Harvard and Its Clubs
[The following article is adapted from Cleveland Amory’s 1947 work, The Proper Bostonians. In it, Avery chronicles the particularly insular and inbred world of old families and old money that was late 19th and early 20th century Boston – where” in the land of the bean and the cod, Cabots talk only to Lowells, and Lowells talk only to God.” Though the timeframe of Avery’s book, like that of historian Samuel Eliot Morrison also featured here, considerably overlaps FDR’s tenure at Harvard, Avery’s often tongue-in-cheek examination of the Final Club scene and its impact on Harvard is right on the mark, and forms an essential aide to understanding FDR’s own attempt to join the Porcellian – the most prestigious of Harvard’s clubs, to which the two men he most respected, his father and Teddy Roosevelt, had both belonged. Much to his dismay FDR did not succeed in this quest – blackballed by some unknown member – and 15 years afterwards was heard to remark that his failure to get into the Porcellian was one of the” greatest disappointments of his life.” Eleanor later went even further, stating that FDR’s inability to gain admittance had given him an “inferiority complex,” though kindly noting at the same time that such failures had strengthened the character of the man. As it was, Franklin was elected to the D.K.E., the Hasty Pudding and the Fox, the later two where he served as librarian, as well as librarian to the newly established Harvard Union. MDW]
HARVARD AND ITS CLUBS
One of the most charming characteristics of the Proper Bostonian is his regard for something which is not located in Boston at all but a few miles up the Charles River in Cambridge, and which he calls “Hahvud.” The brevity of this pronunciation gives scant indication of the high degree of respect he has for this place. Harvard is Harvard, and since it has been in existence for well over three hundred years—only six less than Boston itself —lie believes it is time everyone, not excepting the Deity, should be cognizant of its importance. Some sign of this was given on the final day of Harvard’s Tercentenary Celebration in 1936 by the late Bishop Lawrence. It was pouring rain that day and the Bishop, then at the age of eighty-six, was observed by a friend in an automobile to be splashing his way on foot across Harvard Square without even the protection of an umbrella. Shocked the friend begged him to enter his car and avoid such unnecessary exposure. The Bishop refused. “The Lord,” he said sharply, “will not allow me to take cold on Harvard’s three hundredth birthday.”
Boston First Family statistics do not alone tell the story of Harvard and its interrelationship with the Proper Bostonian. Sixty-one members of the Proper Bostonian’s two ranking Families, the Cabots and the Lowells, have beaten a path to Harvard’s door in the past hundred years, but even this figure falls far short in explaining the extent of his connection with the place. Harvard is actually a major part of the Proper Bostonian’s total existence, of his adult life in some respects even more than his college life. Not only has he always shared personally in the many honors which have come Harvard’s way throughout its history, but he has also manfully shouldered a full share of the blame for the occasional vicissitudes which have befallen it – when through no fault of his a man of dangerous political tendencies has been tolerated on its faculty or when its football team has suffered a reverse at the hands of a team which would not have dared take the field against the eleven of his day. Further more, this feeling has never limited itself to the male members of his Family. In September of 1881, for example, a rather inauspicious opening of Harvard’s sixth regular football season coincided with the death by assassination of President Garfield. In her diary for the day Elizabeth Dwight Cabot wrote feelingly of the assassination, closing her entry with the line: “Of course I could think of little else, and coming on top of the Harvard defeat I went blundering around doing my shopping and found myself so tired that I had to stop and go for some dinner.”
Socially speaking, Harvard and Boston could hardly be any thing but inseparable. Then in the nineteenth century Proper Bostonian Edmund Quincy laid down First Family law memorably on this point, and as the son of a man who was at one time Mayor of Boston and at another President of Harvard, he knew what he was talking about. “If a man’s in there,” he used to say, tapping his Harvard Triennial Catalogue, containing a complete list of Harvard graduates, “that’s who he is. If he isn’t, who is lie?”
To this day the Proper Bostonian never ceases to wonder at the large number of young men who, apparently happily, attend colleges other than Harvard. Western institutions he can dismiss with a wave of his had, but close by, as he sees a score of oilier colleges within a few miles of his home, he is often curious why it is that he so rarely meets any of the graduates of these colleges—not at dinner, perhaps, but at least on some sort of social footing. He is willing to concede that in other city Societies New York for one—a certain cachet of social prestige derives from colleges like Yale or Princeton, but he attributes this to the fact that it stems from the kind of boy who really belonged at Harvard and went afield through wanderlust or youthful indiscretion. Major Henry Lee Higginson, dedicating his gift of Harvard’s present day athletic field, drew this line of condescension as delicately as he could. “Princeton is not wicked,” he reminded his audience in what was described as one of his simple, manly addresses, “Yale is not base . . . Mates, the Princeton and Yale fellows are our brothers. Let us beat them fairly if we can, and believe they will play the game just as we do.”
A curious example of the strength of the Boston Society stamp on Harvard is the fact that Midwesterners, traditionally ac corded the shortest social shrift of all “foreigners” to enter the Proper Bostonian sphere, have come to prefer almost any other Eastern college to Harvard and still come to Cambridge with marked reluctance. Socially ambitious boys from other parts of the country have also been known to be repelled by stories they have heard of the provincialism of Harvard Society. It took just one of Boston’s blueblood Families to win for Harvard the label “a Lowell monopoly,” and Harvard’s so-called Corporation, which has sole control of the institution’s two hundred million dollar endowment fund, is run in many respects as if Harvard were merely one more in the long line of First Family trusts. Samuel Eliot Morison, official historian of Harvard, has taken a stern stand on the matter of the college’s Boston stamp. A First Family man who lives on Beacon Hill and has launched no less than three debutante daughters in the Boston Harvard social swim, he has nonetheless kept an objective approach to the problem. “Boston,” he records in his Three Centuries of Harvard, “has been a social leech of Harvard College.” Taking to task for their interest in Harvard’s “appetizing young men” even those among his own Beacon Hill set—lie describes them as “Boston mammas”—Morison declares that these hostesses have “baulked all attempts” to make a “social democracy” of the college. “In vain are freshmen tossed onto the same heap,” he writes. “Freshman fellowship, brisk enough in the opening days of college and the first elections of committees, blows away in a whiff of invitations to dances and weekend house parties.”
In its early days Harvard was admirably trained for its role of playing social slide rule to Boston Society. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when that Society was dominated by ministers and magistrates. Harvard was primarily a minister and magistrate sons’ proposition. As the merchant era began in Boston Society so the merchant, or rather his sons, rose to prominence in the college. In these formative years the college was as academically inbred as the Society beside it was biologically so. With the exception of a few language instructors the college did not have a single teacher who was not a Harvard graduate until (lie nineteenth century. The provincialism of its student body was entirely in character with the ever self sufficient Proper Bostonian. In all the years between 1737 and 1790 not a single New Yorker entered the college, and not until 1865 were there enough Harvard graduates to make the formation of a New York Harvard Club a paying proposition.
From the first Harvard’s presidents were extremely concerned with keeping up the social tone of their college. By the nineteenth century this had become a tradition, and Harvard’s leaders—almost invariable recruited from the ranks of Boston’s now stabilized First Family Society—were apparently deter mined to keep the tradition alive. The “heart’s desire” of President Quincy, who led Harvard from 1829 to 1845, his own son wrote, “was to make the College a nursery of high-minded, high-principled, well taught, well conducted, well bred gentle men.” When the noted orator Edward Everett succeeded Quincy as president, he was apparently unable to forget that as minister to England lie had once been a houseguest of Queen Victoria. One morning in chapel, confronted with a group of students all of whom seemed to have colds, Everett was silent for several moments, then solemnly remarked: “In England, boys, gentle men never blow their noses. They sometimes use their handkerchiefs but they do not blow their noses.” Even such recent Harvard executives as Presidents Eliot and Lowell, though they did their best to make Harvard a national institution, seem to have been conscious of the fact that they also bore a sacred social trust. Eliot, a man of impeccable dignity, insisted that whatever else Harvard might be it should always exert “a unifying social influence” and be “a school of good manners,” while the frosty Lowell was once described by a New York newspaperman as “genial enough when he wanted something such as endowment” but who “from all persons less important than himself . . . exacted the most rigid conformance to propriety.” This latter may seem harsh, but was scarcely more gently phrased by Harvard’s own Lampoon, when that publication suggested that a place in Harvard Yard lie commemorated by a monument to mark the spot where Lowell spoke to a freshman.
The student body at Harvard had by the middle of the eighteenth century a system of caste that not even Boston Society of that day could match. By 1749 all students were, upon entering, ranked by the president according to their social standing. The ranking was strictly official; students were listed in the catalogue by it, and it determined not only the order of chapel seating and marching in college processions but also precedence for class room reciting and serving oneself at table. While all ranking was done in what was to become the great Boston Society tradition—according, it was recorded, “to the Dignity of the Families whereto the students severally belonged”—there can be no doubt that it caused a certain amount of hard feeling. In a noted essay on the subject the late New England historian. Franklin Bowclitch Dexter, a Yale man, put the matter of these early day Harvard rankings as tactfully as possible but made clear that it was usually some time before each newly ranked class was “settled down to an acquiescence in their allotment,” and that often the parents of the young men were “enraged beyond bounds.” Dexter blamed most of the trouble on the “intermediate” members of the class, claiming that the highest and the lowest rankings were more “comfortably ascertained” than theirs. He cited the case of one Bostonian who, piqued to note his son was ranked fourteenth in a class of thirty-five while he had been tenth in a class of thirty-seven, went off and tried unsuccessfully to found a new college in western Massachusetts.
The most notable case of dissatisfaction with the rankings was no matter of the “intermediates” or Harvard bourgeoisie, how. ever, but concerned the distinguished Phillips Family, noted for their connection with Andover and Exeter Academics. It took place in the summer of 1769 with the publication of the rank list for the following fall. Searching the list Samuel Phillips, wealthy merchant, discovered that his son Samuel, }r., later founder of Andover Academy, was well down the line, and in time-honored Proper Bostonian manner he complained directly to Harvard’s president. He felt particularly strongly about his son’s being placed below a boy named Daniel Murray, but it is worth noting that he did not make his complaint on the grounds that he was a wealthy merchant and that Murray’s father was not. The merchant era had not yet come into its nineteenth century own in Boston Society; this was the magistrate era, and Phillips rested his case solely on the point that while both he and Murray, Sr. were Justices of the Peace, he had been a Justice longer than Mr. Murray, and therefore Phillips, Jr. deserved precedence over Murray, Jr.
Harvard’s president was a man named Edward Holyoke, distinguished in the college’s social history largely through the fact that it was in his reign—1759—that an edict was passed forbid ding the wearing of nightgowns by students. At the time of Phillips’ complaint he was in the last of his thirty-two years on Harvard’s throne and had apparently little stomach for a quarrel over the point. In any case, he promptly re-ranked Ins entire Student body, elevating young Phillips not only the number of notches demanded by his parent but also a few extra ones for good measure. Phillips never troubled to thank Holyoke for this, but upon noting the new ratings, under date of 29 August 1769 he wrote his son a letter which remains—more for what it does not say than for what it says—a sharp commentary on Proper Bostonian father-to-son protocol:
You are now in the most difficult situation & the eyes of all, above and below you, will be upon you, & I wish it might be that you could be at home till the talk about the change was a little over. Every word, action, and even your countenance, will be watched, particularly by those who envy you, and perhaps by those who do not. If any difficulties should arise with any of your classmates that now fall below you, treat them with all possible tenderness. If Murray is uneasy and manifests it to you, say nothing to irritate him. On the whole say as little as possible.
It is significant that Harvard’s presidents finally abandoned official social ranking, not in deference to democratic ideals, but simply because, as highlighted by the Phillips case, it had begun to cause them a great deal of trouble in their public relations. Unofficially the practice was continued well into the nineteenth century. A historian writing of the year 1820 notes no outward evidence of social ranking but records that President Kirkland was, on his own hook, still finding it convenient to keep up a method of placing his students “other than alphabetically.” President Eliot refused to have anything to do with such listing, but by his time it was completely unnecessary. Harvard’s clubs had already taken over where Harvard’s early presidents had left off, and as more than one historian has pointed out these clubs have with notable aplomb carried the tradition of social ranking forward to the present day. For seventy-five years the powerful “Hasty Pudding,” core of Harvard’s present-day club system, has reigned supreme as a sophomore sitter, and though it no longer publishes its elections in the Boston newspapers— as it did up to 1905, in the exact order of their choice—the Pudding order of sophomores is still, to Boston Society at least, an index of social seniority almost as authoritative as the old colonial rating.
Today, for example, noting in the Society columns the marriage of a Harvard man, the Proper Bostonian looks to his listed clubs and refers to the man’s Pudding rating as confidently as a credit bureau turns to Dun & Bradstreet. If the man is listed as “Hasty Pudding—Institute of 1770” followed by the letters “D.K.E.,” the Proper Bostonian knows that he was a “Dickey” or one of the first forty-five sophomores elected to the club and hence very definitely a social somebody. If there is “Hasty Pudding—Institute of 1770” but no D.K.E., then the man ranked somewhere between Nos. 46 and 150—the latter figure being the average Pudding membership for each Harvard class of about 1000—and is at least “in Society.” If there is no mention of Hasty Pudding at all, the Proper Bostonian probably will not know the man but his social conscience can be clear; the man is obviously, to Ins way of thinking, a person of “humble” origin.
As currently constituted Harvard’s club system is probably the most exclusive of that in any college in America. The Hasty Pudding organization, with its well defined ratings, is one indication of this. But the Pudding, despite the fact that it has its own clubhouse and stages a musical comedy each Easter—which to Boston Society is a male counterpart of the debutantes’ annual Vincent Show—is not a club at all in the sense of one of Harvard’s so-called “final” clubs. These clubs, for which the Pudding acts as a sort of proving ground, are the real be-alls and end-alls of Harvard social existence, and since there are but ten of them and in lean social years some have been known to take as few as four members, it is not a life for everyone.
To have a chance for membership in a final club a boy must be, to start with, what is called “club material.” Being such material covers a multitude of sins but in the main usually means that early in his freshman year—by which time he will b0 watched by upper-class club spotters and, if distinguished, surreptitiously feted at Boston Society Sunday lunches in Dedham or Brookline where by coincidence all males present will have the same pattern on their necktie—a boy must show that he has a healthy respect for the observation of Harvard’s social taboos. These taboos have always included, among other things, over careful dress, undue athletic exertion, serious literary endeavor, rah-rah spirit, long hair, grades above C, and Radcliffe girls.
Since the ability to recognize such taboos must be second nature to a club man, and since such instincts are best developed in a boy’s more formative years, the question of being club material at Harvard boils clown to a boy’s having graduated from one of a small number of socially correct Eastern private schools. Of the five hundred or so public school graduates—half of each class—entering Harvard each year, rare indeed is the boy who manages to break into the purple pale of its club Society. If the school is “wrong,” even “right” ancestry is usually of no avail. Graduates of such venerable private institutions as Exeter, Andover and Roxbury Latin may make clubs but far more often do not; as their social standing has declined in Boston’s Society, so it has in Harvard’s. Graduates of Milton Academy, Noble & Greenough, Pomfret, a few select country day schools and some new boarding schools have a better chance, but still by no means a good one. Only the top-ranking émigrés of New England’s elite Episcopal Church schools—Groton, St. Mark’s, St. Paul’s, St. George’s and Middlesex—can be positive from the start that they are club material with no questions asked. Even these, the “St. Grottlesexers” as they have been called, find themselves in the position of waiting anxiously for the call to Harvard club-dom at the same time knowing that more than a third of them, as sophomores, will never make it. As juniors, or even late in their senior year, a few more will be chosen, but the latter is a dubious honor, since such boys sometimes go through life with the feeling that while judged socially presentable enough to be seen on the occasions when they may as graduates return to club dinners, they were deemed hardly worthy of close fellowship during their undergraduate years.
The acid test of a club’s standing is its ability to keep in line its “legacies” or boys who have had grandfathers, fathers or brothers in the club, and conversely its power to ferret the more desirable of other clubs’ legacies away from them. Based on this, the social rank of Harvard’s ten clubs with appropriate spacing, may be indicated as follows:
At the time of their founding most of these clubs were chapters of national fraternities, but the Harvard chapters always felt their obligations to their brothers from other colleges rather burdensome and were only too delighted, when the opportunity presented itself, to surrender their charters and become local independent clubs. They have remained local in respect to Harvard, but their independence in respect to Boston—or Boston Society—is a matter of opinion. The Porcellian, Gas, Spee, and particularly the Fly, have always numbered in their member ships each year a fair proportion of New Yorkers, and there is no specific exclusion of Philadelphians, Chicagoans, or indeed youthful members of any other recognized Societies. ‘By and large, however, Harvard’s clubs range themselves almost exactly in accordance with the Boston social standing of the Families which have long dominated them. Porcellian men are Boston’s best, A.D. men Boston’s next best, and so on down the line. To go a step farther, it would even be possible to draw a close parallel between the accepted ranking of Boston’s leading clubs and what would, roughly, correspond to their Cambridge chapters. Thus, Somerset would be substituted for Porcellian, Union for A.D., Tennis and Racquet for Fly, and so forth. Certainly few would deny that Proper Bostonians are inclined to rate one another socially as much by what club they made at Harvard as by what club they may later belong to in Boston. The graduate presidents of every one of Harvard’s clubs today are Bostonians, die majority of them in the investment business and all men of ‘ high distinction in Boston Society. The Proper Bostonian’s interest in the affairs of his Harvard club is sternly enduring—one First Family man was still regularly attending graduate lunch cons of the A.D. Club in his ninety-seventh year—and it is also one which is remarkably compelling. In February of 1942, Leverett Saltonstall was offered the position of Grand Marshal of Porcellian and, though already occupied as Governor of Massachusetts and warned by more than one of his advisers that the club Grand Marshalship was of extremely doubtful political value, he eagerly embraced the post. He served until September of 1945, only resigning when it became apparent to him that, as a Senator living in Washington, he was no longer able to discharge his Porcellian duties faithfully.
Harvard’s clubs are modeled on the Proper Bostonian idea of a gentleman’s club. Though the Hasty Pudding still puts its first forty-five members through a three day hazing period, the final clubs avoid Lost Weekend initiations and any semblance of the jack-o ‘lantern type of ritual beloved by most college fraternities. Generally speaking, the clubhouses are not elaborate and dues not excessive. Since under Harvard’s “House Plan” boys have to pay for twenty-one meals a week in their dormitories, club members rarely eat in their club and, since there are no bedrooms in any of the clubs, never sleep there. The exclusiveness of the clubs is notably evident in their treatment of female guests. Once a year the latter are invited to a tea party in a guest room always entirely separate from the main part of the club; otherwise they are shunned completely—so much so that following the Yale or Princeton game each year, both undergraduate and graduate club members invariably leave their dates or wives to shift for themselves and attend a lengthy, formal dress club dinner which occupies the entire, evening. Exclusiveness is also evident in the clubs’ treatment of male guests. By what is called the “Unwritten Law” of Harvard’s clubs members of one club are allowed in the guest room of another; non-club men, however, are not admitted to any part of a Harvard club until they have been out of Harvard for ten years.
Appropriately enough, Harvard’s hierarchy is headed by the Porcellian, which is the only one of the college’s ten final clubs to date from the very beginning of Boston’s days of First Family founding. Born in 1791, it was once known as the Pig Club from the fondness of two of its first members, Francis Cabot Lowell and Robert Treat Paine, for that delicacy in roasted form. As the organization grew in social stature, however, it became incumbent upon these men and others to refine their name to the present one. In recent years the A.D. has the reputation for culling a slightly more genial type of clubman than the Porcellian, but from the simon-pure social standpoint the latter has always reigned supreme. Whatever other clubs have the Porcellian has also, and it usually has more besides. In the Roosevelt Family, for example, the Fly has the Hyde Park or Franklin Roosevelts, but the Porcellian has the even more socially august Long Island or Theodore Roosevelts. The Porcellian’s record for unbroken Family dynasties is one that no other club can come close to matching. For the better half of Boston-Harvard history the club has enjoyed generation after generation of Cabots and Cutlers, Lowells and Lymans, Gardners and Gardiners, Hallowells and Hunnewells, Saltonstalls and Searses, Warrens and Welds. Nepotism, prevalent in all Harvard clubs, hangs so heavy over the Porcellian that its present membership includes no less than six Cutler brothers directly descended from the club’s first Grand Marshal, Charles Cutler, who served from 1792 to l794» a even the present club steward prides himself on being a second generation “P.C. man,” his father having held the same position before him.
Of such a club might be expected a million-dollar clubhouse and an initiation fee in four figures. Actually, in the Proper Bostonian tradition, the Porcellian is located directly over a corner cafeteria in a rather shabby building on Cambridge’s busy Massachusetts Avenue, and its initiation fee is ten dollars. Annual dues are forty dollars: The outer door of the Porcellian is never locked, but so great is the awe in which the club is held that few ineligibles have ever bothered to try it. Inside there is what passes for the Porcellian guest room. This is a vestibule which contains a number of bicycle racks dating from the 1890s, six cane chairs always piled forbiddingly one on top of another, and reading matter in the form of a sign which says that book sellers, peddlers and solicitors are at no time allowed in the building. There is also a button which, when pushed, brings forth a sternly inquiring voice through a loudspeaker tube. Only a handful of men unprivileged to wear the green, pig studded P.C. necktie have ever gotten beyond this speaking tube to the inner sanctum upstairs. One of these was the late Al Smith whose curiosity had been so aroused by tales of the Porcellian that, on coming to Harvard, lie prevailed upon his Porcellian friend, New York’s patrician lawyer Grenville Clark, to extend him the honor of seeing the place. When during the late war, however, amenable Clark also took a second guest, General Eisenhower, on a whirlwind tour of the premises, he was sternly reminded by other members that he had then had more visitors than any other man in Porcellian history.
Actually dark’s friends saw little of the Harvard high life they undoubtedly expected. The Porcellian prides itself on being the simplest of all Harvard clubs, and its upstairs sights consist chiefly of a library, a dining room, a bar, a large variety of pig figurines in various poses, and a number of ageing leather armchairs endowed by P.C. Families and suitably engraved with P.C. Family names. So strict is the Puritan tradition in the Porcellian that there is not even a game room, standard equipment for other Harvard clubs. Card playing or gambling of any sort has never been permitted. One of the most striking features of the club is a mirror attached out of a second-floor window at such an angle that members seated inside the main room of the club may look down on the Massachusetts Avenue life passing beneath them without troubling to leave their chairs. This mirror, typically enough, cost the Porcellian nothing, having been designed and installed in 1901 by a mechanically inclined son of the club steward. Through the years, however, it has come to stand as a sort of symbol of Porcellian social laissez-faire and has taken its proud place in Boston-Harvard legend beside the 3tory of the Porcellian stroke of the Harvard crew of whom it was said: “He’s democratic all right—lie knows all but the three up front.”
While members of each of Harvard’s clubs maintain close connections in after years and stand ready to help clubmates out at every turn, the affiliation between Porcellian graduates is proverbial. The late novelist Owen Wister, in an interview which took place in 1936, fifty-seven years after his election to the club, patiently tried to describe to a reporter his affection for the place. Nothing, he stated, not even the national distinction which came to him following the success of his novel The Virginian, had ever meant so much to him. It was a bond, he declared, which could be “felt but not analyzed.” It was in this same spirit that Theodore Roosevelt, informing Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany of the engagement of his daughter Alice to Nicholas Longworth, volunteered the line: “Nick and I are both members of the Pore, you know.” Expressed in terms of the Boston debutante Porcellian prestige is awe-inspiring. Since time immemorial Boston’s belles have been adjusting their caps for the prize catch among Harvard husbands, a Porcellian man. In the Cabot Family the story is told of a Cabot girl who, seated on the front porch of her Beverly home shelling peas one fall morning in the year 1810, looked up to see coming into her driveway a chaise driven by Charles Jackson, a man who enjoyed Boston wide prestige as one of Porcellian’s original founders. He was an acquaintance of hers, a widower whose first wife had died only a few months before. Alighting, lie asked, in the direct Boston manner, for her hand in marriage. Miss Cabot accepted. Some time later a member of her family, who knew that she must have been taken by almost complete surprise, asked her how she had been able to make up her mind so quickly. “My dear,” came the quiet reply, “not marry Mr. Jackson?”
Porcellian power was amply illustrated in more recent times when, in the election of its annual group of sophomores in the carefree days of the twenties, the club chose to include in the number a boy from a small town in western Massachusetts. He was a young man of unusual charm but one about whom, in contrast with the rest of the group which had in customary fashion banded together since early school days, little else was known. As an undergraduate member he was a success, and upon his graduation his well connected Porcellian friends saw to it that their adopted brother had an opportunity to marry well and take a good position in an old-line Boston firm. This dizzy rise was continued until the depression. Then it stopped short. Finding himself involved in a large financial deal at an inopportune moment, the man appropriated some of the firm’s money. He had intended to pay it back but was caught red-handed. He wished to make a clean breast of the affair.
The club was in no mood for this. Not only had the man figuratively bitten the hand that had fed him, he had literally done so. He had been elected a graduate officer of the Porcellian and among the funds he had misappropriated had been some of the club’s own. Stern measures were also indicated for another reason. Already two Porcellian men, a prominent New York investment counselor and stock exchange head Richard Whitney, were in Sing Sing prison for similar fiscal irregularities. In the case of these two New Yorkers—particularly Whitney, who had been photographed by Life magazine on his way to jail with his gold Porcellian pig prominently displayed on his watch-chain —it had been impossible to avoid scandal. In the case of the Boston man it has not. The offense did not reach the newspapers at all. Porcellian men simply hushed the matter of their own deficit, quietly paid off the firm and prevailed upon it not to prefer charges, and finally chartering a plane for the occasion took the man on a “vacation.” The spot chosen is known to have been a ranch in Arizona, but further details of the affair have never been aired, and it remains to this day, to all participants, a closed book.
Harvard’s authorities do not defend Harvard’s club system. Many of them are inclined to look upon the sophomore club man, the beau ideal of Boston Society, as a necessary evil in their Cambridge community, and some have even gone so far as to wonder why it is necessary to have even such a relatively in significant number of Harvard’s total student body made up of boys who, in the words of a recent Town and Country author,”dress alike, look alike, walk alike, talk alike, and, if pressed, think alike.” Nonetheless, it would be out of character with Harvard’s age-old position as Boston’s social annex if its authorities had ever openly condemned the system. Even Harvard’s current leader, James B. Conant, who, while a member of the D.U. club, probably ranks as the most socially elastic president in the college’s history, has not advanced a plan to level the social sights. For the most part official Harvard prefers to ignore the clubs in the same manner that the columns of the Crimson, undergraduate newspaper, take no notice of their existence. A Harvard professor recently declared that having been a faithful attendance at faculty meetings for twenty-five years he has yet to hear the clubs brought up for discussion. A Harvard historian goes further and states that to his knowledge in all the sixty-four years of college history under Presidents Eliot and Lowell—Porcellian and Fly men, respectively—he believes there was only one faculty meeting mention of them. That was when Lowell, engaged in promoting Harvard’s House Plan whereby undergraduates would live in an atmosphere of social equality, was asked if he did not intend to go further and abolish the clubs. Lowell replied that he had no such intention, that Harvard’s clubs represented the college’s most influential graduates, and that he had no wish to lose his job on their account—”like Wilson did down at Princeton.”
The Proper Bostonian finds himself in a position where he can hardly do other than stand up for Harvard’s club system. Not only is Harvard’s Society, in which there are so very few sheep and so very many goats, an almost exact counterpart of his own First Family Society, but Harvard’s clubs are actually vital to his Society. As far back as 1892 the Madrid-born Boston-bred philosopher, George Santayana, noted the sharp line which divided the majority of Harvard boys from the so-called “club crowd” among which he found “the most conspicuous masculine contingent of Boston Society.” As Harvard has expanded the importance of this line has grown. The Proper Boston woman who in the nineteenth century might have been satisfied with a Harvard man as dancing partner for her debutante daughter now demands a Harvard club man. For hostesses lacking first hand Harvard connections one of Boston’s leading social stationers are happy to supply, at a rental charge of twenty-five dollars for three days, their “Harvard list,” the basis of which is an up-to-date membership of Harvard’s clubs. The same stationers keep up a “date book” in which hostesses sign up in advance for their parties so that the coveted stag line of sophomore club men will not be overtaxed. Invitations pour into the Porcellian, A.D., Fly and other clubs in such profusion that the Fly maintains a social secretary for the purpose of answering them and the Porcellian, in keeping with its proud position, makes a practice of sending a scout out to reconnoitre a debutante party early in the evening and report back to his clubmates on the charm of the girls present, the quality and quantity of the champagne being served, and whether in his considered opinion the party is worth the trouble of dressing up and go in to.
Since defend Harvard’s system he must, the Proper Bostonian makes a valiant attempt at it. His first point is that it is wrong to regard wealth as the basis of the selective process of Harvard’s clubs. He is likely to choose some such example for this as the case of one of New York’s wealthiest men who, arriving in Cambridge as a freshman in 1911 and setting himself up in style in an apartment complete with a valet, is said to have waited confidently for the attention of club spotters for close to a year. Finally, feeling himself totally ignored, he withdrew from Harvard altogether.
In making such a point, of course, the Proper Bostonian has to convince the skeptic that there is a very definite distinction between the kind of Family wealth which is admittedly a recognized club criterion—in other words, Boston Family wealth —and Family wealth as it is understood in New York or other parts of the country. In making his usual point No. 2 about Harvard’s club system the Proper Bostonian has an even more difficult task. This is to convince outsiders that Harvard’s club system is so constituted that anyone who doesn’t make a club is perfectly free to go out and start another club on his own. The classic example for this is the Delphic, a club which was founded by a New Yorker, who was, like the freshman u; 1911, slighted by his fellow Harvardians. Nonetheless, certain additional facts belong in this story about the Delphic. For one thing, the date was 1889 and there has not been another club in Harvard’s history started in this manner. For another, the club is still today known as the “Gas” from the fact that it had such hard going in its early days that the club steward used to keep the lights on all night to prove a good time was being had in side. And finally, the New Yorker who founded the Delphic, or Gas, was not the sort of man who undertook anything he didn’t intend to finish; his name was J. P. Morgan.
There is still a third point the Proper Bostonian is fond of making about Harvard’s club system, and the one on which he rests his case. This is that a system whereby 15 percent of the students make clubs and 85 percent do not is preferable to the average college fraternity system in which these proportions are reversed and a mere 10 or 15 percent of students are left to a life of social solitude. Stop the first Harvard boy you see on the street in Cambridge, says the Proper Bostonian, and ask him where the Porcellian Club is, and the chances are he will not know and furthermore will not care. So small is the group affected by Harvard’s system that more than three quarters of Harvard’s undergraduates are able to lead happy lives oblivious of it.
That there is something to be said for this line of reasoning few observers of the Harvard scene would deny. It is note worthy, however, that when the Proper Bostonian finds that his own son has failed to make a club and thus becomes a member of that large and happy 85 percent, he is the first to stand up and be counted against the whole system. A club man of the class of 1905, for example, whose son failed to make a club, declared unhesitatingly that Harvard’s clubs never choose the boys who become the outstanding men in their class in later years but go after only the social playboys whose graduation, he felt, involved little more than a move “from an armchair at the Porcellian to armchair at the Somerset.” From his own class he proudly pointed to such non-club men as Walter S. Gifford, president of the American Telephone Company, Clarence Dillon, head of New York’s Dillon, Reed banking firm, and Ed ward E. Brown, chairman of the board of Chicago’s First National Bank, and named them as the three most successful men in the class. A club man of the class of 1912, a member of whose Family was also ignored by Harvard’s system, nominated as the outstanding successes in his class ex-Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, author Frederick Lewis Alien, and the late Robert Benchley—all non-club men. He further declared that Benchley, though a member of the Hasty Pudding, always felt strongly about having been excluded from a final club, and on being asked to come back to a class reunion once replied, “Why should I? No one paid any attention to me when I was there.”
From the emphasis placed by Boston Society on the Harvard clubs it is fortunate for the Proper Bostonian that instances of his sons failing to make a club are relatively rare. Tight though Harvard’s social squeeze is, connections which begin at the Family-conscious club-feeder schools and continue through the important freshman year usually take care of the First Family boy’s being fitted into the club mold by the time of sophomore elections. When these connections fail and a boy is fated to go through Boston social life with some such whispered label as “He didn’t make the A.D., you know,” the results have been known to prove almost disastrous.
One such case is recalled by a Boston lawyer who, though he failed to make a Harvard club, managed to bear up .so well that he won a Boston-wide reputation for being able to do so. Attending Harvard Law School he was approached one evening by a member of the Porcellian Club whose brother-in-law had not been able to make a club. The Porcellian man asked for his advice in mapping out the most satisfactory college life possible for a non-club man, stating frankly that he knew nothing of such things himself and that his brother-in-law had been so affected by his misfortune that he was on the verge of leaving Harvard. Many times the two had serious discussions on the subject of the extra-club activities which might help the boy. Today the lawyer enjoys telling on himself the conclusion to which they came.
“After two months,” he says, “we decided that if by any chance the boy could manage to become interested in his studies, his Harvard education might still be worth while.