Robert S. Nelson
AS: My name is Anne Steptoe, the date is July 21st, 2009, and today I have the pleasure of interviewing Professor Robert Nelson at his office at Yale University about his relationship with D.O. over the years. And to get started, your first fellowship was in 1975, but, if I’m correct, that was not your first interaction with Dumbarton Oaks, right?
RN: Right. I was a Robert Woods Bliss Fellow for two years. I don’t remember the dates exactly, but maybe 1971-’72 and ’72-’73.
AS: That seems right to me.
RN: OK. And I had just applied for the fellowship. My professor told me that I had no chance of getting it, because I wasn’t a Harvard student and in his experience it always went to a Harvard student. It never went to a graduate student at another university. But I guess, for whatever reason – Harvard didn’t have a student that year or they were desperate and so they selected me. And it saved my life. It was an extraordinary fellowship. It paid a very nice stipend and it paid my tuition and it paid my tuition at any university I wanted to go to. And I was studying in New York – my Ph.D. is from New York University – but it meant I could go take courses at Columbia at will. I could go to Princeton if I wanted to take a course at Princeton. I mean, they paid the tuition wherever I went, whereas any NYU fellowship would only have been for NYU. And also I went to Hunter College, the City University of New York, with it, so it was really a great fellowship. And after one year, my professor suggested I should apply to have it renewed. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible. So, I contacted Dumbarton Oaks and the Director of Studies, William Loerke, communicated with me somehow. This is in the days before email or anything like that and so I suppose it was by mail or phone call or something – no cell phones, a very weird time. And he said, “Well, why don’t you just come down and visit, so we can get to know you a little better?” And so, I took the train from New York down to Washington, and it was wonderful. And they were going to put me up for a day or two in the Fellows Building. I thought this was just the grandest vacation ever, and it was so kind that they wanted to meet me and that they were going to show me around Dumbarton Oaks. I thought it was just wonderfully gracious, and I walked into the Director of Studies’ office and he said, “Professor Mango will see you first and so then I walk in, then he takes me to Professor Mango’s office and then begins either a thirty minute or hour-long, intense interview, which I had no inkling of – which maybe is the best preparation for an intense interview – I don’t know, you know. But, I was – whoa! And then he – who knows how long it was; my mind was just racing – and then he finishes and says, “Well, let me take you to Professor Ševčenko’s office, which was next-door. And so he ushers me into Ihor Ševčenko’s office, and again this elaborate interview about my work and my studies and what I wanted to do, et cetera. And then he told me about his work and that was very memorable. He told me about an article he was writing that later came out that was really one of his best articles, and he said, “Well, I just have something up here on the shelf,” and he pointed up there and alluded to some of the findings of this article. And later on, several years later, I read it and was just overwhelmed and so impressed that I knew of the article before it was published. And then I went back to Professor Loerke for the third interview. And after that I think I had lunch, and I was just completely exhausted and maybe took the train back that night, I don’t know. The rest is a blur in my memory, but those three interviews were quite significant, and I got to chat with Professor Mango about how he viewed studying Byzantium and how he thought about it. I was going about it somewhat differently, but then I wanted to study Byzantium and Islam, which I did for a while but I’ve sort of moved away from that path. And he said, well, he’d taken that path – he’d taken Byzantium and the Slavs, but he could see how it would be very useful to study Byzantium and Islam. And it was a very heavy experience, and I mean, it was a very positive one, because they renewed me. It was a great day! So, I got more money for the next year. I was even happier. So, that was a decisive moment, I think, in my education – that Dumbarton Oaks fellowship.
AS: It must have made graduate studies a little less stressful.
RN: Yes, it was very much so, in that – what I didn’t say is that before I got the Dumbarton Oaks fellowship, I didn’t have any fellowship at all, so I had no stipend and I was working part-time and I was married and my wife was working. We were eking out a very meager existence. And New York City is a very expensive place, and to be a starving graduate student is very hard there. I mean, it’s hard to be a graduate student at any place, but I think New York City has its particular difficulties versus, say, being a student at Cambridge or here at Yale, or someplace else, where you’re kind of in a sort of cocoon of a university. New York University didn’t offer that sort of cocoon, so that’s why the Dumbarton Oaks fellowship was great.
AS: And then did you return to D.O. before your fellowship or was your next visit for the fellowship?
RN: I believe the next visit was for the fellowship, yeah.
AS: And that was ’75?
RN: ’75-’77, yeah. I was a Junior Fellow.
AS: OK. Finishing up your dissertation?
RN: Right. I spent a year in Europe, going to libraries. I had a dissertation on manuscript illumination, Byzantine manuscript illumination, and so, I visited libraries, starting in Istanbul and then to Greece for several months. And then from there to Rome for about six months and working at other Italian libraries and either before or after that I was in Paris and London. And those were the major places for Greek manuscript holdings. So, I had a long year of work and then I got to Dumbarton Oaks and another year of research and a year of writing. So, it was great.
AS: What was the intellectual life like at D.O. at that time?
RN: Very stimulating. You know, everybody – well, not everybody; you’re doing the oral history. You’re listening to people’s memories. I think there’s certainly a tendency among people to speak about the past as a golden age and to romanticize and talk about all the positives and to gloss over the negatives. And of course the whole phenomenon of human memory and how it selects certain details – that you could just tell from the account I gave of the fellowship – and omits hundreds of others is very interesting and one that I study. But now I’m being studied, so I should keep going and provide direct evidence. It was a very lively intellectual world, because there were more Fellows and there were eight Junior Fellows in Byzantine and more in Pre-Columbian and Garden Studies – I can’t remember the number, versus now. I’m a Senior Fellow, so I know what’s going on. You know, there are perhaps three or four Junior Fellows. There were eight Fellows and they had two-year fellowships, versus now, when there are maybe three or four Junior Fellows in Byzantine studies and they have a one-year fellowship. So, there was a larger community and my sense is there was a larger intellectual community at Dumbarton Oaks, because there were more historians and scholars on staff. And so, that made it very lively. One of the features that I remember as being formative and had a big impact on me was this program that William Loerke, the Director of Studies, instituted, to give us a larger, greater intellectual life – the Junior Fellows, that is. He would invite down some famous scholar, who would come for a couple of days. And we would have this intense seminar with that person and that would go on for – I can’t remember. That would go on for several hours. Maybe it was morning, afternoon. We talked – it was just us, the Junior Fellows, so not more senior scholars, so it was just basically graduate students, so the senior scholars were, I think, probably more forthcoming about their work and their career than they would have been if they were speaking to a colleague or something like that. So, it was really a student-teacher situation there and therefore very useful. So, I can remember Goitein, Professor Goitein, a very famous historian – economic historian of Islam, Jews in the Mediterranean, a great historian of the Cairo Geniza, this extraordinary find for economic history in Cairo and the Mediterranean from the tenth to twelfth century. He came and told us many, many things about the Geniza and told us about his life and his career. He was then, I believe – he had a longer-term appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study. I don’t believe he was a – he was not a permanent member, I think, but he had a kind of longer-term – And he had a, you know – being a Jewish scholar of a certain age – had a complicated life. And this is surely a wonder. And now we have great resources at Princeton and I just remember saying how we should be very thankful that we have all these books and all these resources, when many places in the world don’t have this. And then I remember another scholar that came was Jaroslav Pelikan. He made a great impact on me, as well. He was a professor here at Yale and I had nothing to do with Yale at that moment, hadn’t even been to New Haven, so knew nothing about it. So, he was a professor here and then engaged in writing this history of Christianity, which I believe was five volumes, four or five volumes that the University of Chicago published. And he talked a lot about that and he talked about his education and his sort of life history and, you know, later on I followed his work and he began as a Lutheran. They spoke very fondly to us and he worked – I believe he wrote a book on Luther and perhaps St. Augustine, before he began this big project. His first volume, I believe, in a series was on eastern Christianity, first or second volume, and perhaps the second volume in a series. And that’s what he was really working on then. He talked to us about eastern Christianity and with great fondness. Even though it wasn’t his religious tradition, he was very interested in it, you know, and we were interested in it, too. It wasn’t our religious tradition, most of us – there were a few Orthodox present, but – And later on I had – a young man came up to my office while I was teaching at the University of Chicago maybe seven or eight years ago. And he was a sophomore undergraduate. [to AS] What year are you?
AS: I just graduated.
RN: OK. You were once a sophomore.
AS: Yes. I was once a sophomore.
RN: So, a sophomore, well, a young man walks in as a sophomore and he says, “I’d like to take your graduate seminar.” And I said, “Well, that’s probably a reach. You’re going to have to really convince me your background is up for this.” So, he talked to me and he had a very significant background. And I might have let him in, but I made it very clear that it was a serious, great deal of work. He eventually didn’t take the course, but his father was a professor at the Russian Orthodox seminary St. Vladimir’s, north of New York City. And he’s the one that filled in a little detail for Jaroslav Pelikan’s life. Somehow I was telling him I’d been working with Pelikan’s books, his history of Orthodox Christianity, and he said, “Oh, I know him. My father is his spiritual advisor.” And Professor Pelikan was in the process of converting to Orthodoxy. And by studying with this professor at St. Vladimir’s, having religious counseling – He knew a great deal about the subject, but it was a matter of, you know, his spiritual life. Anyway, so that allowed me to complete his history. So, Dumbarton Oaks was, I think, a very lively intellectual world. The other thing that Professor Loerke let us do: a group of us decided we wanted to learn Russian. And I think there were about four or five, you know. It’s one of these great ideas you have, sitting around at night or something, you know: “Let’s study Russian! Let’s get together and study Russian.” You know. The reality, of course, you know, but there was a staff member, who knew Russian. She was a staff member of the sort that doesn’t hopefully exist anymore, called a secretary. So, secretaries were all female and they were great, overqualified women who, because of sexual discrimination then, couldn’t get other kinds of jobs. And she sat all day, typing. Dreadful. I hope they’re trying to move past that. Mary Lou Masey was in there, a very nice lady, and somehow she knew Russian – I don’t know what her background was. And she was interested in basically getting relief from the TV and the typing all day. Who wouldn’t? And, you know, there were these - now I could see her as a teacher. You know, we were bright graduate students and motivated, you know, and it was a small class, like three or four people, like this would be an ideal teaching situation. So, the director of studies allowed Ms. Masey to take time off from her typing duties and give us Russian classes. I think we met twice a week, maybe three times a week. We had homework and all these sorts of realities, which – after all, a few people dropped out is what I’m trying to say. I mean, they really thought it would be great to study Russian, but as you know, with any new language you have to do homework and you have to work. And we also had dissertations to write and there was pressure there, but we stuck with it. And I believe it was a year; perhaps it was even two years of Russian that we did. I think it was two years and I can remember some of my classmates. The Magdalinos were there: Paul Magdalino and Ruth Macrides Magdalino were there. Let’s see – I believe they were Fellows, perhaps, my first year, or maybe both years. I can’t remember now. And they were there and Warren Treadgold, who is a professor at St. Louis University. He was there. And I think James Carder was there in the group.
AS: Yes, he was.
RN: Did he say?
AS: We interviewed him last week, but I’m pretty sure he was ’71 or ’72. He was somewhere in there.
RN: Yeah, he was a Fellow the same time I was. Oh yeah, I definitely know that. But I think he was in the Russian class. I can’t quite remember. Yes, I’m pretty sure he was, because we had this wonderful practice of, after lunch—you know Dumbarton Oaks gives a wonderful lunch, which – once you’re a starving graduate student, you’re sort of always a starving graduate student. We had enough to live on at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, but we all – lunch was free and we all tended to make that the main meal of the day, because we could save money on supper. And so, we all just packed it in at lunch and went back for seconds. And the result was, after lunch, we were just kind of, ugh. And we’d go walk in the gardens after lunch and that would revive us a little bit, so we could do some work in the afternoon. And we hit upon this strategy that when we walked in the garden we would speak Russian to each other, which we did for twenty or thirty minutes, so I can still remember a bit of the vocabulary about things that you might encounter in the garden, which is not, perhaps, fundamental to the Russian language, you know. And I also remember walking down from 2702 Wisconsin Avenue, where the Fellows stayed, an apartment building up Wisconsin Avenue about, I’d say, a mile from Dumbarton Oaks. I’d often walk down with Ruth and Paul and we would try to speak Russian then, too, while walking down the street, et cetera, so it was fun. It was interesting. I don’t think any of us ever became great Russian scholars, but we kind of all could probably still struggle through some Russian. So –
AS: You talked a little bit about visiting scholars and their impact, but you were at Dumbarton Oaks in sort of the last years of the great sort of European scholars who were at D.O. for quite a long time. I wonder: did any of them have a great impact on you?
RN: Well, Nicolas Oikonomides was a great influence, as well. He had an appointment in Montreal and had some kind of association with Dumbarton Oaks. I mean, I was a Junior Fellow so I never was quite sure as to what formal relationships people had and what their employment contract said – it’s none of my business. But, he usually would come to spend the summers there and I believe he was working on the seals project. And he would bring his family and I liked his wife very much. She was a scholar of – is; is she still alive? – of what’s called beylik, Turkish history, the small Turkish principalities in Asia minor in the period before they coalesced into the great Ottoman Empire. So, she knew some difficult Turkish and also knew Greek, and so was a sort of Turkish Byzantinist. And he was a wonderful polymath, Byzantinist, economic historian, diplomatic historian, and above all could read, from my point of view, very difficult inscriptions. So, you could show him something in manuscripts that none of us could figure out what in the world – we just couldn’t figure out what the letters were, much less read the Greek, you know. And he would just read it straight away. It was most impressive, most impressive. It was extremely useful to have someone like that around. And he would come with his or her mother and she would watch the children. She spoke only Greek, I remember. And the children would come to the pool and we’d play with their children and they, I’m sure, have gone on – I asked Oikonomides once about it – I think one’s a Japanese expert some place. They’ve gone on to great things in the world, but yes, I remember him very fondly. And later he did me a big favor. He nominated me for a position at Dumbarton Oaks. He told me later on. And so I was very grateful to him. He was a really good mentor for younger scholars. He paid attention to their work and was very kind and solicitous. When I came back to Dumbarton Oaks as a Fellow, ’81-’82, there was the great émigré scholar, Alexander Kazhdan, who was the life of the party.
AS: He was not there in the ’70s?
RN: He was not there yet. I don’t know when he started. I believe he came a little bit after that. You know he was part of these Soviet Jews who were allowed out of the Soviet Union. And that was a certain time. I could go to my computer and we could Google it and figure out what year it was. So, I was there ’75-’77. My guess is late ’70s, probably late ’70s. The Russians allowed a certain number of these Jewish intellectuals to leave. And his son had been allowed to leave. His son, I think, was a famous mathematician at Harvard, became a Harvard math professor.
AS: Yes, he did go to Harvard. We spoke to Professor McCormick last summer and he gave us quite a few details on that. My understanding is that he and Musja are now in Jerusalem, both of them.
RN: Both of them. OK.
AS: I think there was some controversy with – my understanding is that it was his son who was converting to Judaism. And that was the impetus behind all of them being –
RN: OK. That I didn’t know. I just got there in ’81-’82 and got to know him. And he was absolutely wonderful. Great parties.
AS: Strong personality.
RN: Great parties. I will never, as long as I live, forget the New Year’s Eve party at the Kazhdan’s place. Never.
AS: This was at their house on the corner of 32nd?
RN: Yeah. The house on the corner. And I was getting married and got married in February, six weeks after that or something. And my wife-to-be had come down and visited. And the Kazhdans had invited us to this New Year’s Eve party. And my sister, who lives in Richmond, had also invited us for New Year’s Eve and I wanted to accept both invitations, but this was kind of complicated. So, I did. And we drove to Richmond, which is, like, an hour, hour and a half, two hours. We spent some time there and then we drove back to Washington. And of course they fed us. You don’t go any place without – so we stayed for dinner. And then we got back to the Kazhdan’s and arrived at nine or ten. And they said something about how it would be a late supper. And so we were thinking we’ll just have a little bit to eat. So, we sit down and the food starts coming. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Russian New Year’s Eve party. Be prepared. And so I think, maybe – let’s say we’re sitting down to eat at about ten. And at three o’clock in the morning, everybody was still at the table and courses were still arriving! It was unbelievable. Of course, I made a terrible mistake by cleaning my plate, eating all that was served at various times. And, of course, between each course there are vodka toasts. It was just too much. At three o’clock in the morning – I don’t think I’ve ever done this at a dinner party – I just – everybody was there; apparently it went on until, I don’t know, seven or eight in the morning, or something. And I just said, “I’m sorry. I just can’t stay anymore.” So, we got up and left. I hope we didn’t drive. But I mean, it was – I got back home and – it was quite something.
AS: Now was this the – there was one infamous Kazhdan party where I believe it ended in Alexander going skinny dipping at about six or seven in the morning.
RN: It could have been the same night for all I know. I just couldn’t go. Really. I just can’t drink that much. Anyway, the Russians are better at this. Also, they know how to pace themselves. That’s the key. If you knew the secret to the party, you would pace yourself. Yeah, he was wonderful.
AS: So, it sounds like even – well, of course, this was later, but it sounds like even during the junior fellowship there was a vibrant social life, as well.
RN: There was a vibrant social life. There was, I think – William Loerke was very, well – in some ways you could say – well, many criticized his director of studies period seriously and there were lots of problems and lots of issues. And he wasn’t a significant scholar and never had been and never would be. And that, I think, made him a bit of a – made things difficult, because these sorts of places – I mean, you graduated from Harvard; that’s one of these sorts of places. There’s a great deal of competition; there’s a lot of rivalry amongst people and you’ve seen it among your classmates, you know, and they’re all great achievers and they’re working very hard, et cetera. Somebody who’s in a high position and hasn’t achieved a great deal is oftentimes not viewed very positively by his or her colleagues. And there’s a feeling of something unjust and this person has gotten something that other people would have deserved better, whatever. So, there was definitely that impression. He, however, was not really being selected to be the world’s greatest scholar but to be a capable administrator and he was a good administrator. I’m not sure many people had the capability to make those distinctions, though. That’s not something that kind of older faculty would understand. And so, he was a capable administrator and he was always reaching out to the other institutions around Dumbarton Oaks and trying to bring people in to lunch and things like that and to help break down the isolation. Dumbarton Oaks was a very isolated place. That’s the way it was built. It was built as a private paradise by the Blisses – I mean, a sort of villa within the city. And, you know, once this turned into an institution, it also had problems like that, too. So, he was reaching out to the National Gallery and various other places. I think that helped the social life and there were, I’m sure, the same number of junior Fellow parties as there are now. I mean, that’s a kind of constant, don’t you think? I mean, I don’t know – I can’t – I’m not a Junior Fellow there.
AS: It seems to differ, from what we’ve heard this summer, from class to class.
RN: Oh, really?
AS: Yeah. Just with the personalities of Junior Fellows. Some tend to be more group-oriented and others are very much, very into their dissertations and library work.
RN: Well, when I was there as a Junior Fellow, we had this one man – I’m sorry; I can only remember how I always referred to him. He was a Polish papyrologist. I liked the alliteration. So, he studied papyri, documents, Egyptian documents. Zbigniew was his first name and I don’t remember his last name. And he loved to drink Polish vodka. He loved to have parties at the swimming pool and he was sort of stocky, had a big moustache – I mean, he was just the bon vivant Slavic type and he was great. And there were lots of other people. I mean, there were the Fellows and some of them were there with their families; some were without their families. And the people with families went home to their families in the evening and the people like Zbigniew, who was there alone, you know – he sort of hung out with the Junior Fellows. So, I think it was a good group. I think there are a lot of friends – I’m still friends with all of those people, all of the Junior Fellows, with one possible exception. And that’s my friend – I still think of him as a friend – Warren Treadgold, who later had lots of disagreements with Dumbarton Oaks and basically refused to set foot in the place again and stopped speaking to his old friends, which is very painful to me, but I still think of Warren as a friend even if he doesn’t see it that way. And I, you know, I hope some day we’ll be able to put this all in the past. But, he was a Harvard undergrad and Harvard Ph.D. and had a lot of difficulties with Dumbarton Oaks and its directors over the years. But I don’t feel like going into that for oral history.
AS: Well, speaking of Harvard, I guess it was during these years when you were a Junior Fellow that there was a lot of talk about moving Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard.
AS: I don’t know if any of that ever trickled down to the Junior Fellows.
RN: Well, it definitely did. It trickled down. How accurately and how, you know – the Junior Fellows were quite involved with this, because William Loerke shared a certain amount of this with us, which I can see, from my present perspective, was a sign of how great the crisis was, because your professors at Harvard don’t share with you, as an undergraduate, you know, details, tenure crises, things like that. I mean, it’s just utterly confidential, but the fact that he would share some of these negotiations, I think, with the junior faculty was a sign of great institutional crisis, just as when you at Harvard had your controversy about your president, I mean, I could read the New York Times and see that a lot of the confidentiality was breaking down. That’s a sign of a real crisis. So, it was and we formed a Dumbarton Oaks alumni association then, whose purpose was really to lobby on behalf of the alumni for Dumbarton Oaks. And Loerke was – the crisis came, as I understand – again, I have only hearsay evidence; I’m not primary – with his attempt to make Oikonomides a permanent professor at Dumbarton Oaks. And that was rejected by Harvard and they decided there would not be any more resident faculty at Dumbarton Oaks, which forevermore changed the intellectual life at Dumbarton Oaks. For good or for bad, it changed it profoundly, lessened it. And it means that it’s now rather more of a foundation that administers money and gives money for other people’s projects and no longer is a research institution itself, primarily. That’s a Harvard decision, that’s an executive decision of how they wanted to run their particular institute. And now since I’m a senior faculty, I can understand that these decisions had to be made, but it wasn’t received well in Dumbarton Oaks.
AS: I wouldn’t imagine so.
RN: By nobody. Not a person there, because there was a great tradition of these famous professors. Ševčenko and Mango were the ones that I had interviewed with, two of the greatest Byzantinists of the 20th century. They’re both alive and not as active now; I guess they’re in their eighties. But, they were remarkably brilliant. Both of them were just some of the most brilliant – I would say they were some of the most brilliant intellectuals I’ve ever read in my career and they were professors there. Spectacular. So, it had the kind of tenor more of an institute of advanced study than a foundation that gave out money for grants. And – [Recording stops, then starts again.]
AS: OK, we’re rolling again and I think we were discussing the hearsay relating to the possible closure of Dumbarton Oaks and return of the collections to Harvard.
RN: Right. Well, now that I’m working on this project about the history of Dumbarton Oaks and the Bliss-Tyler correspondence, actually a much earlier history about that, which reminds me, before we get – I want to talk about William Royall Tyler and what I remember about him when I was there as a Junior Fellow. But let’s stay on this question of the future of Dumbarton Oaks. It was – the plan was greeted very poorly by – the Junior Fellows were – we all felt much aggrieved by this and we felt – we all identified with the institution and we felt that this was a real threat to the institution. Now, whether this was right or wrong, I don’t know, but I’m sort of giving you a witness’s evidence here. I don’t believe there were any of the Junior Fellows who felt differently. And the Byzantinists in the area that had positions at local universities were terribly upset at this, because their whole career had been based on having access to the library at Dumbarton Oaks. There was nothing in Washington remotely comparable, so they would have lost their scholarly careers and you can see how they would be very upset, so that was really – a lot of time was spent on this and as a graduate student, it was déjà vu all over again, because all of us in my generation had been through similar protests like that for the Vietnam War on our college campuses. And all this was quite mild compared to things that happened during the ’60s. You know, I had been through periods like that in the ’60s, myself. So, I think there was a kind of willingness to go to the barricades instantly in part because of our experiences during the ’60s and the protests during the Vietnam War. And in effect, compared to your generation, my generation’s different. We were all radicalized by that to some degree. There’s not a person that wasn’t affected and I’d say at least 80 or 90 percent of college students participated in some way in demonstrations against authorities. It was simply – and some people, that’s all they did, in the spring of their college years, is go to rallies all the time. I don’t know about doing any studying; I got into a good graduate school. I mean, I was studying, you know, but I was also going to rallies. So, this seemed kind of similar and it was a period when people of a certain generation were revolting against the system, you know, take it to the man, all sorts of things, all sorts of expressions were used – in this case, quite inappropriate. And those expressions of defiance and rebellion then were by people who felt very much as if they were not part of the system and so they felt entitled or certainly justified in revolting or crashing the system, literally, in terms of the riots that happened in the 1960s. As an historian and something of a social historian, I have to say that that class of people, Junior Fellows, were very much part of the system. We were from elite schools and we had a fellowship at an elite institution. We were not exactly disadvantaged youths in the ghetto or something. But there was a sense of rebellion that went on during that. And Giles Constable, I believe, if I have the history right, became director the next year. And I believe the first year he was director –
AS: ’77 was his first year.
RN: Yeah, so that was my second year as a Junior Fellow. And he came and, like all new directors, began making changes initially, because that’s the smart way to do things. The President of the United States is pushing very hard on his legislative initiative right now, because if you don’t do it at the beginning it won’t happen. So, he was doing that, making changes that fundamentally took the institution in a different course. Right or wrong, that’s what happened. It was the curtailing, the elimination of the fieldwork program, which affected art history and archaeology profoundly. That was going on. I think for myself personally living through that change is, until this moment, part of my interest in doing this history of Dumbarton Oaks, because I’d like to know the past before that time and to sort of fill in the blanks. You know, I had very much a sense that the world was changing, but I didn’t really know what the world was that was changing. I didn’t know; I had only a vague sense. Now, I know a lot, because I’ve read a lot of letters. I know a lot about the aspirations and what Dumbarton Oaks was paying for and the great projects they did. And so, it had an impact, an intellectual impact on me during that period.
AS: And I wonder, while we’re on the subject of Constable and directors, I know you wanted to talk a little bit about William Tyler, as the previous director. Did you have much interaction with him as a Junior Fellow?
RN: Not very much. So, he was director for one year there and that’s the tragedy. I had very little. Now it’s a tragedy. He was aloof. He came to lunch fitfully. Lunch was the place where people would communicate with each other. And perhaps three, four, five, six times during the year, I happened to walk back to the main building with him after lunch. That was practically the only time one could really talk to him, besides receptions. And the lunch was in something we called the Fellows Building, which is now the Guest House, or whatever they call it.
AS: Right, yes, the Guest House.
RN: So, that’s where we ate lunch and the walk from there to the main house was a bit longer than the walk from where people eat lunch now. And now they go in different directions, but everybody walked back to the main house. And so, occasionally I walked with him and my teacher, Hugo Buchthal, had been a Fellow there and he told me I should really try to talk to Tyler, because he was a very, very interesting man and had wonderful experiences. And so, I tried, but I couldn’t get much out of him. I asked him once what he’d be doing in the summer and he said, “Oh, I’ll be going to our place in France.” And, “Oh, you have a place in France?” “Oh yes, we have a place in Burgundy.” That was the conversation. Now, of course, I know – I’ve Googled it, I’ve seen the place on the Internet. I know how much it costs to rent for a week. Do you?
AS: No, but I can only imagine. I mean, he –
RN: It’s something like $9000 a week, or maybe it’s $9000 a month. In any case, I don’t have the $9000 for whatever period of time. It’s quite a chateau. And I know the history of it and how much his father paid for it and when he bought it and all these sorts of things. But so, I really – that’s my great disappointment, that I didn’t get to know him more. I think he felt, I sensed he felt he was not a scholar and couldn’t really interact. You know, that was a time when the world was not interested in the history of institutions. It was not interested in historiography. Dumbarton Oaks in many ways was aggressively erasing its past and that sense of the institution continued until a few years ago. The fact that we’re having this interview now means that desire to erase the past is past. The fact that the current director is supporting this project to publish the Tyler-Bliss correspondence is a sign that that’s passed. I can give you a variety of evidence that Dumbarton Oaks was definitely not interested in the history of its past before this time. And I wasn’t interested in that material also, when I was a Junior Fellow. But now I see it as an extraordinarily interesting set of individuals and circumstances that created this unique institution. So, that’s my great regret: that somehow I didn’t figure out as a young person how to successfully interact with this older, shy, very formal, former-diplomat, rather more European than American – there was a real kind of cultural difference. And I think – and I don’t know what else was – I can now imagine other things that were going on in his mind, because I read letters that he wrote as a young man. And all of that, maybe, we’ll put in our book and I don’t know – it’s not something I’ve really worked out in my mind right now, but I’m giving you the direct evidence. So, that’s my great regret: that I didn’t get to know him more.
AS: He was still very much connected, though, to the Washington social scene. That’s the sense I’ve gotten. I don’t know. I know the earlier days of Dumbarton Oaks very much trickled down to the experience for Fellows. I don’t know if it carried over into this period of time or not.
RN: Well, he was a retired ambassador. And I got a sense from him that retired ambassadors were systematically invited to embassy receptions and there are a lot of embassies and there have got to be a lot of receptions. Now, I’ve read a lot about the life of diplomats and I know that that is one of the principal places where diplomats do business, so you really, if you’re a diplomat, you need to go to those receptions. And there’s a lot of networking that takes place there and it’s rather fundamental to the job. But he was retired and he found all of that quite onerous, he said. And so, he tried to go to as few of those as possible. But he definitely had a ceremonial life there in Washington and, you know, he was a retired American ambassador in the headquarters of the State Department. You can see there were quite a number of contacts that he surely had. He was working on this correspondence to some degree and he was also working on the Liszt papers, as I recall. He told me that. He somehow, or Dumbarton Oaks had, or somebody had letters of Franz Liszt. Actually, I haven’t confirmed that later. I don’t know where those are or what that was about, but that’s what he told me he was working on. That’s all I know.
AS: I wonder – a bit of a change of topic, but during the same period – what your interaction was with the D.O. collection, or if there was one.
RN: Sure, there was a collection. The same art that’s there now was there then. I would say there was no interaction with the collection. I’m trying – I’m racking my brain for any interaction. I think that’s something that’s changed now. The collection is much more accessible, I believe. My guess is it was probably more a heritage of the patrons and the whole attitude, the whole gestalt around the objects as being private was perhaps continued on. And so, that was the collection and we were there to use the books and work on our materials. I never felt encouraged to look at the objects and there was never any museum visit for Fellows, even though there were four or five or six art historical Junior Fellows. I would say that was a missed opportunity. We should have had much more interaction with the curator and the staff about the collection. We would have learned a lot. But, that didn’t happen.
AS: And speaking of interactions, did you have any interactions with the pre-Columbian center or the Garden and Landscape center?
RN: I did. I liked the Fellows. One of my two years there, there was a wonderful Pre-Columbian Fellow, Linda Schele, a professor at the University of Texas. She was great. She was the den mother of the Junior Fellows. I mean, she was this wonderful sort of charismatic, extroverted, outgoing lady, somewhat heavyset, wore these long – we called them muumuus or something. Long, kind of flowing dresses. This was a long time ago. But it was very ’60s, sort of hippie-like fashion: long hair and these long, flowing dresses. And she was just so exuberant. Her parties were wonderful and she was so excited about everybody’s work. And I really, I loved that. I found that so interesting. And I was very impressed with everything I learned, that I picked up about the pre-Columbian world. Spanish, actually, was my first foreign language, so I never felt – it never seemed terribly foreign, what they were doing. I grew up in southern Texas, near the Mexican border, so it was just – Mexico doesn’t seem foreign to me, in a way. And what they were doing didn’t seem foreign, although I don’t have a Ph.D. in pre-Columbian studies. Later on, when I remarried, my second wife’s father did a lot of business in Mexico and collected pre-Columbian art and even gave me a few pieces, so I feel like something was born there; an appreciation for pre-Columbian studies happened there at Dumbarton Oaks and that’s because of the Fellows that I knew. And similarly, for landscape, there was a person, – I’m sorry; I can’t remember his name. Mr. Moran, maybe? – an Americanist working on American landscape architecture, and other people coming in interested in Beatrix Farrand, who was the great designer of the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks and also many other gardens. And later on I remembered – those memories were important to me, because I became very interested in the gardens; I became very interested in American landscape architecture in the ’20s and ’30s, because it’s relevant to the Blisses and the Tyler-Bliss project. So, there was also, one year, there was a landscape architecture professor, Miller, Miss Miller, Professor Miller. I can’t remember her first name. She taught at Boston College or Boston University. She was a Renaissance scholar. She was very lively and I’ve always been interested in Italy and Italian art and working on the Italian Renaissance. And so, I very much enjoyed her. So, I liked all of the centers. The music – I liked the music. I like the whole thing that Dumbarton Oaks does. I’m really quite – I buy the whole program. I think it’s a great program.
AS: Were Fellows active in the Friends of Music concerts, going to concerts and things like that?
RN: Well, I was. Music is real important to my life and I went to every one. There were some great ones. There was a marvelous concert in one of my years there. Maybe it was when I was a Fellow. I was a Fellow ’81-’82. It was the earliest music that Mozart composed, like Opus 1, 2, 5, 6, 10, you know? Mozart was very prolific. So, we listened to things he composed at seven, eight, ten, eleven, fifteen and they played these for – they’re not played; these things aren’t performed. And the performers talked about them and that was really interesting. And there was – a quartet came; ah, people’s names. A quartet came and – or it was a quintet – and one of the violinists was very famous: Schneider? I can’t remember the man’s name. Anyway, he was a friend of my professor. Hugo Buchthal was married to Serkin’s wife [sic: sister], the then very famous pianist. And she – her whole family was musical and they were part of a kind of musical dynasty in Austria, in Vienna, and so whenever I’d go visit my professor, most of the conversation would be about music and, you know, really performers and opera singers and things like that, all of whom were their friends and they socialized with them. Anyway this violinist was – I remember him: very famous and recorded often, but he played dreadfully. He was rather old and he was just basically faking it, I mean, lots of missed notes, and I said something to Hugo Buchthal about this and he said, “Oh, well, you know, this happens later on.” I just do remember he was dreadful. I was just kind of wondering, “How’d that happen?” and “Why did he get on the series?” But mainly they had younger performers; obviously, younger performers are cheaper. But, they also have – they did something wonderful and experimental, like the earliest Mozart music. And they can play with a great verve, and I think really there I learned to appreciate chamber music, because that’s chamber. That’s music in a hall. That’s in a setting. And there aren’t too many other places where you get to hear chamber music. There are universities and concert halls that try to make small venues for it, but it’s not in a home and people are sitting in banks of seats and all that sort of stuff. That was a rare privilege.
AS: Now, these concerts were taking place in the Music Room, or in the gardens?
RN: The Music Room. So, we had this conference for the re-opening of the library, dedicated to the Blisses; we were very interested in trying to have re-stagings of those famous compositions that the Blisses commissioned and that was a great experience a few years ago.
AS: We should move on to your years as a Fellow in the ’80s a little more directly, but before we do, just as sort of a summary question about the Junior Fellow period, a lot of people have described these years as a tough time to be in academia more generally and some have talked about how that filtered down to, especially to Junior Fellows, as people who are just getting their feet wet, with a lot of people having to leave the field and, you know, a lot of frustration. I wonder: is that something you perceived in your time there?
RN: Yeah, that would be an aspect of at least this particular person you’re interviewing, emphasizing the positive, not discussing with you the negative. So, I’m making it into a golden age, but there was enormous anxiety. It frankly was the kiss of death to go into job interviews saying I was at Dumbarton Oaks. I was so proud of getting the Dumbarton Oaks fellowship. Some letter comes on fancy Harvard stationery and it says in very pretentious, pompous language – I probably have a copy somewhere. “The Board of Overseers begs to inform...” Something like that. “That you’ve been...” All this. I just thought this was unbelievable. And so, I was so, so proud of being a Junior Fellow. And so, I started applying for jobs using Dumbarton Oaks stationery. I thought this was very impressive. It was a disaster, because Byzantinists were perceived to be – especially coming out of Dumbarton Oaks – narrow – only interested in scholarship, unable to teach anything else outside the Byzantine field, by definition a poor teacher, and something that universities wouldn’t want. So, it was a real problem. And that aspect of the profession sticks with me to this day. I never allow one of my graduate students in Byzantine art to leave with a Ph.D. unless they have a broader education than just Byzantine. They cannot restrict themselves to studying Byzantine, because I want them to be qualified for different kinds of jobs. And so, that’s something I took from that period. There was one person who was hanging on at Dumbarton Oaks and I can’t remember his name. He was a Junior Fellow and had a – excuse me; that’s my phone. Let me just look and see who it is. Can you turn it off? Let me – [Recording stops, then starts again.]
RN: – in the University of Michigan, who had been a Junior Fellow, had many years of Arabic, and had to leave the field, because there were simply no jobs for anybody in Islamic history. The study of Islam was even worse than studying Byzantine studies, which is quite a remarkable thing now, since the whole world is terribly interested in Islamic studies. There were friends of mine that in a way were in the process of leaving the field. It was very difficult. The year I got my job, I’ll give you the statistics. There were a hundred people applying for jobs in medieval art and if you had a Byzantine specialty you were at a disadvantage. A hundred people applying – this is according to college statistics – and there were two jobs. Two. I got one of them. I got the best one. I got a job as assistant professor at the University of Chicago and that made all the difference in my career. I stayed there for twenty-seven years and then I came to Yale, so my career was very simple. It was terrible. There were very, very well qualified people that didn’t get the Chicago job and had to go into other fields. I think the person that comes to mind: my friend Gary Vikan is director of the Walters Art Museum. He was some years ahead of me and had a Dumbarton Oaks staff appointment for several years; a very, very good scholar, very wonderful person, very good scholar, and has been a great museum director. I mean, he’s a talented human being and has done very well there, but it’s a real loss to the profession that Gary didn’t take an academic job and that didn’t work out for him. And there were others. It was indeed a very difficult time and I – that was the anxiety. That was the – for many people a kind of depression that hung over us. So, we were there amongst the beautiful flowers and the glorious libraries and great intellectual traditions of Dumbarton Oaks and at the same time we didn’t know if we’d be even in the field the next year, so it was a hard time. No doubt about it. And I don’t think – in retrospect, Dumbarton Oaks could have done more to deal with that, but they didn’t see that as their problem or maybe they themselves were in denial, you know, that there was a problem. I don’t know. Later on, institutions grappled with this surplus of academics and Harvard cut its entering classes and, you know, this happened to many places. It was an outgrowth of the great expansion of academia in the ’60s into the early ’70s, spurred on by the stimulus of federal money and burgeoning economic times and many – a larger percentage of Americans going to college and demand, et cetera. And all of a sudden with the economic turmoil with the later ’70s, that collapsed. Some version is going to go on now, but it will be better controlled and more contained than it was then. It was a kind of depression in academia. I got my job at the University of Chicago; I shared this one statistic with you. I got paid $11,000 in 1977, a year. And I calculated my hourly rate. I was working about a hundred hours a week to start, because that’s the way assistant professors do it. I was making some incredibly small amount. I was making less than minimum wage. And it was also a period of great inflation, which was a big problem for everybody in the country. And I sort of extrapolated my salary and the rate of inflation and I saw that within three or four years I would be under the poverty, I would be at the poverty level of America. It was that bad. It was really, it was a lot of – universities were really struggling. Yale, I know, suffered a great deal. [Recording stops, then starts again.]
AS: Now we’re rolling again.
RN: OK. So, I’m sure Harvard also went through similar constrictions. Endowments went down a great deal. There were a lot of significant losses in endowments. I think Yale lost a great deal of their endowment back then and I don’t know what happened to Harvard, but it was a very difficult time in academia and so that’s the large – now I can see; if you take the long view, that’s the larger context for our anxiety then. But, it was palpable. Yeah.
AS: Well, this was not the case when you returned in ’81, or less so, I guess.
RN: Well, I was an assistant professor and by then I had advanced to professor; my career had gone well. And my colleagues liked me at Chicago and so I was there ’81-’82 and I’d already had a book published before I got there, which was good – a short book, but it was a book. And I was working on various other projects and I was getting married. It was a good time, a lot better. It was really kind of, in the personal aspect, which perhaps I will mention here – in the first year of my junior fellowship, my first wife died, so I had a great sort of personal tragedy. William Loerke was very kind and solicitous about that, I must say. He was very helpful. And then the second time I was at Dumbarton Oaks, I got married. So, I mean, you know, it’s sort of a very concrete contrast there. And I got tenure in the fall of ’82. That’s the year after I was at Dumbarton Oaks. So, things were looking pretty good then. So, it was a much better time. Kazhdan had come to Dumbarton Oaks and he had, compared to the – which was Giles Constables’ brilliant idea, absolutely brilliant – and so in my second year as a Junior Fellow, there was a lot of grumbling about Giles Constable, but by the time he made this brilliant appointment, everybody was, “Well, what a great,” et cetera. Things change. He was the same man, of course. But, this was all from the lower echelon point of view. And so, that was a very good and successful year, I think. I got a lot of work done and it worked well.
AS: It would have been different, your different perspective as, being in different places in your career – were there visible changes at Dumbarton Oaks between your two – I mean, you’d been gone almost five years, I guess, between the two. Or did it seem like the same place?
RN: It seemed the same. It seemed the same. I had trouble working there the second time. There was a reading room where the Junior Fellows had desks, in part of the Blisses’ house, of course, and it had these gorgeous wood floors, which were from probably the Blisses. When they were there they had beautiful oriental carpets down, et cetera et cetera. Now, there were just bare wood floors and they were extremely noisy, because of people walking around all the time. And the reading room was wood-paneled. It was an exceedingly bright, sonically, room. It’s the sort of environment that restauranteurs make so that people won’t linger long over their dinners. And it was very hard to study. And I don’t deal very well with noise. Some people like – my son’s in college and he likes to go to coffee shops and work. I couldn’t. I have to have perfect silence. We’re completely different. And so, I found it hard to work. And it became even worse when I came back as an assistant professor, because I was used to having an office and quiet spaces and so I remember having earplugs in all day, trying to work, and things like that. So, that’s my impression of the environment. Constable, bless his heart, heard the complaints and put a carpet down in the hall. And that cut down the noise. First, there was great grumbling about how they’re going to change at Dumbarton Oaks, but he really did cut down the noise of people’s shoes, you know. And we used to – some of the women wore high heels and they made a – this is a different age. That even made more noise and we’d really grumble about that. And some people would even suggest they might not wear high heels at Dumbarton Oaks, you know, but they couldn’t do that, for the head librarian liked to wear high heels. We didn’t feel like we could say anything to her about it. So, I think that’s about the only difference that I can think of. Not a profound one.
AS: Well, speaking of the library, how was your interaction with – it would be Irene Vaslef at this point – or any of the librarians?
RN: Oh, I liked Irene. I liked her a great deal and that second time when I came back, she had a son who was a medical doctor and I think he’d taken a residency in Chicago, so we had a lot of Chicago conversations about her son, et cetera. And I always liked Irene a great deal. I was very fond of her; I thought she was an excellent librarian. I worked hard to help them get books and to give them suggestions and took very seriously that responsibility of Fellows, to try to help them get books they didn’t know about. I kind of took that attitude, which I picked up as a junior Fellow as well – we were encouraged to do that and when I got to Chicago, all the time I was there, I was constantly on the librarians to get books and things. I still do it at Yale. Whenever I see something we don’t have, I shoot off an email. Fortunately at Yale we have plenty of money for books, so they buy everything. At Chicago it was more difficult. Dumbarton Oaks also bought everything, so that was great.
AS: So, it was a very active relationship between librarians and Fellows.
RN: Yeah. Definitely.
AS: And they were very accommodating.
RN: Very accommodating. They would do anything to help us. It was a real, personal – they would take a personal interest in your work and they would go to all kinds of heroics to help you get things. There was a man, a wonderful retired man; he’d had some sort of military career, and his job was to go the Library of Congress to get books for us. He was very talkative, a very garrulous man and you had to be a little bit careful about starting conversations, or you wouldn’t get any work done, because he would tell you great – all the heroic actions he’d done to find this book at the Library of Congress and I’m sure finding something in the Library of Congress can be very difficult on some days, but that was his mission, to get these obscure books for us in the Library of Congress, and perhaps they’re still doing that. I don’t know, but it’s probably more anonymous, interlibrary loan, or something now. But then they had their own courier; he would go every day. He was wonderful.
AS: Now, were you still living on Wisconsin Avenue during this fellowship?
RN: Yes, that was the time we still lived there. That was in a way a nice place to live. The apartments were small. As a Junior Fellow, I had a neighbor I got to know, who is still a friend, and she had a one-bedroom; I had a studio as a Junior Fellow. And she had a job in the White House and I got to know her and her boyfriend and then husband. And she invited me down to the White House one day, when the President was away. And this was the Ford administration; she was Republican. And I took along a couple of other Fellows, foreign Fellows, because I thought this would be a good experience for them. I took along Anthony Bryer, famous Byzantine historian at Birmingham, and – oh, dear. I forgot his name, but he couldn’t get a job and he went back to Australia and did something on, sort of, educational administration. Perhaps I’ll remember his name. He worked on early Byzantium. So, we went down there and went to see my friend in the executive office building. She had a grand office and Bryer, who’s just a wild man, looked at her office and on her desk there was some stationery, very classy, even classier than Harvard stationery. It just says, “The White House, Washington, D.C.” You don’t need a zip code; you don’t need anything! That’s it, very simple. And he looked at it and said, “Oh, that’s beautiful. I think I’ll take some of that.” And she said, “No, you won’t. That’s against federal regulation.” So, he reached for it and she reached for it, too. And I thought they were going to get into a tug-of-war there and I said, “Bryer, let go of it.” I don’t think he quite understood the import. And we walked around and we saw – she took us up to the Oval Office and we walked around and saw all sorts of things. It was really cool. So, that’s one of the things I got out of 2702 Wisconsin Avenue, was meeting the then Sarah Massengale, who was on the Domestic Council of President Ford. So, that’s cool.
AS: Very much so.
AS: Now, my chronology – this is something I think you might be able to help with – is a bit messed up in these years. I know joint appointments were a new thing in these years or perhaps a little bit earlier, but one of our other interviewees mentioned that you had held one of the joint appointments?
RN: No. I never had a joint appointment.
RN: That’s never –
AS: Another one of the oral history –
RN: Yeah. Well, it’s somebody’s memory. I never had a joint appointment. I got a straight job at the University of Chicago at the conclusion of my second year as a Junior Fellow. I had a very fortunate career. I didn’t have to be an adjunct some place; I didn’t have to take a temporary job. When I was there, John Duffy was an adjunct and he taught at the University of Maryland before he went to Harvard as a professor. I got to know John well, a great guy, wonderful philologist. And when I was there as a Fellow, ’81-’82, Mike McCormick was the joint Fellow, a joint appointment with Hopkins. And I think – I’m not sure. There were some others, but I’m a little unsure of the chronology there. But Mike, he was great there. I got to know him in my second period, ’81-’82. He was great; still is. Outgoing and very excited about his work all the time, a wonderful, sort of infectious, positive sense of enthusiasm about the field. I remember one day – I can remember the subject, but we were walking to lunch and we got into a serious intellectual debate. I can’t remember what it was about, but it was like, “Oh no, you can’t say that.” “Oh yes, I can.” Et cetera, you know. I mean, we just couldn’t let it go. We walked in and we kept going at it right there. And I remember Giles Constable was there and we were kind of oblivious that we were speaking loud and people were looking at us and somebody said, “Quiet down. The director’s here.” And he turned and said, “No, no, I want to hear it. I want to see how they work this out.” And so, we actually kept the debate going. I forget. I don’t remember – I think it had to do with medieval history in France and it had to do with a French historian that I had been reading, about the middle ages. And it had to do with the book – sorry, I can’t remember the details, but it had to do a lot with oral memory and oral traditions – interesting to think about that in this present context. And about the truth and falsity of orally received traditions and things like that and historians could work with them or not work with them, et cetera. It was a great discussion.
AS: It seems like a typical D.O. experience.
RN: It was. That was lovely, yeah.
AS: I wonder: I don’t have too many more questions today. You may have other things to say about the Senior Fellow period, or, excuse me, the fellowship period in the early ’80s, but I didn’t know if you wanted – we’ve talked quite a bit in passing about Constable and his administration and I didn’t know if you wanted to touch upon that more specifically.
RN: Well, it’s hard for me to put it in context. Since I was a Junior Fellow and then an assistant professor, it’s very hard for me to see the larger context of what he was trying to do. I’m trying to be positive, but I think it was – I must say I think it was a tragic mistake to allow the fieldwork archaeology program to expire. I really do think that’s the major mistake he made and it has forever changed the character of the institution. And it’s something that now we can’t get back and it has had deleterious effect on academia in America. We have few scholars in America who have archaeological experience. That makes us inferior to the intellectual traditions of various European countries: the English are much better as a – there’s an English community of Byznatinists much more experienced with archaeology. Same for the Germans, et cetera, obviously the Greeks. It’s a major problem in America. And that extinguishing of the Dumbarton Oaks fieldwork caught us – really closed out our national archaeological experience. And it’s not been replaced. Maybe it was already dead and maybe what he did was simply pull the plug on a dead patient. And there’s some evidence for that, I could say. He wrote an article about this in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, his controversial decision, and actually did a little historiographic work in archives. It’s perhaps the first time that an historian began to look for archive information that was in there at Dumbarton Oaks. And he went into the fieldwork, tradition of fieldwork, and there’s something there that in the change of the Byzantine Institute of America and the death of Thomas Whittemore – I’ve written about this in a book and so I’ve done a lot of work on this, but in a period then in the ’50s and early ’60s, they allowed the patron network to expire and there was a large patron network in America that was paying for this American archaeology and that was allowed to fritter away. Dumbarton Oaks took over the Byzantine Institute of America’s archaeological programs and I can only surmise from a distance now that the world must have thought, well, “Rich Harvard, rich endowment, Dumbarton Oaks is taking over and there’s no reason for us to give any money to this anymore.” That was the supposition. For whatever reason, that happened and later on Dumbarton Oaks changed its policies, put its money elsewhere or maybe didn’t have any money. I think actually Dumbarton Oaks was affected by the same financial problems in the ’70s that everybody else was. I don’t know. I don’t know the statistics. I haven’t seen the letters. And there was no way to, sort of, re-establish this patron network that would pay for that. But, it’s affected American art and archaeology of Byzantium to this day and as a scholar I’m frustrated by it. I keep trying to work in different ways to support that and lately have been successful, so I’m not an archaeologist, but I think archaeology is very important for history and art history and lots of other fields. Although, I think Constable brought a real professionalization to Dumbarton Oaks for the first time and he was and is a historian of Monasticism. And he said to me one day, “The problem is, Rob,” he said. “Dumbarton Oaks is like a saint that has collected a whole series of followers around the saint or monasteries. It’s grown up, et cetera, and has survived on the charismatic will and the charisma of the great saint. But eventually the saint dies. So, then what are they going to do? Is the whole thing going to fritter away, or if it’s not then a structure has to be built and constructed around it.” And so, the way he did it was to construct a structure, an administrative structure. It meant spending more money on administrators, which we scholars never thought was a good idea at the end of the day, but perhaps was the way to change it from this institution presided over by the very wealthy patrons to something that would be a permanent academic institution. So, he began that process of professionalization at Dumbarton Oaks and even though he made decisions – I suppose he was part of the decision to no longer have any tenured professors – decisions that I don’t think really helped the character of the institution, he did in some ways make sure that it’s a going institution to this day. So, that’s what a good director does, I now know. And so, I’m rather more positive about his contributions than I certainly would have been then. Yeah. Maybe I’m just older.
AS: I think that’s a common thing that we’ve been hearing, so I don’t think you’re alone in that sentiment. Is there anything else in that fellowship period that I’ve left out, or should we talk about the Senior Fellows?
RN: Sure. Now we get closer to the present.
AS: Yes – with quite a bit of a fast-forward.
RN: So, I’ve been a Senior Fellow for six to seven years.
AS: Since 2003, I think.
RN: OK, thanks. When I wrote my book – this is an aside; I’m getting to it – when I wrote my book on Hagia Sophia and kind of the history of Byzantine studies, I had decided to end it in 1950 or early ’50s, when Whittemore, Thomas Whittemore, the head of the Byzantine Institute of America, died. I think he died in ’53. And that was very safe, because everybody I was writing about was dead and of course I could get access to archives and materials. Now we talk about the period from 2003 to the present. There’s a lot that I don’t want to say, that I can’t say, so I would say myself as an historical source becomes more limited. I’m saying all this for the record, but it would be obvious if anybody were reading this. Well, I’ve been there for two directors – Angeliki Laiou and now Jan Ziolkowski – and different administrations, both Harvard professors, both continuing, in a way, the tradition that Constable inaugurated of a senior, accomplished scholar running Dumbarton Oaks, which would seem, if you walked into the place now, what any research institution would have, but remember Constable was the first. And there are many advantages. The professors come from Harvard. They know the Harvard culture. Let’s see: I guess I wasn’t – was Angeliki?
AS: I think her tenure ended in 1998, so it would have been Keenan.
RN: Keenan. I guess she was just such a powerful member of the Senior Fellows that I think of her as still the director, even though Professor Keenan was the director. Sorry [laughs].
AS: No, no.
RN: She is quite a powerful person. I also had a lot to do with her while she was director, in part because she offered me a job there, and so we had many interactions about that in the early ’90s, which I didn’t take. I stayed in Chicago. But so, she was very important and Ned was very important, because all of these people brought real competency and real knowledge about Harvard as an institution, which is very useful for Dumbarton Oaks, because it is a Harvard institution and it needs to function in a capable way within other Harvard contexts. And the problem before, with this retired American ambassador, who I now know had been a Harvard graduate student – perhaps you know this. William Royall Tyler had been a Harvard graduate student in fine arts and failed his orals, the Ph.D. exams, and left graduate school. So, he was a failed academic at Harvard, which will come out when we publish the correspondence. But, anyways, that’s a very different person, as a director, from a senior, important scholar at Harvard coming down to be director, as what we had all of the previous times. [Recording stops, then starts again.]
AS: OK. We were just talking a little bit about the Senior Fellows committee and I won’t keep you too much longer, so I wonder if you just might talk about some of the – as you mentioned, I know that this is sort of recent stuff and not the stuff of oral history quite yet – but if there are any major, especially towards the earlier part of your term as a Senior Fellow, major issues or projects that were particularly memorable or enjoyable –
RN: Well, it was very enjoyable to watch the growth of the institution and the new building, the building projects that Ned put into effect. I particularly loved his taking me around the project and pointing out different aspects, because he took such a pride of ownership in the whole thing, as if it were his house that was being built, which is good. This is good. You want the person superintending it to really look for every detail and so that was quite interesting. Also to witness from a distance the effects on the institution of, let’s say, his forced merger of the different units so they all shared the same library. All the books are now merged together in a single system, so you don’t have the wonderful personalized assistants and the genuine scholars involved in the library that were once there, but this would be an example of what Constable would have called the need to move to a professional structure for Dumbarton Oaks, I mean, a continuation of that, which I’m sure on any given day is correct. I remember Loerke telling me one time that the cost of cataloging at Dumbarton Oaks – you know they had their own cataloging system – the cost of cataloging a book was four or five times more than if they used the Library of Congress system, which every other person, every other library in the country, even including money-rich Harvard and Yale, were switching to. Yale still has some old books that haven’t been switched over, but there’s no rational library in America that is not using the Library of Congress system now, because the Library of Congress catalogs the books and you don’t have to pay people to do that. Well, Dumbarton Oaks had to pay people. So, it’s inevitable what has happened and probably will help the institution in the long term, because there will be more intellectual sharing, because they all share the common library in a way. I mean, it probably will be good. So, one of the very nice things about being a Senior Fellow is that we break for lunch in the director’s home and it’s always a very lovely lunch and the conversation changes depending upon the Fellows that are there. The last couple years, John Haldon from Princeton, an historian, has joined us. John has great stories. He’s got many great humorous stories and that’s enlivened it a lot. I particularly enjoyed Ned’s wife, Elizabeth [sic: Judith], and one memorable lunch, I was talking about my son, who was studying political science there at Georgetown and really interested in getting some sort of internship on the hill and she said, “Well, maybe I can help.” And anyway, she helped him get an internship with the then junior senator from Illinois, now the President of the United States. So, that was really a good lunch. I really thought that was a good one. My family has stayed in Chicago until tomorrow, when they’ll all move here with the moving van, so he was still a resident of Illinois, so he could be an intern in the senator’s office. So, that was quite an interesting experience and I enjoyed talking about her times in Africa. I collect African art a little bit and she had lots of wonderful pieces. And now, of course, Jan’s wife is very interesting to chat with. Do you know?
AS: I haven’t met her yet.
RN: She is wonderful to talk to. She’s a chemist who – she’s a forensic chemist and works in crime labs, of course, and has an infinity of interesting stories, some of which she can share with us and only a few of which can be discussed at dinner, you know, but that’s also very interesting. So, I particularly enjoy the lunches and that’s – otherwise, we work very hard as Senior Fellows. We read many applications. What we all do, you know, it’s volunteer work for us. Harvard pays our expenses to go down there, but, you know, there’s no other compensation, so it’s really a kind of volunteer effort and it’s a great deal of work. And we work very hard and we have serious meetings and – but we have a nice lunch. So, I like the lunch.
AS: Well, I don’t have anything else about the Senior Fellows experience, but I’m sort of jumping around in time, but if you don’t mind, you’ve been involved in a number of symposia over the years –
AS: – even acting as symposiarch, I think. And I wondered if you might talk about the Dumbarton Oaks symposia and the role that it plays in Byzantine studies or any memorable symposia that you’ve been involved in.
RN: Well, the ones that had the greatest impact were the ones I encountered when I was young, as a graduate student, or as a Junior Fellow, or as an assistant professor. I’ll never forget the first one I went to. It was a colloquium and it was about Byzantine manuscripts – illumination, palaeography, intellectual history – and it was published as a book called Byzantine Books and Bookmen, which is the title of the colloquium run by Mango and Ševčenko. And there was a question-and-answer period and at one point somebody said, “Well, where did you come up with this word ‘bookmen’?” And, you know, one could have said “bibliophile”, one could have said “book collector” or something. What is this word, “bookmen”, which is a kind of marginally acceptable English word, you know? And one of them, one of the pair – they were quite a pair, in a way. They were yin and yang; they were quite something and both utterly brilliant. And one of them said, “Well, we were talking one day about this and – what language were we speaking? Oh, yes. Oh, yes, were speaking Russian then. And then we decided that, well, it really takes a word like that,” – there probably is a word like that in Russian; I don’t know, but there are similar Russian words. Russians use the word спортсмен. That’s how you say it in Russian, “sportsmen”. So anyway, the concept came from Russian. And as a beginning graduate student, I just couldn’t believe that they couldn’t remember what language they were speaking in and that they were speaking in Russian when they were doing all this. And that was a great one. Professor Irigoin from the Collège de France was there and there were a number of wonderful scholars. Yes, the Dumbarton Oaks symposia: very, very important, I think, for beginning scholars to come and see the older scholars and be a part of something very powerful intellectually. And it still functions that way. The quality of the symposia varies. I think there’s been a – [Recording stops, then starts again.]
AS: There we go. OK, we’re back on.
RN: So, we were talking about symposia and I was about to make a criticism. The criticism would be that the symposia – to some extent, the topics are yesterday’s news. They get topics that are not always cutting-edge and they operate more as a kind of consensus statement on a problem, as opposed to something more experimental, something more challenging. In a way they’re a bit like major art exhibitions in major museums, which are seldom path-breaking. They pull together material – I’m talking a Metropolitan Museum exhibition or something like that. But, that’s the nature of the beast, I’ll say, and there are very good things that Dumbarton Oaks is doing. They’ve put together these colloquia, which are on a smaller scale, and they’re more experimental, often bringing younger scholars and so I think they’ve got a good system of the kind of major, blockbuster exhibition – that’s the symposium – and then the smaller, challenging exhibition in a side gallery – and that’s the colloquia. So, I think that system is working well. Otherwise, I think Dumbarton Oaks is a lively, changing institution. It’s not an artifact of the past. It’s growing and changing and hopefully will remain a credit to Harvard indefinitely.
AS: I certainly hope so. Well, I just wondered if we might expand on that a little bit in talking about the role of Dumbarton Oaks in Byzantine studies in the future. You’ve touched on it a little – I mean, you’re sorry about the fieldwork disappearing and the changing nature of the symposia. But are there areas in which Dumbarton Oaks could play a different role than they do now in the field, in the future?
RN: Definitely. They certainly could play a different role. They certainly could play a role that would have greater impact. Whether they will, it’s hard to predict the future. I’ll be a Senior Fellow for a couple more years, so I’ll have some possibility of changing things. I could name the Internet as changing the whole world. And if Dumbarton Oaks were aggressively to embrace the Internet, it could transcend its fundamental party, that is it’s a small institution on a beautiful estate in Washington, D.C., a long ways from Cambridge, a long ways from any other kinds of institutions. It could be the network, it could be the node, it could be the center of quite an extraordinary kind of intellectual world that could be brought through Dumbarton Oaks, in part because it has all of these Fellows, so many Fellows now in so many different places and so many institutions, well placed, et cetera. If Dumbarton Oaks were to aggressively embrace that and see themselves fundamentally in an outreach mode of really wanting to contribute powerfully to Byzantine studies and not to hold on to a certain territory, a certain past, a certain collection, a certain physical space, but if they were to become virtual, they could begin by reassuming control of the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium and turning that into a major element, a major Internet vehicle for Byzantine studies, which I have been pushing as a Senior Fellow for years and years and years. And it hasn’t happened yet, but I’m around for two more years, so I’ll keep pushing. And they could do many more things. That would take initiative. That would take a different, perhaps a different kind of direction they want to go for. So, that’s what they could do. That would be some of the possibilities at Dumbarton Oaks. But, that might not be what they want to do. And, you know, I will do my best to urge my view, to create my vision of the future, but we’ll see what happens.
AS: Well, I think you more than answered the questions I came with and I wonder if in summary you might, especially considering the book that you’re working on right now, you might talk a little bit about what you see as the Bliss legacy to Byzantine studies and to Dumbarton Oaks.
RN: Well, the great legacy is Dumbarton Oaks, is the art collection, is the library, and is this large bequest of money, which was – I don’t know the details, but I’m sure it was well managed, like the rest of Harvard’s endowment and is now a significant endowment. Again, I don’t know the details. I know how much they gave initially, et cetera, because I’ve seen all those records back in the ’30s and ’40s. I actually like studying the past, because I don’t have to get into confidential problems. And they transformed America. They made a very beautiful institution and they made profound, they had a profound effect on three different fields in America. It’s a perfect example of selective, successful philanthropy. Successful philanthropy is philanthropy that is targeted to a narrow, realizable objective. It’s not like shooting with a shotgun, where all the little pellets go out and scatter-shot. It’s precisely targeted, like laser surgery or something. And so, they took these three little fields, three obscure little fields, one would say, from the larger – Byzantine studies, pre-Columbian studies, gardens – and have made a serious impact on all three. Byzantine studies I know the best. Most scholars that have jobs in Byzantine studies in America have passed through Dumbarton Oaks, where most is 90%, 95%, maybe – well, it couldn’t be 100, but I don’t know a tenured professor in Byzantine studies in America who hasn’t had an engagement with Dumbarton Oaks. And I know few major scholars in the world that haven’t been Fellows there. It’s just like everybody. Publications, very important, the art collecting, very important, so it’s – the world before Dumbarton Oaks I’m aware of, because I’m reading these letters and I have a good sense of it: amazing. And I think in a way the Blisses were right to base it in Washington and I think Harvard’s ultimate decision to keep it there was right. If it had been absorbed at Harvard, it might not have had the same impact. Washington is a non-trivial place in the world. And the fact that Byzantine studies are in Washington, D.C., I mean. this makes a difference, you know? If Dumbarton Oaks was in – well, now I’m going to impugn wherever I say – Topeka, Kansas – sorry – it would not have had the same impact, in a way. But being in Washington, being in Georgetown, many, many people have been to Dumbarton Oaks, you know, that are not scholars, et cetera. This is great. So, we thank the Blisses. We should raise a glass.
AS: Well, I do, certainly. Is there anything else I’ve forgotten?
RN: This is fine. OK.
AS: Thanks for sitting down.