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Behind the Velvet Curtain

A Look At Harvard's Final Clubs

By Herbert H. Denton jr.

In the spring of 1784, a group of Harvard undergraduates, despairing of the poor quality of University food, decided to get together for a small private dinner of roast suckling pig and all the trimmings. Enjoying the meal and delighting in one another's company, the group made plans to get together more often for such dinners. Soon after, a few more undergraduates added to their group, they began to call themselves the Pig Club. Disliking the unpleasant connotations of the name, they later changed it to the Pork Club.

Today, two hundred years later, now more delicately known as the Porcellian Club, the organization still survives. With quarters over J. August clothiers in the Square (and an endowment of something between three and four million dollars), the Porcellian reigns as the oldest and most prestigious social club at Harvard and quite possibly the entire country.

In addition to the Porcellian there are ten other social clubs at Harvard--known as "final clubs" because of their mutually exclusive membership regulations. Listed more or less in declining order of prestige, they are the A.D., Fly, Spee, Delphic. Owl, Phoenix-S.K., D.U., Fox, Iroquois and Bat.

All of the clubs except the Porcellian originally began as local chapters of national college fraternities, but have long since broken their ties with the national organizations. Recruiting a large percentage of their membership from graduates of New England prep schools and the social registers of Boston, Philadelphia and New York, the final clubs now resemble the men's clubs of London, Boston and New York more than they do typical college fraternity. The emphasis is on Wild Turkey and "quiet fun," not beer and girls. Instead of wearing loud sweatshirts covered with the fraternity letters, final club members wear ties with discreet identifying symbols--the Porcellian's tiny pig, the Spee's bear.

All of the clubs have sizeable club-houses with varying degrees of elegance. A library, billiard tables and a well-stocked bar are standard equipment. Before a required board rate was set by Harvard, most of the clubs served lunch and dinner each day. Today they usually serve a couple of lunches and a Wednesday night supper each week.

Perhaps the main activity of the clubs is the selection of new members in the Fall--the "punching season," lasting from early October to just after Thanksgiving. A series of cocktail parties, country outings and formal dinners are held by each club so that sophomores who are prospective club material may get to know members of the clubs and at the same time final club members can look them over. A sheet is kept on each sophomore that a club is punching. Members of the club make comments on each "punchee." Sophomores unpopular with members of a club simply stop receiving invitations to the club's activities; desirable club candidates continue to be invited to club activities. The tension builds during the final days of the punching season. Though the clubs have no official channels to trade information, a kind of grapevine springs into operation and all the clubs know which events are being attended by a punchee. Often close friends are consulted as to which way a sophmore might be leaning. In a particularly desperate situation a club president may get on the phone and try to convince a sophomore to join his club. Last year, one club president having a particularly difficult time attracting the desired candidates resorted to taking likely prospects to the movies.

Though the great majority of undergraduates in the clubs are graduates of New England prep schools and often come from socially prominent families, the clubs claim to take other factors into consideration when recruiting members. Some of the clubs have built images which either attract or repel club-bound sophomores. Both the Spee and the Fly have reputations for being intellectual and favoring artists and other "achievers"; the A. D. tends to attract fastidiously-dressed New Yorkers; the Owl draws a lot of athletes; Delphic members are quite likely to enjoy heavy drinking and gambling; the Porcellian Club is "old Boston": its membership is so ingrown that all four officers of the club for next year are cousins.

All the clubs enjoy pointing to their rosters of distinguished alumni. Theodore Roosevelt was a member of the Porcellian, Teddy and Jack Kennedy were members of the Spee, Bobby was a member of the Owl. Robert Benchley and former Harvard President James Bryant Conant joined the D. U. Franklin Roosevelt was turned down by the Porcellian--one biographer claims that this was one of the most devastating set-backs of his life--but made the Fly. Nearly 80 per cent of the present Harvard Corporation belonged to final clubs when undergraduates.

The emphasis on the great alumni, of the past, however, only points up the doubtfulness of distinguished club history repeating itself. No longer is the Windsor-knotted club tie enough to win a job in a prominent law firm or a berth on the Stock Exchange. More and more, the clubbies themselves are beginning to acknowledge the absence of any connection between their standards and reality.

Virtually all the clubs now talk about "liberalizing" their membership policies. The tacit ban on Jews has been relaxed in most clubs, though the ban on Negroes is still in effect. Experiments in "liberalization," however, have met with little success. The boy from public school in Iowa or Oregon elected to a club is often overwhelmed by the heady atmosphere and becomes himself a caricature clubbie.

A major stumbling block to effecting any radical changes in the composition of the clubs is their policy of electing "legacies"--the sons of club alumni. Since much of the clubs' endowment comes from alumni support, it is financially expedient--if nothing else--to elect the legacies. Some years back, a wealthy industrialist who had belonged to the Spee as an undergraduate was enraged when his son was not elected to the club. Storming up to Cambridge in his Rolls-Royce, accompanied by a coterie of servants,

the disgruntled alumnus marched into the club and repossessed all the curtains and rugs that he had given the club. Members of his family now join the Fly.

The huge majority of club members grow extraordinarily loyal to their clubs. Though most will admit that status considerations were uppermost in their miinds when they first joined a club, they now value their club experience for the close friendships they have formed. One member of the Faculty, himself a club man, feels that the clubs serve a positive function by temporarily taking the Harvard undergraduate's mind off himself and his work.

But as club life has, through the years, grown strange from Harvard life, the isolation has created a certain silliness on the part of the clubs. The rules of the club game often become more significant than the game itself. Considerable energy is spent in a kind of childish inter-club rivalry--stealing another club's legacies, breaking into a competing club's building and vandalizing the furniture, and so on.

And curiously enough, the more removed from any real significance the clubs become, the more the clubs hang on to their traditions. At the Porcellian back in the late fifties, eyebrows were raised and throats cleared in indignation when the President of the United States was brought to the club as a guest. The Porcellian, you see, has a rule that no guest may visit the club more than once in his life-time. President Eisenhower, some of the indignant members raged, had visited the club once before when head of the Allied Forces

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