Bill Bradley’s “Performative Biography” and Its Princeton Roots

Bill Bradley’s “Performative Biography” and Its Princeton Roots
Bill Bradley
Bill Bradley, 1965 Nassau Herald.

By Dan Linke

Like another New Jersey icon, who gave us “Springsteen on Broadway,” former U.S. Senator and basketball legend Bill Bradley ’65 has brought his story to the New York stage and now, beginning on February 1, to HBO Max. Bradley’s Rolling Along: An American Story, based on the one-man play he wrote, performed, and recorded, chronicles his remarkable life in politics and sports, including four years at Princeton between 1961 and 1965. This autobiographical performance traces its beginnings to an oral history project undertaken by the Princeton University Library’s Special Collections staff.

Bill Bradley in a Princeton basketball uniform being held up by a group of men while cutting a basketball net
Bill Bradley’s Princeton teammates holding him up while he cuts a basketball net, ca. 1964. Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection (AC126), Box 8.

The Bill Bradley Oral History Collection was the result of a three-year project that produced over 60 interviews with those who closely worked with the Senator throughout his life.  At a reception celebrating the completion of the oral history project in 2017, Bradley delivered a heartfelt life summary, thanking the people who made his successes possible—many of whom were present.  At its conclusion, emotions in the room were high, and the appreciation of and for the man was palpable.  As Bradley recalled in a 2023 interview,

I stood up and told stories. And the producer Manny Azenberg, who I’ve known for years, came up and said he liked it. I don’t think I’d gotten a compliment out of Manny since the Knicks won that first championship! But he thought it could be a show, and so I started writing.

This was the genesis of Bradley’s “performative biography,” as he describes his play. The Princeton alumnus expanded his talk, then refined it on the road, playing theaters in Salt Lake City, Chicago, and Austin, among others, before performing four nights in New York.  The production garnered national attention, including a New Yorker article, and the Broadway shows were filmed and subsequently screened at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival.

The oral history project that inspired Rolling Along has its own origin story, motivated by the presence of Bradley’s papers in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library since the end of his third Senate term in 1997. When I became head of the library in 2002, I wrote to Bradley asking if he would consider gifting and opening his papers, noting how useful they would be to researchers. He succinctly declined. But one of my aphorisms is that “archivists play the long game,” and over the years, as an opportunity would arise, I would inquire if the time was right to open his papers, but with no success.

A group of 11 people, including Bill Bradley, holding shovels in front of the U.S. Capitol
Bill Bradley, center, near the U.S. Capitol, 1990. U.S. Senate Photo. Bill Bradley Papers (MC200), Box 1044.
Signed photo of Bill Bradley reading, "Best wishes, Bill Bradley"
Autographed photo of Bill Bradley, ca. 1990s. Bill Bradley Papers (MC200), Box 1044.

In 2014, at Bradley’s suggestion and with his support, the Library initiated the oral history project.  With his endorsement, many of his well-known friends, as well as those less famous but still important to his career, agreed to be interviewed.   Then, at the project’s celebratory conclusion, he gifted his papers to Princeton, but with a restriction that they were not to open until 2032. However, I continued to inform him of the research interest in his papers whenever I could.  Appealing to his competitive instincts, I let him know that his political contemporary and fellow Princeton alum, the Republican James Baker III ’52, had opened his papers early and were one of our most used collections.  But still, “no.” 

Then, at the conclusion of the unveiling of his formal campus portrait in 2022, Bradley noted he donated his papers several years prior and that they were closed until 2032. Pausing, he added, “Ever since, Dan Linke has been hounding me to open them.”  Then he surprised everyone—including me—by announcing that his Senate Papers were now open.  Afterwards, when I had my photograph taken with Bradley, he turned to a friend and jokingly said, “This is the guy who gave me the full court press.”

The collection is a wellspring for research topics, including US-Soviet relations, income tax reform, economic policy-making, environmental issues, and of course, New Jersey-specific matters.  His papers provide not only an understanding of his work on many topics, but one researcher reported that because his office staff were good recordkeepers, there are also documents from other Senators and various White House personnel revealing how they endeavored to address important questions of the day.  Since their opening, the Bradley Papers are regularly used in the Mudd Library reading room and for classroom instruction.

Bill Bradley speaks at Princeton University, ca. 1995. Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection, Box 8.

When Bradley unexpectedly opened his papers, he closed the announcement with a comedic stage whisper to the audience, “I hope they don’t find anything.” Given Bradley’s sterling reputation, I don’t think anyone ever will. However, now you can hear from the man himself, as Bradley opens up about his remarkable life.  For those who can’t wait, you can view the trailer below.