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Lampoon, Crimson Face Off in Intra-Collegiate Rivalry

In banner year, members of the Class of 1954 pulled off two of the greatest pranks in Harvard history

In an intricate prank, four editors of the Harvard Crimson presented Russia’s deputy ambassador with an original gift—the Lampoon’s ibis.
In an intricate prank, four editors of the Harvard Crimson presented Russia’s deputy ambassador with an original gift—the Lampoon’s ibis.
By Zachary M. Seward, Crimson Staff Writer

Semyon Tsarapkin, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, was visibly touched when four Harvard students presented him with a gift for the newly-constructed University of Moscow on April 20, 1953.

But what appeared to be a thoughtful peace offering in the midst of the Cold War instead launched the Soviets into the center of a fierce collegiate rivalry with global implications.

The gift, a copper weather vane in the likeness of an ibis, had been stolen just days earlier from atop the castle of The Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. Editors at The Harvard Crimson, the campus daily and longtime rival of the Lampoon, immediately claimed responsibility for the heist.

“We sent a telegram to the Russian embassy in New York indicating the Lampoon would like to give its ibis for a replacement on the spire of the new University of Moscow as a ‘symbol of the universality of the search for truth,” recalls George S. Abrams ’54, then managing editor of The Crimson.

But the ibis’ journey to New York was temporarily derailed when a small band of Poonsters kidnapped Crimson President Michael Maccoby ’54 as he walked back to his room in Lowell House.

Among the kidnappers, according to Maccoby, was Lampoon President John H. Updike ’54, whom The Crimson had made a habit of pillorying in regular reviews of the magazine. But with the Crimson president now in his custody, Updike firmly demanded the ibis’s return.

“Finally, The Crimson said they would exchange me for the ibis,” Maccoby recalled, “and there was a corner where we were supposed to meet.”

But at the rendezvous, Crimson editors reneged on their side of the deal. With David L. Halberstam ’55 at the wheel, Maccoby jumped into the back of The Crimson’s getaway car, which promptly departed for New York.

(Although Maccoby stands by his story, some accounts of his kidnapping and subsequent escape are inconsistent. “Michael has always claimed he was kidnapped,” said Abrams. “Some of us were uncertain about that, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”)

Arriving in New York over the weekend, the editors, joined by photographer John B. Loengard ’56, conceived the next stage of their prank after seeing pictures of the University of Moscow in Life Magazine, according to Abrams.

With Poonsters on their way to New York in pursuit of the ibis, the Crimson editors contacted the Russian embassy and arranged for a private exhange on Monday morning.

Maccoby and Abrams recalled their meeting with Tsarapkin, the deputy ambassador, as cordial and uneventful.

“He asked me about Harvard and whether they taught Marx and Engels,” Maccoby recalled.

The presentation of the gift occurred under a portrait of Vladimir I. Lenin, with Loengard snapping photographs which were quickly disseminated among most major news outlets once word of the prank became public.

Tsarapkin accepted the ibis with the thanks of the students of University of Moscow. Still, the copper bird made for an odd—and awkward—gift.

“The ibis was not in great shape,” says Abrams. “It had been a pigeon roost, and we really hadn’t had much of a chance to clean it off.”

When The Crimson reported the next day on the Soviets’ gracious acceptance of the ibis, Updike and the Lampoon set out to retrieve their prized weather vane, penning an explanatory note to the Russian embassy and requesting the ibis’ return.

Media coverage of the prank was pervasive, reaching even The New York Times under the subheadline, “Harvard Crimson’s Gift to Reds Ends Up as Campus Prank.”

Petitions at Harvard and Radcliffe garnering as many as 300 signatures, which Abrams says were not solicited by the newspaper, urged the Lampoon to abandon its attempt to retrieve the ibis “from the Russian people and the University of Moscow,” according to reports in The Crimson.

But Updike persisted in his pursuit of the ibis, telling the rival newspaper, “The Crimson pranksters seem to have forgotten the rights of property. It’s deplorable that they’ve carried college jokes into the arena of international relations.”

In a statement, Maccoby and Abrams admonished “funnyman” Updike for lacking a sense of humor.

The Russian embassy, after a bit of clarification, soon returned the ibis, which had yet to make its way to Moscow. The Lampoon promptly placed the treasured icon back atop their smiling castle, more than two stories above the ground.

Maccoby and Abrams escaped disciplinary action from the University for their prank. As Maccoby recalls, Provost Paul H. Buck, the highest-ranking administrator at the time, gave them a pass because “everyone’s taking it as a big joke.”

And as they approach their 50th reunion this year, Maccoby and Abrams recall the prank fondly, though Maccoby says they have no plans for a reprise of their stunt.

“We’ve gotten beyond that stuff,” he says.

—Staff Writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at


In the hours before sunrise on Oct. 18, 1953, the Harvard University Band filled the streets of New Haven with brass melodies and curious crowds, drawing the ire—and handcuffs—of the New Haven Police Department.

Over 100 Harvard band members paraded through the Yale University campus for nearly an hour that morning, drawing a crowd of roughly 1,000 students and residents out onto the street to view the spectacle.

Playing traditional Eli tunes, the band concluded their antics with a 20-minute serenade on the Sterling Quad.

“Our reception was so good and so enthusiastic that our hosts kept yelling for more,” wrote Peter H. Strauss ’54, the band manager, in an account of the evening in the band archives.

But their reception among New Haven’s law enforcement was far less cheery, as Strauss learned that one man’s parade is another man’s riot.

Strauss and Edwards K.L. Upton ’53, a faculty member, were arrested on charges of disturbing the peace and parading without a permit. Bail was set at $250 for each of them.

The New Haven police initially attempted to arrest the entire band, according to Strauss, but not all of them were able to fit in the police station.

“One of the four busloads of band members was pulled into the jailhouse that night before everything was settled out,” Strauss recalls in an interview.

With an early rehearsal and football game scheduled for later that day at Columbia, Strauss and the band were eager to leave their situation in New Haven behind them.

But $500 in bail had to be raised, and the two band members under arrest had under $30 between them, according to Strauss,

After an unsuccessful attempt to pawn an extra tuba, the band pooled their wallets and collected bail for their martyred comrades.

Charges against Upton, who had been arrested randomly from the mass of musicians, were eventually dropped. Strauss was given a short probation and ordered to pay minimal fines for damage to several New Haven police cars, which he says was caused by rowdy Elis incited by the performance.

Back at Harvard, Strauss and the band avoided major punishment from an amused Adminstrative Board.

According to Strauss, Associate Dean Robert B. Watson ’37 informed him, “The [Ad] Board has asked me to advise you that it is, in the circumstances, forced to issue an official reprimand for your actions in connection with the Yale incident, but also has asked that you be told, unofficially, of their opinion that it was one of the greatest stunts in over 10 years.”

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