In most undergraduate Houses students live among talented and diverse neighbors, and occasionally a genuine celebrity walks through the courtyard or eats in the dining hall. Recently Edward Asner, Leonard Bernstein '39, and Barbara Tuchman '58 have spent time living among undergraduates, occupying one of several lavish guest suites spread throughout the Houses.
Dozens of famous visitors pass through the University each year, and Harvard accomodates many of them in these special rooms furnished for distinguished guests. Most Houses have at least one reserved suite, which may be occupied by a visiting professor, a guest lecturer, or a fellow in one of Harvard's academic programs.
Winthrop House set aside the suite once occupied by the undergraduate John F. Kennedy '40 for visitors. The notoriety of this well-appointed "Kennedy suite" (recently occupied by Asner and Presidential candidate John Anderson) is matched by the fine furnishings in other Houses--in Lowell, for example, the Hasty Pudding Club's Man and Woman of the Year traditionally stay in that dorm's guest suite.
While relatively few big-name celebrities stay for extended periods. House Masters and their assistants use the suites to attract visitors and scholars who will complement the House atmosphere. Parents and friends of students also can rent the suites occasionally.
"We look for people who will benefit from Dunster, as well as people we can benefit from," says Betty McNally, assistant to the masters.
Most Houses have an ad hoc admissions committee led by the masters, which screens approximately 25 applicants for the guest suites each year. With fewer than five spaces available, the group must make numerous judgement calls about prospective guests' value to their House.
"It's very arbitrary," says Currier Master R. Dudley Herschbach. "We don't look for big names, but for people who will be interesting for the students to meet, as well as for people who will bring something special and new perspectives."
Currier Assistant to the Masters Brenda Chamberlain explains that "there are hundreds of criteria we use to decide who we will accept," with "diversity" the main goal.
At Quincy House this fall, the three guest suites contain diverse occupants indeed: a Japanese woodcutting artist, a visiting economics professor from Australia, and an assistant history professor specializing in women's studies.
Catherine Clinton, the women's studies scholar, says she tries to take responsibility for improving the House's atmosphere by interacting with students and bringing other visitors to Quincy. "I feel it's my House also," she explains.
In Currier, Brian Nalebuff, a junior fellow in the Society of Fellows, joins House life by "organizing milk and cookies, help helping students with their essays, eating with them in the dining half four to five times a week, rowing and playing squash for the House, and proctoring parties."
"Most of the students still think I'm a sophomore," he adds.
Ronald Dworkin, a visiting professor from Oxford University, created even more of a stir in Currier when he lived there two years ago. Dworkin taught a Moral Reasoning course with an enrollment of nearly 900, and many of the students lived in Currier. "Every day in the dinning hall, even after it closed, there were always 20 or 30 students from the course gathered around him." Herschbach remembers.
Currier has also hosted a jazz musician--Douglas Daniels, a Mellon Fellow who has written several books on jazz history--because, according to Herschbach, "we have many people who are interested in jazz."
The lure of guest suites for interesting visitors has prompted Mather House to refurbish its one suite this fall. "It definitely won't look like one of the students' rooms," says Anne Aubrey, assistant to the masters.
Adams Assistant to the Masters Patricia Herrington agrees that an attractive suite can make a large difference in the House. "The elaborate suites are in the other houses, so they get all the prominent guests," she says.
In Adams and several other houses, access to the suites is not always difficult for parents or other visitors. One can often make reservations for a short stay on several days notice, paying a nominal fee for the rooms ($20 in Adams, for example).
But in every case administrators agree that the guest suites surpass undergraduate rooms in accomodations. Most contain a living room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and are generally "cozier" than student quarters, McNally says. "Someone years ago must have gone out and bought real furniture for these rooms," she concludes.