The first thing Vigo M. Conte does when he arrives at the Pudding is ask how everyone is doing. The second thing he does is ask for the list.
For 17 years, Vigo has been working the door at the Hasty Pudding house, The Harvard Crimson, an assortment of final clubs, and The Harvard Lampoon. He wears a tuxedo when he works, and he looks you square in the eye when he’s talking with you. He’s a father, a husband, and a proud employee of the U.S. postal service.
It was Vigo’s brother-in-law, Michael J. Canley, who got him into the trade. Canley used to work the bar at the Lampoon and found that they always struggled to manage the crowd that showed up for parties with special guests. He suggested that Vigo might be able to help. “He’s very cordial and he can handle people,” Canley says. “He does it very professionally.”
From his first gig back in 1995, Vigo has become the go-to doorman for the clubs and organizations in Harvard Square. His reputation has spread through word of mouth—“a pretty decent job and no complaints,” according to Vigo. If Vigo loves his job, and he says he does, then the regular club crowd loves him more. “Anyone can call him at the last minute and he’ll come do it,” Canley explains.
Tonight Vigo’s working at Two Garden Street. His station wagon pulls up at 11:25 p.m., when there are already crowds out. He pokes his head in the door to say hello. “Viiigooo!” He’s greeted like an old friend, and within minutes he has a list, a chair, and a Diet Coke. (Vigo says he never drinks on the job.) He sits on the left-hand side of the door, so when he opens it for people, he isn’t blocking the entrance. But no one opens the door but him. 11:29 p.m. It’s time for the party.
Guests begin to arrive in twos and threes. Vigo welcomes them like a host, checks off their names, and wishes them a good evening. His smile is warm and avuncular; he presses his lips together like a frown, but from the rest of his face it’s somehow obvious that he’s smiling.
“Hi, guys,” Vigo says, with the rise and fall of someone receiving a long-awaited guest. And then: “Can I have your first and last names please?” He checks his list fastidiously, except when he knows that somebody’s a member—then it’s a greeting by name and a handshake, sometimes a quick chat as well, and they’re on their way in. “Have a great evening, folks.”
AS A RULE
Vigo is strict on the rules. No one gets in without being on the list—unless the president himself gives them the OK. “Thanks, come on in,” Vigo says, and learns a few new names along the way. When he rejects someone, he does so with the maximum respect. “I’m sorry, you’re not on the list, and those are the rules of the club.”
Two girls arrive; one is on the list and the other isn’t. They hug their good-byes, wish each other a lovely night, and go their separate ways. The one that gets in rolls her eyes at the half-empty dance-floor and wanders into the kitchen.
Vigo is a gentleman. He attributes his style to Joe Hickey, who was the Steward of the Lampoon when Vigo started working at Harvard. “My buddy, Joe Hickey, he trained us well,” Vigo says. “It’s a real simple thing—I’m going to treat you the way you’re going to treat me, with that kind of dignity and respect.”
And it works in 99 percent of cases, according to Vigo. “You are going to get that person who thinks he or she is better than you, that you are just a doorman and who the hell do you think you are,” he says. “At that point you set the person straight and say these are the rules of club—you have to be firm. But I try to be a gentleman about everything.”
Vigo’s brother-in-law goes one step further in his summation. “Literally, he’s like a teddy-bear,” Canley says. “I stand at the door with Vigo and he’ll say to all the girls, ‘Honey, do me a favor and be careful tonight.’ He’s genuinely concerned about people and that’s what makes him efficient.”
Tonight Vigo chats about Rupert Murdoch and the evils of divisive mass media. He checks that a girl isn’t walking home alone, and then he refuses a skinny sophomore who says, “I know that guy” and points at nobody in particular. He sits for a good 20 minutes with one austere young man, a final club president.
One of Vigo’s favorite things is seeing students graduate from the College, and then seeing them come back again for grad events. Another is meeting the younger siblings of people he befriended many years ago. He tells the story of one club member who had talked with him at length one night about Ted Kennedy ’54-’56—“I’m a liberal and I’m a Democrat, very much so”—and that started a conversation over three or four years. When Kennedy passed away, this club member came back and gave Vigo a book on the late senator. Inside the front cover, the member “wrote some really nice things,” Vigo says. “It touched me, but it touched my wife too in a really big way.”
At around 12:30 a.m., two boys come in and their five other friends are turned back; they mutter to their scarves as they walk down the stairs. There’s a group hanging around outside, some on the way in, some on the way out, and some wait in chilly purgatory for the presidential nod. “I don’t even want to go in any more,” one shouts, turning back towards the Quad. “Fuck this.”
Vigo is unfazed. It’s not his job to be fazed. Everything is exclusive at Harvard, he explains. The Crimson to dorm parties to the College itself. “Basically, life’s not fair,” he said. “And I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
LIFE’S NOT FAIR: THE FRESHMAN BOY
(Enter Keith H. Bender, the freshman boy. He looks young. He speaks frankly and without self-pity.)
KEITH: “It’s something that affects us on a weekly basis. A lot of the freshman girls will go off to places that let them in and turn us away.
“Oh, there have definitely been nights—the majority of nights—of walking around from location to location, mostly to no avail. I understand that girls branch off, because they want to have fun too, and if they have an option then I totally understand them using that option.
“It’s kind of institutional: as a freshman guy, you just have to put in your hours of wandering, and not having the greatest social experience. I wish we could be without this institutional exclusion of freshman boys ...
“It doesn’t cloud my view of Harvard as a whole. It enables us to form friendships; you meet a lot of people doing the wandering freshman thing. It’s taken on a culture of its own. We commiserate together and it’s just something we have to deal with.”
ON THE LIST
Vigo doesn’t compromise. People try everything: flirting, name-dropping, begging. One girl waits until Vigo looks at his list, then dashes in and disappears into the dance-floor. Thirty seconds later and Vigo has her back at the doorway, cordially asking her if her name is on the list and telling her she’ll have to wait for the president if she isn’t.
He is a professional, alright. Members and plus-ones, members and plus-ones. The list defines the night. Dorm parties face the constant threat of being busted. Off-campus spaces, thus the default, can only house so many, with limited room and red cups. In such a world, real estate is everything.
A great deal of ink has been spilled about social space and exclusivity at Harvard. It is an important conversation but one that is already well-worn. All that matters now, at 12:50 a.m. at the door of the Pudding, is the list—not why there is a list, not who should be on the list, just that there is a list and who is on it.
“We try to adhere to what the club wants for that evening and let them set the tone,” he says. Only once was he asked to let the hot girls in. “I don’t put up with anything nasty,” Vigo explains. “I have a certain moral compass of my own and, like I said, I have two children of my own.”
Vigo is also selective about where he will work. “I only go where people are just trying to have a good time, not having to duck their head to avoid a beer bottle,” he says. “When you get to my age, it’s a night out, watching you guys do what I did when I was in college.” Although he never drinks on shift, he says, he sometimes has a drink after work. And even though he ends up being friends with a lot of familiar faces, he won’t let members of one club into another club’s party if they’re not on the list.
(ANOTHER NIGHT OF DOORS)
On another Saturday, Vigo isn’t working. It’s a mellow weekend and there isn’t a list: at the Fly, the Owl, and the Phoenix, it’s just the boys by the door.
Two tall blondes walk past a crowd on the stairs to the Fly. “Do you know any members?” one member asks.
“Probably,” one girl says with a shrug.
“I’m sorry, you have to know a member to come in.”
“Um, Zeke, I know Zeke.”
“Zeke’s standing in front of you.”“Hi, I’m Zeke,” says Zeke.
“Hi,” she says, playing cool.
She and her friend go into the party.
A trendy foreign girl drags on a cigarette and watches the next batch arrive. “You girls go to B.U., right?”
“Um, no. Yes.”
The member at the door asks, “Do you know any members?”
“I hooked up with one once. Blond-haired guy, sort of built. I don’t know his name.” The guys by the door try out names, to no avail. The mystery of the night. “I didn’t get his name”—now defensive—“but we did hook up, and he has my number.” It must have been a punch, they decide, and the B.U. girls go in.
There’s a group outside the Owl. “Don’t stand around like you’re going to get in, because you’re not!” says a voice from the doorway. Then, a member skips out after a group of girls: “What, you didn’t like it in there?” He follows them to Pinnochio’s. Major Lazer pounds away on the other side of the fence.
Suddenly, a member at the door and a short-haired stranger are at each other. “Hey, I know a grad member, I said I know a grad member, chill the fuck out, I said I know a grad member and then you just got in my fucking grill.” For a second there’s a chance of a fight, but then it’s resolved and the stranger walks off. The other member by the door: “If he punched you, man, I would have killed him. I’ve got your back.” There’s a hug, but they’re interrupted by a new guest. “The lady is welcome,” one says, with an Austro-Hungarian bow.
The Phoenix has no music playing, but still there’s a crowd outside. A middle-aged man in a bowtie talks to another doorman about Occupy Boston.
A group of girls in heels ask him, rapt, about how the club has changed over the last 35 years. Then a member appears in the crack of the door. “Hey, can you let us in?”
“No girls, tonight. I don’t know who’s telling you. Go to the Fly or the Spee.”
“C’mon, let us in.”
“I don’t know who’s telling you, it’s a grad dinner tonight, no girls.”
The bowtie interjects. “I’m the president of the graduate board, and I’m going to have to tell you the bad news: we can’t let anybody in.”
One girl—tall, long hair, beautiful—strides off alone down the road. “Where are you going,” ask her friends.
“I’m going to the Spee.”
They: “Is it good at the Spee?”
She: “Of course not, it’s never good, but there’s nothing else to do. Fuck.”
Later on, it gets cold on Mt. Auburn Street. A group of girls are standing around with their arms crossed hard like straitjackets because they didn’t dress for the wind. Someone from a club is walking past, and is stopped by three girls and a guy from Europe; they want to know if they can come to a party. He says no.
“Our grad board is there.”
“I don’t know what that is and I don’t give a fuck.”
“Well, do you know people at any of the clubs?”
“I hooked up with Cameron Winklevoss once, no joke.”
“Well I took a shit in the woods once.”
“Wow, I can’t wait to hear about it.”
They laugh; he walks off. She, to her friends: “What’s with all the terrible people here tonight?”
(Enter Sabrina G. Lee ’12: short, pretty, ferocious. The smile must be memorable.)
SABRINA: “I began writing about final clubs my sophomore year because I was curious about the rumors I had been hearing for over a year at that point and all the hype about punching I observed among my friends and acquaintances. As I tried to interview students and administrators about final clubs, I was struck by how many people harbored intense emotions about the clubs—fear, jealousy, bitterness, and anger, to name a few—yet how few felt comfortable expressing such emotions on record. And then after it was published I was told by one of my sources that she had been angrily confronted by final club members for her comments in my article.
“Within a few weeks, I was invited to join several final club members affiliated with the BSA for a two hour discussion about final clubs in the context of social justice issues. That dialogue was a turning point in my experience at Harvard.
“I think that, to quite a few people, I became known as ‘that crazy final club girl.’ But good things came from that. For one, I began saying whatever I thought about final clubs to whoever would listen because people expected me to say pretty explosive things on the topic anyway. And, more importantly, people began seeking me out to talk about final clubs. Their qualms about being in a final club. Their experiences of discrimination or even violence in final clubs. Somehow, I became one of the go-to people for anyone with doubts and complaints about final clubs.
“So, in September of last year, I decided it was time to do something with all of these stories. I got a group of 15 or 20 of my friends together: we generated a list of everything we did not like about final clubs and then we generated a corresponding list of tactics we could employ to address those problems. Ultimately, it was a relatively moderate campaign—it was called the Final Club Campaign, not the Anti-Final Club Campaign—aiming to do damage control for final club issues. We talked to the administration about alternative spaces and the availability of information about final clubs, like sexual assault statistics, for example. I think everyone on the campaign knew the problems ran much deeper and were aware that we were not addressing the heart of the issue, but we were interested in doing something—anything—to address the problems in the here and now.
“That campaign’s goals have been largely absorbed by the Committee on Student Life and the student organizing around final clubs has disbanded. I am still sometimes identified and sought out as ‘the crazy final club girl,’ though ...
“At times I feel I don’t have much to offer the people who talk to me about final clubs. I often watch my arguments about male-dominated space and exclusion fall on deaf ears and that is not too surprising to me. Mainly, I find myself asking people to think about what our campus could look like and to act it out in their everyday lives. From what I can tell, that idea is appealing to people and it seems to be planting a few seeds. I can only hope that those seeds grow into something else, but I have a feeling I will have graduated before that happens.”
A TINY WORLD?
How does Vigo respond to the accusations leveled at the clubs: that they’re elitist, that they’re backwards, that they’re sexist? “I just crack up,” he says. “Because, honestly, what is here at Harvard is what you see in the real world.”
He says he is regularly offered money by people trying to get into a party, but he always turns it down. Other times, people try to argue their way in. “Two o’clock in the morning,” Vigo says, “and someone wants to debate me on the philosophy of why they can’t get into a club. I say, ‘Look, these are the rules, and that’s it. Have a nice night. Do you want me to call you a cab?’”
He goes on: “Human nature is the same here as it was, you know, 30 years ago where I went to school: people seem to congregate where they feel comfortable. There’s a clan-like factor, not in a derogatory way, just that you hang around people that you want to hang out with.” For Vigo, the clubs are just trying to maintain their own tradition.
Thing are evolving at Harvard, but in the eyes of many, the storied Harvard clubs are dragging their feet. The continued resistance to making male final clubs co-ed is one thing; latent classism is another.
In 1965, the Spee Club accepted its first-ever black member. On the occasion, William C. Coleman III ’66, the Undergraduate President of the Delphic, told The Crimson: “I don’t want to say that this is a precedent that all the clubs at Harvard should follow, or that the Delphic Club is going to take in a Negro, or a Chinese, or whatever.
I think as far as the clubs are concerned within the context of Harvard University, this is a good thing. It is an indication that clubs are not exclusive—in any sense, not just racially—as people have tended to think they are.”
In 2011, there are still battles being fought. No female final clubs own their own space. Heterosexual dates are often expected at punch events. And for some observers, the monopoly of social space is always going to be a problem.
“These clubs have been sustained because people have wanted them to stick around,” Vigo says. “Is it all great? No. Could it always be better? Sure. But from my opinion, it’s gotten better every year, never worse.”
Vigo is optimistic because he believes in the dynamism of Harvard: “You have your own melting pot, your own little world here, if you don’t get stuck in your own little tiny world.”
END OF THE NIGHT
Just inside the door of the Pudding, it’s 1:15 a.m., and it’s getting quieter. Vigo starts saying more good-nights than good-evenings. The regular crowd—and you can tell who’s a regular—makes sure to stop and say thanks. “See you next time,” Vigo says.
All the club presidents refused to speak on the record for this piece. So did all members. But tonight, one is clumsy, and finds out that Vigo’s being profiled: “I just love Vigo!” she says, before heading down the stairs.
At 1:30 a.m., the Reverend who lives nextdoor complains and the party is over. Vigo sees everyone out, shaking the hands of the men and checking that the women are safe. He packs up, says good-bye, and drives back home to Somerville, to his wife and his kids.
A gaggle of members of the Pudding clean up the house, lounge on the stairs outside, and then saunter back down towards the Yard.
—Leslie B. Arffa contributed to the reporting of this article.