When Lehrer entered graduate school in 1946 — at 18 — he found himself at the center of a group of friends who called themselves the “Graduate Gang.” They amused themselves with the quizzes, crossword puzzles, and math games they brought to their dinners in the Harvard dining hall. It was, in retrospect, a gilded circle: One member, Philip Warren Anderson, went on to win a Nobel Prize in physics; Lewis Branscomb served as the chief scientist of IBM; and Robinson was an executive director of the Carnegie Corporation.
“Tom was the intellectual leader in the sense that he was the funniest and he would come up with cuter problems,” Robinson said, adding that when Anderson wrote his 50th Anniversary Report for the Harvard class of ‘94, he’d recall: “When I was a student with Tom Lehrer…”
Within the year, though, his graduate group of friends had begun to trickle out of Cambridge, first the chemist, then the physicists, then the historians who took much longer to get a Ph.D. As a souvenir for them, Lehrer decided in 1953 to make a record of the songs he had written at Harvard. He recorded Songs by Tom Lehrer in one session at Trans Radio studios in Boston on a 10-inch LP. He wrote the liner notes himself, called upon the wife of Robinson’s boss to do the illustrations, and had the covers printed at Shea Brothers printers near Harvard Square, just up the street from where he and Robinson shared a room on the third floor of a house.
By 1954 — when he was trying to avoid the draft by working for a defense contractor — he had sold 10,000 records. He had also quickly dissolved Lehrer Music, of which he was president, in December for “various reasons,” among them: “Certain stockholders objected to the president’s face.” He gave up and shipped off to Fort Meade in 1955, an early officer in the National Security Agency. (He is believed, during that time, to have invented vodka Jell-O shots.) By the end of the decade, he had sold 370,000 records.
Yet despite his enormous success, global popularity, and the release of his second album, More Songs by Tom Lehrer that year, it was exactly at this time that Lehrer first told Robinson he wanted to stop performing. Lehrer has told friends and various interviewers that he didn’t enjoy “anonymous affection.” And while his work was widely enjoyed at the time, it was also something of a scandal — the clever songs about math and language were for everyone, but Lehrer’s clear-eyed contemplation of nuclear apocalypse was straightforwardly disturbing....
People would always ask him: “What do you want to do as a career?” Robinson said.
“What’s wrong with graduate school as a career?!” Lehrer would respond. He spent some 15 years working on and off on his dissertation, until he finally gave it up in 1965.
The space for one of the animating forces in Lehrer’s music, his liberal politics, was shrinking too. Lehrer was a hero of the anti-nuclear, civil rights left; he occupied the bleeding edge of the elite liberalism of the day. “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie” minces no words in its scorn for the industry of American nostalgia, and particularly for the American South: “I wanna talk with Southern gentlemen / And put my white sheet on again / I ain’t seen one good lynchin’ in years … The land of the boll weevil / Where the laws are medieval / Is callin’ me to come and nevermore roam.”
But his left was the square, suit-wearing, high-culture left. His circle at Harvard included Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the renowned historian, JFK biographer, and then-nominal chairman of the Cambridge chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. His political hero was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, the man whom Richard Nixon damagingly dismissed as an “egghead.”
Stevenson’s losing battle marked the end of a political tradition, and also the beginning of the end of a kind of Ivy League liberal intellectualism’s place atop the Democratic Party. What was coming was the New Left and the counterculture, something whose aesthetics Lehrer couldn’t stand, even if their politics weren’t necessarily at odds.
“It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffeehouse or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on,” he deadpans in his introduction to the whiny “Folk Song Army” on That Was the Year That Was. “We are the folk song army / Everyone of us cares / We all hate poverty, war, and injustice / Unlike the rest of you squares.”
The New Left agreed with Lehrer on Vietnam. His last public performance, in fact, was on a fundraising tour for George McGovern in 1972. But the singer — who saw himself as “a liberal, one of the last” — felt less at home in the new Democratic Party. In the end, Stevenson’s party, and Lehrer’s, lost — and with it, at least to Lehrer’s mind, a prevailing sense of humor. “Things I once thought were funny are scary now,” he told People magazine in 1982. “I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.”
”The liberal consensus, which was the audience for this in my day, has splintered and fragmented in such a way that it’s hard to find an issue that would be comparable to, say, lynching,” he also told the New York Times in Purdum’s 2000 article, which was part of his last round of interviews to promote an anthology of his work. ”Everybody knows that lynching is bad. But affirmative action vs. quotas, feminism vs. pornography, Israel vs. the Arabs? I don’t know which side I’m on anymore. And you can’t write a funny song that uses, ‘On the other hand.”’
When I was young, my family had a copy of "An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer", and I used to listen to it often, belting out Poisoning Pigeons in the Park and The Masochism Tango in childish tones. I'd never particularly noticed Lehrer's politics, though as a kid and listening forty years after his heyday, that's hardly surprising.