unofficially for some time, ‘hanging around’ in Halmos’ phrase, sleeping in friends’ offices or on their couches, for years, he simply resigned. Though this was always explained as a matter of principles, it seemed to me ultimately more deeply part of the constellation of neuroses, this one that he simply could not belong to any group whatever, that he fundamentally had to be totally, completely independent and alone, he could not tolerate being typed, branded, categorized, implicated that association with a group would imply, nor could he have any obligation to, stated or implied, a group, his independence and intellectual honesty under threat and possibly impugned. I think his not getting the PhD related to this, but that perhaps more to do with being under the thumb of, controlled by a committee, not by that time granting anyone the authority or dominion to sit in judgment of him. This I think is what made the family so vitally important to him, his one lifeline to an intimate group to which he could belong.

Second semester, sophomore year drew to a close as did my sojourn with the Tennenbaum family, I left for Albuquerque for a summer which turned out to be summer and first semester junior year ..... thereafter I saw Stan reasonably frequently when I got back, particularly in his Set Theory class ...... he was mostly away from Rochester, much time with Myhill in Buffalo, same at the Institute For Advanced Study, often with Godel. Jonathan had left for Cornell but I visited Carol, Sue, and Peter, especially senior year when I was living off campus near the home they had relocated to.