PRINCETON, N.J. — Solveig Lucia Gold was setting the table in her backyard, next door to the house once occupied by Albert Einstein. Her yard is a sweeping field of emerald green grass leading down to the 18th-century blacksmith’s cottage with stone floors that houses her home study.
Ms. Gold, 27, was preparing for an intimate dinner with some of the few people — “our little cabal,” she said — who publicly admit to being on friendly terms with her and her husband, the recently fired (she prefers “canceled”) former Princeton classics professor Joshua Katz.
Most of the guests were much older than Ms. Gold. This included Dr. Katz, who is 52 and was once her professor. They married last July, four years after she finished Princeton with a summa cum laude degree in classics, and one year after Dr. Katz began his public fight with the campus left.
The couple ran arms wide open into the culture wars, which Ms. Gold says was characteristic of her, but not of him, the low-key professor whom everyone liked, who previously didn’t ruffle feathers at the university where he had worked since 1998. (“I am the alpha,” she wrote in an essay about their relationship.)
“I’m not Lady Macbeth in this story, but I am obviously implicated in some way in getting him involved,” she said.
“She gave me a certain kind of courage for doing this type of thing,” Dr. Katz said. “She was not responsible for my action in doing it.”
The trouble began on July 4, 2020, when a group of Princeton faculty sent a letter to the university’s president, demanding that the university combat institutional racism.“Anti-Blackness is foundational to America,” it declared.
Four days later, Dr. Katz responded with a manifesto, “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor,” in Quillette, which is something of a house organ for the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. He took issue with proposed changes that would “lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate.”
But the part that drew the most notice was his characterization of the Black Justice League — a student group that had called on Princeton to acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson some six years before it finally took his name off its public policy school, in June of 2020 — as a“a small local terrorist organization.”
As it happens, when she was a student at Princeton, Ms. Gold had helped found a group called the Princeton Open Campus Coalition for the express purpose of opposing the Black Justice League and its demands.
Outrage ensued over Dr. Katz’s choice of words, which he defended as “metaphorical.” Nearly two years later, this spring, Princeton fired Dr. Katz, who had tenure, saying it was not for his outspokenness, but for new information that had emerged about his conduct during a sexual relationship he’d had with a student some 15 years earlier, an affair he had been suspended over before.
Ms. Gold says she has often been the only one standing between her husband and utter despair, as his career crumbled and colleagues deserted him.
“He has said essentially that if I weren’t there, he probably wouldn’t be here either,” she said. “That’s a lot of pressure on me, being responsible for keeping someone alive. On the other hand, I’m glad to do it.”
A certain amount of prurient interest accompanied the revelation that the Princeton professor who’d lost his job over a relationship with one former student was now married to another. Ms. Gold doesn’t shy away from it. On her Twitter account, her avatar is a photo of herself in a wedding dress, and the background picture is of her with a group of Princeton professors, including her husband.
And when Dr. Katz lost his job, Ms. Gold promptly published an essay about their relationship in Common Sense, the newsletter run by Bari Weiss, a former writer and editor for the opinion department of The New York Times. (“My alma mater is not the school I once loved,” went part of the headline. “But Joshua Katz is exactly the man I knew I married.”)
“He’s young at heart, and I’m an old soul, and it works,” Ms. Gold said later.
While she is not a national player yet, she has long imagined the possibility. When Ms. Gold was named a winner of the Pyne prize, one of Princeton’s highest undergraduate honors for which Dr. Katz (they were not in a relationship at the time) was one of her nominators, the official announcement said she aspired to become a public intellectual. (She had a head start. Ms. Gold and her grandfather Robert W. Jenson, a Lutheran theologian, wrote a book, “Conversations With Poppi About God,” when she was just 8.)
As her guests were about to arrive, Ms. Gold changed from a plain blue summer shift into a more glamorous cinched-waist yellow dress, drawing an approving smile from her husband, who was wearing a pink linen shirt.
She set the long rectangular table in the grass precisely, with a Wedgewood-blue and white tablecloth, cloth napkins tied up in yellow ribbons, place cards inked in a neat cursive hand and melamine dishes in a Provençal design. She was schooled in formal manners from a young age, she said, as an only child to an actress and a soap opera writer. “My mom threw a lot of dinner parties, and I ended up talking to adults,” Ms. Gold said.
Dr. Katz was her professor in two classes, Egyptology and Hesiod, and her freshman adviser, but there was no romance in sight, she said, until the summer of 2017, her graduation year, and then it was a slow burn. Besides, as a Democrat and comfortably paunchy middle-aged man, he wasn’t her type.
“Most of my boyfriends were conservative, they were all pot-smoking Republicans,” she told her dinner guests later that night.
“That’s the worst,” said her husband. (Dr. Katz was married once before, at 28.)
“Solveig” — it’s pronounced SOL-vay — “has always received a lot of favorable male attention,” said her best friend from Princeton, Claire Ashmead, now a medical student at the University of Michigan. “She’s very feminine — I might describe her as ultrafeminine.” At the same time, Ms. Ashmead said, “she never pretended to be dumber than she was.”
The relationship surprised Ms. Ashmead. “What made me come to terms with the fact that Joshua was the partner she had chosen was that I don’t think any of the guys she had dated were her intellectual equal,” Ms. Ashmead said. “They are intellectually so well matched.”
Ms. Gold said she has always been a contrarian.
Her parents sent her to the all-girls Nightingale-Bamford school in Manhattan — the “Gossip Girl” school — where she wrote a column for the school paper called “Au Contraire,” on topics ranging from a defense of Sarah Palin (which she said she would probably not write today) to an endorsement of watching old black-and-white movies. She registered to vote Republican at age 18, mostly to be different on the liberal Upper West Side, she said.
On the night of the dinner, the couple had just returned from a brief decompression trip to Amsterdam and Cambridge, England, where Ms. Gold is completing her Ph.D. in classics. She just submitted her dissertation tracing “the metaphorical language of slavery across the Platonic corpus.” In her introduction, she writes, “the very use of slavery as a metaphor may be hideous to many (although the enduring popularity of Britney Spears’s 2001 hit song, ‘I’m a Slave 4 U,’ suggests that the metaphor has survived somewhat unscathed).” She relishes that it’s a “hot button” topic, but fears that “the woke people in classics won’t read it because it’s by me.”
Her dinner guests, on the other hand, position themselves as the resistance to intellectual conformity.
There was Robert P. George, 66, a professor of jurisprudence, in the chair once held by the now ignominious Woodrow Wilson. The New York Times Magazine once called Professor George the country’s “most influential conservative Christian thinker,” for his role in laying the intellectual groundwork for the fights against marriage equality and abortion rights.He founded the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, where Ms. Gold is senior research assistant, and where another dinner guest, Bradford Wilson, 71, is executive director.
Professor George’s family — West Virginia coal miner stock — believed in Jesus, F.D.R., Democrats and the United Mine Workers of America, he said. He arrived in a natty three-piece off-white suit with a bottle of 1997 Meursault.
During the pandemic, Professor George has been presiding over an almost weekly Zoom meeting called “the Friday Group,” where about 30 regulars — mostly professors, but also alumni, including Ms. Gold, and some students — get together to talk about threats to academic freedom and to socialize.
Also in attendance at the dinner: Edgar Choueiri, 60, compact, bearded, lover of Bach, an expert at Princeton in spacecraft propulsion and 3-D audio, with his more reserved wife, Martina Baillie, 43, a land-use lawyer. Frustrated by political labels, Professor Choueiri pronounced himself a libertine. “Martina and I feel that we have been on a human level, part of the support of someone who has been going through hell,” he said. (They bring Ms. Gold and Dr. Katz pastries on bad days.)
And finally there was Abigail Anthony, 22, an ex-ballerina and the current vice president of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, the organization Ms. Gold helped found.
Ms. Anthony stood up and left before the alcohol was served.
Can a student stay for dinner?
“If it’s not against university rules,” Dr. Katz said.
“But nobody would do it,” Ms. Anthony said.
“The professors are afraid to take students out to coffee or lunches,” Dr. Katz said. “Last I asked, a major part of education was extracurricular activity.” He added, “People are going to jump on me — ‘I know what he means by extracurricular activity.’” Later, he insisted on adding a clarification: “That’s obviously not what I mean.”
She did not anticipate the force of the backlash against her husband, Ms. Gold said, because she had voiced controversial opinions before, and had not been shunned. As an undergraduate, for instance, she wrote an essay criticizing the women’s march for providing a platform for supporters of abortion rights. She attributes this new feeling of hostility to a culture of lock-step thinking ushered in by Gen Z, the generation right behind hers.
But Ms. Gold has in fact drawn controversy of her own in the academic world. The summer after graduation, she engaged in a very public debate with Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an associate professor of classics, a historian of Rome, who has argued that the discipline of classics has contributed to the invention of whiteness and to its domination.
In an essay entitled “The colorblind bard,” published in The New Criterion, Ms. Gold invoked Dr. Padilla, who is Black and a Dominican immigrant, as evidence that “Western Civilization does not belong to white men.” In a fierce public exchange of letters after that, he criticized her for using him as a “signifying monkey,” the way, he wrote, some people will claim a token Black friend. (Dr. Padilla did not return emails and calls for comment.)
“People went after me pretty hard,” Ms. Gold recalled. “Some professors at Princeton — people I had liked and who liked me — were horrified by what I had written. They accused me of being Kellyanne Conway and Laura Ingraham.”
She and Dr. Katz privately joked that the faculty reaction was “quite discriminatory toward blond women,” she said.
In an indication of what a fishbowl academia is, Dr. Padilla and Ms. Gold both asked Dr. Katz to read their dueling letters, and he made suggestions, Ms. Gold says. “Dan-el and I, we were not dating,” Dr. Katz said, with typical mordant humor, the evening of the dinner party.
“You weren’t dating?” Ms. Gold said, archly.
“I thought he was still my friend,” Dr. Katz replied. (Three years after that exchange, Dr. Padilla was one of the organizers of the faculty letter that so riled Dr. Katz.)
At the dinner table, Ms. Gold, wearing a checked kitchen apron over her yellow dress, sat at one end and Dr. Katz at the other. Ms. Gold said a swift prayer (“Come Lord Jesus be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed”) and the chilled pea soup was served.
Dr. Katz previously had a cultural interest in religion, but her faith has rubbed off on him. “I don’t think he ever had taken seriously the idea of actually believing in anything until he started dating me,” she said. Both of them have published in First Things, a conservative religious journal founded by her godfather, Richard Neuhaus.
Dr. Choueiri offered a toast: “When Solveig becomes, I don’t know, the next Nancy Pelosi. …,” he began.
“God, no,” Professor George objected.
“Replaces Nancy Pelosi is what I wanted to say,” Dr. Choueiri said. “Or becomes the next Schumer. I can say: this lady, I hired her to perform at my party with her a cappella group, the Tigerlilies.”
Ms. Gold said she once aspired to be a cross between Professor George and Mary Beard, the iconoclastic Cambridge University popularizer of classics. Now she is less certain that she has a future in the academy, but would like to write about public issues.
They are going to start house-hunting in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Katz is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Somehow one thing led to another and he ended up in the position that I had imagined for myself,” his wife said.
Alain Delaquérière contributed research