(Photo illustration by Joy Olivia Miller)

How President Beadle rescued the cat
Or, who’s that barefoot man on the roof of the president’s house?

George Beadle served as president of the University of Chicago from 1961 to 1968. His wife Muriel (1915–94), a journalist and civic organizer, published a number of books, including These Ruins Are Inhabited (1961), a study of life at Oxford University; The Fortnightly of Chicago: The City and Its Women 1873–1973 (1973); and The Cat: History, Biology, and Behavior (1977). She cowrote the book The Language of Life (1966) with her husband, a Nobel Prize–winning geneticist.

This is the second in a series of excerpts from her book Where Has All the Ivy Gone? A Memoir of University Life (University of Chicago Press, 1972).—Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

Cats are an integral part of our lives. In Pasadena, we had seventeen. There, however, they inhabited porches, woodpiles, and trees spread out over two acres, and came indoors only by invitation. Chicago would be different, so we had found new homes for most of them and brought with us only the dowager queen mother and one of her half-grown kittens.

M’zelle had come to us as a waif from a municipal pound, skittish and scrawny, with dirty tan fur that felt like straw. By the time we went to Chicago, her fur was like silk, her walk was a glide, and her self-assurance was total. She was, and is, what George calls a good cat: beautiful to look at, sociable, and (generally) sweet-tempered.

Mary K came to Chicago with us because she was too dim-witted to be foisted on any California foster family. Inasmuch as Mary K accepts any situation as normal, she adapted easily to becoming a house cat.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3957","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"466","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] President George Beadle and author Muriel Beadle with an uncooperative cat in Pasadena, California, in 1961. (UChicago Photographic Archive, apf1-00440, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

M’zelle, on the other hand, was furious. Because she had never experienced city streets teeming with traffic, they held no terrors for her. She equated “outdoors” with climbing trees, chasing butterflies, and eating grass, and she desperately wanted to do so. That longing encouraged her intimate exploration of the house, seeking a way out, and one evening she found it.

Not until six in the morning could we hear the distant meows that were recognizable as M’zelle’s. She had found an unscreened ballroom window that was open about four inches and had squeezed herself to freedom. Eventually she had marooned herself on the ridgepole of the house, fifty feet above the ground, and all through the night she had been proclaiming to an indifferent world that she couldn’t get down.

We had had plenty of experience with treed cats, who always think they can’t get down and always manage to, but this was a different situation. The roofing slates were so smooth that her claws wouldn’t have much purchase if and when she decided to descend. It is very difficult for cats to go backward, anyway, and if she were to slip while attempting this maneuver—whoosh! There were no eaves to stop her fall.

George couldn’t stand the thought of what might happen to his darling.

“I’m going up after her,” he announced.

We were standing across the street, staring at the Mt. Everest where M’zelle, hunched into a small forlorn bundle, was perching.

“But we don’t have a ladder that will reach that far,” I reminded him. “You’d have to get Buildings and Grounds to send one over. And just look at the pitch of the roof …”

“Hell,” he said, “I’ve climbed steeper pitches than that one. See the gable on a line with the front door, how it makes a V where it meets the gable at the back of the house? I could climb out of the window there and use a friction hold for at least ten feet.” (Mountain climbers use this technique when ascending a fissure narrow enough so they can brace their bodies into it and hunch themselves along.) “M’zelle is only a couple of feet from where it gets too wide for a spread-eagle, and I’ll bet I could coax her to come down that far.”

“You want to climb the roof? As if it were a mountain? That’s insane.”

I said I positively wouldn’t let him do it unless he went up on a rope with a proper belay. He agreed to my terms, but the problem immediately arose as to who his belayer would be. The Great Plains do not produce many mountaineers; Red was spending a few days in the country with a new friend; and I wasn’t strong enough to control the rope if George did in fact fall off the roof. Which explains why a campus cop who had never been west of Council Bluffs suddenly found himself in the ballroom of the president’s house at 7 a.m., being given a cram course on how to belay a climber.

He turned the color of putty as George wound up the lesson by saying, “Now, the main thing to remember is to keep the rope tight but not taut. If you feel me fall, slow the rope but don’t try to stop me right away. If you suddenly yank on a nylon rope that’s paying out fast, you’ll cut me in two.”

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3958","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"511","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] The President’s house in 1940. (UChicago Photographic Archive, apf2-05919, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

I stationed myself at the window, partly to keep an eye on the rope and partly to make soothing remarks to the luckless belayer. In case he fainted, which looked imminent, I figured I would be better as a backstop than no one. The rest of the campus police force, a couple of city patrol cars, and a few early-to-work employees joined the cheering section.

It was a breeze. Barefooted for better traction, George went up that roof like a Sherpa. M’zelle was now too dispirited to skitter away from him, came docilely into his grasp, and lay still while George backed cautiously down to the ballroom window. The two of them made a triumphant re-entry, to the accompaniment of huzzahs from below.

M’zelle raced down the stairs in search of breakfast. George had an absolutely beatified look on his face for the rest of the day, and walked with a strut for a week.

Eventually M’zelle accepted a compromise. I took her out for regular walks on a leash. She soon discovered that urban living has its own delights, especially a big parking lot just behind our house where there were dozens of fragrant hub caps to smell.

An edited excerpt from Where Has All the Ivy Gone? A Memoir of University Life, by arrangement with Redmond James Barnett. ©1972, the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.