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The New York Club Scene

By Dan S. Aibel

I've wandered past the familiar-looking brick building on 44th street dozens of times, always curious to know what goes on behind the crimson awning. The thing that intrigues me most about the Harvard Club of New York is that, just as with Harvard itself, it's hard for the uninitiated to know how closely the stereotype approximates the reality: Is the club a magnet for those looking to engage in Harvard snobbery--a place where final club meets country club, where the elite of the elite can dine, converse and recreate in a manner commensurate with their social station and intellectual standing? Or is it an island of warmth and nostalgia for Harvard alums, a welcoming space outside the bustle of an often hostile city, where everyone has something in common and no one feels self-conscious when reminiscing about the glory days in Cambridge?

Since I'm home on Long Island for the break (courtesy of a certain academic commitment) and since the club's class of 1998 recruiting drive is in just a couple of weeks, I decide it's worth finding out. Invoking my Crimson credentials, I arrange for a tour. Browsing through the club's web site in preparation for my visit, I can't help but notice that disconcerting language keeps creeping into the virtual tour: "Beginning with luncheon, food and drink are served well into the evening with a menu that changes three times daily. Need a pick-me-up? Espresso, cappuccino or a proper pot of tea are served here." Luncheon? A proper pot of tea?

Still, I'm working hard to keep an open mind, even after I get a call on Wednesday afternoon telling me about the clubs dress code. And, at 2:00 on Thursday (wearing my Bar Mitzvah best), I meet Jocelyn Simpson, the institution's surprisingly young and upbeat vice president, in the club's midtown lobby.

She starts me on a tour of the facility and soon I learn that the building is a landmark, and that the club is just a shade older than the 14th amendment. The first thing we visit is the wood-paneled Grill Room, an area that could pass for Harvard's thirteenth dining hall. That is, except for the welcome absence of keycard swiping and trays. "And the food is better," Ms. Simpson hastens to mention.

Soon we're moving through the small but cozy library, the magnificent Harvard Hall (complete with mounted elephant-head) and a gym which seems, at least on a cursory inspection, to have more cardiovascular equipment than the MAC.

It's as if Ms. Simpson is reading my mind when she says, "The club feels very different from the rest of New York...you can sit and read the newspaper...and you don't feel like you're taking up someone else's table in a coffee shop." The place has been meticulously designed to feel like a luxurious embellishment of Harvard, and it works: I have the bizarre urge to plop myself down in one of the comfortable chairs and read Moby Dick from cover to cover.

Still, there's something not quite right as we make our way from the club bar to the barber shop to the floor of conference rooms: A staggeringly high percentage of the clientele are white men over thirty-five--80 percent is a very conservative estimate. And sure enough, without my prodding, Ms. Simpson acknowledges the imbalance. She reminds me that I've come after the peak lunch hour, and so those still in the club are mainly retirees, a group which is inevitably going to be dominated by Harvard's old guard.

This does seem logical, especially after I learn that the relationship between the Harvard Club and the Radcliffe Club is about as complicated as the one between the Harvard and Radcliffe: the Radcliffe Club has its offices inside the Harvard Club and its members are permitted to use most of its services (they have "signing privilege" for meals and can attend the club's many lectures and programs), but women who graduated from Radcliffe pre-Harvard-Radcliffe are not eligible to join.

Change is in the air, however: The club's general manager tells me the club is in the process of expanding the ladies' locker room, to accommodate the increasing proportion of women members, a shift which is expected to continue. And so, on a delayed schedule and a bit more quietly, the Harvard Club in 1998 seems to be dealing with the same sorts of hiccups and dislocations that swept through Harvard 25 years ago. Ms. Simpson seems to confirm that the new Harvard is making its presence felt when we work our way into a discussion of the club's scholarship program and its nascent community service organization "Crimson Impact"--two things you wouldn't expect from an organization with a "bootblack" and a masseuse on staff.

"It's one of the ways the club is becoming more attractive to younger members, she tells me." And all those stairmasters don't hurt either.

Dan S. Aibel is a senior in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays, and his philosophy thesis is due in less than 80 hours.

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