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Thomas M. Lauderdale ’92 strutted through Harvard Yard in a fashionable Betsey Johnson dress and clutched an ironic Hello Kitty lunch box. While other Harvard students may have attempted to circumnavigate the visitors that throng the Yard, Lauderdale scared them off with a crack of his leather whip.
To those who know Lauderdale, the scene is perhaps unremarkable: his days at Harvard were marked by outrageous parties, eccentric stunts, and passionate political protests.
“I was very different than many people in my high school,” Lauderdale said, though he added that he channeled his quirkiness into a successful campaign for student body president.
This feeling of isolation fell away once he moved to Adams House.
The class of 1992 was among the last to rank housing preferences before the system was fully randomized to eliminate self-segregation. Lauderdale was ecstatic when he received his first-choice house. For him, Adams House was the obvious and only option.
“Adams was a self-selecting group of people. It was the artists, the internationals, the freaks and the gays,” Lauderdale said.
Within Adams, Lauderdale was able to build a close-knit group of friends, including China F. Forbes ’92, a current member of Pink Martini. He described Adams House as having a distinct culture in which he thrived.
“It was like going to a completely different school from the rest of the Harvard campus,” Lauderdale said. “It gave us permission to go further than one would ever normally go if one were living in a regular community.”
Lauderdale quickly became one of the social bastions of the House, particularly after he created a Tuesday comedy show called Cafe Mardi. “He was responsible for the entire social life of Adams House,” Tanya Selvaratnam ’92 said.
Others point to the parties of which Lauderdale was an integral member. “Thomas created a space in which people were excited to be together and had a good time,” said Gabrielle C. Burton ’92.
Some attribute the infamous closure of the Adams pool to a party Lauderdale hosted. “Everyone got in the pool and it was great fun until a very aggressive senior tutor shut it down and then the pool shut down,” Selvaratnam said.
But Lauderdale was not socially confined to his House. One year, he hosted an Adams-Eliot party in an effort to initiate inter-House collaboration. While Adams was famous for its counterculture, Eliot was seen as the “prep house.”
“There was a cultural exchange,” Lauderdale said. “It was the beginning idea of diplomacy, having fun and building bridges despite our differences.”
Lauderdale considered this type of exchange a central pillar of Pink Martini. The band’s overall goal is promoting “global inclusivity and collaborative spirit,” according to its website.
“It’s no surprise to me that he went on to be so successful with Pink Martini, because he’s someone one who sees overlaps and combines influences,” Burton said.
Others add that this ability to build connections is facilitated by the multiple languages in which Pink Martini performs. Pink Martini’s ninth, and most recent, studio album, “Je dis oui!” features eight languages, including French, Farsi, Xhosa, and Arabic.
“Because they sing the songs in so many different languages, they are able to appeal to people’s humanity more,” Selvaratnam said. “Pink Martini embodies the importance of bringing together cultures and finding commonality where others might seek to find difference.”
Lauderdale and his Adams House coterie were frequently involved in political activism.
“Every week there would be a protest at the John Harvard statue. We would protest whatever it was that we were protesting, whether it was divesting from South Africa or ROTC on campus,” Lauderdale said.
Selvaratnam fondly recalls the time she and Lauderdale protested about final clubs, which would continue to be a divisive issue.
Another day, Selvaratnam and Lauderdale organized a concert attended by then-Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III. “I recited Pablo Neruda love poems while Thomas accompanied me on the piano,” Selvaratnam said. “We certainly had a lot of fun.”
But Lauderdale’s political activism endured beyond Mount Auburn St. After graduating from Harvard College, he returned to his hometown of Portland, Oregon, ostensibly to launch a mayoral campaign.
This mission was short-lived, and he soon joined a group opposing a 1994 proposed amendment to the Oregon constitution that would render homosexuality illegal. The culmination of a week of protests he organized was supposed to be a public concert performed by a well-known band.
But the band cancelled at the last moment, so Lauderdale did what he had perfected during his four years at Harvard—he swung into action.
“I threw on a cocktail dress and started Pink Martini. That’s how it started,” Lauderdale said.
The band’s popularity in Portland grew, and Pink Martini came to be known as the stock band to perform at politically progressive events. As Lauderdale started to consider performing as a viable career, he recalled his friend and neighbor in Adams House: Forbes, who he described as the “queen of the Adams dining hall.”
“Remembering all the fun I had with her, and remembering how smart she is, and how many different languages she spoke, I at one point called her. She moved from New York to Portland,” Lauderdale said.
Since that day, the band has expanded in size and fame. Lauderdale has capitalized on his ability to unite unlikely audiences, just as he did in his days at Harvard.
“Our audience is very diverse. It’s a wild hodgepodge of different people that normally wouldn’t sit together under the same rooftop and hopefully end the night being part of a conga line together,” Lauderdale said.
Although Lauderdale does not know the trajectory Pink Martini will take in the coming years, his friends have high hopes.
“I think he should run for President of the United States,” Selvaratnam said. “We need him.”
—Staff writer Edith M. Herwitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @edith_herwitz.
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