Inside the Chronicle: In Memoriam - Gillett Good Griffin
This series gives readers an inside look into the scholarly articles that grace the pages of the Princeton University Library Chronicle.
The following is excerpted from the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue; Volume LXXVIII, No. 1; the original article was featured in the Winter 2016 issue; Volume LXXVII, No. 1-2.
In Memoriam - Gillett Good Griffin (1928-2016), by Alfred L. Bush
The always surprising fact that half of the six people present at the small dinner in Princeton that celebrated Albert Einstein’s seventy-fifth birthday were Princeton University librarians reminds us immediately of one of those librarians: Gillett Griffin. Gillett nurtured a circle of friends that grew ever wider and more diverse. Among these was a shy and mysterious widow, Johanna Fantova, who was a senior cataloguer on the library staff when Gillett arrived. Her discreetly acknowledged friendship with Einstein (which harked back to the 1920s in Berlin) gave her entrée into the Einstein house. As her closest friend in the library, Gillett was asked to accompany her there—and to his surprise found that door permanently open to him. His infectious good humor, obsessive punning, knowledge of serious music, and willingness to be challenged by children’s puzzles made him good company for both Einstein and his daughter, the shy sculptor Margo, who particularly admired Gillett’s accomplishments as a painter.1 This talent for friendship was to sustain Gillett throughout the sixty-four years of his residence in Princeton.
Gillett Griffin came to Princeton in 1952 as curator of the Graphic Arts division in the library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Born in Brooklyn, raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, and prepped at Deerfield, he attended the Yale School of Fine Arts, first studying painting and then graphic design. In 1951, when he completed his B.F.A. degree, he also wrote, illustrated, designed, and personally printed "A Mouse’s Tale," which won a Fifty Books of the Year award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the first time an artist’s “first book” had received this honor. Gillett’s stay in New Haven was extended another year as a special student in the Yale School of Design during the founding year of the graduate program in graphic design under Alvin Eisenman.
Gillett was called to Princeton to fill the shoes of Elmer Adler, the celebrated founder of instruction in graphic arts at Princeton. Adler’s legendary preaching of the necessary role of art in creating a gentleman won him devoted followers among both students and alumni. In the setting of the two-story Victorian house at 36 University Place, Adler’s own residence, he held seminars and privately tutored a select group of Princeton students who found the arts of interest in an all-male university where, at the time, they were given little attention. Dressed in coat and tie, which he expected of his Ivy League students, Adler convinced them that art would enrich their lives. This missionary work on behalf of the arts was enormously successful—so much so that Adler’s world gained a semi-autonomous status on the campus. One of Adler’s last tasks was to move his collections into the spaces designated for graphic arts in the new Firestone Library. There he had been given three large rooms, with space also for exhibitions and instruction.
Gillett’s task was to take what had become Adler’s independent empire and genuinely integrate it into the Special Collections department at Firestone.
1 Alfred Bush, “Einstein’s Poems to Johanna Fantova: An Introduction,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 65, no. 1 (Autumn 2003): 79–82.
About the Princeton University Library Chronicle
The Princeton University Library Chronicle is an interdisciplinary journal sponsored by the Friends of Princeton University Library since 1930. Its mission is to publish articles of scholarly importance and general interest based on research in the collections of the Princeton University Library (PUL). The Chronicle welcomes submissions of articles relating to all facets of the collections. We also welcome articles relating to the history of the University and the Princeton region. The entire archives of the Chronicle (1939-) and its predecessor, Biblia (1930-1938), are available, open-access, full-text on JSTOR.
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Gillett G. Griffin Memorial Lecture Series
The Gillett G. Griffin Memorial Lecture Series honors our former colleague Gillett Good Griffin, who served as graphic arts curator within Special Collections from 1952 to 1966. When we received the sad news of Gillett’s passing in June 2016, we wanted to find a way to not only commemorate the man but also his passion for bringing objects in the collection directly to the public and the public to the collection, and established this lecture series in his honor. The first three lectures were held in person. Recordings of the 2021 and 2022 lectures can be found on MediaCentral.
Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications
Published June 2, 2022.