The hierarchic structure of Yale undergraduate organization, culminating in the senior societies, was severely questioned as out-of-date and anti-democratic. Many questioned, not only the ideals, but the whole machinery of the system. They insisted that a training for life in a democratic community must take place in a democratically-organized university.

—Prosser Gifford, 1951, in Seventy-Five: A Study of a Generation in TransitionYale Daily News, 1953


Perhaps the two fires which started a few days apart in December 1842, charring the rented rooms of each of Bones and Keys, were coincidental examples of spontaneous combustion, but the bomb that exploded in front of the Bones tomb on May 9, 1950, forty-eight hours before Tap Day, was certainly an expression of opinion.1 No individual or group claimed responsibility (and no damage to person or property was sustained), but the decade of the long 1950s so commenced was to be as tumultuous for the senior societies, in its own ways, as the war decade of the 1940s and the student rebellion decade of the 1960s.

Articles on the society system continued to be published by outsiders, and by graduates. The Harvard Crimson in its weekend edition for “The Game” in 1950, under the headline “Yale: For God, Country, and Success,” found the collegians visiting from New Haven to be alien to their own social experience. Noting that “year-book polls show that 70 percent of the Yalies ‘admire students who occupy important extra-curricular positions,’ and 69 percent ‘would like to be prominent in extra-curricular activities,’” the Harvard authors found that “almost as many varsity athletes want to be chairman of the Yale News as captain of the football team. . . . This would surprise a Harvard man, who usually accepts people on personal worth, and would be hard put to remember the name of the president of the Student Council” (something Yale did not then have). “Since the six [Senior] Societies, blatantly and confessedly, elect members on the strength of their extra-curricular success, an induction into their secrecy is something more for the climbing Yalie to aspire to. . . . For the spooks’ philosophy is that the world can best be run by themselves, the outstanding men of Yale.”2

This Crimson piece explained that “spooks”—perhaps the first published use of the epithet—was what “sour-grapes outsiders” called the senior society members. In their weekly Current newspaper’s special issue of December 1951, “Current Goes to Yale,” the women of all-female Smith College, after admitting that their knowledge of society customs was dependent on their study of the Harvard Lampoon of November 1949, brushed off the strangeness of the system and saw a collateral opportunity for themselves. “Smith girls should be pleased to know that despite the deficiency of such societies on campus (the Hibernians, our only claim to clandestine fraternization, is more a social giggle and a bottle of scotch than a coherent organization), they too can become a secret. Marry a Bonesman, and she will remember her wedding as a glorious acceptance into the clique, initiated by the ‘Society’ ushers who presumably adorn the occasion. A grandfather clock—the normal wedding gift for members—is thrown in, to boot.”3

For the 1952 Yale-Harvard football game weekend, the Crimson waxed sociological again. Even in an article mocking the Cantabs’ southern rival (the title was “Yale: High Society | Yale Dances to Senior Society Tune”), the democracy of the Yale system was acknowledged to be in stark contrast to the Harvard social scene. “Unlike Harvard, where there are social, intellectual, and athletic cliques, each with its own separate value system, the Yale ideal is broad enough to contain the athlete and the ‘brain’ within its all-pervading grasp. When a Yale man has shown the necessary qualifications he is judged successful by a jury of his peers—tapped for membership in one of the six secret societies.”

Parsing the differences, this story continued, “It is the societies above all which, by setting the qualifications for success, distinguish Yale from Harvard. As opposed to the [Harvard] clubs, they do not limit themselves to men from the right schools and right families (although wealth and social background help). Their standard of election is, supposedly, campus achievement, and therefore Tap Day exaltation is open to every student who comes to Yale, rich or poor, prep or public school, Jew or Gentile.”4 The last phrase is particularly significant, as the article’s Harvard student authors were surnamed Abrams, Halberstam, and Kriss.

The national magazine audience also continued to be reminded of this exotic Yale tradition. The writer John Knowles of the class of 1949, not yet known for A Separate Peace, his 1959 bestselling novel about Phillips Exeter and a student secret society there, described the societies’ tombs as “enormous icebergs glimpsed through the fog, and pondered over because of the immense Unknowable.” He narrated for the readers of Holiday in 1953 the story of his own Tap Day, “one of the most singular social rites in our culture.” In Branford Court, he remembered, “perhaps five hundred students were milling about, like skittish cattle at branding time . . . In the Gothic windows overlooking us were stationed the members of the six societies, severely clad in dark suits, black ties, with their society pins just below the knot. They looked like pallbearers.” He “tensed,” thinking he was about to be tapped, but it was the man alongside, his future senior year roommate, who was struck by Bones. Afterward, societies whose first choices had accepted another election “began a rapid shuffling of lists” for second choices. “But then the societies began ostentatiously slamming shut their [college headquarters] windows, a notification that their elections were complete. Our hilarity subsided and we stood like uninvited guests while the members marched solemnly past us and away.”5

A much more revelatory article appeared in the men’s magazine Esquire for September 1955, the first of a type and scope that was to be published every following decade or so with a spicy mix of facts and legends. “Yale’s Secret Societies” was written by a Boston Globe newspaper columnist, George Frazier. Begining with the poignant story of Harvard professor F. O. Matthiessen committing suicide in 1950 by leaping from his Boston hotel window, falling to his death with his Bones badge fastened to his shirt, Frazier then described the traditional Tap Day exercises and named all six societies with their years of founding, recounting their reputations and special rites, their literary mentions (Benét, Hemingway, O’Hara and his quarrel with Brendan Gill), and their famous graduates.

The protagonists of Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale were quoted liberally on the merits and excesses of the society system, and Frazier recited the brawls with Bull and Stones, the pamphlet attacks of 1873 in the Iconoclast and The Seventh Book of Genesis, and the more recent sarcasm of the Harkness Hoot. Not surprisingly, he concentrated on the lore of Skull and Bones, detailing the members’ communal confessions, special wedding ceremonies, grandfather clocks, Deer Island, and code names—all information gleaned over drinks from divorced former wives of Bonesmen. The piece concluded with the tale of the Harvard Lampoon issues’ theft and restoration. Overall, it was the most complete and authoritative description of the society system since Lyman Bagg’s Four Years at Yale of 1871.6


Yale University itself was in the national news. The year 1951 marked the 250th anniversary of what had been chartered in 1701 as the Collegiate School, and its new leader, A. Whitney Griswold of the class of 1929, having just completed his own presidency’s inaugural year, graced the front covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines for June 11, 1951. His 1933 Yale PhD dissertation, the nation’s first in the new field of American Studies, was on the American cult of success. Harvard would not have been surprised.

When university president Charles Seymour decided in 1950 to emulate his predecessor and fellow Bonesman Arthur Hadley ’76’s retirement from leadership at age sixty-five, Griswold at age forty-three was a full professor concluding two decades of teaching, first freshman English and then history. As an undergraduate, he had cofounded the Yale Political Union. As an administrator, in the words of the New York Times piece heralding his selection, he had “turned out military governors for the Army in biscuit batches” during the war, but now “the Hamiltonian era of Seymour is ending and the Jeffersonian age of Griswold” was about to begin.7

Despite this postelection acclaim, he was the darkest of horses as a candidate for the post, not even in Who’s Who, and the maneuvering over ten months to elect him involved significant jostling among members of the Yale Corporation, in which at the start he had only four supporters in a group of seventeen. Politics—senior society and national—played a part, as they had in choosing outsider James Rowland Angell in 1922 as Hadley’s successor. Although Griswold was a Wolf’s Head alumnus, his champion here and longtime friend was Dean Acheson, a Keysman of 1915, elected to Yale’s governing body as a Successor Trustee in 1936, and currently secretary of state for President Harry Truman, Democrat.

The opponent was Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, a Bonesman of 1910, elected to the Corporation as an Alumni Fellow in the same year as Acheson’s appointment by his fellow successor trustees, and then the most probable Republican Party nominee for president in 1952. Acheson believed Seymour’s conservatism had too long perpetuated the composition of a traditional Yale undergraduate body, which was not as intellectually gifted or oriented as it should be (Acheson’s commitment to excellence at Yale was said by his biographer to be in part “a reproach to his own extravagant undergraduate days,” which of course had helped elect him to Scroll and Key).

Taft saw in Griswold a potential ally of Acheson, and is thought to have distrusted the candidate’s lack of reverence for established ways of doing things. Acheson then recruited his fellow Keysman and corporation member Wilmarth Lewis, a full-time rare book and manuscript collector, to play the role of impractical armchair intellectual in nominating Robert M. Hutchins. A member of Wolf’s Head in 1921 and a former dean of Yale Law School, Hutchins was then president of the University of Chicago, championing the “Great Books” program of education. Taft, as expected by the coconspirators, was horrified at the prospect, and listened carefully when Acheson in a trustees’ meeting indicated qualified support for Hutchins while—seemingly still on the fence—making a speech urging a more mainstream educator, someone like Whit Griswold. Acheson then privately indicated to Taft that if Griswold were not accepted by the Corporation, Acheson would see merit in Lewis’s advocacy of Hutchins. The senator, his fear winning out over his distaste, duly joined in the election of the young Yale professor. Discomfited at having advocated a straw man, Lewis reminded Acheson for years after that the political debt would not be easily expunged. Acheson came to love Griswold, and on the afternoon the president died of cancer in 1963, the older man sat at his bedside and, when talk tired him, held his hand.8

The Time cover article on Griswold noted that “Campus anthropologists like to divide Yale men into ‘White Shoes,’ ‘Brown Shoes,’ and ‘Black Shoes.’” The “white shoe,” made of costly buckskin, had been developed by the Isaacs family of New Haven who owned the campus shoe emporium, Barrie, Ltd., and the phrase came to mean generally “stylishly Ivy League.” Time explained: “The White Shoes come from the proper families and the proper prep schools; their weekend dress, almost like a uniform, is a button-down shirt, striped tie and Brooks Bros. suit. The Black Shoes are apt to be on scholarship (one-third of all Yale students are), working their way through college. The Brown Shoes are somewhere in between.” Their markers of success were membership in “such ‘Row Fraternities’ as Zeta Psi, the Fence Club, or Delta Kappa Epsilon,” and then, “far above these” the six senior societies. As an undergraduate, the magazine reported, Griswold “happily turned down Bones in favor of Wolf’s Head.” Even as a graduate student, as noted by a leading historian of modern Yale, Griswold continued to lead “the conventional and convivial life of the old boy, singing and drinking with other congenial preppies—many of them, like Griswold, members of Wolf’s Head.”9

Still, Griswold recalled for Newsweek that, graduating just five months before the October 1929 stock market crash, “Ours was probably the last class in history to leave New Haven on a magic carpet. Everyone since 1929 has taken the day coach.” Even before becoming president, as his champions who helped him to that post knew, he campaigned with his allies on the Yale Corporation and in the faculty to emphasize scholarship over the non-academic, extracurricular activities for which Yale was better known, and which Griswold often privately deprecated as “that Dink Stover crap” and “Bonesy bullshit.”

He was said to envy the more academic culture and respect for intellectual achievement which characterized Harvard after World War II, and frankly sought to emulate it.10 This was not related to the quality of the Yale faculty, which in 1946 under Seymour ranked first in the land, according to the American Association of Universities. In his report to the alumni for the 1954–55 academic year, Griswold argued that “Yale College is not confronted, and never has been, with a categorical choice between curricular and extracurricular activities . . . [T]he extracurricular contributes both life and meaning to the curricular. What is at issue is a sense of proportion, which is always at issue in institutional as well as in private life and is next to impossible to define in rules and regulations.”11


The annual distress caused by holding elections in an open college courtyard where spectators could see not only the winners in the process, but the losers at their moment of disappointment and humiliation, was finally to be halted in this decade.

As far back as 1947, Yale College Dean William Clyde DeVane, a man of persistence, careful planning, and compromise (but not a society member in his class of 1920, into which he had transferred from Furman University in the midst of World War I), had written out and distributed “Suggestions to the Senior Societies upon the conduct of elections.” He advocated that the electors “wear ordinary street clothes and not the customary suits of black,” and that offers of election be accompanied by speaking the name of the tapper’s society. He suggested that the “resounding thump on the back” be discontinued in favor of a touch on the arm. To stop the running through the streets back to the respective tombs, those so chosen were to be invited back from the courtyard to a suite in Branford College, an election headquarters for the society in question, to conclude negotiations. The desired ends were privacy for the junior class members and the societies, and orderly and expeditious elections. The societies accepted the offer of election headquarters suites, maps for which were thereafter printed in the Yale Daily News on Tap Day, but most of the rest of the DeVane calls for reform fell on deaf ears.

Bill Buckley’s News editorial page before Tap Day in 1949 had advocated elections being delivered in the juniors’ rooms, together with a list of all societies tendering invitations to the individual. An “Open Letter” to the newspaper the following spring, “endorsed by 25 members of the class of 1951,” cited Buckley’s editorial and his apparent conversion, after his own election to Bones, to tolerating the continuation of what his editorial had styled “a fantastic crudity in the system,” which the writers accused Skull and Bones in particular of perpetuating.

“In so far as the ‘golden twenties’ are passed,” Buckley had argued, “and undergraduates have become more critical (or at least more cynical) about such institutions,” the societies were only hurting themselves, “as well as the ‘out-group,’ by pursuing a brutish policy which—before a gaping crowd—submerges the individual to an institution about which he is almost completely ignorant. Why, we ask, aren’t elections offered in the rooms?” A contemporaneous editorial, remarking that “this is the season of the Annual Howl Against Tap Day in Branford Court,” supplied a flip answer: “if the Howlers can figure out a way to squelch everyone’s natural desire to see who goes where, they may have a leg on establishing the room Tap. . . . The whole affair is pretty much like a theatrical performance. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to attend; but the producer may reserve the right to run it his own way.”12

The May 1950 election went forward in the usual manner, but unusually heralded by a News cartoon showing a tweed-coated junior pondering a pyramid with men scrambling up its side, labeled “Athletics” and “Fraternities” and “Comps” (competitions), toward the word “Heaven” above, overarching the badges of Keys, Bones, and Wolf’s Head. The same issue featured the “Tap Day Stations” map, locating them around Branford Court, with Keys and Book and Snake on the second floor of the Jonathan Edwards side of the Branford College main courtyard, Bones on the second floor of the Saybrook side, Wolf’s Head on the first floor in the range next to Harkness Tower, and Elihu on the third floor and Berzelius on the second floor of the High Street wing. That day’s News editorial, lamenting that “no positive, early drive moved elections to the rooms,” urged juniors elected that day to “enter these sacrosanct organizations with the unshakeable purpose of liberalizing them.”

The following day the News broke its own seven-decade tradition of never reporting more than the names of those elected, running a detailed article on the colorful events and atmosphere of the ceremony, titled “Senior Societies Tap 90 in Tense Ceremony; Grey-Flanneled Members Finish Annual Elections in 28-Minute Procedure” (DeVane’s objection to black suits had prevailed). Approximately three hundred juniors entered the Branford College courtyard en masse, some eating Good Humor ice cream bars. Before that, both Elihu and Scroll and Key marched in, two abreast, and they and all other non-tapping society members took up their observation posts in the open-windowed rooms above surrounding the courtyard; Bonesmen were seen using opera glasses.

The chimes ringing at 5:00 P.M. were followed by the heavy strikes on the shoulders disfavored by Dean DeVane—although, as he had bidden, the electing seniors were now pronouncing their societies’ names with their offers. One man, who received two taps simultaneously, fell over backward. Applause accompanied some choices, and the juniors who accepted bids followed the seniors on the run to the upstairs election headquarters. At 5:09 P.M., Berzelius slammed its college headquarters windows shut, signifying its final tap, followed by Keys and then Elihu. The only humorous relief to the day was when someone slammed a window situated between the room suite stations of Keys and Book and Snake.13

The 1951 News editorial pushed back a bit on those who clamored for the elections to be held in the students’ rooms, noting that the in-the-rooms system had been tried twice before, and that traditional Tap Day had been restored thereafter. Electing in rooms took too long, two or three hours, and juniors waiting alone there experienced a different form of misery than the misery which loved company in the courtyard. The process was inefficient, requiring “immensely complex” bookkeeping. “Exhibitionalism” was if anything increased, with ninety seniors racing from college to college in the late afternoon, and competition between societies “developed into a question of who could run fastest from Timothy Dwight to Pierson,” the two residential colleges farthest apart, at the eastern and western borders of the college. Still, the editorial called for “the presentation of all bids at the same time, as the fraternities and Honor societies do now so successfully.” The May 1951 election in Branford Court, although marred by a stink bomb (“the only comic relief of the afternoon”) was finished in twenty-eight minutes—one man received five slaps at once—with the final spectators to leave lingering to see who was going to be the last man tapped for Bones.14

The reformers would not be silenced, and Dean DeVane remained persistent in pressing the societies for further change, although his son had been tapped the old way, in Branford Court in 1949, turning down Bones for Berzelius. As Tap Day for 1952 approached, the News published a number of hostile columns and letters, beginning with a long letter published in two parts titled “The Case against the Senior Societies” from the class of 1953’s Robert Weinberg. He found the societies’ claims of self-improvement to be unverifiable and their role in rewarding “Success” to pervert the university’s educational role; he deplored the fact that much of the Yale administration and almost the entire Yale Corporation were alumni, “likely, in all sincerity, to guide University life, faculty promotions, admissions policy, etc., according to the basically anti-democratic Society principles.”

Relying on a statistical analysis of society membership published in the News the year before, Weinberg argued that the ninety men tapped fell into two broad categories, “those generally recognized as leaders in extracurricular (or, occasionally, curricular) life; and those who have ‘social suction,’” which was the “special province” of Book and Snake and Wolf’s Head, “not open to non-fraternity men or high school graduates” and with a strong preference for “men who rank scholastically around the lower third of the class. The other four (particularly Bones) are more willing to overlook ‘proletarian’ social backgrounds and choose recognized ‘campus successes.’” Seventy-five of the ninety were fraternity members, and eighty from prep schools, thirty-five of those from Andover, Hotchkiss, or St. Paul’s. The residential college residencies were also measurable: Branford, Calhoun, and Davenport had large pluralities of society men, 62 percent of the entire society membership. “In short (and recognizing of course many individual exceptions),” he concluded, “the Society ideal approximates the pattern: Greenwich-born, Andover-nourished, and Bones-tapped.”

Since those who were often initially critical of the societies, such as the last three News chairmen, were following their elections unwilling or unable to effect reform from within, Weinberg argued, the “Program for Revolt” had to come from without. He advocated that the present and future junior classes “1. Show up at Tap Day and raise hell; 2. Demand that the University cease to sponsor Tap Day and to issue the invitations to it; 3. Give no publicity whatsoever to those who join,” and finally, sign an advance pledge refusing to join a society if tapped, providing a majority of classmates will pledge likewise. Weinberg, a fellow junior, and two seniors then held a forum on the society system over WYBC, the campus radio station.15

At the administration level, Dean Devane delayed his customary announcement of Tap Day in the hope that some alternative method of election could be agreed upon; this was in response to a proposal from fifteen juniors, demanding Tap Day’s abolition and requiring interested class members and the six societies each to submit preferential lists to the dean, on the basis of which elections to societies would be determined. When no reforms could be agreed upon, DeVane posted the customary election date notice in the News, but announcing that he would study alternative plans over the summer to devise something new for 1953. The barrage of general criticism seems, on Tap Day in 1952, to have resulted in the largest number of rebuffs to date: three for Bones, ten for Keys, eleven for Berzelius, two for Book and Snake, nine for Wolf’s Head, and five for Elihu, although many of these refusers joined other societies.16

In October 1952, DeVane wrote to the societies enclosing a revised plan for elections, based on one suggested to the societies many years before by Yale Corporation member Irwin S. Olds, an Elihu alumnus from 1907. (This was not printed in the Yale Daily News for general perusal until after it had been rejected by the senior societies and the elections for spring 1953 had occurred). The committee formed by the societies to respond noted that historically the procedure (election in the Old Campus courtyard) was started by the juniors for their own convenience. Moreover, it was open and rapid, concealed the identity of substitutes, and provided flexibility of choice for both the elected class and the electors, so the former knew immediately who had been elected and what places were left, with freedom to choose until the last moment. The Tap Day procedure, the societies noted, although hedged round by Branford Court, had been “built up by the non-society public, and is certainly repugnant to the societies, while allowing opportunity for public, pre-meditated demonstrations and disorder.”

The “Olds Plan” envisioned an elaborate system of cards or lists submitted to the college dean’s office, one from every junior ranking the senior societies in which membership was sought, and a second set from the societies setting forth their first fifteen choices and the names of alternates. The dean was to treat the lists confidentially, but to make matches of junior applicants with society preferences. An inter-society graduate council would preside, in the case of conflicts, over the final allocation of juniors. The News in an editorial added more notions to the proposal, asking that the six societies issue a common statement of purpose and concern, justifying the reasons for their existence, to be published in the newspaper or separately, and said that the statement should contain the names of respected faculty, society members in their senior years, who had been counseling candidates in the past but should now be made known to the student body in general. A contemporaneous interview with President Griswold made it clear that he believed any reform of Tap Day had to come from the undergraduates—“The administration has no policy”—and noted wryly that abolition of the societies was impossible: “You just can’t get rid of yucca plants and senior societies.”17

To this DeVane-revived scheme, the societies’ committee’s objections were manifold: no assurance that all juniors would submit lists, no flexibility after list submission, no certainty that a junior assigned to a society would then accept its offer, revelation (albeit to a restricted group) of alternates, and the general risk of mechanical failures within a complicated system. Meanwhile, the formalized inter-society organization required by the Olds Plan “would by its very existence give the impression of a sanctified group formally drawing the caste line of distinction between the chosen and the rejected.” Furthermore, formal inter-society cooperation invited the danger of inter-society recrimination, from which the Yale senior societies—unlike fraternities at Yale and in other American universities—were historically “remarkably free.” The letter’s enumerated virtues of the historical system would not be met by the Olds Plan. Still, the opportunity to discuss with the dean “those externals of Tap Day which may be looked upon as offensive” was welcomed by the committee, although they rejected his second alternative as well, which called for election in the rooms in “shifts,” with first round choices given to juniors desired by more than one society.18

Presumably not coordinated in advance with the six tomb-housed “aboveground” societies was a charm offensive by their truly secret, not-recognized-by-the-university society brethren, known as “undergrounds”: an open letter to the class of 1954, produced by underground society members Hamilton Harper and Philip Grover of the class of 1953, to “aid the individual in making a rational judgment on the Senior Society system.” “Senior Societies,” they wrote, “are groups of men elected to membership in organizations which primarily seek the broadening of the individual member’s character through intimate personal contact and group criticism,” and the university “openly recognizes six.” These authors had not been elected to any of any of the six “aboveground” senior societies with tombs, but were members of what a News editorial had recently styled “at least five other units operating sub rosa” which “every junior should know.”

Messrs. Harper and Grover wrote candidly of “a number of underground societies of a similar nature [to the tomb-owning six] which meet in owned or rented buildings or rooms also near the campus. These societies vary widely in ultimate purpose, some existing as an alternative to recognized groups, some seeking to gain official recognition and equal footing with the recognized six, and some paying no attention to the Yale society system, but rather pursuing their own intellectual and personal ends.” They argued that any of such societies would “provide the fraternal spirit lacking elsewhere at Yale,” obtaining its “close bond between members by intimate personal contact through meetings and social activities.” Besides what the societies offered members, they also described the loyalty and time commitment that was demanded in return, with requirement for biweekly meeting attendance, and the function of Tap Day for the recognized societies: “the other societies select their members by personal contact at another time.”19

The six recognized societies then met in the house of Saybrook College Master Basil Henning (class of 1932, a member of Wolf’s Head); thereafter Carlos Stoddard, executive secretary of the University Council (class of 1926, a member of Keys) wrote for Keys to the representatives of the other five. He noted that agitation on campus and in the pages of the News against Tap Day in its historical form continued to increase, as evidenced by the Undergraduate Affairs Committee’s determination that the societies undertake reform, and the presentation of another reform plan presented to the dean by one of the “sub rosa” groups, part of whose appeal was that they did not participate in the Branford Court ritual. “In the minds of most undergraduates—perhaps it is in keeping with the times in which we live—there is less and less blind faith in antiquity,” wrote Stoddard, “and there is more and more demand for consideration as rational, ‘old-young’ men upon whose shoulders life has descended pretty squarely and heavily.” The current system left “too little room for the expression of their own wishes,” and so he urged the adoption of the Olds Plan for the current year.20

Further negotiations among the six produced a much reduced version of the Olds Plan, which featured notification to the juniors that those interested in being elected should plan to be in their rooms between 8:00 and 11:00 P.M. on the scheduled day, to be announced in the News, or leave word where they would be. No exchange of lists, declaring the candidates’ ranked desires and, from the societies, setting forth their preferred juniors, featured in this plan. Each society would offer elections in the manner they respectively saw fit, in person or by written message. The names and addresses of those accepting elections would be published in the campus newspaper on the following day, based on lists submitted by the societies.

Coordination was to come through telephones on the university exchange, in or near the office of University Development in Vanderbilt Hall, where graduate representatives would receive word of completed elections and refusals, and then communicate that information back to the undergraduate groups in their tombs running the elections. It was suggested that no elections be offered between 8:10 and 8:45 P.M., so that information on the initial choices could be accurately and completely exchanged, and society members were urged to avoid ostentation in dress or manner when seeking out their candidates. This agreement was to apply only to the 1953 elections, in a compromise of conflicting opinions, and none were deemed waived as to the coming years.21

Dean DeVane grasped the stunted olive branch that had at last been offered (only two societies had supported his plan, two refused it in its entirety, and two said they would abide by a majority decision that never occurred). The societies had finally agreed that there would be no public event, but nothing else had been settled with the administration, other than that Tap Day should be succeeded by “a more civilized form of election,” as the dean said. Reporting the stalemate and rather misreading the situation, the New York Times noted portentously that “unless a solution is reached by the end of the school year, the societies will be without members next year and societies’ buildings will be without occupants.”22

Forcing the pace, DeVane set Tuesday, May 5, for the offering of elections in students’ rooms that evening between 8:00 and 10:30 P.M. The News predicted “with almost absolute certainty that this year’s tapping in rooms will be unsuccessful.” The nation’s newspapers and weekly magazines ran articles, many mentioning Dink Stover, on the “death” of Tap Day, Time magazine’s beginning: “In every Yale man’s life, there has been one traumatic experience that other people do not have.”23 The day before the elections, the college newspaper published an analysis of the elected in the class of 1953, finding, unsurprisingly, that “Societies Favor Fraternity Men, Athletes, Organization Leaders,” while noting that about 75 percent of all members came from prep schools, and 31 percent hailed from within a 50-mile radius of New York City.24

On the day, the candidates as instructed stayed in their residential college rooms, and a central clearing committee composed of two or three graduate members of each of the six societies, hearing from their respective undergraduate delegations searching out their candidates, notified the campus radio station WYBC of the final results. Denying two forms of information always published with the lists in the past, the societies did not make available to the campus radio station or newspaper the names of either their refusals or their electors. As predicted, some confusion on both sides did result (Berzelius was said to have made sixteen accepted offers, and another society was reported to have suffered seventeen refusals), with elections not completed until 9:12 P.M. Not predicted, only one society wore the gray flannels and black tie characteristic of Tap Day in previous years, the others finally acceding to the dean’s suggestion of “street clothes” for tapping attire.25


A class historian in this decade wrote in his yearbook that “People in houses without any windows don’t give a damn about stones,” but the societies were being knocked back on their collective heels, not only about their election methods, but about the more fundamental question of their value and function. The now annual springtime attacks in the Yale Daily News—which in 1954 announced that it would no longer publish the names of those tapped26—required some reaction beyond stubborn silence. By the mid-fifties, that response began to be made in an unprecedented way, using the student newspaper as a platform, by guarded but candid revelations about what went on behind the iron doors, to the extent that such information was not already known (if not openly discussed). The News had flatly stated in a May 1950 editorial “That some are dedicated to the proposition of the congenial group and some to the concept of heterogeneous benefit, that some are mainly social and others attempt to build character should be common knowledge for the consumption of anybody who cares.”

The open letter to the class of 1954 by Messrs. Harper and Grover was quoted extensively in the News by its editors in April 1955, in a piece titled, “Senior Societies: A Critical Evaluation.” Beyond those excerpts, this analysis was “based upon several months of discussions with faculty and members, past and present, of Yale societies,” and was intended “to enlighten juniors who may be tapped this May 5, to dispel many of the myths that have grown up around the societies, and to suggest areas in which the societies themselves might improve their relationship to the Yale community.” Skull and Bones, it reported, “does not guarantee its members a $10,000 a year salary, nor do students benefit financially from the societies (except for dues which are granted to bursary students on the same basis as the fraternities).” Being “shoe” was not the essential qualification for admission,” because “with possibly one exception [meaning Bones], societies choose their members primarily on the basis of diversity rather than the criterion—‘outstanding.’”

And because of personal choice and the “rather anarchic system of election,” many outstanding members of each class did not enter the societies, so they were no longer the criterion for success that they had been until the 1930s. Their main purpose was to develop their individual members, through requiring the “presentation of individual biographies, one per week during the first 15 weeks of the fall, for comment and criticism by their fellow members . . . During this psychoanalytic experience the member often enjoys an emotional and intellectual rebirth which is recognized by most psychologists as a normal stage in the development of the individual from adolescence to maturity (or selfhood).” Most of the societies, the report continued, also offered some sort of intellectual program that in some cases involved faculty participation, and “in all,” the presentation of reports by individual society members “on topics of an intellectual nature or pertaining to the Yale scene.”

Following this description, the editors made recommendations to the senior societies themselves. They should make more clear that intellect and character were membership determinants, by individual discussions or outreach programs; the “pretapping,” which included a brief discussion of a particular group’s program and ideals, “should be made a universal practice. (It probably will be anyway as soon as the alumni of what used to be Yale’s top society awaken to the fact that is has become ‘second rate’ through its strict adherence to outworn procedures and ideals.)” Bones was being damned here for no longer leading, in preferring demonstrated achievement to diversity. Furthermore, the article maintained, the societies should lessen their insistence on demanding “priority over all other interests and obligations of the member,” because that hurt “the maturity and leadership of the campus as a whole.” An addendum for the juniors followed the next day, noting that all of the recognized societies and most of the more secretive underground societies required a minimum attendance of at least two nights a week, on Thursdays and Sundays, from 7:00 to midnight”; that at least one of the abovegrounds and several of the undergrounds no longer practiced the “psychoanalytic sessions”; and at least one of the undergrounds required a biography but only for purposes of getting acquainted.

Still another editorial ran the following day, suggesting to the juniors not tapped that week that they should not “head for either the nearest window or bar,” in recognition that there were other opportunities and values in Yale’s rich extracurricular life which did not require society membership, and that “the tombs have no priority on friendship.” This point was remade in an editorial after Tap Day, saying that “the 105 juniors who entered recognized senior societies and countless others who joined underground societies have at long last discovered the big secret . . . that there just aren’t any real secrets at all,” and that they might have gained little more by entry therein than might, “have been accomplished by a little honesty and the sincere attempt to make friends and participate actively in University life.” The 1955 News board claimed that its editorials had met with “sudden and unanimous agreement of the public,” and called on “Skull and Bones, the Commons Icehouse [Book & Snake], the Woodbridge Hall Outhouse [Scroll & Key], etc., to drop their sinister activities and abnormal practices and start doing Good.”27

The subsequent year’s News board took a different tack, announcing in spring 1956 that there would be no campaign against the societies, “either by angry editorials or completely ignoring the elections,” and it would not consider them as “an issue” but simply publish results “in the same form as any other elections.” Still, the editors could not help themselves on the subject and ran, for the new juniors’ benefit, “three or four articles which we consider representative and well-informed sources,” beginning with an evaluation by Dean DeVane. He found that “our whole American society seems to be in collusion to place its final accent on the preparation of the student to meet the external trials and challenges of American life,” and that there was no doubt that “the individual profits by membership in such a group.” (As a student after World War I, DeVane had shared a writing course with Stephen Vincent Benét, Archibald MacLeish, Henry Luce, Briton Hadden, and Wilmarth Lewis, senior society members all.) Still, the societies needed, more than ever before, “to justify their existence in the community which harbors them—not to their members, nor in terms of exclusiveness, but rather in terms of the wholesome and corrective effect which they might have on the climate of opinion of the student body.”

The succeeding piece, “A Member’s Description,” was by Edward Kent, a current member of Scroll and Key delegation, who claimed openly that there were “no great society mysteries,” no financial benefits, and no society was boasting that it was electing a “supposed Yale elite.” “A student is elected to membership in a society,” he wrote, “on two main criteria: 1) some one from the previous year’s membership must be acquainted with him, and 2) he is adjudged to be especially qualified by his predecessors in some area of knowledge or activity from which he can contribute to his fellow members.” Kent confirmed that debating, public speaking, and writing were activities common to all societies, and in some an autobiography for group analysis. “Potential antagonisms (e.g., shoe vs. non-shoe, scholar vs. athlete) tend to be broken down as the members find grounds for communication.” For that reason, all societies needed to retain their privacy, because only within small, private groups could such “forthright discussion” take place. Here at last was stated plainly, for the first time in a Yale student publication, what many had known and others might have discerned.28

The News board did not remain uniformly high-minded, under the leadership of Calvin Trillin ’57, later the noted humorist for the satirical periodical Monocle and then the New Yorker magazine. In the issue of April 29, a sort of April Fool’s issue printed in red ink, the entire last page was a mock advertisement, picturing the Bones tomb, with the running head “Central Real Estate for Sale.” Interested parties were invited to contact “S Pook 322” for an appointment, to see something “attractively furnished in traditional early Gothic style, bedrooms, living rooms, study and children’s athletic facilities.” The following Thursday, Trillin, a public high school graduate from Kansas City, having become the first Jew to be chairman of the Yale Daily News, was elected to Scroll and Key.29

The Jewish managing editor of the News the next year, Larry Bensky, had a rougher passage to senior society membership. The fifteen seniors in Wolf’s Head voted unanimously to tap him, but that society’s election system required review of prospective members by an alumni committee, and Bensky’s nomination was rejected on the grounds of precedent: Wolf’s Head had never previously admitted a Jew. The undergraduates, including future dean of admissions and university secretary Henry Chauncey Jr., pushed back, saying Bensky’s faith was not a factor in their decision to elect and should be irrelevant to the alumni; if he was not admitted, their delegation would resign in a bloc. Faced with this ultimatum, the graduate body reversed course, and Bensky was elected. He had another offer, however, from Berzelius, and chose to accept it. Two years later, Lewis Lehrman ’60, the New York Republican gubernatorial candidate twenty-two years later, became the first Jewish member of Wolf’s Head, to be followed by the class of 1962’s Eli Newberger, the undergraduate president of Hillel.30

Trillin, before graduating himself in 1957, wrote a News column for the rising juniors, “with the assistance of individual members of several societies,” quoting a one-off publication that had appeared the prior autumn, Inside Eli, written by two members of the class of 1955, Henry S. F. Cooper and David Calleo. This pamphlet repeated what was no longer a revelation: “All societies are essentially a group of fifteen seniors brought together for several hours a week. Each has a different program. Some are particularly concerned with autobiography, self-analysis, self-improvement, and other forms of psychic plumbing. Others place greater emphasis on the less earnest joys of fraternal conviviality, while some are interested in intellectual stimulation.” Trillin’s column warned: “ANY JUNIOR WHO GOES INTO TAP DAY ARMED ONLY WITH A HURRIED READING OF DINK STOVER OR THE PROPAGANDA OF ONE SOCIETY IS CONSIDERABLY LACKING IN COMMON SENSE.” He was to write much later that he had applied to Yale at the urging of his father, because the old man had read Stover at Yale and thought his son thereby “would have an even start with the sons of the country’s most powerful industrialists . . . and after that it was up to me.”31

The helpful or humorous tone displayed in these publications was not echoed in other forums. The campus radio station WYBC held a tape-recorded symposium, where the societies were derided by André Schiffrin ’57, the president of the Aurelian Honor Society, who dismissed them as unimportant, with ridiculous trappings, as he had done in his News column, and philosophy professor Paul Weiss, who found them “the haven of men who are somewhat maladjusted, who huddle together for mutual protection, and who devote themselves to activities . . . which in principle are opposed to the whole idea of the college plan, which is that every man admitted to Yale is qualified to meet with everyone else coming from a wide variety of backgrounds.” Both critics were transplanted Europeans in New Haven with little patience for this Yale tradition, which Weiss called on the administration to ban.

Dean DeVane in rebuttal noted that the university had no right to interfere with the “inalienable” right of students to form groups or societies of friends, and while he could wish that Yale men formed “more natural groups,” the secret societies were “of long standing, of great weight, of a good deal of power.” His side was supported by Richard Arnold, a senior and member of Elihu, who declared circumspectly that “the simple fact is that through the mere having of a place where no one else can come and through the doing of certain things which may appear pointless to people on the outside . . . a loyalty and cohesion is produced among the members of the group.”32

On Tap Day, Schiffrin and like-minded juniors pretended that the day was meant to center on an annual tiddlywinks tournament, which they ostentatiously mounted on the steps of the University Library, calmly playing while seniors crossed the campus seeking the rooms of the juniors whom they wished to elect. The News ran a front-page photograph of the mock tournament, under a headline jokingly asking Schiffrin if he had gone mad. As it happened, he was to recall in his memoirs, Skull and Bones, “the most prestigious and notorious of the groups,” offered the dissenter an election, which the society had historically done for many of its harshest critics, but since his “campaign against the societies had not been meant as a subtle way of asking to join . . . I refused the invitation.”33


The Inside Eli pamphlet to which Trillin referred devoted a short but entire chapter to “The Societies.” Its authors were members of the newest of the “above-grounds,” called Manuscript. Its members had written a letter published in the News just before elections back in 1955, saying that they would make public the names of those members of the junior class whom it then elected to membership. “The society was founded several years ago, in recognition of a need for an organization devoted to the furtherance of creative activities in the humanities at Yale.” Until the Society was firmly established, “it was felt that its ‘secret’ status should be maintained,” but the group’s enthusiastic reception now indicated that “the sub rosa status” was not only unnecessary but undesirable, because Manuscript was providing “a singular opportunity for the presentation and discussion of creative work and critical points of view in many fields.” An editorial in the News had used that very status characterization, holding that “the Societies’ greatest misdemeanor springs ironically from the attitude of the ‘outgroup’ in holding the tombs as a sacred, secret sine qua non. That attitude reflects in the upspringing of the societus spurius, or sub rosa society—spawned out of some anxiety that nothing healthy can be conducted at Yale where the windows aren’t cemented in.”34

The Inside Eli writers confirmed the continuing importance of the system on campus: “election to a senior society confirms the successful undergraduate career.” Practically all societies, they reported, “pre-tapped,” a process which varied from “an inexplicable invitation to cocktails to a full scale brainwashing by earnest alumni,” a strategy compelled because many men were sought by more than one society. An approach on Tap Day could occur without being pre-tapped, not a matter of disgrace, but rather an honor, “since only dull and obvious types are generally among the first fifteen.” Commitments before election could be troublesome to freedom of choice on the day. “Above all, don’t get excited. Gamesmanship is a great weapon.”

Befitting their editorial salute to the Harkness Hoot—the pamphlet is claimed to be published by “The Yale Society for the Occasional Resuscitation of the Harkness Hoot”—they roughly teased all the abovegrounds in their serial descriptions. Skull and Bones was like the Harkness Tower: “Though it is absurd, we love it.” Still the “stamp of greatness seems lost,” and it was said that “in certain quarters it is no longer shoe to belong . . . especially if your father was a member.” Wolf’s Head was said to be “the home of all those jocks who are still capable of going in training,” while Book and Snake was for those who “have received most of your education from a fraternity bar.”

While Berzelius and Elihu were “respectable organizations,” the former was “somewhat addicted to moral earnestness and has a strong low-church smell to it,” while “Elihu is somewhat more intellectually oriented . . . if not violently exciting.” Both “conduct an extremely energetic pre-tapping campaign,” thus seeming overeager. Scroll and Key “is probably the leading society in the eyes of the average Yale man,” although “a little like an exclusive yacht-club.” As for the newly fledged Manuscript (their own membership was not disclosed), it “is the most frankly intellectual of all societies . . . a formidable collection of snobbishly shoe intellectuals, bright good guys, and an occasional grubby guy who writes good poetry (or at least tries to).”

And then, they reported, “there is a varying number of SECRET-SECRET or UNDERGROUND SOCIETIES,” groups of fifteen whose existence was known (supposedly) only to themselves. Some had been going for several years, and others sprang into being and disappeared after two or three classes; none of them possessed extensive physical facilities. While not named in the pamphlet, these included a revived Spade and Grave, and others named Sword and Gate, Mace and Chain, Ring and Candle, and Demos. “The value of membership depends mostly on the other people who happen to be in the group your years.”35 As a News columnist had said in 1955, the year of this pamphlet’s authors’ graduation, “the undergrounds had, of necessity, to copy much of the system which they were designed to moderate.”36

What seems to have been the first, Sword and Gate, was founded by fourteen men in the class of 1947, with four others from earlier classes, taking their society name from a passage in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. “The Gate,” their charter recited, was “to represent Yale University which is the gateway to the attainment of wisdom for which we shall strive throughout our lives; and the Sword to represent devotion to the principles we shall seek to forward.” Reflecting their experience and convictions as veterans, the founders pledged their succeeding members, in future not to exceed fifteen, would “not be selected from any one field of activity or social class, but shall reflect every phase of life in our University and in our Country.” The society would “strive to promote everywhere, through the word, thought, and deed of its members, a devotion to the ideal of wisdom, moral fortitude, tolerance, and the international sincerity so fundamental to a world at peace.”37

James Ketchum, a senior in the class, first approached Yale president Charles Seymour with the notion for a new society, which would be Yale’s seventh, and Seymour (a Bonesman) agreed to personally approach the “Ancient Six” about adding another society. The existing groups resisted fiercely, but Seymour still advised Ketchum to proceed. Sword and Gate then petitioned the Undergraduate Activities Council to be allowed to go on campus and offer elections with the abovegrounds. The society was warned that, because of its obscurity, attracting members would be very difficult, and that it might do better to copy Elihu’s tactics in 1904, announcing as a non-secret organization and waiting until after Tap Day to choose members. Then, when they were better known, they might petition the council again. Sword and Gate chose to remain underground, and in 1949, tapped Horace Taft, son of Ohio Senator Robert Taft, after the young man on Tap Day declined an election to Keys, his heart’s desire, on his Bonesman father’s direction, but in the end was passed over by Bones. Later members include Henry Luce Jr., son of the Time magazine founder; novelist John Knowles; and the former NBC president Brandon Tartikoff.38

Spade and Grave, the “society of 1864,” had of course been a known secret society at its founding that year in the mid-nineeteenth-century controversy with Bones over the Lit., and was revived in 1951 by John Curtis Perry (later professor of history at Tufts and founder of the Institute for Global Maritime Studies) and his roommate Ronald Mitchell, aided by Robert Dresser, all class of 1952 and residents of Berkeley College. Perry was inspired by that society’s history as told by Lyman Bagg in Four Years at Yale. Six of their first eleven members were from Berkeley, who to make up their fifteen added four men who were actually juniors chosen three or four months before April 1952’s Tap Day (providing continuity into 1953), including Edwin Meese III, later President Reagan’s attorney general. Their delegation in 1959 included Dick Celeste, Rhodes scholar and then successively U.S. congressman, governor of Ohio, director of the Peace Corps, and ambassador to India.39

The undergrounds had been formed, according to another column written by members of two of them in 1957, after World War II, “either spontaneously or from within an above-ground society,” and thereby made the benefits of the senior society institution available to more people, while their “anonymity was a protest against certain abuses which the public nature of the established societies had brought about.” A News column by another underground member the following year stated more simply, without citing a year, or a group name: “The first under-ground society was conceived by a group of men who felt that the number of then existing societies was insufficient and that qualified students were denied the opportunity of this unusual experience because of the simple fact of numbers.” The undergounds’ practices of withholding the names of members and refusing to acknowledge a society name and a continuous existence simply removed from discussion both the reputation of the society as a whole and the public attention on its membership. There were, it was said, virtually no alumni controls or rigid demands of tradition, and ritual was reduced “to a moderate (often negligible) expression of group identity and continuity.”

The authors warned that “most below-grounds expect a commitment on or before Tap Day,” and so were not to be considered as second-best alternatives to the established societies. Their actual workings were too varied for fair generalization: some, it was admitted, were similar to the abovegrounds, but others let each delegation choose exactly what it wanted to do at each meeting. “This may vary from a deeply personal and autobiographical approach to objective intellectual discussions, either oriented toward one field of interest or on different subjects according to the nature of the membership.” Some were completely social, and others, like their landed brethren, had faculty advisors and even invited valued strangers, not in the underground’s membership, to lead discussions. The question of whether such groups were planning “on going above-ground” was a misunderstanding of their fundamental purpose, to incorporate the senior society system’s most beneficial aspects while omitting its abuses.40

A member of an underground in the class of 1960 has written that he was cautioned on joining that its “existence, name and membership were secret,” and directed to dress, according to his invitation, in “dark suit, white shirt, black tie, and dark shoes.” Meeting like their tomb-housed brethren twice weekly on Thursdays and Sundays, these men enjoyed once-weekly meals prepared and served by a chef in training for the Culinary Institute of America, then located in New Haven. This club’s composition was not unlike the larger class of 1960: one athlete, one fraternity member, a married man, and a number of legacies and graduates of prestigious prep and day schools, but also a black, a Jew, and a number of academic achievers, two men who were raised in Europe and one in Asia, three students committed to pursuing international careers, and three “serious Protestants,” one of whom became a Rhodes scholar and had turned down aboveground society offers on principle—the aggregate performing the classic Yale senior society function of introducing “classmates with academic and religious interests I rarely encountered otherwise.”41


Still, one “underground” had become “landed,” as the letter to the News from Manuscript’s current club proclaimed in 1955. It was founded by a member of the class of 1953, Gilbert Colgate, namesake of his grandfather, a member of Keys in 1883, later president of the family’s toothpaste company. Two other Colgates had been in Keys, and his uncle in the class of 1924 had made Wolf’s Head, but young Gilbert flunked out of English as a sophomore and lost his hockey team membership in consequence, all of which put paid to his dream of future membership in the existing aboveground societies. He gathered classmates who thought a new society was a fine idea, but they favored one that avoided athletes and political operators in favor of the nation’s future novelists, dramatists, journalists, essayists, producers, directors, stage managers, or theatrical, film, or television personalities.

It openly proclaimed this creative/artistic focus, and its name came from the code booksellers used to price books on the flyleaf, where the ten letters of “manuscript” are each assigned a number from 1 to 10 (so, “NS” is $35). Two rooms at 96 College Street were rented above the tobacconist Owl Shop, across from the rooms of another underground, Sword and Gate; on Thursday night, members of the respective societies would pass each other silently. Since another founder lived in Saybrook College, beneath its Wrexham Tower, modeled on the church where Elihu Yale is buried in Wales, the society incorporated as Wrexham Foundation for legal and financial purposes as an educational institution under the laws of Connecticut, documented with tax exempt status by John Ecklund, then a graduate Bonesman at New Haven’s leading law firm Wiggin and Dana, and later the treasurer of Yale.

The founding group was split roughly between those who felt they had no chance of election and wanted their own proper senior society, and others more interested in socializing over art, music, and theater. Their program, consequently, was a weekly one of talks or papers on such topics, held on the aboveground society schedule of Thursday nights, each member being responsible for two presentations during the year, and Sunday nights, where faculty fellow Imbre Buffum, a young associate professor of French, began the Manuscript tradition of dining with fine wines. When they decided the group was worth perpetuating, but without announcing their presence, Manuscript’s representatives joined the election ceremony in Branford Court for the class of 1954, the club having worked out their list in advance.

In this replication, they had done something, they believed, which was in effect expressing their disdain for the senior societies by the contrary (but very Yale-ish) act of founding one themselves. The graduate membership itself had a tap committee, helping to elect incoming delegations by consensus of the current membership, alumni, and the corporate board, with introductory cocktail parties organized to assess prospects. In 1956, the foundation underwrote a scholarship in the humanities for “a senior who shall be judged to have written the best senior essay in the field of humanities,” given in memory of Wallace Notestein, Sterling Professor of History at Yale and another Manuscript faculty fellow, and ther society later created the Quincy Porter Prize in the arts.42

Members of Manuscript’s earliest delegations included Matthew Bruccoli (a cofounder in 1953), bibliographer of F. Scott Fitzgerald and biographer of that writer and of John O’Hara; Ted Morgan (class of 1954), Pulitzer Prize–winning author and journalist; David Calleo (1955), coauthor of Inside Eli and intellectual historian at Johns Hopkins; Henry Geldzahler (1957), Metropolitan Museum curator of American Art and New York City commissioner of culture, whose adult best friends were Andy Warhol and David Hockney; and Richard Rhodes (1959), Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and historian. Its members in the nineteen-sixties included U.S. Senator H. John Heinz III (1960); David Gergen (1963), author and advisor to four American presidents; and Richard Brodhead (1968), president of Duke University. In the 1980s, its members included Cheryl Henson (1984), puppeteer and president of the Jim Henson Foundation, actress Jodie Foster (1985), screenwriter of the Skulls movie trilogy John Pogue (1987), and CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper (1989). Its honorary members from the Yale faculty have included artist Josef Albers, literary critic Cleanth Brooks, and political science professor Robert Dahl.

The society began looking for a different and bigger home in 1955. Unable to secure a residence at 344 Elm, they bought a house at 232 Dwight Street, but in due course sold that property after 344 became available again, and was purchased for all the society’s available cash, borrowing through demand notes from members, and a mortgage. In 1961, a capital fund drive was launched when the decision was made to knock down that house and commission a “real” (although in Yale terms unconventional) tomb. For two years, the undergraduate delegations met in various residential college fellows’ suites, particularly professor of French Imbrie Buffum’s “flat” in Silliman College, or at the houses of honorary members in town.

The result, completed in 1963 on the 344 Elm Street site by Yale associate professor of Architectural Design King-lui Wu, was mid-twentieth-century modern but designed, in his words, “for privacy, not secrecy.” Appearing from the outside to have only one street level, the exterior walls of four-inch by four-inch by sixteen-inch concrete blocks with a marble aggregate conceal, beyond an entrance hall which also serves as a gallery for painting and sculpture, multilevel subterranean floors with music room and library, and an interior courtyard, which enclosed a reflecting pool (with goldfish), permitting large areas of opaque glass to bring light and air deep into the building. The floors are of Italian marble, bluestone, and walnut blocks, with cabinetry and furniture and Moroccan rugs manufactured to the architect’s specifications. Wu also designed many of the furnishings, and Albers designed the white brickwork intaglio mural which seems to float on the building’s wall facing Elm Street.43

In his novel Joe College (2002), in a passage describing the Halloween party for which Manuscript had become well known, author Tom Perrotta wrote that, “Architecturally speaking, Manuscript was an anomaly at Yale. It had no pretensions to medieval grandeur or even garden-variety academic charm—no ivy climbing, weathered stone walls, no moat, turret, or slate roof. It was a low-slung, unapologetically suburban structure—just a ranch house, really—with a restaurant-quality kitchen, off-white wall-to-wall carpeting, and sliding glass doors that communicated onto a small patio. . . . No one I’d grown up with had lived in a house like this, a rambling, sparsely furnished pleasure palace made up almost entirely of denlike communal spaces.”44

Manuscript’s badge is triangular, with a circle at the bottom containing the letters MS; across the triangle curls a voluted, scroll-like design holding a shield with sun, sunflowers, and the superscribed letters. It is said that the former symbols suggest the platonic relationship between specifics and essences, in this instance intellectual qualities, according to conventions in use since the Renaissance. Manuscript in time even had an analog to Bones’ Deer Island, a villa named Casa Fangati on the Italian island of Elba purchased in 1970 by David Calleo, its corporate parent’s president, then the head of Johns Hopkins’s European Studies progam, where recent Manuscript members enjoyed summer jobs and internships.45

In this same decade, an old Sheff fraternity finally followed Berzelius and Book and Snake into the ranks of the recognized senior societies. St. Elmo had been founded in 1889 as an unincorporated association within the Delta Phi fraternity, populated by members from the sophomore, junior and senior classes; its original clubhouse, at 111 Grove Street, was built in 1895. In 1912, a new clubhouse was constructed next door at 109 Grove Street, a structure designed by Kenneth M. Murchison which resembled a three-storied Elizabethan manor house. The Omicron chapter of Delta Phi severed its ties with the national fraternity in 1925, becoming an independent organization. While the founding of the college system in the 1930s caused the other Sheffield organizations to sell their buildings to the university, St. Elmo’s did not and pressed on, incorporating itself as the Rhinelander Trust Association, and then reincorporating in 1964 as St. Elmo Incorporated. Yale did finally buy their hall (now known as Rosenfeld Hall, and used as annex housing for Timothy Dwight College) in 1962, but leased space back to the society.

Two years later, St. Elmo elected to become a secret society in the traditional sense, declaring a founding in 1962 and claiming a place in the 1964 yearbook’s listing of senior societies and their members. Noted in their number for that class was John David Ashcroft, son of an evangelical preacher who boycotted Yale’s social scene of alcohol and sex, and quarterback of Branford College’s football team in its victory over Harvard’s Elliott House in the intermural championship game played the fall afternoon in 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated. Ashcroft was later governor of and then U.S. senator from Missouri, and President George W. Bush’s first attorney general. When the university refused to renew the society’s lease in its old hall, it moved to a building at 35 Lynwood Place, becoming “landed” like its fellow abovegrounds. Later members in its first decade as a senior society included federal judge Barrington Parker Jr. (1965) and all-pro NFL running back Calvin Hill (1969).46


While the Stoverian phrase “working for Yale” was no longer employed, the intensity of extracurricular activity had not significantly waned in the four decades since that novel’s publication. Faculty and administrators, it was reported in 1958, often complained, “that campus life is too distressingly faithful a reproduction of the intense competition of American business life.” There was, however, a new edge, the awareness of the prep school/high school division, 61 percent to 39 percent in Calvin Trillin’s freshman class in 1953, in which, “High-school boys from the provinces may have felt ignorant of some things that the Eastern boarding-school people took for granted . . . but most of us, I think, got the feeling that a lot of the rich Eastern people were at Yale because of some entitlement of family or class or money and that we were there because, in ways that were perhaps not immediately apparent, we somehow deserved to be.”

The residential college system, now two decades old, had broadened the range of choice, but the old verities obtained: the purpose of Yale College was the training of men of force and character. Through discipline and competition, in class and out, the system taught regularity, cooperation, hard but fair play, honesty, loyalty, and high moral purpose, to the end that the culture of the larger society might be perpetuated and leaders produced capable of understanding each other and their inheritance.47 The residential colleges offered students new ways of expressing themselves and developing their powers. They permitted a social life for many undergraduates for whom that element was previously either prohibitively expensive or partially inhibited.

The mere fact of eating together produced a social homogeneity that was thoroughly lacking in the day of the eating clubs scattered throughout local catering establishments. In any given year, nearly two thousand upperclassmen were now taking part in intramural college sports, an increase from 10 percent in 1932 to 55 percent in 1953. Perhaps as many shared in other forms of activity within their colleges, serving on councils or committees, editing newspapers, writing for magazines, acting in dramatic productions, engaging in intramural debates, and running or just meeting with special interest clubs. One out of every three students not only carried a bursary job requiring from ten to fourteen hours a week, but seemed also to be able to take part in the extracurricular life of Yale, while still maintaining an academic rank in the upper brackets of his class.48

To the credit of the extracurricular activities, it could fairly be said that they strove for quality, and, if not always achieved, it was not for lack of effort. The identification of quality with recognition was and is in principle a reassuring feature of varied extracurricular programs, and it remained the basis of Yale’s reputation as “Mother of Men,” especially proficient ones. The man who gained the recognition of his classmates through a task will be exposed almost ex officio to new honors. “He may be first elected to his College Council, or as an officer of his class,” wrote the associate dean of Yale College in 1953. “The Board of Deacons may take notice of him and the budget drive will profit by his services. And then for Senior Year he will likely be chosen for one, if not two societies.”49

Yalies of this era had been assured by the Freshman Office that they had been admitted partly because that had the potential ability to lead, and the ideal of leadership gained force from the fact that Yale was, on the undergraduate level, a very cohesive body. The ten colleges, while providing previously unparalleled opportunities to know more men in more classes, were still secondary for most of these men to the numerous organizations and clubs and societies that were run on a university level. Another contemporary perspective on this enormous effort, often voiced by prior observers, was pronounced by a faculty member. “Yale is not only in and of America, it is close to New York. The young-men-on-the-make keep a weather eye to the sou’west. For one thing, they want jobs, and the mushroom growth of extra-curricular Yale is in part due to this purely practical urge; for another, there is pleasure and excitement in imitating metropolitan methods.”50

Analyses of senior society membership retained fascination for the campus. The News ran a comparison after Tap Day in 1955 of the election classes from 1953 to 1956 and detected shifts in composition of the respective memberships. While 71 percent of the members were in fraternities in 1953, the number had dropped to 54 percent for the incoming class, in every society, although Bones and Wolf’s Head were still two-thirds fraternity members. The decline in preparatory school graduates was more moderate, from 75 percent to 67 percent, although, without counting the twelve preppies in Manuscript, the number would have been lower. In extracurricular activities, the pattern was less clear, although Wolf’s Head remained largely composed of athletes, and Manuscript was, as befitted its purpose, “crowded with the literati.”

Beyond these two outliers, the societies were “surprisingly uniform” in each choosing between three and five varsity athletes. The News board could claim eleven members in the 1956 society delegations, up from seven, and the radio station WYBC had five, having had none in 1953; the humor magazine the Record had three representatives, two below their 1953 figure. The calculus in the end did not identify “any given organization as the sure back door to tombdom.” One constant was geographic allocation: roughly 36 percent of the society members came from within a fifty-mile radius of New York City. Of the one hundred five new society members, forty were known for scholarship, which was a percentage “not greatly out of line with the general University cross section.” In sum, it was conceded, the societies were seen to “be evolving toward more solid grounds for selection than simply fraternity membership or ‘wheeldom.’”51

President Griswold was closely following the same trends: his papers contain, for the class of 1957 elected in the spring of 1956, an eight-page analysis of the characteristics of every new member of the now seven societies, detailing their three-year averages, their secondary school type (“Prep.” or “High”), academic majors, athletics (football, baseball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse, rugby, crew, tennis, track, swimming, fencing, and golf), activities (publications, with editorial office, fraternities, and “other,” including the board of deacons, singing groups, junior prom committee membership, the Elizabethan Club and language clubs, or college bursary aideships); scholarship status; and “honors and awards” (academic honors, membership in the Aurelian or Torch honor societies, and all-Ivy or all-American sports honors).

Accumulated, these figures revealed that just over half were above the middle of the class in scholarship; almost three-quarters were prep school products; of the one-quarter membership from high schools, Elihu was the highest, with six, while Book and Snake took only two. Fraternities claimed 63 percent of the membership, with the societies known for intellect or culture, Elihu and Manuscript, at the low end (six and two men, respectively), while the others ranged from nine to as many as thirteen (Bones, Berzelius, and Book and Snake). Fully 35 percent were on financial aid; only fourteen of the 105 were in the top 10 percent of their class in marks.52

Among the seniors so analyzed, and seemingly so “old Yale,” were a number of men who in the decade to come were instrumental in effecting a sea change in Yale’s admissions policies. In addition to individuals previously mentioned (Keys’ Calvin Trillin, the News chairman and a future Yale Corporation member, and Manuscript’s Henry Geldzahler, with no campus organization offices), these harbingers of change were Bones’ R. Inslee “Inky” Clark, the Intra-Fraternity Council president, to become Yale’s controversial dean of admissions under president Kingman Brewster, and Vernon Loucks, later CEO of health care giant Baxter International and Corporation member; Berzelius’s Charlie O’Hearn, secretary of the charities drive, to become Brewster’s assistant for alumni relations; and Wolf’s Head’s Henry S. “Sam” Chauncey, hockey manager and soon another Brewster assistant, who went on to become dean of admissions and university secretary.

President Griswold conducted an extensive correspondence at the time with Robert B. Fiske, the new president of Wolf’s Head’s corporate board (whose son of the same name, from the class of 1952, was to be the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York and then the first Whitewater special prosecutor). Griswold mailed Fiske a copy of Inside Eli to show the prevailing attitudes of “this community towards the several societies mentioned,” including their own. In turn, Fiske sent Griswold the text of the remarks he made to his society’s members in November 1956. In them, he recalled to his audience John Andrews’s 1934 book on the founding of Wolf’s Head, and the 1873 pamphlet the Iconoclast, which typified the scorn in which Wolf’s Head’s predecessors were held.

Fiske’s speech acknowledged that “our senior societies are criticized as dull, stupid, frivolous, undemocratic.” Dull and stupid were criteria too amorphous to refute, but the societies were no more undemocratic than life itself, he argued, and frivolity could be defended as a necessary response to the intellectual pressures of modern university life—but the gravity and vigor of the club’s debates on important topics were hardly frivolous. Finally, “the opportunity which these societies provide for intimate companionship with fourteen diverse souls and the friendships engendered in such associations are one of the strengths of a loyal and happy Yale alumni body.”

Pressed by Griswold to urge the undergraduate members in new directions, Fiske wrote them about perhaps inviting non-alumni among the faculty and administration to speak in the hall, and to reconsider their seriousness of purpose. The collegians replied that the twenty to twenty-five Sundays on which they hosted guest speakers were well filled, not only with some faculty, but with outstanding alumni, whom they continued to prefer to hear. Furthermore, while faculty opinion condemned the fraternities, the writers had experienced no such criticism with regard to the senior societies. Upon reviewing this response, Griswold, noting the societies’ nature to resist change, believed them to be “all caught up in a secular trend in which the status quo is being rapidly eroded, and will ultimately leave them isolated and bankrupt if they do not understand the trend and move with it.”

The president told Fiske that he had recently had this same discussion with University Chaplain Sidney Lovett, whom many undergraduates consulted when considering membership in the societies, and although Lovett was in his day (class of 1913) a member of Bones, he rendered advice “fairly and impartially.” “Sid too was of the opinion that the spurious pamphlet I sent you some time ago came very close to taping the reputation of the several senior societies in the eyes and minds of the undergraduate public today. He confirmed my impression that Keys now stood at the very top in public esteem, with Berzelius and Elihu rising in the firmament and Bones and Wolf’s Head declining; and that the main factor in this was the number of high-stand men in these societies—particularly in Keys.”53 (The 1957 Keys delegation claimed three men in Phi Beta Kappa, one of them being Dennis “Denny” Hansen, winner of the Francis Gordon Brown Prize for outstanding junior and a Rhodes scholar, whose graduation was covered in Life magazine.54)

In a later letter to Fiske, Griswold declared that he did not “particularly enjoy the role of Jeremiah” and of course saw nothing “wrong in recognizing talent and ability and outstanding character.” It was “the failure to do so, out of a misunderstanding of the true meaning of democracy, that has got our educational system into so much trouble. Indeed it is precisely because I feel the senior societies fail to recognize such talent, ability, and character in such large measure that I am critical of them. They also fail, because of their extreme secretiveness, to reveal to the Yale public their true purposes and standards of selection.” It was, this time from a product of the senior society system and the chief of the university which birthed it, the classic criticism: the value of the societies, in rewarding effort and excellence, was undermined when those standards were not consistently honored at elections, and the shields of privacy which protected the programs of education of these men within their tombs offended the larger campus community.

By decade’s end, in 1959, even the Yale Daily News editorial page, on sober reflection and notwithstanding the annual controversies of past years, found several values in the system’s continuation. “In the first place almost every important officeholder in the Yale administration belongs to or participates in some senior society. The President of the University, the Provost, the Secretary, and the Chaplain, and almost all the deans are active members. . . . There are also a large number of faculty men who participate in society programs. For this reason the societies are not only a fruitful meeting-ground for undergraduates and faculty, but they are also a subtle integrating force in a very self-conscious community.”

To the credit side of the ledger, they “create more alumni loyalty than any other single institution at Yale, and they create more of this loyalty than exists at most American colleges.” It could be concluded that the societies exercised “less evil pressure than they once did,” although, on the debit side, some were “stuck in the past,” some proved “to be a waste of time for members,” while still others fostered snobbery; some juniors were “hurt by no knock on their door,” and the groups were “a little too closely connected with the success ethic of Yale.” Yet on balance, “kept in their proper perspective, senior societies can be a Good Thing.”55

Apparently persuaded of that maxim and accepting election on Tap Day the next week were: to Book and Snake, Leslie Aspin Jr., chief student aide in Trumbull College, future Rhodes scholar, later chair of Congress’s Armed Services Committee, and secretary of defense under President Clinton, and Porter Goss, congressman and then CIA director; to Wolf’s Head, Lewis Lehrman, to be successively the president of Rite Aid, New York State gubernatorial candidate, and founder of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History; to Skull and Bones, David George Ball, creator at the Department of Labor of the 401(k) retirement account program, and David Holbrook, later president of the insurance behemoth Marsh & McLennan Companies; to Manuscript, Henry J. Heinz III, future United States senator from Pennsylvania; and to Scroll and Key, Angelo Bartlett Giamatti, who was to succeed Kingman Brewster as president of Yale and thereafter to serve as commissioner of Major League Baseball.


The identification of graduates of Yale’s senior societies (“spooks”) with the clandestine intelligence services of the United States (the “spooks” of the Central Intelligence Agency) seems to have begun in this decade. In its early days, the CIA stood out even among Establishment institutions as hiring only through an informal network, on the theory that spies had to be absolutely trustworthy—hence, certified and nonethnic gentlemen—and financially incorruptible—hence, preferably rich. Furthermore, the overlap of prominent officers and directors of America’s spies with membership in secret college clubs seemed to the public to be a natural career progression for those practiced in keeping, or discovering, secrets. That two society graduates have been directors of the agency—George H. W. Bush (Bones, 1949) and Porter Goss (Book and Snake, 1960, recruited to the CIA while a junior there through a political science professor who was a faculty advisor to the senior society, and appointed the agency’s head forty-five years later by President Bush)—adds mightily to the impression.56

The first such agency in the twentieth century was referred to simply as “U-1,” born in 1915 when President Woodrow Wilson determined that the State Department should take a more active role in intelligence matters. Secretary of State Robert Lansing entrusted the development of the new intelligence bureau to a person at one remove, a new counselor in the Department of State, Frank L. Polk, a Keysman in the Yale class of 1894 and a distant kinsman of President James K. Polk. Initially advising the government on issues arising from America’s neutral status in World War I, Polk soon found himself coordinating the activities of those agencies that gathered intelligence data abroad; he also established liaison with the British and French embassies in counterintelligence matters, and oversaw the work of domestic intelligence services, such as the Bureau of Information, founded in 1908 and later known as the FBI.

The intelligence effort intensified when America entered the war in April 1917, and Gordon Auchincloss (Yale 1908, Keys) was appointed assistant counselor to help Polk coordinate secret activities. Auchincloss had the additional link to the intelligence community in being married to the daughter of Colonel Edward M. House, close personal advisor to his fellow Princeton alumnus Woodrow Wilson, and Auchincloss was to serve as chief secretary to the Inter-Allied War Conference for his father-in-law. Polk also continued intelligence work at war’s end, setting up the “American Black Chamber,” a unit charged with the responsibility of breaking the codes of foreign powers to read secret messages to their ambassadors in Washington, a program closed down in 1929 by incoming Secretary of State Henry Stimson, with the probably apocryphal words, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” a distinction dropped when the mail was Hitler’s. Polk established the “foreign-intelligence section” within the State Department, which would continue in peacetime the clandestine activities his office had conducted during the war. By 1919, Congress had agreed to create for him the special post of undersecretary of state, the initiative that gave rise to the designation “U-1” for the department’s intelligence unit, which was dissolved only in 1927.57

Frank Polk went on to become acting secretary of state from December 1918 to July 1920, and was the commissioner plenipotentiary of the United States to the peace conference at Versailles after Wilson’s departure. Afterward, he became a founding partner of the New York law firm now known as Davis, Polk, & Wardwell and managed John W. Davis’s presidential bid in 1924 (his partner Wardwell was Keys 1895). However, no particular public connection seems to have been made between his Yale senior society background and his subsequent work in the clandestine world. That connection, for graduates of Yale in the twentieth century, was to be a product of World War II and the Cold War that followed.

Authors on the topic commonly suggest that CIA personnel tend to be from the Ivy League, or more specifically from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, and some argue that the rise of specific individuals within the intelligence hierarchy may be attributed to their being from one of these institutions. Certainly most of the people who initially made up the Research and Analysis branch of the OSS were academics from Ivy League schools, with Harvard and Yale contributing the largest number of recruits. This emphasis on the eastern academic establishment accurately reflected the condition of American higher learning in the humanities and the social sciences in the late 1930s, when northeastern academia dominated American higher education.58

Yale’s identification with spies and spying goes back, of course, to Nathan Hale of the class of 1773, whose statue—with a British noose around his neck as he only regrets that he has but one life to lose for his country—stands not only in front of Connecticut Hall on the Old Campus in New Haven, but in front of the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, now named after George H. W. Bush, who headed the agency before becoming president. No other American university, it appears, has sent so many of its graduates into the profession of intelligence gathering. Remote outposts in Africa and Asia in the Second World War saw both American members of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and British intelligence officers conclude festive occasions by linking arms and singing “The Whiffenpoof Song,” based on Kipling’s poem “Gentlemen-Rankers,” with words distinctly appropriate to the art of spying, the anthem for those who thought of themselves as, “the legions of the lost ones . . . the cohort of the damned . . . ’til an alien turf enfolds us/and we die, and none can tell them where we died.”59

The OSS and its relation to academe was later to be characterized by McGeorge Bundy as “a remarkable institution, half cops and robbers, half faculty meeting.” Its founder, General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, wrote to President Roosevelt on November 18, 1944, declaring the need for a peacetime “Central Intelligence Service” which “will procure intelligence both by overt and covert methods and will at the same time provide intelligence guidance, determine national intelligence objectives, and correlate the intelligence material collected by all government agencies,” with authority to “conduct subversive operations abroad,” but “no police or law enforcement functions, either at home or abroad.”

The OSS was dismantled in September 1945 by President Truman, but the system that replaced it had many connections to personnel who were graduate members of the Yale senior societies. Wilmarth Lewis (Keys 1918) had served from 1941 as chief of the Central Information Division of the Research and Analysis branch of the OSS, to establish a central registry of intelligence data based on the filing system he had developed for cataloguing the papers of Horace Walpole. He was recommended for the job by Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish (Bones 1915), who had been working with Donovan.60 Robert Lovett (Bones 1917) chaired the government committee for President Truman tasked with advising the federal government on the postwar organization of American intelligence activities. The National Security Act of 1947 created the Central Intelligence Agency, and in 1951, Trubee Davison (Bones 1917) became its first director of personnel.

From Yale’s class of 1943 alone, at least forty-two men entered intelligence work, largely in the OSS, and many remained on after the war to form the core of the new CIA. Moreover, when in 1948 the National Security Council authorized a study on intelligence coordination, Norman Holmes Pearson, a Yale professor with considerable OSS experience, recommended that each university have on its staff informal talent spotters who would forward the names of likely agents to the CIA. Each university should designate a faculty member to act as advisor to students considering careers in intelligence, and the CIA would maintain up-to-date lists of students with unusual talents or skills that might someday be useful to the agency.61

While it has been maintained that Princeton is the Ivy League campus with the best claim to ties to the CIA, because of Princetonians Woodrow Wilson and the brothers John Foster and Allen Dulles, only the last of whom was an OSS/CIA officer, a Yale historian in 1984 declared that Yale had influenced the agency more than any other university.62 “The laying on of hands, quietly and effectively, in the college and in the classroom, at the master’s tea and in the seminar, over a cup at Mory’s and during a break in crew practice,” had become quite accepted by the 1950s as a way of service to the nation.

Bolstered by their prominence within the residential college system, the college masters were known as contact points, usually conduits rather than recruiters, but the colleges’ fellows and associate fellows, such as Davenport’s Dean Acheson and Archibald MacLeish, Keys and Bones respectively, were also in positions of high government service. Other faculty and administrators were involved, among them Professor Wallace Notestein, later patron of Manuscript, and the chief Yale recruiter for the CIA in its early years, the crew coach “Skip” Waltz, the most highly compensated crew coach in the country, being paid an equal annual salary by the CIA. It was rumored that the senior societies were recruiting grounds as well, because it was apparent, as the leading historian of the intertwinings of Yale and the clandestine services has tartly observed, that their members “deeply believed in the wisdom of their own choices (and perhaps at times in the wonder of it) and were convinced they served Yale in ways that the beneficiaries of their noblesse oblige might never fully understand.”

Charles Seymour (Bones 1910) had virtually validated such contacts while university president: his daughter had worked for the OSS in Switzerland and Germany, and he was on close terms with her boss, Allen Dulles, head of the CIA after 1953. Through his successor President Griswold, Seymour had Dulles meet in the Corporation Room at Woodbridge Hall with a large group of students interested in a career with the CIA. It must be remembered that this was an era of what has been called “sentimental imperialism,” when Americans generally, upper middle-class American men broadly, and the Yale community specifically, thought of themselves as having a mission to the world: while enjoying the blessings of liberty, they felt themselves able to reshape the world to their benefit and, not incidentally, to their country’s.63

At the highest international political level there were rapid and massive changes from the dynamic alliances of the Second World War into its successor the Cold War, and a response was required. It is hard, after the Cold War’s conclusion with the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1980s, to remember how frightening the world looked in the early 1950s: Pentagon planners had actually picked a day—July 1, 1952—for the Soviet invasion of Western Europe. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, entering the CIA was a respectable, even honorable, thing for a sensitive young liberal to do. During the Korean War, the CIA also offered the singular advantage of being one of the few government agencies where liberals and leftists could work without fear of the shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy.64

Among those recruited to the CIA in these years were Tracy Barnes, a cousin of John Hay Whitney and Keysman graduating in 1933 who had worked for Allen Dulles’s OSS team in Switzerland, joining the agency in 1950, leading the Guatemalan government’s overthrow in 1952, then serving as CIA station chief in Germany and ending his clandestine career in 1966, after being sidelined for five years following the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba in 1961. Another was a wartime (1943) graduate of Keys and promoter of world federalism, Cord Meyer Jr., joining in 1950, serving as second in charge of all espionage and clandestine operations, and ending as head of its International Organizations Division and London station chief. Also recruited by the agency were one prewar and two recent graduate members of Bones, known for very different traits in later decades: Washington lawyer William Bundy (1939), later to be the long-time editor of Foreign Affairs magazine; conservative journalist William F. Buckley (1950), posted to Mexico; and, with his fluency in Russian, liberal Yale University Chaplain William Sloane Coffin (entering Yale with advanced standing as a junior and graduating in 1949).65

On the other hand, the three Yalies most famously identified with the CIA were not members of any senior society while Yale undergraduates. These were Yale English Professor Norman Holmes Pearson (class of 1932), the leader of U.S. counterespionage efforts in Western Europe for the OSS and not an original CIA officer but a counselor at its birth; James Jesus Angleton (1941), recruited by Pearson and chief of the agency’s counterintelligence staff from 1954 to 1975, who was like so many others fooled by Cambridge spy Kim Philby; and Richard Bissell (1932, turning down Bones), who as the CIA’s deputy director/Plans was the father of the U-2 spy plane and the controller of the Bay of Pigs invasion, called by old CIA hands the second most powerful man in government.66 And whatever malign influence Yale secret society antecedents had on America’s spy culture, never was there anything like the scandal of the University of Cambridge spies coming out of that university’s elite society, the Apostles, where of the thirty-one members of elected between 1927 and 1939, fifteen were communists or otherwise Marxist, including Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.67

Nevertheless, the association between the CIA and the Yale secret societies has been burnished by writers of spy novels and makers of motion pictures almost since the agency’s birth. In Aaron Latham’s 1977 novel Orchids for Mother, the thinly veiled story of James Jesus Angleton employing in its title his CIA nickname, the protagonist says, “Langley’s New Haven all over again right down to Nathan Hale . . . Secret society’d be closer, like Skull and Bones.” “There are a lot of Bonesmen around, aren’t there?,” asks his young recruit from New Haven. Indeed, the master spy replies, “Oh, Langley’s a regular haunted house.”68

The master of the Cold War spy novel, John le Carré, had earlier added his imprimatur to the theme in his 1959 novel, The Russia House. “‘Yale has these secret societies, you see, Harry,’ Bob was explaining to me. ‘Why, the place is shot through with them. If you’ve heard of Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, you’ve still only heard the tip of the iceberg. And these societies, they emphasize the team. Harvard now—why, Harvard goes all the other way and puts its money on individual brilliance. So the Agency, when it’s fishing to recruit in those waters, has a way of picking its team players from Yale and its high flyers from Harvard. I won’t go so far as to say that every Harvard man is a prima donna or every Yale man gives blind obedience to the cause. But that’s the broad tradition.’”69

Still others writing spy novels have continued to emphasize the theme, for satire or celebration, even as the Cold War wound down. Charles McCarry, whose author’s biography notes that he was during the Cold War an intelligence officer operating under deep cover in Europe, Africa, and Asia, in his series of Paul Christopher novels about the CIA, writes of one admirable figure from the prior generation’s OSS, Christopher’s uncle Elliott Hubbard, whose wife ends overlong jovial male conversation at dinner parties by crying “Bones,” at which his male guests would get up and leave the room and “the others, repeating a mysterious ritual they did not understand, would follow”; and of a second, laughable one, Waddy Jessup, about to be captured in occupied Burma and fearing execution by the Japanese, who asks his batman to shout the same word as a diversion when he flees mounted on an elephant, leaving his companion behind.70

The ever-provocative William F. Buckley Jr., Bones 1950 and CIA 1951, gave the identification a new boost with his series of Blackford Oakes spy thrillers: in the first of the ten-novel series, Saving the Queen, set in 1952, the hero in an employment interview is told, by way of warning, that “a copy of all Ivy League 1951 yearbooks is in Soviet hands, and a record is being entered on names, faces, dates of birth . . . all of them.” Oakes not only shares with his creator these two career distinctions of membership in a senior society and in the CIA, but the twenty-six-year-old, newly fledged agent also manages in this first outing to bed the young British queen.71

The legend received its most sophisticated burnishing in 2006 with Robert De Niro’s production and direction of Eric Roth’s screenplay The Good Shepherd, called by the New York Post “the Godfather of spy films.” The story relates the transformation of the OSS into the CIA, told through the life from 1939 to 1961 of one Edward Wilson, portrayed by Matt Damon as an admixture of Angleton, with his code name “Mother,” and Bissell, running the Bay of Pigs invasion. The movie begins with Wilson’s being tapped for Bones by a senior named John Russell (echoing the Russell Trust Association) after coming off the stage in a Yale Dramat staging of Gilbert & Sullivan, and features—soundtracked with choruses of “The Whiffenpoof song”—not one but two scenes of initiation into the society, the first for Wilson (including, in the screenwriter’s telling, naked mud-wrestling and confession of a deep personal secret while lying naked in a sarcophagus), and the second years later for his son, who also joins the agency. There follow, over the years of the story, three reunion dinners at Deer Island, the society’s rustic island retreat in the St. Lawrence River.

De Niro himself plays General William Sullivan, the Bill Donovan figure, who at Deer Island recruits Wilson for the OSS for the coming war, and Michael Gambon portrays Edmund’s English literature professor, who has characteristics of the poetry-teaching spymaster Norman Holmes Pearson. Emphasizing the class and family ties, the narrative doubles back on itself, revealing by group photos in the imagined Bones hall that Wilson’s father had been a society member, later a United States senator. John Russell’s sister, played by Angelina Jolie, seduces Wilson on Deer Island’s moonlit banks, and later they marry. At this same reunion retreat he meets an older graduate, “President of the Bones class of 1912,” who becomes the first director of the CIA later in the film, only to be succeeded by John Russell.72 While it is not known what the CIA thought of the film, the Yale senior society and its university, given their centrality to the drama, should in fairness perhaps have received licensing fees.

In his memoirs, Richard Bissell probably got it right. “There has been speculation in recent years,” he wrote, “about the friendships established at schools like Groton [which he attended with Tracy Barnes] and Yale and their impact on organizations like the Central Intelligence Agency. I think there was an Ivy league establishment in the sense of a body of men who had similar backgrounds and knew one another well, and the existence of that group had a good deal of influence on public affairs. . . . If positions were available in various public institutions and members of the establishment were invited to fill them, I think it was more because these men knew one another than because of a deliberate policy of selecting only from a particular social group.”73 This nuanced view does not exclude Yale senior society members, but it does not see fit to mention it, either.


In the fifties, a curious and contradictory time, it has been written the students at Yale were “intense yet never individualistic, their skepticism deep but muffled, their pursuit of the traditional forms of success and reward ardent but without zest.” The patterns and attitudes established by the returning veterans in the postwar 1940s were continued, but not impeded or driven forward with fervor. Not until the end of the succeeding decade would the fifties’ disenchantment with established goals become active disengagement from them; when “the fifties’ desire for something more coherent and purposeful” metamorphosed into “the sixties’ battlecry of Illegal, Immoral, Unjust.” Fifteen years after Prosser Gifford, a Keysman of 1951 returning to Yale for graduate study after a Rhodes scholarship, wrote in the Yale Daily News seventy-fifth anniversary memorial volume in 1953 that the senior societies were “out-of-date” and “anti-democratic,” the slogans in replacement would be, for the societies, Yale social life, and many other institutions, “irrelevant” and “elitist.”74

The mild public teasing continued as the decade turned: the Yale Film Society ran an advertisement in the News on Tap Day in 1960, announcing “Tapping,” in order “to enhance its prestige as well as a feeling of superficial camaraderie among its members,” and the group was to be known as “Reel and Can.” The newspaper’s postelection editorial propounded the more balanced view of the previous several years, allowing that “the senior society experience can be a rewarding one for many undergraduates,” but deploring the societies’ “disintegrating force” on the college class, the pain felt by those not chosen, and the distractions provoked by the pre-tapping period, now beginning as early as February, ending in “lying, groveling, and overemphasis” on themselves in the two weeks preceding elections. Abolishing the societies, or doing away with one-day elections, were not solutions, so juniors needed to approach them even “without losing the sense of perspective,” since neither joining, nor choosing which society to join, were life-shaping events.75

For the seekers and the sought, that was not an obvious conclusion. A Yale University Press–published study in 1958 by the staff of the Division of Student Mental Hygiene at the university’s Department of University Health, titled Psychosocial Problems of College Men, concluded that “Election to a society is the highest honor a student can receive from his fellow undergraduates.”76

In the elections for 1960, Bones and Book and Snake both wanted 1961’s football captain, Paul Bursiek. The latter sent senior back Lee Mallory to the candidate’s college room; the Bones messenger was 233-pound Mike Pyle, who was to go from New Haven to professional football with the Chicago Bears. When the clock struck eight, they both banged furiously on the door, elbowing each other for position. When it opened, Pyle plowed through and into Mallory, sending him hurtling against a wall. When Bursiek accepted the Book and Snake offer, Pyle “tore out of the room in a rage and trumpeted down the stairs like a mad elephant.”77 Moving Tap Day indoors did not still the passions which the event aroused.

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