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The Clubs: Pale, But Still Breathing

Survive as Playgrounds for Preppies

By Evan W. Thomas

One hundred eighty years ago, at a time when Harvard students were officially ranked by their social position in "the Dignity of one's Familie," a listing that determined order of chapel seating, class room recital and serving oneself at table, two fledgling Boston Brahmins decided to make the elite even more clearly defined and started a club named after their favorite food, pig. Social discretion changed the name from Pig Club to Porcellian Club, and with the Porcellian Club began the most Socially, with a capital "S", exclusive club system in the country.

Nowadays, most of the undergraduates, if they've even ever heard of the Porcellian Club, would prefer to call it by its original name. However, Harvard's clubs survive. In spite of what the admissions committee might call the "democratization" of the Harvard student body, there are enough "legacies" (sons of old members), unfreaked out preppies, rich foreigners, social climbers, and sophomores who like to shoot pool and get drunk to keep the club houses populated. And because of the "democratization" of Harvard (and Creeping Socialism, hippie weirdos and pushy Radcliffe girls) there are a considerable number of wealthy alumni who give more money to their clubs than to Harvard.

Although the clubs are alive and not likely to die a sudden death, they are a shadow of their former selves in terms of exclusiveness and social power. There is not exactly a racial mix in the red brick buildings along Mt. Auburn St., and the number of public high school graduates is low, but few people are upset because the clubs ignore them.

In the days when Harvard had an overwhelming proportion of prep school graduates in its student body and Society reigned supreme, the Clubs were a way of life. They could be the source of a wife (Boston belles and their mothers have traditionally chased Porcellian men), a job (that you were offered by the Morgan partner sitting on your left at a Porcellian dinner), and divine sanction (Bishop Lawrence, for years the religious arbiter of Boston Society, was a Porcellian man). Failure to make a club was often more than a slight blow to the ego. One disconsolate father, after consulting with his friends about his son's failure to make a club, said: "After two months we decided that if by any chance the boy could manage to become interested in his studies, his Harvard education might still be worthwhile." Franklin D. Roosevelt was almost as upset as his mother when the Porcellian Club rejected him, but all was not lost. He settled for the Fly, went on to be President of the Crimson, and shortly thereafter, of the United States.

Up until the '50's, the competition to make a club was extremely stiff, and unlike Yale's secret societies, acceptance was not based largely on leadership or merit, but on your last name, your prep school, and your sense of social grace. Only 150 members of every class survived the selection process, and the clubs were so exclusive that graduates of old and rich but "democratic" Andover and Exeter more often than not failed to make any club. Even one third of the alumni of the socially elite "St. Grottlesex" schools found themselves clubless at the end of sophomore year.

Although the criteria for choosing those privileged 150 are somewhat dubious by present standards, the 1920 version of a clubbie was not a foppish idiot most frequently found passed out in a leather chair at his club. It was presumed that if your last name was Adams and you were a St. Paul's man, you simply were a cut above the rest. This era was before the days of the self-conscious identity crisis, and if for the first 22 years of your life you were constantly reminded that you were born to lead, you generally led. Witness the number of Porcellian, A.D., Fly men pulling strings on Wall St. and State St. The clubs have, needless to say, produced a few men who were notorious pirates in their leadership capacity. When Groton man Richard Whitney was sent to Sing Sing for "fiscal irregularities", he had a gold Porcellian pig's head dangling from his watch chain as he stepped through the prison gates.

Public service has never been one of the favorite pastimes of the American aristocracy, but a less than subtle row of portraits outside the Hasty Pudding Club bar reminds you that five members of the Pudding were Presidents of the United States. A great many more have been in the Foreign Service, which may help explain the course of American foreign policy.

If the nine surviving clubs at Harvard, the Porcellian is clearly the most venerable. By the time the clubs were really a social force at Harvard. the Porcellian had been cornering the Lowells and Cabots for one hundred years. Nepotism is the name of the game with the clubs, and the Porcellian has nurtured so many generations of legacies that even their steward is a second generation "P.C. man". Many think that the P.C. has been overly concerned with family trees to the exclusion of geniality, and the present membership includes a few members whose political leanings lie somewhere to the right of Louis XIV. The P.C. ended up with only four new members in 1969, and it wasn't because only four members of a class of 1200 were worthy of the honor.

At the Porcellian, even the steward is a second generation "P.C. man."

The Porcellian clubhouse is nothing to drool over, largely because the P.C. values "fellowship" over T.V. sets and pool tables, and has consequently neglected to buy the latter. There is no denying the strength of that sense of fellowship, however, at least during the heyday of the clubs. Theodore Roosevelt, informing Kaiser Wilhelm of the engagement of his daughter Alice to Nicholas Longworth, volunteered the line: "Nick and I are both in the Porc, you know."

The Porcellian has preoccupied Boston Society ever since Francis Cabot Lowell and Robert Tree Paine discovered they shared a fondness for roast pig in 1791. According to one story, a group of ladies were discussing Hitler over tea in a Beacon Hill drawing room when one of the ladies, mystified by the conversation, inquired as to the identity of Hitler. The other ladies drew back in surprise, and the embarrassed lady snapped, "Well, you can't expect me to know every sophomore in the Porc."

Next on the list in terms of age, wealth, and prestige is the A.D.. The A.D. has an opulent club house, but either the steward is trying to cut down on the electricity bills or the A.D. boys play in the dark, because the A.D. looks totally deserted at night. The A.D. had a lean year for attracting sophomores last year.

The largest club with perhaps the most diverse membership is the Fly. The Fly has an ostentatious club house and garden in front of Lowell House, and with four blacks, the Fly has 80 percent of all black club members. This is not likely to stir a revival of the Ku Klux Klan in New England, but it is a cautious improvement over the days when Jews were untouchable and Joseph Kennedy Jr. became the first Catholic ever to make a club. It is unlikely that Harvard blacks will fall over each other trying to join a club, so the percentages are not apt to change.

The Spee, like the Fly, specialized in South American slave owners' sons for a while, earning the nicknames Spic Club and Spanish Fly, but again like the Fly, it now has a diverse membership. The Spee broke a strict club taboo and opened up its3

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