Wednesday, March 6, 2024

The Widow Nolen at Harvard



Illustration from Harvard Celebrities (1901)

William Whiting Nolen orbited Harvard for the better part of 43 years. During much of that time, he annoyed the hell out of the faculty and administrators.

The native Philadelphian arrived at Harvard College in 1880, graduated summa cum laude, and went on to earn a master’s in science. Next, he enrolled in the law school but soon dropped out. He landed in the biology department as a teaching assistant.

W. W. Nolen hoped to become a professor but was not up to snuff. Yet he did have a gift for coaching students. In 1891, he opened a school on Brattle Street, offering “printed lecture notes, digests of required reading, and forced feeding just before the examinations,” wrote the eminent Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn.

The school thrived. By 1895, Nolen had moved to larger quarters and hired top Harvard graduates to help handle the load. His program could get you through your entrance exams and help you pass (perhaps ace) Latin, history, chemistry, physics, mathematics, French, English, and philosophy.

In July 1913, former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Nolen about his third son, Archie:


Naturally Mrs. Roosevelt and I are immensely pleased with Archie’s success. I take pleasure in sending the check – there could be no money I should be more delighted to pay. I feel that he has benefitted immensely by what you have done for him, and I am very much pleased with what you say of him personally.

 As tutees flocked to Nolen’s “cram parlor,” its proprietor raised his rates to $5/hour. “Harvard Men Attending in Hundreds,” declared the Boston Globe:


. . . what Harvard student ever failed to attend a Nolen “seminar” at least once? It is part of the Cambridge experience. Students attend who need it. Others attend who don’t need it. To attend is one of the set college duties. It is the proper thing to do, so to speak.

Nolen’s school was neither affiliated with nor authorized by Harvard. Yet Nolen managed to insinuate himself into the college, poaching exams, infiltrating lectures in disguise, paying for class notes. He also sold pamphlets: History I: Tutoring Notes, 1901; Self-Tutoring Notes, English 23, 1902, and so forth.



Harvard professors decried his effect on their students’ grades. They called him a bloodsucker. It was said that the faculty often discussed how to put Nolen out of business.

Yet while the university’s presidents and trustees loathed his very presence, they recognized that Nolen steered the sons of great wealth through Harvard. Those diplomas, perhaps earned craftily, would be worth their weight in bequests. 

By most accounts, Nolen was kind, generous, and eccentric. He also bore an odd nickname. Even those who did not know him personally could recognize it: “The Widow Nolen.”   

Where did the nickname originate? The prevailing theory was that a character named “Widow Nolen” appeared in a play attended by several of his earliest students, and they took it up.

Teased in the pages of the Crimson, the Lampoon, and yearbooks, parodied in songs and theater, the “Widow Nolen” seeped into Ivy League culture. Even the poets pounced on him.  


Poem by Henry Ware Eliot, Jr. [brother of T.S. Eliot] in
Harvard Celebrities: a book of caricatures and decorated drawings 
(Cambridge, 1901). 



The tutoring business was lucrative, yet the Widow Nolen lived modestly in a building called Little Hall, opposite Harvard Yard. He inhabited the top floor with three French bulldogs. Students could rent rooms below, and classrooms filled the first floor.

In 1923, Nolen, who had diabetes and a heart condition, died at the age of 63. Even before the will was probated, the question arose: would Nolen’s tutoring school continue at Little Hall?

The answer was no. Rather, a new school, Manter Hall, absorbed Nolen's business and carried on the glory. 

Indeed, in the absence of Nolen’s monopoly, five new tutoring schools sprung up in Cambridge. In 1936, the Harvard Student Council appointed a committee to study their “sharp, noisy competition” as they jockeyed for customers, according to Time magazine. Nothing came of it.

Three years later the Crimson published an angry editorial: “Lined up on Massachusetts Avenue, grinning obscenely down over Harvard Yard, there is a row of intellectual brothels  . . . making a mockery of a Harvard education, a lie of a Harvard diploma.” 

By that time, nine tutoring schools inhabited Harvard Square. The Crimson refused to take their advertising and called for their demise.

In 1940, the crammeries were shut down for good.

From Alice's Adventures in Cambridge
by Richard Conover Evarts (1913)


July Night