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."