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The New York Harvard Club:

Changing Traditions on West 44th

By Jeffrey R. Toobin

A notice appears on every table in the main cocktail lounge of the Harvard Club of New York: "The transaction of business requiring a conspicuous display of papers and documents is not in keeping with the purpose for which the Club's public rooms are maintained."

Since 1865, the Harvard Club of New York has served, as its charter states, "to promote social intercourse among ourselves and others, our associates and our successors, who have been connected to Harvard University." "Conspicuous displays" of paper or anything else are out of order at this musty, but strong New York institution, one of the more venerable of the many Harvard clubs across the country.

Membership in the club is open to anyone who has graduated from or spent one academic year at Harvard, and, as of 1973, Radcliffe College. People who have received a degree from any Harvard graduate program as well as faculty and officers of the University may also join. About 7200 people, the second highest total in the Club's history, now enjoy membership privileges at the elegant red brick building on 44th St., just west of Fifth Avenue.

Clubs in New York serve a variety of purposes. Many, like the Union and Knickerbocker Clubs, are primarily social clubs serving the Social Register set. They are exclusive enclaves, mostly old fashioned, and, some say, outmoded. Admission to these clubs is difficult and usually requires that the applicant know the "right" people.

The Harvard Club may once have been one of these "social" clubs, but it no longer is. While the admissions committee still rigorously adheres to the nominating procedure, requiring a nominator, a seconder and two letters of recommendation, just about any Harvard graduate who wants to join the club may do so. The ambience of prosperity and old-world decorum has not completely disappeared, however, despite the relative egalitarianism.

People usually say they have joined the club for its reasonably priced facilities and convenient location, rather than for its social pretensions. There are eight squash courts, a small gymnasium, banquet facilities, meeting rooms, a library, a restaurant, several rooms for overnight accommodations, as well as Harvard Hall and the Grill Room, two large rooms filled with comfortable leather chairs where one can sip cocktails at any hour or just take a snooze in the wood-paneled serenity.


"My father went to Princeton and he told me the only reason he could think of to go to Harvard was the Harvard Club, which was the nicest club in New York," Walter N. Rothschild Jr. '42, president of the Harvard Club in 1978, says.

Rothschild says he did not go to Harvard because of the club, but he still readily concurs with his father's evaluation. From his office less than one block away from the club, where he works for a variety of businesses and charities, the former president of the Abraham and Straus department store chain views the club as primarily a service facility for people who have a common Harvard background.

"The club has a social purpose basically, and it does maintain ties with people to the College and University, which many of the members seek. I think they rather like the idea that it is a club of Harvard people. People just like it, it's got a long tradition, it's a nice building and it has always had quite a lot of character," he says.

The club's "character" is most evident on the ground floor of the seven-story building. The exterior is modest, consisting of a simple brick facade with the flags of the United States and Harvard flying side by side. The front is an inadequate preparation for the imposing interior spaces that loom therein.

In the entrance foyer, there is a prominent reminder that men should be "properly attired in necktie and jacket at all times," and women should limit their wardrobe to "dresses, pant suits or skirt suits."

"We have trouble policing the dress code, especially among the younger members," Duane Chenier, executive assistant manager, says, but violators seem few and far between.

Straight back from the entrance is the Grill Room, the main cocktail lounge. Rich wood paneling surrounds a room filled with leather chairs, backgammon sets and muted conversation. Brooks Brothers and J. Press (both stores are about a block away) seemed to have clothed every patron of this dignified enclave.

Harvard Hall, the building's most magnificent room, lies just to the rear of the Grill Room. During the day, huge bay windows provide dramatic illumination to the hall, which is used for speeches, receptions and large dinners. Harvard Hall is the unmistakable work of late-19th century architect Stanford White, who also designed the Freshman Union. The hall is remarkably similar in style and scale to the main dining hall of the Union, but in atmosphere the two couldn't be more different. An immense elephant head watches over the dour solemnity of Harvard Hall, silently observing a room where time seems to have stood still around the turn of the century.

Back toward the front of the building is the Harvard Stand-Up Bar, which in the afterwork crush resembles the Union more than Harvard Hall. The U-shaped bar is made of cork and seems similar to most any spot where well-heeled New Yorkers gather, except in one important respect. No money changes hands at the bar, nor anywhere else in the club. In fitting with the club's extreme gentility, all services must be charged and paid for later. Given the milieu, it comes as a surprise that the convivial Harvard Stand-Up Bar was the scene of a controversy splashed on the pages of The New York Times.

In an April 26, 1975, article headlined "Belts Are Tightened At the Harvard Club," the Times announced "the Harvard Club's 8-to-1 martini, a concoction that has befuddled some of the finest minds in the country, has apparently been shrunk, a casualty of red ink."

Bartenders were now instructed to use jigger glasses to measure the drink, instead of the "sense of gentlemanly hospitality," which had previously been their guide.

After four days, the practice proved such a failure that the headline on the May 2 article read, "Harvard Club Bar Dryly Puts Martini Back on Pedestal." Spirits were restored, but The Times kept after the story.

The June 16 story, "2-1 Martini Makes Harvard Crimson," analyzed the controversy from start to finish and concluded with this poem, written by Holger Lundbergh, which appeared in the Harvard Club Bulletin:

How can one act gay and alive

With smaller quantum gin than five?

Much better six, or even seven,

Or maybe eight (that would be heaven)

What is this world coming to,

While Yale and Princeton gaily pour

Their fine libations one to four

Oh, I beseech you, friend of mine,

Bring on martinis, one to nine.

The club does deal with more substantive issues than the proportions of their martinis. Every year, it conducts extensive fundraising for the University, including the annual Harvard Club Scholarships, which are presented separately from the University's usual financial aid. The club offered members highly coveted tickets to the Tutankhamen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this year as part of its fundraising efforts. The club raised $19,437 in scholarship awards for the 1977 - 78 academic year.

The club also sponsors evening and full-day lectures and seminars conducted by Harvard professors and other notables. The club's annual dinner is usually held in January and features a prominent member of the Harvard community. Recent events include conversations with Nelson A. Rockefeller and Andrew Young, a billiards exhibition starring Minnesota Fats and a program on antiques. Between 75 and 100 members watch films of Harvard football games every Thursday during the season. The club also fields chess and bridge teams that play in college club leagues.

Squash is taken seriously at the Harvard Club, with eight courts and a full-time professional to help tune the members' games. The courts are almost always busy and the team perennially fields strong entries in the four levels of the highly competitive New York club league. The is also a small gymnasium, a sauna, a steam room and Nicky the masseur to complete the sixth-and seventh-floor sports facilities.

Despite the athletic paraphernalia, the club's most prized asset may be its library, a 25,000-volume, six-room affair with a large rare-book collection and the largest collection of Harvardiana outside of Cambridge.

Lounsbury D. Bates, or "Biff" to his friends, presides over the growing collection with almost paternal affection. Bates, a 1928 graduate of the Law School, took over the library six years ago after he retired from private legal practice. A member of the club since the '30s, he is an unofficial historian, having watched the club change over his more than 40 years of affiliation.

Bates is especially proud that the library is now a tax-exempt foundation called the "Harvard Library in New York," which has raised more than $6000 in its one month of existence.

Chomping on an unlit cigar with his slickedback grey hair parted in the middle, he is, as one member described him, a "Mr. Chips type."

"One of the things I enjoy about the library is that it's busy, it's not just like an old man's club where maybe one old guy sits around all day long," he says. "We get 110 publications, including The Harvard Crimson, Gazette and Independent, and, oh yes, people do read them."

Bates remembers when the club had a pool, but notes, "it was only big enough to take a splash in anyway." He says with pride that the building has been designated as a landmark by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, so it mayneverbe torn down or its facade destroyed. "There used to be a plaque outside, but somebody stole it for the copper," he explains.

The biggest change in the club, Bates and other old-timers agree, has been the decision to allow women to join. There was, and still is, a Radcliffe Club with quarters inside the Harvard Club, but Radcliffe Club members never have been able to use the building's facilities. The membership voted 2097 to 695 on January 11, 1973 to open the Club to women and there are now about 400 women members.

"It's been very popular, more popular than one might have guessed, with younger women graduates for a very specific reason," Rothschild says. "Women in business today like to take clients to lunch the way men do and it's hard. You go to a restaurant with a man and the waiter will inevitably give the man the check. This way the women like to be able to take someone to their club," he adds, but women remain greatly outnumbered in what is still essentially a male institution.

Linda Rawson '76 joined the club to play squash, and says "it took a lot of fortitude to remain a member." She notes that women were allowed on only four of the eight squash courts and had no access to locker room facilities. However, a major renovation of the facilities in 1978 which improved quarters for women, made, as Rawson says, "a whole different world" for women.

LouAnn Walker '76 also joined to play squash, but thinks some members' attitudes as well as the locker room facilities merit renovation. "Some men there really dislike women intensely," she says. She finds the almost all-male atmosphere "very oppressive" and remembers several hostile outbursts from male members, including a denunciation by a member who accused Walker and a fellow squash player of using the club as "a girly pickup bar."

Though there are few women, Rothschild is right when he says "you go in there and there are a hell of a lot of young people in there." Of course, the gentlemanly oldsters who look like escapees from New Yorker cartoons are still adequately represented, but they are a minority. The club has made extensive recruiting efforts in the past decade, usually making two or three trips to Cambridge every year to streamline the admissions process for new graduates. The admissions procedure, once a formidable obstacle, is now a mere technicality. William S. Kelly '70, a member of the admissions committee, could not remember rejecting one candidate in his ninemonth tenure.

But the most persuasive lure to prospective members is now and has always been the low dues for recent graduates. For the first four years after college, the fee is only $72 per year. Then it goes up rapidly, levelling off at $360 per year for those out of college ten years or more.

For Richard F. Conway '76 and many other young graduates the reason for joining the club is that it is "very cheap compared to most other New York clubs and I wanted a place to play squash."

Rothschild notes another reason for the presence of young members. When asked whether the club was a place where people could make "connections" in the business world, he replied, "We hope it is." However, younger members deny that they made business contacts in the club and in the years of expanding membership, the club seems to have lost some of its reputation as an outpost of the "old boy" network, a place where socializing and climbing the ladder could be accomplished in the same afternoon or in the same conversation.

Two forces seem to be at work in the club today. On the one hand, the older graduates see the club as a social gathering place, an oasis of old Ivy League gentility in the hubbub of New York. To these members, the Harvard Club is much like a final club in Cambridge, a place to meet their kind of people.

Rothschild, however, was not in a final club at Harvard. He says with more than a hint of bitterness in his voice, "when I was at Harvard, guys named Rothschild were not in final clubs." He adds, "I think the final club aficionados tend to gravitate more towards the more social clubs, like the Knickerbocker and Union."

Howard, who declined to give his last name, a graduate of the Class of 1910 and a Harvard Club member since 1919, is a representative of the older attitudes. He remembers when more people in the club knew each other and when the atmosphere used to be more "friendly."

Calling the club his "second home," he eats lunch there every day. Nothing that the membership is probably less friendly than it used to be, he adds, "but I'm prejudiced; all my friends are dead."

Howard's club is a more leisurely and social institution than the Harvard Club of today, one where efficient service, reasonable rates and a convenient location now attract younger members.

The Harvard Club is the only "pure" university club left in New York, since the Yale Club now admits Dartmouth graduates and the Princeton Club allows Pennsylvania alumni to join. Rising costs, the flight of some businesses to the suburbs, and a period of reaction against the idea of selective clubs forced many New York clubs to either close or to change with the times.

While the Harvard Club chose not to open its doors to other universities, it decided to allow almost any Harvard graduate to join. The exclusivity and prejudice are essentially things of the past; the club is, as more than one member described it, a "service facility."

The only vestige of the old years that remains is the atmosphere: the comfortable, genteel elegance that pervades the building. The wood paneling, carefully polished floors and gracious service of the staff remind elder members of a bygone era and appeal to the younger members as part of a Harvard they never knew. The club has changed over the years, but "conspicuous displays" remain out of order at the Harvard Club.

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