Eccentric Academic, Social Scientist Studied Gambling Addiction in Mice

Leo Crespi directed public opinion research, much of it classified, for USIA, and once said that he
Leo Crespi directed public opinion research, much of it classified, for USIA, and once said that he "lived long in obscurity, eschewing recognition for relevance." (Courtesy Of Jeff Crespi)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

Leo Crespi, who was generous with his intellect but not when it came to tipping, died July 8 after a stroke. He was 91.

The social scientist, psychologist and eccentric became a widely respected figure in the public opinion field. He spent 32 years directing public opinion research for the U.S. Information Agency.

Much of his USIA work was classified, leading to his observation that he "lived long in obscurity, eschewing recognition for relevance."

His early career, at Princeton University, was much more public and included studies of gambling addiction in mice -- "vice in mice," one colleague dubbed it. He also assessed public attitudes toward conscientious objectors and the custom of tipping after meals.

In the late 1940s, he proposed the National Anti-Tipping League to champion an end to gratuities. He framed it as a matter of social justice.

In his plan, league members would leave a card advising a waiter to ask for a better living wage from his boss rather than expecting diners to make up the difference.

Dr. Crespi thought tipping had become a nuisance, an expected social gesture customers base on ego, embarrassment or attempts to please the server.

Rarely, he noted, do diners base the gratuity on the service quality, adding, "Most people do not have the requisite nerve."

If he had ever gone to restaurants, his enduring study of tipping -- cited by the New York Times and more-scholarly works over the decades -- would have been more than an academic point.

But Dr. Crespi was alarmingly frugal. He never ate out.

He preferred raw onions as well as deli meats and cheeses bought at a steep discount, said his son Jeff Crespi, who added that his father's habits may have reflected a humble background.

Dr. Crespi also showed tendencies toward hoarding discount items he never used, such as bowling shoes. He bought items on sale at one store, such as Halloween candy corn, and sold them for a small profit at another. He might make $1 on the whole transaction.

His late wife, Ginny, tolerated his behavior for 51 years by largely ignoring his ways. She took trips with other family members, waving to her husband and declaring, "See you in a few months. We're going to the mountains of Mexico."

"He may or may not have noticed the absence," said Jeff Crespi, a Huntingtown, Md., resident who describes himself as a photographer, gentleman farmer and yoga instructor. "That's how quirky he was sometimes."

Jeff Crespi said the marriage survived because his mother greatly admired his father and considered him a wild genius.

The son of Northern Italian immigrants, Leo Paul Crespi was born July 23, 1916, in Aurora, Ill., and raised in Los Angeles.

His outlet for diversion became the dancehalls of Venice, Calif., where he became a zoot-suiter -- wearing thigh-length jackets and wide-padded shoulders.

At Princeton, where he earned a psychology doctorate in 1942, he wore checkered zoot suits to his research lab. The mice, he explained, would know him instantly.

He was a famously passionate lecturer in the classroom, which won him many fans among students. As an associate professor, he was written up in a student guide as "a hot rock that can get you all steamed up about religion, nationalism, the caste system in the South and the interesting differences between men and women."

An expert on sampling techniques, Dr. Crespi also contributed to critical evaluations of Alfred C. Kinsey's studies about sexual behavior. He had called the Kinsey reports "an outstanding contribution to the techniques of social inquiry," a finding he said that was in sharp contrast to the Princeton president's opinions.

In 1948, Dr. Crespi went to Europe to direct a U.S. government survey of public opinion in occupied Germany that helped reestablish the country after World War II. In 1954, he joined the USIA, where much of his work focused on Western Europe.

Alan Kotok, a former USIA research analyst and now a managing editor at Science magazine, called Dr. Crespi a major intellectual presence at the agency, a "brilliant man . . . who understood the fine points of social science and behavioral science that underpins public opinion research."

Jeff Crespi said his father's retirement years were spent at a Barnes & Noble bookstore, where he spent hours reading about evolution, religion, psychology and economics -- browsing, never buying, the texts.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company