The Final Clubs: Little Bastions of Society In a University World that No Longer Cares

An Attempt to Preserve Standards of 'Gracious Living'

In Chestnut Hill, a girl at a debutante party used her stock conversational opener with a new dancing partner: "So you go to Harvard. What Club are you in?" In Cambridge, an undergraduate wishing to contact the Harvard Flying Club was surpised and a bit mystified when the voice at the other end of the telephone told him politely that the Fly Club had nothing to with airplanes.

These are the two distinct worlds of which Harvard's Final Clubs find themselves a part. One is the world of Society, whose population is found largely on the pages of East Coast Social Registers and whose habitat lies far beyond the borders of Cambridge 38. Here Harvard is often equated with the Clubs, and a father tends to measure his son's college success not by the rank of his degree, but by the prominence of the Club he makes.

The other world is the University itself, where a rather obvious curtain of silence hangs around the attractive brick buildings, centered on Mt. Auburn St., which house the Final Clubs. This is a world where few undergraduates know much about the Clubs, and even fewer care.

The following article is offered to both these worlds. To the people who care strongly for the Clubs, it is offered not in hopes that they will stop caring, but as an attempt to describe some of the problems and practical difficulties confronting their Clubs today. And to those who do not care, it is offered not because they ought to care, but because Harvard's Final Clubs represent a fascinating and probably unique attempt to preserve, in an American college, the standards of "gracious living" and a slowly withering "aristocracy."

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There are 11 Final Clubs, so called because once an undergraduate joins one he cannot join any other. The Porcellian and the A.D, the oldest and socially most prominent, perch unobtrusively above shops (J. August and Briggs & Briggs) along Mass. Avenue. In the rather vague hierarchy of social desirability, the next group includes (alphabetically arranged) the Delphic, better known as "the Gas" (on Linden St. opposite the University Squash Courts), the Fly (on Holyoke Place in front of Lowell House), the Owl (Holyoke St. diagonally across from the I.A.B.), and the Spee (corner of Mt. Auburn and Holyoke Sts.). Then come the Phoenix S. K. and the Iroquois (in adjoining buildings on Mt. Auburn St. facing Elsie's), the Fox (corner of Mt. Auburn and Boylston), and the D.U. (above J. Press). And last, the only Final Club established since the war--the Bat, occupying the floors above Benny Jacobson's Gold Coast Valeteria.

In these luxurious surroundings gather the cream of Harvard's St. Grottlesex crop, the most sophisticated of the graduates of the prominent New England private schools. These men--a scant 14 per cent or so of each upperclass--look to the Clubs as centers for privacy and "good-fellowship," cut off from the hectic University by their locked front doors, their aura of secrecy, and a generally shared feeling of superiority.

Each club provides its members with the same facilities, though in varying degrees of grandeur: well furnished lounges and sitting-rooms, a library, pool table, television set, bar, and dining room. Lunch is served daily, dinner once or twice a week, and even occasional breakfasts in a few of the establishments. The charges for these meals are kept low--under a dollar--so that members can come as frequently as possible. A few of the Clubs offer special fringe benefits: the Gas boasts a private squash court, and the Owl floods its garden in winter to convert it into a seasonal hockey rink.

No undergraduates except members are permitted through the Clubs' well-painted doors; the general rule is that a Harvard man must be out of college ten or 15 years before he may be admitted as a guest. Of course such long-term graduates and friends from other colleges are acceptable, but there seems to be an unwritten and unmentioned rule that guests are brought in only seldom and that they should be "the better kind of person." It is reported, perhaps apocryphally, that one of the greatest rows in Porcellian Club history was caused when General Eisenhower was brought into the club for the second time, a blatant violation of a P.C. rule that limits each guest to one visit.

For entertaining friends of members, each Club possesses a "guest room" with a special door to the street. In most cases only members of other Clubs may be brought into these rooms, under penalty of a fine, but a few Clubs open them to anyone, provided he is escorted by a member.

In a college such as Harvard where parietal hours are strict and privacy scarce, the Clubs might seem ideal locales for entertaining dates. But stern self-imposed rules, plus Dean Watson's knotty chaperoning regulations, have kept the appearances of women in the Clubs to a rarity. Only on special occasions, such as Yale or Princeton football games or one crew race in the spring, may girls be admitted. Abuse of this rule brings heavy penalties--usually club expulsion; this and cheating at cards are considered the cardinal sins of the Club world. (Except at the Porcellian, where card-playing is prohibited for fear that high stakes might cause personal resentment among the Club brothers.)

Every fall, in order to survive, the Clubs must replenish their ranks with members of the new sophomore class. Accordingly, early in October, the "punching season" opens in Cambridge. Actually the Club recruiting process is always in operation. Even during his freshman year a top Club prospect will be carefully eyed, his circle of friends sifted for other "club material," and a campaign strategy discussed. Both undergraduate and graduate members can nominate "punchees," and "legacies"--sophomores who have had a member of their family in the Club--will automatically be put on the list of men "to look over."

The official punching season, lasting about six weeks from October until early December with a three-week moratorium for hour exams, is governed by strict rules set up by the Club presidents in consultation with Dean Watson. Each club is limited to a certain number of "major functions"--large formal dinners or Sunday outings that feature lunch and a traditional touch football game at a graduate member's country home. But the number of Hasty Pudding Club lunches or of small dinners seating no more than six is unlimited, and as the competition between Clubs becomes tenser, the punching chairman frantically arranges as many as three small dinners a night.

During these affairs the host members will be carefully on the lookout for the punchee's social grace, his dexterity with a fingerbowl, his conversational adroitness. Both pomposity and too much reticence score bad marks; general friendliness and sophistication are the qualities looked for. These punching dnnners, despite the emphasis on gracious living, are often conducted with a certain flamboyant gracelessness. Several nearby country clubs, whose premises have been rented for large Club dinners, have furiously prohibited the Club from ever returning, so vast was the damage in shattered glass and splintered wood. And returning from one of these extravaganzas last year, one Club member carefully aimed a fist at a fellow member only to lay flat a punchee when his drunken blow went astray.

This hectic scramble for the best sophomores assumes in its later stages the proportions of a minor farce. The punchees, for the most part, have only the vaguest notion of what the Clubs are all about and whether they have any committment to the Club after being wined and dined at such length; it seems bad form to ask. The club members are thus usually uncertain of the punchee's intentions to join; to inquire point-blank would be unattractively crass. And so, suitor and maiden, both blissfully shy, muddle through an awkward affair until the night of "final dinners."

Then, when the punchee must choose one among several invitations if he is an especially desirable prospect, the Club whose dinner he attends may feel reasonably sure he will accept if elected. Voting is held the following night, and those who escape the blackballs are notified of their election at 8 a.m. the next morning. They must accept or refuse by noon, and in the intervening hours the club members wait anxiously behind the front door to greet the accepting sophomores (outside on the steps, for they are not yet official members).

The initiation dinners come either in December or in early February. Then, in the presence of a great many dinner-jacketed graduates, the new members are brought into the Club building for the first time, are made to undergo initiating rituals of varying degrees of pomp, ceremony, and drunkenness, and are given the symbolic Club ties and front door keys. On most occasions, initiation nights turn ultimately into alcoholic brawls, and the University Police place them high on their winter social calendar. The Cambridge Fire Department also is usually summoned to provide entertainment for this event. Hook and ladder teams descend noisily on the Fly Club in response to false alarms turned in from the box on the Fly's wall by gleeful members of rival clubs.

It is these occasional explosions of the Clubs into the general life of the University that produce vocal resentment against the Clubs and the "Clubbies". The stock image of the Clubbie casts him as a preppie snob, with well-cut clothes and well-combed hair, who retreats into his club sanctum in order to be among his own kind and cut himself off from his rather unattractive, socially awkward classmates. He is seen as a collegiate version of the senile, plush-leather-armschair-sitters of London's clubs--rather disdainful of the academic life, of the University, and of participation in any extracurricular activity except the Lampoon or athletics.

In some cases this bitter stereotype comes unfortunately close to the truth. But it is far from a general rule. A great many members have strong interests in some outside student activity and make the Clubs only a part of their undergraduate life. They find in the Clubs privacy, good food, and pleasant company in relaxed, comfortable conditions--all of which the Houses often fail to provide--and see in them an opportunity to get to know a small group of people fairly intimately. Academically, according to a tabulation made some years ago by Dean Watson's office, Club members are about on a par with the college norm, except for a rather horrifying dip during the punching season.

Whether or not individual Club members are snobbish and unpleasant (and in most cases they are not), no one can deny that there is a strong undemocratic tinge to the system which rubs off on anyone who joins it. The Clubs generally draw the men of so-called "good family" and upbringing, and though they are not bound by restrictive codes, only the most exceptional Jew or Negro would have a chance of being accepted.

There is no pretense of electing a man solely on the basis of intellectual merit or creative attainments. But no matter whether one is repelled by the Clubs' undemocracy or accepts it, this alone is a weak argument for abolishing them. Belabored with the charge of undemocracy, the club man will merely reply, "So what if I'm undemocratic. I've got a right to choose my circle of friends as long as I'm not doing anyone else any harm."

The University administration, on its part, is far less concerned with the airy ideals of democracy than it is with the practical effects of the Clubs on their members and on the college. Dean Bender, one of the most sensible of the Clubs' critics, points out that entering a Club can easily isolate an undergraduate from the rest of University life. For the Club members, college becomes a highly limiting experience instead of the broadening one it might be. As far as social contacts go, the Clubs are simply little St. Paul's or Grotons or Miltons all over again. Bender calls them "little bastions" where all are of one social background, one economic status, even one geographic area.

The Clubs tend to cut the Clubbies off from the rewards of creative undergraduate activities--dramatics, publications--at which they might otherwise spend their time, and they rob these activities of the benefits of the Club members' participation. In extreme cases, men go through Harvard and their lives enjoying little personal contact with people outside the Club world. But the lure into this breezy Clubbie limbo can easily be overcome, and there are more and more Club members today whose college interests and acquaintances are fairly well shuffled. It also can be argued that the Clubs, where interests differ but social background is the same, are no more confining than the dramatic or athletic cliques, where interests are the same and social background makes no difference.

Whatever effect the clubs may have on their members as individuals, their effect on the college as a whole is practically nil, and this is probably the system's strong point. At Princeton, where every undergraduate must join a club in order to eat, everyone must submit to Bicker's embarrassing process of social rating. The same is approximately true of any college where there is a widespread fraternity system. Some bitterness and bad feeling are bound to result when there is pressure on everyone to join and the club system is a matter of college-wide prestige. This is what Harvard has successfully avoided. With only 14 per cent of the undergraduates in Final Clubs, an overwhelming majority of students have no concern for clubs at all. There is certainly no college prestige involved in joining a club--if anything, there is a loss of it.

In any one Harvard class, there will be a small group interested in joining a Club. Most of them will be elected, and the disappointments will be few. In the much larger category of men simply uninterested, there will be no disappointments because they frankly have no desire to join and no need for doing so.

Ironically, it is the most repellent qualities of the Clubs that give the system this advantage. Their snobbishness, their secrecy, their uncreativity, their preoccupation with an isolated social world all tend to dissuade most undergraduates from any any wish to join. Dean Bender, in the same breath as he criticizes the Clubs for "narrowness," feverently hopes "that the Clubs never start getting democratic." If the Clubs were to elect people on a basis of creative merit, he points out, then undergraduates might really begin to care about joining. The Clubs would become a generally recognized elite, and the punching season would become a bitter college-wide scramble. There seems little chance, however, that the Clubs will take a turn in this direction.

Despite the dim view that University Hall may take of the Clubs, there is little likelihood that Harvard will ever officially abolish them. In the first place, the administration takes quite seriously Harvard's tradition of giving students free reign until they interfere with others.

Secondly, there is a strong suspicion that the Clubs could never, realistically, be destroyed. Greek letter fraternities were outlawed 100 years ago, and the present Clubs simply sprang up in their place. And of course there is the crass but major consideration that much of the Universitiy's financial support comes from wealthy Club alumni who might be reluctant to feed the hand that bites them.

By all appearances, the Clubs will last as long as they can support themselves. Already they have survived a good many hard knocks from the outside: the one-two punch of the 1929 Depression and the founding of the House system, for instance, before which time members usually ate three meals a day in the Club, enjoyed special benefits such as theatre ticket services and private Club railway cars for the Yale football game and crew race, and generally ran up bills of $150 to $200 a month.

World War II came as another shock to the system. The Hasty Pudding Club, normally the first step towards Final Club membership, was turned into an Officers' Club, and undergraduates were speeded through college in an accelerated military program.

Today the Clubs' problems are not so dramatic as wars or depressions. Rather they are the result of gradual changes in the College itself. With rising standards of admission at Harvard, less and less "club material" from the Eastern prep schools is being accepted into the University. And the "preppies" that do come are often so interested in their academic work or else forced to spend so much time on their studies that they don't use the Club as much more than an occasional convenience. There is a good deal of grumbling from graduates in the Club lounges that "Things are not what they used to be here. In my day, you could come into the Club and find the bar filled from five o'clock till midnight."

Nor is the new type of "Clubbie" interested in devoting a lot of time and money to the punching season, and Club presidents often have to scramble around to recruit members to attend the various punching functions. Of course there is still a hard core of devoted members who haunt the Clubs morning, noon, and night--but they seem to be a slowly-dying breed.

A great many of the more liberal Club members are also eager to dispose of some of the stuffer rules of the Club game. Abortive movements have recently been started in some Clubs to admit ladies more frequently, and a few members feel that the Clubs would enjoy a friendlier place in the College if classmates could be brought in for meals. At least, they say, older guests should be invited more often. But these movements generally run into polite but firm opposition from the graduates, who remember a day when the Clubs were close-knit little bands of intimate friends, which might be broken up by frequent intrusions of outsiders, no matter how attractive and pleasant. The Clubs, tradition-bound as they are, are strongly tied to graduate opinion.

The punching season also seems to be lagging in a world gone by. There once was a time when practically all the sophomores punched were convinced from the very start that they wanted to join a Club. They had been brought up in families or schools where the Clubs were considered an integral part of a Harvard career. But this is no longer true today. A great many punchees have little idea of what goes on in a Club and, because of the general mystery that surrounds the Club's inner workings, they are never really told. And so they join for rather shallow reasons--all their friends are doing it, or they hope their Club connections will help them later in a business career. Later some of shot-in-the-dark types grow to like Club life, but a few are disillusioned.

Finally, the Clubs are being caught in a financial squeeze of varying proportions. Real estate taxes are extremely high, the upkeep of those massive brick buildings is pretty exorbitant, and the maintenance of a steward and staff of waiters and cook does not come cheap. The average Club bill totals between $351