“Bringing It All Back Home”

For newlyweds Caroline Cleaves and Sean Wilentz, there is a lot of common ground

By Wendy Greenberg | Photography by Andrew Wilkinson

She is more or less locally-focused these days, working to expand the arts throughout the Princeton community. He has been involved in national political debates and campaigns and is widely known for his writings on U.S. history, from the American Revolution through the 20th century.

But like a Venn diagram with overlapping circles, their lives merge on Edgehill Street, where Caroline Cleaves, director of development at the Arts Council of Princeton, and Sean Wilentz, who holds the title of George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University, have forged a new life together.

On a rainy day, with the fireplace warming the living room of the 1925 house, surrounded by art, books, and a few musical instruments played by Cleaves’ two children, Sam, a sophomore in high school, and Ava, a middle schooler, they talked about their uncommon lives and common ground.

Wilentz and Cleaves, who were introduced by a mutual friend, have in common a passion for Princeton. Cleaves had lived with her children in Great Britain, in Warwickshire, near Stratford-upon-Avon. “Think lots of sheep, a vicar, and horses passing up and down our narrow village street all day,” she said.

She moved back to Princeton several years ago to care for her mother, social activist and psychologist Pat Connors, who died in 2016. Having come of age herself in Princeton, she felt it was the place to continue raising her own children, where they can ride bikes to the library or volunteer at Marquand Park. Cleaves herself often rides a bike to work, and Wilentz often walks.

Edgehill, the historic street that connects Stockton and Mercer streets, served as the site of a block party when Wilentz and Cleaves were married last September. The narrow passage overflowed with some 250 guests, a bluegrass band, and barbecue. Even Bill and Hillary Clinton sent a congratulatory letter, which is propped up in the living room.

“Having lived in Washington, Cambridge, San Francisco, London — so many places — it dawned on me that Princeton was the ideal place I wanted to raise my kids,” Cleaves says. “It’s open, heterogenous — who says you can’t go home again?”

As a single parent in Princeton for several years, she realized her children can be more independent in the town — “free-range,” as she put it. She remembers taking painting classes as a teen with her father through the Arts Council. She calls herself an amateur artist, and stone carver, which happens in the backyard. She takes classes at the Arts Council and continues to paint.

After graduating from Princeton High School, Cleaves earned a degree in anthropology from Smith College, and a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from University of Chicago. (Both Cleaves and Wilentz are members of Phi Beta Kappa.) Cleaves spent three years doing fieldwork in the Philippines as a Fulbright Fellow.

Upon her return to Princeton, Cleaves embarked on a new chapter in her life in nonprofit management and fundraising. She volunteered for Princeton Community Housing, and worked in development with The Petey Greene Program, Rider University, and Grounds For Sculpture, where she was manager for institutional giving. She consulted for the Arts Council, where she was named director of development earlier this year.

“Both the board and the staff have been impressed with Caroline’s perspectives, work ethic, wit, and her knowledge of the development field. Everyone’s excited to have her join the team,” said Jim Levine, Arts Council interim executive director, in announcing her position.

Cleaves, 55, ran last year’s successful Princeton Council campaign for Michelle Pirone Lambros. The candidate’s platform resonated with Cleaves. “The more I worked with Michelle, the more I appreciated how important other sectors of the town, such as the business community, and the University, were to the overall health of the town, both economically, and socio-economically. I grew up in a Princeton where our municipal workers, teachers, and shop owners all lived here and could afford to live here. That’s no longer the case.”

“One of the reasons I’m so passionate about the Arts Council is there’s a commitment to equity and access for everyone,” says Cleaves. “The sheer number of free outreach programs we offer to children and seniors in subsidized housing and to the subsidized nursery school is so impressive. We offer over $20,000 in scholarships each year so that no one gets turned away from our classes and summer camps.”

Wilentz, 69, who grew up in New York where his father and uncle owned a bookstore, earned degrees at Columbia, Oxford, and Yale before landing at Princeton in 1979 as an assistant professor. He lived in several Princeton homes while raising his family, and returned to Princeton after briefly living in New York, where he has a daughter who is an editor. He also has a son and daughter-in-law living in Rome.

His interests are reflected in his Dickinson Hall campus office. Joining a wall of books, renderings of historical figures, and “second favorite” reading chair, is a mounted harpoon under a framed, original poster of the John Huston movie, Moby Dick, and a photo of civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, who wrote a personal message.

Wilentz has written numerous books, among them The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, which was awarded the Bancroft Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is also the author The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008, and wrote about the failures of the Bush administration for Rolling Stone. An expert on Bob Dylan, he has received two Grammy Award nominations for his writing on music and authored the New York Times best-seller Bob Dylan in America. (“We have cartons upstairs, some in Danish,” noted Cleaves.)

With a group of fellow historians, Wilentz has recently taken on the New York Times’ 1619 project to ensure that the enormous role slavery played in American history is accurately portrayed. He quips that he “does a lot of shooting my mouth off.” His activism is well known in the Princeton community. He led 2,100 historians in signing a letter regarding President Trump’s impeachment, and has written op-eds and articles for The Atlantic and The New Republic as well as The New York Review of Books.

Cleaves, the returning Princetonian, and Wilentz, the longtime resident, mused about how the area has changed, despite staying mostly the same.

“When I arrived in 1979,” says Wilentz, “Princeton was a decent-sized town that also felt like a village, a village that just happened to be home to a great university. It had a sleepy quality. The Garden Theatre would show the same popular movie, it seemed like Jaws was playing forever, and there was a Woolworth’s and a notions store and butcher shop, and, not too long before I came, a bowling alley.”

Cleaves agrees on how Princeton has evolved. “We’re so fortunate to live in a town with so many resources available, and the University has really developed its emphasis on the arts over the past 30 years. It’s a tremendous resource for us. I’d like to think there’s room for an enhanced relationship between the University and the Arts Council. I’d like to see the Arts Council emerge as the central cultural institution for town/gown engagement and really dynamic programming.”

The Arts Council of Princeton, founded in 1967, has as its mission building community through the arts. Housed in the landmark Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, Cleaves’ modest office, plastered with wall calendars, is shared with another staff member. A quick tour offered a glimpse of a flamenco class and watercolor painters, and sewing machines lined up for a class on mending and patternmaking. The Arts Council provides a wide range of programs including exhibitions; performances; free community cultural events; and studio-based classes and workshops in the visual, performing, and literary arts. She is especially proud of the Arts Council’s programs for Elm Court community housing and community projects such as oral histories of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood (check out the quilt on display), the Arts Council’s work with the Princeton Young Achievers, and an art program at Princeton Nursery School.

“We have to do a better job of letting people know what we do,” she says. “We need to reach out. New constituencies are an important way to raise money. In nonprofit fundraising, sources of foundation grants are dwindling.”

Cleaves says she will be exploring partnerships with corporate businesses, such as exhibitions, memberships, and art-based activities with area employees.

The couple decided to live as a family in 2018. Wilentz had owned the home, but previously sublet it. “Everyone came with a big heart,” Cleaves says. She and her two children moved into the Edgehill Street house together, and hung their art side by side on the walls. Wilentz leans toward old political drawings, his collection of Robert Frank photographs and Dylan-related art, like the album art for the 1965 release Bringing It All Back Home. Cleaves leans to landscapes including some of her father’s paintings (her paternal grandparents were artists too). The furniture is theirs. They both love opera and hold season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Life at home is pretty typical, they say. Most evenings they are both home reading. He, perhaps a history book, documents, or, on a recent jag, the work of Albion W. Tourgée, a 19th-century American writer and lawyer involved in Reconstruction, who later defended Homer Plessy of Plessy v. Ferguson. She, perhaps, is reading Belgian author Georges Simenon, who writes about the detective Jules Maigret, or the volume on her living room table, Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel, about five female painters who changed modern art.

Sometimes music wafts from the cello, guitar, or piano, which her children play. Wilentz, who says he does his best on the guitar, finds it interesting “going through the schools for the second time. It takes a good bit of patience, but it’s really fantastic. There’s usually something exciting going on. There’s at least one project in progress, be it painting, or poetizing, or writing, or cooking up who knows what.”

Despite, or because of, their interests and schedules which are both divergent and overlapping, the family has dinner together every night. They support one another. “I’m very proud of what Caroline has done, getting to work for the Arts Council, it’s the perfect job at the perfect time,” says Wilentz.

And Cleaves proudly mentions that he is a recent recipient of Princeton’s Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities, an honor that is all the more meaningful because it is from his humanities faculty colleagues.

“I guess we are an average family embedded in different loci in the community,” she says. “We are parallel, but the overlap is at the dinner table.”

And Princeton will be the better for it.