Table of contents
The Tennenbaum’s lived in a big rambling Victorian pile perched on a corner, the green yards fully surrounding it, a protective moat, the street in front large and busy.
Kitty corner to a massive, flowing park, it was a mile from campus, as the crow flies, assuming said crow was not spooked by the sprawling city graveyard lying between.
A cavernous basement the foundation, three stories layered on top, steps up to the ground floor containing a slightly worn interior, casually comfortable, of living, dining, piano alcove, kitchen, office space. Upstairs the bedrooms for the family, up more stairs my ‘garret’, an angular room looking onto the street, angles generated by the gabled room, the 3rd floor actually quite spacious consisting of another largish bedroom occupied by the delectable math dept secretary, Gail Smith, she at 23 an ‘older’ woman of melting allure, plus roomy attic big enough to easily accommodate the ping-‐‑pong table, site of nearly constant and fearsome battle between me and Jonathan, or anyone else silly enough to get in the way.
I was immediately at home with the family, seamlessly accepted, the whole of the house open to me, meals (of great informality) with the family, an open, hospitable air permeating, no stress, no friction, no strain …… Carol, quiet and reserved, calm and gracious, ran the house, organized the family to the extent that that was possible, with tranquil, competent efficiency, she had given up on producing lavish meals upon realizing that Stan was not much interested in food, ate when he was hungry, little conscious of what that might be.
Jonathan, 15, was busy with his university math and language courses having withdrawn from high school, unhappy in the experience. Sue,12, was sailing reasonably smoothly through junior high, she also a flute player. Peter, 10, was not sailing smoothly through 5th grade, eventually becoming another test case for Stan’s ruminations and adamant stance on education.
This was the setting for me, fly on the wall, to observe Stan up close, to see, learn, find out curtain pulled away from the window how the world, particularly the academic world, really worked, an unparalleled vantage point for an unparalleled education, me transported in a moment into the living, vital milieu of a serious, notable mathematician at the forefront of, cognizant of, and contributing to virtually all the significant, key, important intellectual endeavor in his field at that time.
Being with Stan was mentally electrifying, reverberations from a single exposure sometimes lasting for days, with him you were transported not to a different level but to a different world .….. his mind was an incandescent flame, inextinguishable, like the hyped up metabolism of the fighter pilot, always ‘on’.
At some point diagnosed as a manic depressive, of which he was scathingly dismissive, he ran on high octane, boundless energy expressed in movement and in talk ….. talk talk talk …… talk talk talk talk talk talk talk ….. but talk not like any other, the quantity not inversely proportional to the quality (as with most people) but rather of uniformly rich content and interest, if anything monotonically increasing as the volume supernova’ed outwards ….. at one time with a note of frustration, he remarked, ‘rob, the only trouble with you is you never learned how to talk’…. not exactly the case, it was more that as the little grasshopper I wasn’t persuaded that I had anything to say that could possibly be of interest to him.
Stan lived a life of deep romance, in the broad sense of the word ….. life was inordinately precious, it was in your own hands, you did with it as you pleased, you made it up as you went along, each day was high adventure , you exercised your creative freedom to the full. The societal designation of tenured professor was perhaps the only accepted exodermis that would permit such a roiling independent spirit to live, if not flourish, even that in the end proving too confining.
An immense sense of freedom pervaded when one was with him. Everything (I do mean everything) was worthy of notice, examination, analysis, of clear, rational, penetrating contemplation. (Witness the talk he gave in a number theory class on the raising of bees.) Devoid of preconception, searching with the fresh eyes of Magellan, the subject brightly displayed in his high intensity intellectual spotlight, Stan always ferreted out, elucidated the essence, the essential. He always urged a questioning skepticism, never take anything on face value ….. Columbus was a brilliant explorer who discovered America..really?………………………………………………………….. ……………….. how could such an idiot, ignorant of or disbelieving the calculation by the Greeks of the circumference of the earth, imagine he could make it to China ?
His actual speech, accentless Midwestern, was rendered in elegant no frills language each word, phrase plucked to formulate with precision what he wished to convey ….. as with most of the crowd I came into contact with through Stan, it was richly strewn with descriptive anglo saxon terminology, which usage, never gratuitous, was invariably as pointed out by my friend John Flavin of sharp nuance, specific and refined to making the point …… when the hysteric (according to Stan) John Myhill called Ralph Raimi (whom he had just met) a ‘cunt’ to his face, Stan noted that this was not a simple insult, but a truly precise description of Raimi’s fundamental nature. Starting off measured and low-‐‑toned, he frequently enough as he got into the meat of whatever matter he was discussing built into an emotional, excited frenzy, flecks of white spittle in the corners of his mouth, seeming out of control (but as I told Alan, really an aware, controlled out-‐‑of-‐‑control) …. but never to the point of lost clarity or well-‐‑structured sense.
Stan had an enormous imagination …… colorful ….. very visual, supple, fluid, creative, at times fanciful (let’s say) …… with few masterfully-‐‑executed painterly strokes he could place you inside a hologram as real as your corporeal self ….. my mother had sent to me a bright yellow bathrobe she had made out of a very thick blanket, with it on I appeared an outstandingly luminescent yeti …… on first sight, Stan suitably inspired, began visualizing an entire clan so clad appearing out of nowhere and making their way, this being dark and grey winter, down one of the major arteries from Canada, silent, ominous, spectral shapes descending on America heralding ‘childhood’s end’, bringing perhaps enlightenment, perhaps hell-‐‑fire ….the ‘Men From The North’….. he was only half-‐‑joking when he tried to convince me to carry out this vision ….. occasionally this imagination did run away with him, as when I returned from Cornell and was describing where I had stayed. Indicating that he had been there, further enhancing my description, I rumbled him with my evident doubts that we had been in the same place, to which he good-‐‑humouredly gave in with ‘Everybody has some bullshit in them’.
Stan’s imagination greatly informed and sculpted his mathematics ….. always urging Jonathan to ‘make a picture for it’, he was far more trustful of the truth of a thing if he could geometrically ‘see’ it in shorn simplicity. His own extraordinarily beautiful (largely visual) proof of the irrationality of the square root of 2 radiates this insistence. For Stan mathematics should be concrete, hands-‐‑on, the proof of any statement, no matter how complex, could, if the keys were found, be written on a single sheet, most often attended with the right ‘picture’ ….. it was this persuasion, prejudice if you will, that leaned him towards Klein, Hilbert (Geometry and the Imagination), Courant, Polya, Poincare, made him dismissive of, distrustful of the Bourbaki, an effort he philosophically opposed as being inimical to the creative and continuing flowering of mathematics. (Andre Weil, at Chicago when Stan was there, was the purported head of the Bourbaki.
Much of his life spent trying to solve the Riemann Hypothesis, Stan claimed that he used to walk around the commons room asking new students how old they were, and if they were over 21, used to cackle ‘Ha!! …It’s too late for you!!’)
The visual, pictorial current ran pervasively through his mathematical undertakings ….. though Paul Cohen had elucidated much about the Continuum Hypothesis in a formal way, Stan remarked somewhat wistfully that he still wanted to know how many points there were on a line, emotionally unsatisfied with the ‘formal’ status quo. On a walk with Eberlein, someone brought up a little puzzle dealing with the waterline, would it go up or down, when the boat in the water was loaded with contents dredged up from the bottom, or something like that, it fascinating to watch Stan inventively developing physical scenarios involving ropes and buckets and pulleys to try to get a handle on the situation. Stephen Smale had recently proved a celebrated topology theorem regarding mappings of a sphere into 3-‐‑space. As explained to me by Newc Greenleaf, he showed that a sphere could be differentiably everted, turned inside out. Making the cover of ‘Scientific American’, it involved a series of complex transformations which could (with extreme difficulty) be visualized. I’m sure Stan had made the effort when he announced that the only person that ever lived who could actually have done this was Michelangelo. Indeed when he made the film of him teaching two boys in an effort to demonstrate how educational materials might be generated with film, he chose a very visual problem, a chess board with the two opposite corners missing, the problem to cover the remaining board with dominoes ….. he after much sweat and labor on the part of the boys revealed the elegant (and visual) solution with, ’That is mathematics.’
With a charged and uncaged energy, Stan found sleep nearly impossible, would be as much ‘on’ late at night or (very) early in the morning as at any other time …..he once mentioned that some people can’t sleep because they are starkly afraid that they won’t ever wake up again, I later wondered if that was part of his trouble, certainly I think that he had a deep aversion to wasting life with much of it ….. at times this sleeplessness would get out of hand and, with a casual disregard cultivated since his student days Stan would down one, then two, and so on, until 9 or 10 sleeping pills later he would be trying to relax, as wide awake as if he hadn’t taken anything …… on the other hand when he wanted to be more acute, he would cavalierly ingest ‘uppers’, dexedrine, other amphetamines, easily available in those days …. this use of pharmaceuticals was common enough amongst mathematicians, motivated in large part I think by a desire to enhance their mathematical abilities ….. when you spend your life ‘bloodying your head’ as Halmos put it, you will look to anything and everything to increase your power to progress ….. this interest in and use of pharmaceuticals extended to newly appearing offerings of hash, grass, pot and for some the hallucinogens LSD, mescaline (peyote), psilocybin (mushrooms). Stan’s drug of choice eventually became many years later delta 9 THC, his term for it ‘vegetable’, again my belief that in the main it was used to enhance perception of reality, particularly as it related to mathematical insight.
It was during one of these periods of sleeplessness that my brother Rush visited, sent by his parents to reconnoiter universities he might attend. Stan in overdrive, his magnified voice diminished not a whit by the floor that separated us from the bedroom below, Rush was astonished that one could talk uninterruptedly, seeming without time for breath, throughout the entire night …… 4:00am found Rush in the living room, caught up in one of Mozart’s operas playing on an old 78rpm …… Stan descended, prowled about a bit, then asked Rush what he thought of Mozart …… Maintaining family tradition, Rush, not knowing what to say, kept schtum. Stan must’ve thought we were a family of mutes. (Subsequently an opera singer of note with innumerable Mozart operas under his belt, it is now difficult to get Rush to shut up about Mozart.) …. Not missing a beat, dawn slowly breaking, Stan delivered a two hour virtuoso soliloquy about the composer.
The point here is Stan’s enormous cultural reach, stunning in its breadth, characterized by deep perceptivity and sensitivity, opinions, insights, understandings always gained directly, always his own, always exposing the core of the matter. His conclusions invariably illuminating, the family and I attended an evening of Mozart arias by a woman singer at the open-‐‑air theater in the park across from the house. Deeply attentive, Stan praised the performance with the comment that the singer nearly reached what Mozart originally had in mind. Upon emerging from a popular film depicting the life of Jesus, Stan complained the portrayal of Christ as one who spoke above the heads of the disciples staring into the distance, never looking at them directly.
I always had the impression that Stan’s life started at 16 at the U of Chicago, that an unknown world yawned before him, one courtesy of Hutchins’ vision, and provided the scope for an insatiable curiosity to revel and explore full bore ….. not only did he steep himself in the Greece of Homer, Socrates, Plato, Euclid, and Archimedes but also the ‘great books’ and, more broadly, he feasted on timeless music, literature, theater, film (when ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ was in the local Chicago movie house, he went to every single showing) …. a milieu of creative foment, this was also the world of ‘the second city’ and live readings by Dylan Thomas, the location of Bettelheim’s Orthogenic School where Stan for a time worked ….. I also had the feeling that it was here that he ‘constructed’ himself, block by block, building an intellectual, philosophical, metaphysical foundation, of course informed by the Chicago curricula, out of his own rational thought, a defined person fully integrated, no contradictions, confusions, imponderables, a cathedral of clarified character and mature persona.
With a full court press Stan brought his intelligence to bear on the whole of life, comprehensively addressing its every aspect and then, determinedly at a very abstract level, exhibiting in action and deed the fruits of his analysis. This was the ‘rational’ life which so centrally characterized him. Most are content to float in a sea of vague understandings, distorted half-‐‑truths, murky and opaque contructs. Stan not. Of course this is singularly rare, others of this ilk perhaps Richard Feynman, Ayn Rand, Bruno Bettelheim, but these I knew not personally, Stan I did. The stories of Stan’s histrionics, his outlandish behavior, his disregard of all convention, abound. It is these that people seize on, refer to in an effort to describe him. But such interpretation is only through a prism of conventional, unexamined, bourgeois sensibility. Incomprehensible, erratic, unpredictable, enigmatic, puzzling, bewildering ? Pish tosh. Passionate, yes. But in truth, Stan’s behavior was unfailingly consistent with, dictated by deep wellsprings of hard won, rigorous thought. If you understood Stan’s mental landscape, you easily understood his words and deeds, rational and coherent to the core.
With a prodigious memory (a byproduct I thought of his laser, focused, in the ‘now’, attention) Stan could incisively talk about a horizon to horizon range of matters, literature no exception. Much absorbing time was spent with Stan reading pieces of commendable literature, he maintaining a running commentary and analysis ……. for him the great mystery of the greatest of writers was their ability to express reality with ineffable fidelity and he was at pains to demonstrate this in the pieces we read ….. it was in this way I was made aware that Plato’s Socratic dialogues were not exchanges by cardboard cutouts merely to develop philosophical points, but were on the contrary deeply human exchanges, replete of emotional ebb and flow by characters of rich humanity and personality. Stan himself read very slowly, he mentioned that ‘War and Peace’ was one of the few long books he ever finished, but what he read he really read, bringing me to understand what that means, slowly absorbing every word, every phrase, every sentence, building in his imagination the whole of the substance, applying a creative attention to every aspect, every nuance of meaning and suggestion. Vitally he wanted to know how it was done, what did it take to author an imaginative work, and ever extending himself, ever testing, ever pushing into new fields, he had begun a novel while an undergraduate, never to be completed, the opening pages of which he read to me, re-‐‑igniting his excitement in his attempt. Characteristically Stan made it a point to know, meet and talk to current authors (as he did with people of merit in all fields of human endeavor) of estimable achievement (in his judgment). Uncharacteristically he met Ayn Rand, complimented her work, but was unable to engage her further than that.
Stan had a great love of Dylan Thomas, the poetry and the man. Attending his readings in Chicago, Stan’s salient point was that no matter how drunk before or after, on stage Thomas never ever proffered less than perfect rendition, faultless delivery, perfect vocal inflection and intonation, no slur, no stumble, no slack. These readings, again on the 78’s behind the couch, we at times listened to together, Stan ever marveling at the enormous visual imagination evident in his expressive language, a particular example being his description of crossing the Atlantic by boat to arrive at the New York harbor …… now introduced to what has always remained for me the greatest of all poets, I often lay motionless, alone, for hours in the living room, the lazy-‐‑boy chair horizontal, enraptured, transported by that voice, the words not always understood, but their sounds symphonic.
A few years later, as a senior, I had through a quite analytic process the previous summer, decided my life lay in architecture, prior to which I had had no experience of or exposure to whatsoever. This turn of events was unknown to Stan. As we one afternoon were running errands in the car, he began mulling over my future, suggesting that I become a psychiatrist. He accepted as somewhat reasonable my objection, that in such a life I would in fact affect (presumably positively) only a small number of people, at which point I mentioned the nascent preoccupation with architecture. With instantaneous gear shift, he began to talk about Felix Candela, the Mexican architect, virtually unknown by architects in the USA, doing beautiful work with hyperbolic paraboloids, diaphanous, floating shells of improbable delicacy, the strength generated through the geometry, Candela’s work unique, originating through his engineering as well as aesthetically architectural talents. Subsequently I did become so enamored of this work that I learned Spanish in a summer so I could live in Mexico, visited Mexico City to see all of his buildings, and met him at IIT where he was teaching, having retired from active building ….. just one more example of Stan’s astounding breadth of knowledge, just one more example of his pervasive influence.