“By keeping in step with the male,

We proceed at the pace of a snail,”

Said the Dean of Admissions,

“Let’s shift our positions

And get some fast women at Yale.”

—President A. Whitney Griswold, 19561

The tumultuous “Sixties” have long been distinguished by historians from the full decade of the 1960s, which at the start largely resembled the late 1950s. A precise dividing line is elusive, but the change came somewhere between the assassination of President Kennedy—on the Friday before the Yale-Harvard football game was to occur in New Haven in November 1963—and the shift thereafter from relatively peaceful civil rights demonstrations to Black Power at home, accompanied abroad by the traumatic escalation of the Vietnam War, sweeping collegians into the military draft calls. The arc is exemplified by the successive presentations of the junior prizewinner of the Ten Eyck speaking contest in spring 1966, about his marching at Selma the year before, who then won the DeForest Prize as a senior in 1967 with a speech calling for a negotiated end to the Vietnam War.

Then came the expansion of identity politics: African Americans and women in particular, but also Latinos, Asian Americans, and even homosexuals, constituting social demographics which had once avoided attention but now began to explore and celebrate their distinctiveness and to demand the respect which was due. References to “the Sixties,” as the era receded, assumed less the character of a particular set of years than a set of connotations associated with the latter part of the decade into the early 1970s, carrying through the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974—an era marked by social, cultural, and political excesses2 which were to engulf and transform the senior societies, and nearly or completely to extinguish a few.

Yale College, even as the decade began, was still demographically largely uniform: 1,033 entered in 1956 with the class of 1960, of whom 940 were to graduate. They were regionally less diverse than succeeding classes, with over four-fifths coming from east of the Mississippi, and only 1.5 percent from abroad. Diversity, for the admissions office then, was a matter of geography and socioeconomic background. The concept did not really embrace today’s categories of religion, social class (among that year’s intake were a Pillsbury, a Heinz, a du Pont, and the wonderfully named Merrill Lynch Magowan), ethnicity (no native-born Latinos, and only a handful with Asian ancestry), sexual orientation (no gays who were out of the closet), or—with women not yet admitted to Yale College—gender. In 1960, Yale still led all colleges in the number of its undergraduates whose families were listed in the Social Register: Harvard, Yale, and Princeton together accounted for 45 percent, with Yale’s the largest share at 21 percent.

As diversity categories, religious and racial backgrounds were indeed to be avoided, since to do otherwise would constitute illegal discrimination. Roughly 10 percent of the freshmen were Roman Catholic, with about the same number of Jews, when, in the 1960 federal census, Catholics comprised 23 percent of the population, and Jews only 3 percent. Many of those arrived in New Haven as legacies from elite schools, such as Yale’s future president Angelo Bartlett Giamatti, named after both his paternal grandfather, Angelo, who came through Ellis Island in 1900, and his mother’s father, Bartlett, who went from Andover to Harvard in the same year. Of the five blacks in the class, only three of whom graduated in 1960, none were to be elected to a fraternity or an aboveground senior society.3

The blackballing of the African American football player Raleigh Davenport by a southern member of the DKE fraternity in accordance with its national rules was, for the time, unsurprising evidence of the college’s, not to mention the country’s, lingering prejudices in 1959. Nevertheless, as vice chairman of the Undergraduate Board of Deacons, and chosen for the honorary society Torch (founded in 1916 to recognize ten juniors for merit and achievement, irrespective of society or fraternity affiliation), Davenport was thereafter elected to the revived underground senior society Spade and Grave, showing that those prejudices were receding.4

Still, in a college class ten times the size of the class in which the first senior society was founded in 1832, both groups comprised largely of America’s elites, there were social strains in the overclass which were more subtle, the 1960 class’s historian has written, “between those on their way up and those on their way down; between those with more money than privileged pasts, and vice versa; between those whose families were prominent New Yorkers, and those equally prominent but in parts of the hinterland, like Minneapolis, Savannah, or Chicago’s North Shore.” Of the Jewish students, fully a third were legacies, with most coming from prep schools, just over a quarter from private day schools, and slightly under a quarter from public high schools, including eleven from New Haven and five from New York City, but not a single Jew from a high school in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Baltimore.

Although there were class officers and committees, Yale had no significant student government, as the Senior Advisory Board was appointed by the administration. Prestige continued to flow to extracurricular activities, particularly varsity athletics, singing groups, fraternities, and aboveground senior societies. Fraternities had the allegiance of relatively few, compared to America’s state universities, or to Princeton and its eating clubs: Yale’s nine non-residential frats were joined by well under half the class. Of those brothers, four-fifths came from private schools, and less than one-fifth received scholarship aid from Yale. Two fraternities were closing down as the class of 1960 graduated, the latest victims, a quarter century on, of the success of the residential college system, and there was a fierce debate about whether they provided anything to the collegians that was not available elsewhere.5

The senior societies, on the other hand, while in the abovegrounds including only about 10 percent of the graduating class, continued to thrive with a notoriety and power far outweighing their numbers. The pronouncement of The Pyschosocial Position of the College Man that the societies were the summum bonum of the undergraduate experience probably overemphasized their importance in such a large class and overlooked substantial differences among the societies. Skull and Bones and Book and Snake sought leaders in athletics, campus publications, and other traditional activities, while Elihu and Manuscript elected men with undergraduate fame in the arts, religion, and student politics. As in the late 1950s, however, the junior-officered Yale Daily News now annually pronounced senior societies to be not especially objectionable, or even beneficial. Yale administrators, many of them society graduate members, criticized fraternities but—other than Chaplain Coffin—considered the societies almost beyond reproach, both because of their importance to generally recognized campus leaders, and because their practices remained generally private, unlike the fraternity festivities on most weekends.6


The untimely death of Whitney Griswold from cancer in 1963 meant a change of leadership for the university. Kingman Brewster, the Griswold administration’s provost since July 1961, was the only administration officer who was both a close personal friend and had real administrative power and responsibility. Yale Corporation members Wilmarth Lewis and Edwin Blair, having sponsored Griswold’s election and backed him in the 1950s, when he was a reformer battling traditionalism, had fallen out with their protégé when he moved toward modernization after 1960. They now did their best to prevent Griswold’s own protégé Brewster from becoming the new president of Yale for the same reason, although the provost was the leading candidate, with tremendous support from the faculty, the youngest members of the Yale Corporation, and the undergraduates.

Blair’s hesitations seem to have centered on Brewster’s rejection of Blair’s society Bones and other senior societies as an undergraduate (another Corporation member voting on his election, Harold “Doc” Howe II, had sought to tap him twenty-three years before, in 1940), and a sense that Brewster would somehow further change the Yale that Blair of the class of 1924 knew and loved. Lewis, with his strong bias toward the humanities and Yale’s libraries, museums, and galleries, overtly complained that Brewster (a legal scholar) was not a humanist and lacked a PhD. His main grievance, however, was the provost’s failure to promote S. Dillon Ripley, the head of the Peabody Museum—and a Keys alumnus, like Lewis—to a full professorship, because of Lewis’s proprietary interest in the Peabody and “because his affection for other Keys men [was] always bright.” In the end, the first vote of the Corporation on the final candidates on October 11, 1963, was in favor of Brewster 13–2, with Blair and Lewis opposed, and then the two senior fellows changed their votes to effect a unanimous election.7

Brewster, who famously said off the record that he did not become president of Yale, “to preside over a prep school on Long Island Sound,” promptly recruited or promoted some young dynamos—all, perhaps to Blair’s relief, with traditional senior society backgrounds from recent classes. These included, to rationalize and improve both Yale’s operations and its student body quality: from management consultant Arthur P. Little, the 28-year-old Howard Phelan (Bones 1958) as director of management operations and university development; from Inland Steel; Phelan’s football teammate and captain, the 29-year-old John “Jack” Embersits (also Bones), as the university’s business manager; the 30-year-old Henry “Sam” Chauncey (Wolf’s Head 1957, in the delegation which threatened to quit over the blocked election of a Jewish candidate), as Brewster’s personal assistant; and most significantly, two years into the new administration, Chauncey’s classmate and public school graduate R. Inslee “Inky” Clark (Bones 1957), raised from dean of Trumbull College to director of admissions, who in the words of his conservative critic and elder fellow Bonesman Bill Buckley took out his “democratic leveling guns” to decimate alumni sons and prep school graduates.8

Clark’s predecessor Arthur Howe, who had become dean of admissions under Griswold in 1954, had already begun Yale’s move from a class of “well-rounded men” to a “well-rounded class.” Yale was receiving four times as many applications as in the 1950s as it had in the 1930s, when it rejected approximately one-fifth of its candidates. Now it was turning down three-fifths and expanding the percentage of those at the top of the academic ability scale. Still, selectivity was based not on academic meritocracy, but on demonstrated leadership: “Far and away the most important factor in any boy’s chances of admission is what we considered his personal promise,” Howe proclaimed, as selecting for characteristics of leadership potential was widely understood to be Yale’s special mission. Howe also recognized that Yale needed to admit approximately 60 percent of its freshmen from the richest 3 to 5 percent of families so that they could fully pay tuition, room and board fees, and personal expenses, which would allow the university to offer some financial aid to the other 40 percent, in particular to middle-class applicants.

While his suggestion in 1956 that Yale admit women to the college was not well received, Howe did recruit to his staff the liberally minded Clark, the public school–educated son whose father had not attended college, and began to develop liaisons with alumni recruiting groups and to broaden recruitment in the public secondary schools, which in the early fifties Griswold, a prep school product, had attacked as the “rotten pilings” of the American educational system, where liberal education in his view was subordinated to vocational education and life-adjustment courses.9

Griswold did not condone the kind of covert discrimination which had been practiced against Jews and other minorities at Yale since the 1920s, but neither was he interested in taking the initiative to root out continuing injustices, holding preferences and understandings, so ingrained as to be unconscious, that characterized most of the well-intentioned members of the American upper class before the sea change in sensitivities of the later 1960s. During Griswold’s first five years in office, the Bronx High School of Science sent only seven graduates to the freshman classes of 1954 to 1958, while the Phillips Andover Academy, although nowhere near as academically selective, sent some 275. The largest feeder schools of that era (Andover, Exeter, Lawrenceville, Hotchkiss, and St. Paul’s) each accounted for only one of the class of 1957’s sixty-four members of Phi Beta Kappa, and other traditional feeder schools such as Groton, Hill, Kent, St. Mark’s, St. George’s, and Taft contributed none.10

When the student body was characterized as “diverse” early in this era, the notion was primarily one of geography. The proportion of students from New England and New York had decreased from 60 percent in Kingman Brewster’s class of 1941, to 50 percent in the class of 1954, to 35 percent in the class of 1967, while the percentage of students from west of the Mississippi more than tripled over the same period—the vast majority of them, of course, being the products of public high schools. And the applicants from these schools, without the old admissions advantages of legacy histories or of seasoned private-school counselors, were measured by what has been characterized as a “subjective” version of meritocracy which “attempts to judge fairly between candidates, but based on personal judgments of quality, character and ability rather than numerical measures alone [SAT scores and class marks].” Brewster told an alumni convocation in 1966 that Yale was “making a conscious effort to be sure of the fact that we are a national institution whose ambition is nothing less than to try to frame a leadership for the nation in the years ahead.”11 If the senior societies had traditionally offered elections as a reward for proven campus leadership, they were now choosing from twelve hundred men all initially admitted to Yale as potential leaders of one sort or another.

Since many of the public high schoolers at Yale, still less than half of the incoming classes, were what 1957’s Calvin Trillin called “high school heroes of one sort or another,” representing more national versions of the old Yale image of organizational and athletic success, their need to meet more stringent academic and personal standards for admission also resulted in their achieving disproportionate distinction in every area of college life during the later 1950s, a trend which accelerated in the 1960s.12

A comparison of the freshmen in the Yale classes of 1952 and 1970, matriculating in 1948 (1,178 entering) with 1966 (a roughly similar 1,021), demonstrates the dramatic difference. Although school presidents or student council heads were only 5 percent of those entering Yale in 1948, in 1966 they were 22 percent of the class. So too with athletes and editors: varsity letter holders constituted 21 percent of the class in 1948, and 39 percent in 1966 (with varsity captains 3 percent in 1948, and 10 percent in 1966). Editors of school yearbooks or newspapers comprised 3 percent of freshmen in 1948, while in 1966 they were 39 percent.13

Put another way, the rate of improvement in matriculating leaders for the 1966 cohort over 1948 was an enlargement of approximately 400 percent in class presidents or leaders, a 900 percent jump in student editors, a 200 percent leap in varsity letters, and a 300 percent growth in the number of sports captains, so the distance between the two classes was greatest for editors and least for varsity letters. In comparison to Griswold and Howe, there occurred under Brewster and Clark spectacular progress in Yale’s ability to recognize and reward leadership promise. Average combined SAT scores did go up significantly during those 18 years from approximately 1,200 in 1948 to roughly 1,400 in 1966, but the relative rate of academic improvement was moderate in comparison with the college’s new record in matriculating leaders.14

This shift in the examplars of campus leadership was at first distinctly not reflected in the composition of the senior societies, purportedly comprised of those (re-proven) leaders. In 1953 before Tap Day of that year, a Yale Daily News analysis reported that approximately 75 percent of all society members for the previous two years (1951 and 1952) came from prep schools, of whom 15 percent came from Andover and 8 percent from Hotchkiss. For the class of 1956, the prep school component had dropped to 67 percent, a decline that would have been more dramatic had not the new aboveground Manuscript tapped twelve preppies in its first public election year, but the percentage was still at 70 percent for the class of 1957.15

The societies were thus seriously lagging in reflecting the changing composition of Yale College. The class of 1955, entering in 1951, had 413 students or 44 percent from public schools, and 653 or 56 percent from private schools. The number of high schoolers had increased at least 10 percent in each decade (1935, 21 percent; 1945, 30 percent; 1955, 44 percent, then creeping up by about one percent per annum during the Howe years of directing freshman admissions from 1954 to 1964). Yet the mix of private and public high school graduates in the abovegrounds at the middle and end of the fifties was still closer to the mix in the Yale class of 1935 than to anything else. Moreover, Yale also been lapped by its rivals in the Big Three in regard to admitting boys from public schools: not until the class of 1967, matriculating in 1963, was a Yale College class to contain more high school graduates than those from prep and day schools, a level of parity reached by Harvard in the 1940s and even by Princeton as early as 1955.16

Ten years after the 70 percent level of private school students’ membership record in the abovegrounds of the class of 1957, the proportions had more than reversed, as the striving products of the public high schools succeeded markedly in undergraduate competition. In the graduating class of 1967, among the last to be admitted under the Howe admissions policies, Bones and Keys each contained a dozen American-born seniors, and three members born abroad (one, the Jewish captain of the Rugby Club, later chosen to be a South African Rhodes scholar). Fully three-quarters of the domestic dozen in each society were graduates of public high schools.

Of course, traditions of legacies, both for Yale and its senior societies, still held considerable sway: in college admissions, by written policy, “the father’s whole record of service to both Yale and to American society” counted. Under this policy, the grandson and son of prominent Yale graduates of the classes of 1917 and 1948, respectively, was admitted in 1964, although scholastically he was halfway down his Andover class, when Yale took in 47 percent of legacy applicants, against only 27 percent for nonlegacy applicants. In his junior year George W. Bush, by then the president of both the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and the college’s Inter-Fraternity Council, was tapped for the Bones delegation of 1968, although not, as legend has it, by his father returned to campus.17

More representative of the future was Bush’s own delegation’s election, from the class of 1969, of Stephen Schwarzman, a Jewish graduate of the Abingdon, Pennsylvania, high school, the manager of the Yale College student agencies (laundry, etc.), and founder and chair of the Ballet Society of Davenport College, who as CEO of the Blackstone Group was in 2015 to give Yale its second largest gift ever, $150 million for the transformation of the former freshman Commons into the Schwarzman Cultural Center.

The Clark admissions wind swept remarkable changes into the Yale student body. The new dean of admissions’ first class, the class of 1970, arriving on campus in the fall of 1966, was comprised of 58 percent public high school students, a jump from 52 percent the prior year, drawing on more such schools (478), and even more private schools (196), representing an increase in the number of students from Catholic and Jewish parochial schools. The class of 1970 entered with the highest Scholastic Aptitude Test scores in Yale’s history, with half the incoming freshman scoring in the top one percent nationally, marks higher even than those of Harvard’s incoming class, also a first for New Haven vs. Cambridge. There were more minorities than ever before of every kind: Jews, when by 1967 the number of Jewish freshmen exceeded 20 percent, and has averaged 25 percent in the last several decades; Catholics, on which it was said Yale had once maintained a 13 percent admissions ceiling; Italian Americans; and African Americans, for whose review Clark had purposely hired a black man for the admissions committee.

With an influx of scientists, the class also contained, due to Brewster’s implemented preferences, an unprecedented number of artists, musicians, and actors. The most meritocratic aspect of the new admissions policies were the minimal consideration given to the traditional privileges of money, with a new “needs blind” admissions policy, removing financial need information from the applicants’ packets in May 1967; or to family legacy, declining below Harvard’s and Princeton’s intake rate to about 14 percent from 1967 to 1972, for the classes of 1971 to 1976; or to Yale relationships with traditional “feeder” schools—the reduced Yale admission rate at St. Paul’s School was covered in the New York Times in 1967.18

Four years into President Brewster’s term, in a major statement on Yale’s admissions policy published in the university’s alumni magazine, he clearly enunciated his belief that selective universities like his own incurred a responsibility to maintain the American dream of equal opportunity for all. “There are relatively few institutions whose education does conspicuously offer a special career advantage, and they must be convincingly open to free, competitive admission based on merit. . . . If the Yale privilege, and the springboard to a headstart which it offers, were to be rationed by inheritance,” Brewster warned, “if it were to be auctioned in return for financial support, if it were to be conditioned by racial or social or economic preference, we would by that measure be dealing a very serious blow to the ‘opportunity sense’ that is the greatest heritage and the greatest promise of this country.”19

Even before this statement, the response of many alumni to its sentiments was communicated directly to Clark, in front of Brewster, through the university’s governing body. In the first year of his admissions tenure, Clark was summoned to report on his changes in policy directly to the Yale Corporation, whose fourteen members were solidly white, male, and Protestant, with no Jews, no Catholics, and only two public high school graduates. One trustee who had grimaced during the presentation finally burst out: “Let me get down to basics: You’re admitting an entirely different class than we’re used to. You’re admitting them for a different purpose than training leaders.”

Clark responded mildly that in a changing nation, leaders might well come from nontraditional cohorts, including public high school graduates, Jews, blacks and other minorities, and even women. Shot back his interlocutor, “You’re talking about Jews and public school graduates as leaders. Look around you at this table. These are America’s leaders. There are no Jews here. There are no public school graduates here.” The speaker’s minor mistake in his last remark does not lessen his larger point, that those in power at this table—including New York City mayor John Lindsay and Pennsylvania governor William Scranton, both liberal Republicans and Episcopalian boarding school graduates, either of whom might possibly be the next president of the United States—had always recruited replacements in their own racial, religious, and economic images. Their collective unwillingness to trust others unlike them with that power finally reflected a desire to exclude.20

Nevertheless, under Brewster’s leadership, Yale was doing exactly what sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, the popularizer of the term WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), had envisioned in his 1964 classic, The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Class in America: “In a free society, while the establishment will always be dominated by upper-class members, it also must be constantly rejuvenated by new members of the elite who are in the process of acquiring upper-class status.” The forceful and decided adjustment of the guidelines for acceptance represented “a systematic policy of aristocratic assimilation, as caste on the campus has steadily retreated before the modern admissions policies which stress individual accomplishment rather than family background.”21


An editorial so titled appeared in the Yale Daily News for April 8, 1959, triggered by an article published by Raleigh Davenport in the campus publication Criterion. In “Segregation, North and South,” Davenport, whose rejection by DKE was placed at the door of the national fraternities’ “anti-Negro practices,” wrote that “Finding legally sanctioned discrimination in fraternities is disillusioning to a Negro at Yale.” Bringing the point home to his classmates, he noted that “It is difficult for the Negro to sincerely internalize the spirit of the Yale ‘blue’ when he is cheered on the basketball court or in the Yale Bowl and rejected as a possible member in fraternity houses.” Alluding to current events at Little Rock, the News editorialist warned his readers that they “do not need to march in Washington to be aware of the Negro problem in voting booths and schools. It is right here on York Street.”22

Minority recruitment of blacks began under President Griswold, largely because of the efforts of dean of admissions Arthur Howe, whose family line included abolitionists, one of whom helped to found what became Hampton University. As Griswold’s provost, Brewster attended President Kennedy’s meeting in Washington with leaders of elite universities, urging them to recruit minorities, and returned to establish a program that would step up that recruitment at Yale. This began with a Carnegie Foundation grant for a Yale summer high school, intended to prepare promising black high schoolers for possible admission to Yale or other elite colleges. At Howe’s advent in 1954, there were one or two blacks per class, and he used his connections with black schools and colleges to recruit, the numbers creeping up slowly.

In 1963, the newly installed President Brewster made “Inky” Clark the new dean of admissions, and by 1969, Yale had managed to enroll fully twenty-six black undergraduates. By 1975, 86 freshman blacks came to New Haven, and the average between 1975 and 1997 was ninety-one per year, or approximately 7 percent of each undergraduate class. Brewster, whose university was one of the first to award an honorary degree to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, to the dismay of older alumni, was known to say “Yale wants to . . . turn out the black leaders of the future. The Martin Luther Kings.” However improbable that tomorrow’s Kings would find Yale’s gothic colleges necessarily entrancing, the college can boast of Dallas Cowboys football great Calvin Hill (class of 1970), former Baltimore mayor and thereafter Hampton University president Kurt Schmoke (1971), and Harvard’s Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1973) as alumni of whom any institution would be proud.23

Only four blacks had graduated from an American college by 1830.24 African Americans who attended and graduated from Yale College from the first, in 1857, until the 1950 graduating class of Levi Jackson, which included three blacks, were a rare and privileged group, overwhelmingly from the upper class of their generally disadvantaged, slave-descended stratum. They were usually in at least the third generation of literacy, the sons of ministers, teachers, and engineers, with some 30 percent having already graduated from other, mostly black, colleges. They often became professionals, doctors or teachers or lawyers.

Only thirty-one African Americans graduated from Yale through 1924, nine coming from New Haven high schools,25 demonstrating the truth of W.E.B. Dubois’s observation in 1910 in “The College-Bred Negro” that “Yale has never tried to attract Negroes, and, on the other hand, has never felt justified in refusing admittance to those who came qualified to enter.” Admissions dean Corwin, who shared the patent antisemitism common to this era, stated flatly that “there has never been any negro question here, nor has the necessity been felt for adopting a policy of determining our acceptance of negroes.”26 Most of these pre–World War II classes contained only one African American—although there were three in 1904, two in 1905 and again in 1931, and four in 1906 and once more among the veterans of 1947—so their critical mass never exceeded 1.3 percent of a class.

The black graduates before 1924 did not isolate themselves from their white classmates, and even those who participated in all-black social groups were active in campuswide organizations: three had white roommates, two were active members of Linonia, one won the Ten Eyck prize, one was the treasurer of the Freshman Union, and two contributed to the Yale Courant and the Lit.27 Still, as William Pickens of 1904, junior class winner of the Ten Eyck prize, was to warn his successors, “Not a single presumption will lie in his favor, neither as to scholarship, nor as to character.”28Entering Yale as a junior after graduating from Talledega College, which had Yale-educated professors, and eligible by his marks for election to Phi Beta Kappa, Pickens was almost blocked there by a proposed membership rule change requiring four years of attendance in New Haven.29

By virtue of their customary route of admission, then, African Americans would not have been either graduates of New England preparatory schools, which were the primary source of the Yale student body, or thereafter, entering as juniors, members of any underclass fraternities, which in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries paved the way to senior society elections at the close of those blacks’ year of entry. When this social disability is added to the statistical difficulty of their infinitesimal numbers—if being tapped had been a lottery rather than a social choice, Pickens and every white classmate in a class of over three hundred had only a one in six chance of random selection to the forty-five senior society places—the absence of any African Americans in senior societies until 1949 is largely if not completely explained, as the classes grew in that year to 1,178, constituting (with only ninety elected) a one in thirteen chance for each man randomly selected. From 1924 to 1966, seventy-seven black students graduated from Yale College, their numbers never totaling more than 7/10ths of one percent of the total number of Yale graduates in their respective years. The great majority of this group graduated after World War II, with only seven blacks receiving Yale degrees from 1924 up to the signing of the armistice.30

In 1945, the Yale College students voted overwhelmingly in favor—87 percent for, 5 percent against, 8 percent with no opinion—of allocation of Yale Budget Drive charitable funds to finance university scholarships specifically for African Americans, at a time when all other Yale College scholarships were granted without regard to race or creed. The university officially announced in 1948 that “Negroes are admitted on academic merit and entitled to all benefits of the university, whether this includes scholarships, other financial aid, or participation in athletics and extra-curricular activities.”31 But in an era of open admissions, the extreme paucity of black undergraduates was because of a shortage of applicants, and as academic standards rose, the lack was explained by a shortage of qualified applicants. Not until the Griswold/Brewster/Howe efforts, made manifest through Inky Clark’s five-year admissions office tenure, did the number of blacks admitted begin to increase significantly: tripling from the 0.44 percent average achieved in 1957–1963 to 1.3 percent in 1967, then 2.4 percent in 1969, 4 percent in 1972, and 6 percent in 1973. Over three hundred black men and forty-five black women graduated from Yale College from 1966 to 1974.32

Lacking any commitment to racial diversity, Yale until the Brewster era had also lacked the commitment required to identify, recruit, admit, support, and graduate large numbers of blacks. Furthermore, the university’s image as a white, wealthy, elitist, and stuffily traditional school had tended to discourage many blacks from applying to a college where they would be outnumbered 199 to one, and where there was no black professor who was permanent faculty until 1966.33 Those African Americans that did apply and attend in the 1950s and early ’60s were largely from prep schools such as Exeter, Andover, Northfield–Mt. Herman, Hotchkiss, New York’s Horace Mann, and New Haven’s Hopkins, schools which were traditionally Yale “feeders” with known and reliably consistent grading systems. Even then, these men felt marginalized, as evidenced by Raleigh Davenport, due to the conscious and unconscious attitudes of Yale’s undergraduates, faculty, and administration.34

With the growth of campus interest in New Haven in civil rights activities in the South, in the early 1960s undergraduate attitudes began to change. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at Woolsey Hall in 1959 at the invitation of David Ball (to be tapped for Bones that spring), and again at Battell Chapel in 1962. Yale chaplain Coffin, to the discomfiture of many alumni, participated in the Freedom Rides. Sixty-seven Elis abandoned classes in October 1963 to work for the Mississippi Freedom Ballot, including News chairman and future United States senator and vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman ’64, taking with him two fellow members of Elihu. The trio was literally chased out of the Mississippi Delta, leaving the day after another Yale student had been shot and wounded in Jackson. (Notably, none of Yale’s black undergraduates went south to work in Mississippi, despite pleas from their white liberal classmates.)35

Their alma mater’s approval of such pioneering civil rights efforts manifested itself in the granting of an honorary degree to Dr. King by Yale at the graduation of the class of 1964. African American applications to Yale had risen from about thirty in 1960 (ten were admitted) to 755 a decade later, an increase achieved without significant pressure from the federal government, the courts, or the local or national black populations. An emerging black consciousness, related to their increasing numbers, led to the founding of an informal group for African American students in the fall of 1964, which by 1965 was calling itself the Yale Discussion Group on Negro Affairs.36

A significant partner in the Brewster administration’s educational effort, and like the more controversial Coffin an old Bonesman, was McGeorge Bundy, by then president of the Ford Foundation, described the tides of change thusly: “Black demand, white awareness, riots in the cities, and the death of Martin Luther King” were all contributing factors, but “the deeper and more durable cause was the growing conviction that there was a fundamental contradiction between an asserted opposition to racism and the maintenance, by whatever process of selection, of essentially all-white colleges and professional schools.” In this reading, the fundamental desegregation of Yale occurred mainly because the Brewster administration believed Yale had not convincingly demonstrated its commitment to the principle of equal opportunity, and moved to remedy this failing.37

Yale’s traditional self-image as a “democratic” community revolved around the idea of equal opportunity, although the college had been quite comfortable with elites, selective societies, and unequal outcomes. A new conception of Yale’s obligations to leadership had emerged after the Second World War, the idea that Yale had an obligation to provide direct institutional leadership for society’s betterment. In this effort President Brewster had the university community wind at his back (excluding a significant portion of the alumni), with a less parochial faculty and a student body increasingly unwilling to stand aside from national social issues. In the words of Brewster’s biographer: “As the ability to play a leadership role in America had been extended to nonclericals, non-Anglo-Saxons, non-Protestants, non-Easterners, and the nonwealthy, and as that extension had been embodied in Yale’s widening notion of diversity, so Yale should now increase its notion of diversity to include the nonwhite. If Yale failed to keep pace with society by failing to include a more representative cull of society’s future leaders, Yale’s importance to society would correspondingly decline.”38 This was a logic the senior societies also saw and followed.

For their 1961 delegation, with only four blacks in the class of 1,060 (comprising roughly one-third of one percent), Elihu elected the African American Joseph Chester Glass III to a system which, with ninety members in the six abovegrounds, included a bit less than 10 percent of that class. In the class of 1965, Skull and Bones elected Orde Coombs, from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, who served as the secretary of Dwight Hall and the only black member of the Senior Advisory Board. Coombes’s classmate Barrington Parker Jr., by then a black federal circuit court judge, said to a national magazine, “Skull and Bones wanted to tap campus leaders, and Orde was a big man on campus.”39

The following year, both Berzelius and St. Elmo’s elected African Americans, and there were two American blacks and one Nigerian elected for 1967 to Scroll and Key, Elihu, and Skull and Bones respectively, from a class containing twelve American blacks (1.16 percent) and six from Africa. Bones’ Nigerian member that year, Bernard Ikechukwu Afoeju, was the president of the Union of African Students in New Haven. Keys’ choice was Allard Allston Jr., a South Carolina high school graduate serving successively as vice president, secretary, and moderator of the Negro Affairs organization, soon renamed the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY), an eighty-member group sponsoring its first issue-oriented conference that spring and claiming approximately 90 percent of all Yale black students. Notably, one of his new clubmates in Keys was Whit Griswold Jr., Hotchkiss and St. Mark’s, and son of the late Yale president.

In the class of 1968, containing fourteen American blacks and four Africans, Keys elected one from each demographic, and Elihu, Manuscript, and St. Elmo’s each chose one African American, while Bones elected to George W. Bush’s delegation a West Indian soccer star, Roy Austin, later that president’s ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. For the 1969 class, with twenty-three American blacks (2.18 percent of the class), five were tapped, for Bones, Elihu (two), and St. Elmo’s (two). And for 1970—a class with thirty-five African Americans, comprising 3.43 percent of their full number of 1,021 men and (now) women, with another eight black classmates from abroad—Bones tapped a Ghanaian, Wolf’s Head an American and a Nigerian, Keys two American blacks, Elihu two, St. Elmo’s two (in a delegation including Prescott Bush III), and Berzelius and Book and Snake one each. With only 105 seniors in the seven recognized (“aboveground”) societies, these eleven blacks constituted 10.5 percent of their aggregate delegations, which was a remarkable two and one-half times their demographic percentage (4.2 percent) in the class of 1,021.40

Given the election of Raleigh Davenport to the underground Spade and Grave in 1960, followed by the election there of a Jamaican for 1966 and an American black for the 1969 delegation, a few more black collegians were almost certainly elected to the other undergrounds in these same years, making the true percentage of African American elections to senior societies even higher. (Indeed, it was a black undergraduate, Roderick Mobley of the class of 1999, who was to refound Spade and Grave in the twenty-first century after its demise and second disappearance in the turmoil of 1970.)41 It is no small irony that, in the classification of Yale undergraduates by ethnic and religious types and American regions of origin, such relative demographic “overrepresentation” in the senior societies had not been evidenced since the 1830s and 1840s, in the recruitment by Bones and Keys of Southerners from slave-owning families for their debating skills and dash.


Of course, the senior societies of the nineteen-sixties (or Wolf’s Head in 1957 seeking to elect Larry Bensky) were not insisting on taking Jews or blacks into their ranks; rather, they were insisting on their rights, indeed their sense of human dignity, to take in their old friends from school or new friends on campus who happened to be black or Jewish in origin.

Yet within a Yale College dramatically diversified by the admission of non-WASPS and non-preppies, the senior societies themselves no longer loomed so large in the undergraduate consciousness. As Bart Giamatti observed of this era in his history of Scroll and Key, “What a freshman in 1914 had heard of societies from his preparatory school masters, and a freshman in 1944 might hear from one of his numerous classmates whose relatives had attended Yale, a freshman in 1974, more likely than not from a public high school, with no previous Yale ties, would not hear at all. That ingrained consciousness of societies, that shared sense of what they meant, disrupted in the forties, seemingly reasserted in the fifties, disappeared like smoke in the late sixties. Indeed, the last time all the senior societies printed the results of their tap of new members in the Yale Daily News was April 28, 1967. All senior societies had to adapt to the new circumstances more extensively, and faster . . . than at any time in their history.”42

Adaptation began by making sure the juniors knew exactly what the procedures for election were, and when they would begin and conclude. Skull and Bones published a major announcement in the News in April 1963, confirming the society’s belief “that the ten-day period prior to Tap Day ought to be used to inform the junior without pressure of the alternatives available to him,” and “negotiations between its members and juniors concerning elections are incompatible” with the society’s here-pronounced objectives of non-interference with the academic life of the community and unpressured junior decision-making. Thus, prior to the second of May’s Tap Day, “an alumnus of Skull and Bones will notify some, but not all, of the prospective members that an election would be offered,” but no commitment was required; additionally, some offers “will be made on Tap Day with no prior notification” (thus saving face for both sides if candidates rebuffed the society and the seniors had to go further down their list of prospects). “At no time,” the statement concluded, “will an undergraduate or graduate member of Skull and Bones discuss elections with a junior.”43To even the scales, in a system of electing in the rooms, when other societies often required pre-tap pledges, mighty Bones no longer wished to lose men who in prior decades were kept in complete ignorance of their chances.

All societies, according to the News report of the 1963 Tap Day, were “supposedly pretapping,” and the entire ceremony (“dull, dull, dull”) was finished in twelve minutes. The address 493 College Street was “election central,” where representatives of the now eight abovegrounds kept track of commitments made by their preferred juniors as they were registered on six blackboards (Scroll and Key sharing with Manuscript, and Elihu with Berzelius). The Yale Daily News reporter snarked: “‘It’s sort of what they have instead of God,’ said Hemingway.”44

With their tongues only partly in their cheeks, the authors of a profile of the senior society system published in a class book of this decade wrote that “if the society had had a good year, this is what the ‘ideal’ group would consist of: a football captain; a Chairman of the Yale Daily News; a conspicuous radical; a Whiffenpoof; a swimming captain; a notorious drunk with a 94 average; a film-maker; a political columnist; a Chairman of the Lit.; a foreigner; a ladies’ man with two motorcycles; an ex-service man; a negro, if there are enough to go around; [and] a guy nobody else in the group had ever heard of, ever.”45

No one senior society would be likely to have exactly such a complexion of membership, but the description is evocative of the diversity that was now actively sought by most if not all societies. There had been a marked shift from a similarly specific description recorded in W. E. Decrow’s Yale and “The City of Elms, . . .” regarding the membership of Skull and Bones in 1882, eighty-six years before: “As a rule, of the fifteen members chosen, two are editors of the Yale Literary Magazine, one or two are chosen from each of the three great athletic interests—base-ball, football, and boating—one from the staff of each of the Yale newspapers, one or more for high scholarship, and so on, the intention being, apparently, to secure representative men from all the leading student interests in class.”46

Unsought was continued harassment. Three seniors the next year, members of two underground societies, broke into five of the abovegrounds, taking insignia, memorabilia, and tap information; they were caught by three members of Bones who surprised them in that society’s tomb. The Yale administration, noting that the society halls were private property and thus not within the province of the campus police, left the remedy to the respective invaded societies, which apparently chose not to press charges once materials returned and property damage ($1,500 at Wolf’s Head) was repaid.47

The same year the News reported that the dean’s office was continuing its policy, which had never been publicly announced, of inviting the societies to obtain academic and extracurricular records (although not College Board scores) of the junior class. Said Dean Georges May, “The records certainly serve a useful purpose. If societies are trying to elect members on the basis of intellectual ability, I feel we ought to provide them.” The dean noted that students might request that their records be withheld, but said that no one had ever made such a request. Historically, it appears, the societies had been issued an invitation to review the sanitized cumulative record cards and take notes. Underground societies were eligible, too, so long as they identified themselves and could be recognized as members of a registered underground society, and about half accepted the invitation. Associate professor of Philosophy Richard Bernstein wrote a letter to the News editor to complain about the abuse of privacy (when students could not have known of the opt-out procedure), but he was angrier that the college administration was cooperating with the senior society system rather than allowing “these anachronistic societies with their invidious and pervasive influences [to] wither away.”48

The larger community’s attitude was evidenced by the campus newspaper feature prior to the May 1964 Tap Day, titled “The Agony, The Ecstasy: 1964 Spooks Speak: Tap Day Revisited, Secrecy Reexamined.” Six prominent seniors from as many senior societies were interviewed, the majority suggesting, “that the reward of prestige is invariably a powerful, if irrational attraction to membership,” although several stressed that “personal” reasons were “the final factors in their decision.” Members of Manuscript and Elihu proved willing to discuss “almost any feature of their societies’ programs,” while the Bonesmen, Rhodes scholar Thomas Rowe and basketball captain Rick Kaminsky, declined to disclose any detail of that society’s rituals, although they insisted on the value of the experience, in which Rowe said “masks fall and barriers disappear,” and which “may have the longest and deepest influence on me” of anything he had ever done.49

Alongside the report of these interviews was a sidebar graph of membership characteristic statistics for seven of the abovegrounds for the classes from 1959 to 1963, accompanied by editorial summary. Major differences among them were revealed by the numbers. Berzelius was found to be “fairly diverse” (albeit only by the standards of the time): three-quarters membership from the Northeast, over two-thirds in fraternities, and less than 20 percent “scholars.” Book and Snake had “very few” scholars, but an 85 percent membership in fraternities, and over two-thirds from private schools. Elihu, reflecting Yale’s changing demographics, with 40 percent of its members from public high schools, had the highest percentage of those with scholarly distinction, and nearly equal numbers of fraternity and non-fraternity members.

Manuscript, the outlier consciously seeking creative types in the arts, was the only society with over half its membership from public high schools, and barely trailed Elihu (17 to 20) in members with scholarly distinction. The two oldest societies reflected the priorities of Old Yale. Keys, with a high percentage of athletes, derived two-thirds of its delegations from the Northeast, and four-fifths of its men were prep school graduates. Bones similarly took three-quarters of its successive memberships for these years from the Northeast, with 70 percent being in fraternities, and at least 50—and more usually 60 to 70—percent athletes, but, the compiler noted, with “an average of two or three conspicuously high successful scholars” each year amid the jocks.50

The News report of elections for 1964 confirmed that, with extensive pre-tapping during the prior week, the night was marked with little tension or anxiety. “Impeccably-dressed” seniors march from their tombs between 7:00 and 7:30 P.M. to their meeting places in the colleges, while alumni were stationed within the clearing office, and each tapping senior positioned outside the room of a junior who was to be tapped. One possible drama was avoided: football captain H. Abbott Lawrence, accepting an offer from Book and Snake which had sent two men to his room, explained later that one of his tappers was protection for the other, since Bones had considered sending its alumnus, Chicago Bears center Mike Pyle, to his room: “I told them not to, and they didn’t.” At 10:00 P.M., the society members, new and old, retreated to Fraternity Row for postelection parties.51

The following year’s (1965’s) Tap Day newspaper report served only to confirm the new pattern, forced into place by reforms patiently extracted from the societies by Dean DeVane the decade before. The return to the rooms, where juniors could not see who else was being elected to which societies, brought with it a vastly expanded series of time-limited pre-tap negotiations, conducted over lunch or dinner with senior society members who expressed interest in “examining” them. They had indeed “expanded to the point where one is rarely tapped by a society he has not had previous contact with.”52

For the successful and/or fortunate, the attention could be overwhelming: a number of juniors were made election offers by as many as six undergrounds, and faced a countless series of meal “appointments” and an uninterrupted deluge of telephone calls. If asked, Berzelius, Elihu, and Manuscript disclosed their first fifteen. Bones was known to approach its choices through an alumnus, although the offerees were invited to consult with current members on their own initiative, and rumors flew thick and fast: university secretary Howard Weaver, assistant director of admissions Charles McCarthy, and other Bones alumni were said to have made twenty-one offers, for fifteen openings, with five commitments by the close of the ten-day “official” pre-tap interval, and in 1966, some candidates alleged the receipt of midnight telephone calls from the offices of Henry Luce (Bones) and John Lindsay (Keys).53

Many of these approaches by distinguished alumni were successful; others were not. Chaplain William Sloane Coffin, who had his own post-graduation issues with the society system, approached Yale Daily News chairman Joe Lieberman ’64 on behalf of Bones, and Lieberman’s thoughtful written response is preserved in the Coffin papers. He had considered the offer, he wrote, for the prestige and because he might effect reform from within. But Coffin’s refusal to explain the society’s program as one which could not be explained, and the candidate’s dissatisfaction with the changes effected in Bones to date which “were not enough,” compelled him to choose to Elihu instead, “because I was fully informed of their program and liked it, and was especially excited by the group of people they tapped” (he had their names in advance), and “of course, the [Elihu] building even has windows.” The Elihu windows have always-drawn interior blinds, and Bones still tapped Lieberman anyway, and was declined.54

Another News officer, vice chairman Jacques Leslie, approached by director of athletics Delaney Kiphuth three years later, was told he would be offered a tap on election night unless he specifically reported back that he did not wish to join. Writing about it thirty-three years later in a magazine article aptly titled “Smirk from the Past,” Leslie revealed that he decided not to bother with a response although he was leaning toward Elihu. Told by a fellow student who was a freelance photographer that the New York Times was planning a story on that year’s election, he advised him of the probable Bones/Elihu confrontation expected at Leslie’s Branford College door. The front page of the second section of the next day’s Times featured an action shot of the Bones elector’s striking Leslie’s shoulder while blocking his rival with his hip: “Skull was first,” the caption concluded, “but he chose Elihu.” Below was a second photograph, showing Olympic swimming champion Donald Schollander being tapped for Bones, the caption concluding “He accepted membership.”55 Unmentioned in the article was the election of the then-obscure George W. Bush.

The truncated tapping process still attracted crowds: onlookers gathered on the streets to watch the society members parade silently in double file from their tombs, in the hour before tapping, breaking off to enter the residential colleges where their prospects were waiting; even there, spectators gathered on the stairs. When the Harkness Tower bells rang promptly at eight P.M., dormitory doors opened and seniors burst in, demanding acceptance to election. The News reported that “an estimated 10 to 20 undergrounds which keep their membership and meeting places secret, will induct juniors at the same time” on election day. The remaining incongruity from earlier decades was the seniors’ formal dress, in suits of dark browns, grays, and blues, while all around them were their candidates in shirtsleeves, sweaters, and soiled sport coats.56

By 1966, the social and psychological pressures on the juniors in the pre-tap week caused Keys to join Bones in announcing in the News that no requirement of a commitment to accept election was required after the initial contact, and that elections to some not so notified would be offered on election day. Manuscript and Book and Snake each announced that they would notify only some juniors of proposed elections, while Manuscript’s announcement also promised that tappees would be “given a full and frank description of purposes and activities of the society.” In a first formal appearance in the campus newspaper for an underground, Mace and Chain called on its fellow societies to “respect the intelligence and integrity of the juniors and . . . offer them a full opportunity for discussion of the society experience,” promising “an open presentation of the program of their society,” while following Dean May’s rules for the abovegrounds in not offering election until the official dean-proscribed pre-tap week.57

Particularly poignant is the recollection of his experiences that year by a gay man in the class of 1967, Paul Monette, in his autobiography, which won the 1992 National Book Award for nonfiction and was published three years before his AIDS-related death in 1995 at age fifty. Monette was the editor of his residential college’s newspaper and its literary magazine, as well as the college literary magazine The Criterion and director of the Yale Arts Festival. Because the societies “all wanted a token artist or two, my role as poet/impresario put me on the short list,” courted by four of the eight abovegrounds, “swept up and taken to lunch by the captain of the hockey team and the editor of the Yale Lit.”

In the end, like Joe Lieberman, Monette went with Elihu, which “had the reputation of being the most diverse and the least preppie of the Societies, politically correct before its time. Where the others reluctantly tapped a token Jew, girding themselves for the country-club fights to come, Elihu chose four Jews to be my brothers, and a Cuban and an African American to boot. Quel melting pot. More to the point, they chose three queers as well, though that would never be spoken aloud, even within the sanctum walls. . . . And I accepted without question that the main agenda for senior year would be my becoming brothers in blood with the fourteen members of my delegation. . . . Thursday would be our tribal night come autumn, when each of us would be required to present an autobiography to our fourteen brothers. . . . [But] I already knew I would lie when I told my story.”58

This was to change: in 1975, Skull and Bones openly embraced the new diversity and celebrated its leadership pattern when it tapped Miles Watson, the president of the Gay Activists Alliance, and a member of the Keys crowd of 1988 was to remember that by his year, it had become “almost traditional” to elect two gays annually. The Bones club of 2011, it was reported, included two gay students, one bisexual, and one transgender.59

By 1967, in addition to the seven abovegrounds and as many or more undergrounds, there had been formed with some of the Seven Sisters colleges at least six coed societies, most open to both juniors and seniors. Gathering in hotels halfway between Yale and the schools in question, two met with Vassar girls (they were known as “Vaya” and “Vale”), three with women from Smith, and one with Mt. Holyoke, most taking five girls and five boys, two-thirds of the canonical number of fifteen. The members were not allowed to date, and their activities were bounded by strictly imposed intellectual limits. Writing of these groups’ more traditional rivals, one campus newspaper editorialist mused sarcastically: “What a small tribute it is to Yale—unique in having spawned secret societies—that so many students think it necessary to go behind locked doors, with 14 other arbitrarily chosen students, many of whom they’ve never met before, to establish something truly valuable in the way of human relations.”60

To the contrary, it was a large tribute, even if a leap of faith, to an arcane (and, given the intense labor which went into identifying those chosen for election, hardly arbitrary) social system which their Yale College forbears had found rewarding for going on 140 years. Kingman Brewster was quoted in a front-page story on the secret societies in the Wall Street Journal in 1968, saying, “There are so many of them now, including some whose existence is dubious or hard to confirm, that the bright line between in-group and out-group is fuzzy.” About one in four Yale seniors now belonged to a senior society of some sort.61

Their “secret” programs, at least for the abovegrounds and many of the undergrounds, were now reasonably well known. “Autobiographies” or “Personal Histories” were an integral part of most, although Scroll and Key and Manuscript were said to have departed from this pattern and delivered talks on chosen topics, claiming that as much might be gleaned thereby about a member’s personality. Still, the confessional history remained a serious and central component of the society experience, whether delivered according to ancient rumor in Bones while lying in a coffin, or around a large table in the main meeting room at Elihu, or in a circle of easy chairs at Wolf’s Head.

“An Auto,” declared the 1968 Class Book, “is simply this: on one evening during the year, a member has his night. For those not inclined to introspection, it is often an entirely new and frightening experience: the obligation to look into oneself, attempt to organize coherent self-description, and express it lucidly. Seeing at last one purpose for the vaunted secrecy, the member feels timidly free to disclose feelings and emotions with the assurance that the ‘family privacy’ of the institution will prevail.” Secrets shared and weaknesses made vulnerable, the article’s authors concluded, tended to pull a group together, even if only as a starting point for deeper friendship. (In his famous New Journalism essay of 1976, “The ‘ME’ Decade,” Tom Wolfe [a Yale PhD but not an undergraduate there] argued that another result of what he called these “lemon sessions” within the Yale senior societies was a new level of self-involvement and narcissism: “No matter how dreary the soap opera, the star was Me.”62)

Guest speakers had become more frequent, too: the undergrounds, with little institutional rigidity, freely made use of the talent and diversity represented in the Yale faculty, while the abovegrounds continued to require that all guests be alumni, and then—other than Bones, Keys, and Wolf’s Head—loosened that stricture by composing a list of “honorary alumni.” In another variation on the “Auto,” Berzelius had each member write a separate letter to each of his fourteen “brothers,” telling him of the writer’s feelings toward him. The less-structured undergrounds practiced acting and playwriting, and listened to recorded concerts, or even devoted an entire night to dirty jokes. Despite the still largely ignorant junior’s pledging at the outset to spend two evenings a week for the whole academic year, doing who really knew what with some who were necessarily strangers, the dropout rate remained remarkably low, especially in the ritual-bound abovegrounds, although the undergrounds also lost a few brothers every year.63

This sudden loyalty was not, according to Professor Chris Argyris, the head of Yale’s Industrial Administration department (an alumnus of Elihu and a popular speaker with almost all the undergrounds), merely the result of a new member’s having a vested interest in maintaining the prestige of his society and thus persuading himself that the experience was worth the effort. “Of course there is an inevitable amount of rationalization and egoistic self-deception in the seniors’ new-found enthusiasm. But this is overlooking the very real personal benefits which many seniors receive from their society experience.” Because the societies gave their members a unique opportunity to build a society and culture all their own, Argyris maintained, “with many of their own rules and particular behavioral patterns, students respond to such an opportunity with a great deal of excitement.”

To the admiring jibe that Yale societies had been practicing group psychotherapy for 135 years when it had been in vogue in the Western world for only the prior four decades, Argyris maintained that “you can’t think in terms of therapeutic effects with the degree of efficiency of current psychological group therapy. Yet, on the other hand, many undergo marked changes—we may, in a very broad sense, even call them therapeutic changes—because of their society experience. Of course, others merely have their behavioral and personality patterns reinforced.” Furthermore, the abovegrounds’ emphasis on rigid and secretive ritual, the professor believed (echoing Goethe’s insights of almost two centuries before), “also is linked to a general desire to have a deep commitment to something wholly outside oneself,” and the continued growth and success of the Yale senior society system reflected “a general search among younger people to escape a compartmentalized and de-personalized world and to find and develop more profound relationships with their peers.” Argyris also dismissed the notion that the lack of women at Yale made the men channel their energies into the societies: “I don’t think the homosexual impulse is at all primary, and certainly was and is not conscious.”

Commenting at the same time, David Riesman, famed author of The Lonely Crowd and Harvard professor of Social Relations, saw more functionally, and not incorrectly, “an achievement orientation and competitiveness at Yale” which tended to perpetuate the ultimate manifestations of achievement, here the senior society. “Yale has always seemed more competitive than Harvard. . . . This kind of achievement orientation is only in recent decades entering Harvard, which was always in a sense . . . Georgian rather than Masonic.”64

Also to be noted is that the society members’ alumni bonds with the Alma Mater had not frayed. The aboveground societies now contributed about $30,000 a year for scholarship funds, when tuition with room and board was roughly $3,000, and an analysis of gifts revealed that 90 percent of the members of the three oldest societies, Bones, Keys, and Wolf’s Head, gave to the alumni fund, while the overall rate for Yale graduates was only about 50 percent. This was in the pattern of the munificent gifts of Sterling and Harkness: “They [the more recent donors] did so,” a society alumnus reflected to the Wall Street Journal, “because they loved Yale all the more for having been members of the societies.”65


The unsettling of the settled ways of Yale College, never an isolated community, was exacerbated and accelerated by national events and trends: the election of the young, liberal John F. Kennedy, the Cuban missile crisis, then the president’s assassination, the rise of Goldwater conservatism, the first student lunch counter sit-ins to protest Southern segregation, the construction of the Berlin wall, the flowering of rock’n’roll, and the development of the birth control pill. In these very years, the lawsuit that established the right of privacy forming the basis for the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion had its origin in New Haven. Both the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, backing Goldwater, and the Northern Student Movement, the northern counterpart to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), were formed at Yale or in close association with the university within months of the matriculation of the class of 1964, both—despite disparate goals—a part of grassroots youth movements combining activism and ideology with hostility to ruling elites.

The Yale Political Union, long considered a proving ground for future public figures, saw the establishment of a Progressive Party as well as a Party of the Right, joining established Conservative and Liberal caucuses. Outside the Political Union arose the Yale Socialists, the Yale Student Peace Union, the George Orwell Society (for Marxist socialists), and the libertarian Calliopean Society (named after Yale’s third literary society, which had disappeared in the 1850s). While university chaplain Coffin was pressing students into dangerous service in Mississippi, William F. Buckley Jr. and Goldwater were calling students to rise against creeping collectivism at home and communist tyranny abroad.66

President Griswold in 1958 had maintained that a Yale education was not intended simply to advance “self-expression,” but to prepare her graduates for “responsible membership in society after graduation.” In a 1963 open letter to Yale alumni addressing the civil rights movement, Newschairman Joe Lieberman, citing Griswold, evidenced the absorption of this message in declaring that “We envision Yale as a training ground for a democratic elite.” When Yale College under Brewster turned more explicitly to admitting an intellectual meritocracy at a time when the desired future looked very different to increasingly antagonistic communities within the alumni and the nation, debate and conflict were guaranteed to ensue about the socio-economic characteristics of the leaders Yale purported to educate, as well as among the vastly more diverse applicants who were accepted.

Precisely when this occurred cannot be confined to one year—the titles of the many available histories of “pivotal years” include 1964, 1965, and 1968, and the same themes of upheaval are detailed in recent books by graduates of two Yale classes of the decade—On the Cusp: The Yale College Class of 1960 and a World on the Verge of Change, and Class Divide: Yale ’64 and the Conflicted Legacy of the Sixties—but the widening separation of the seams of the old consensus was visible throughout the decade’s back end.67

The Free Speech Movement which roiled the Berkeley campus of the University of California in the autumn of 1964 is identified by most commentators as the ground zero of the explosion that permanently disturbed the stability of American universities. As pollster Daniel Yankelovich put it, “The campus upheavals of the sixties gave us the first premonitory sign that the [tectonic] plates of American culture, after decades of stability, had begun to shift.”68 Berkeley’s troubles in the West were followed, sometimes more violently, by Harvard, Cornell (the newspaper photograph of rifle-carrying blacks leaving the Cornell Student Union won that year’s Pulitzer Prize), and Columbia in the East in 1968,69 and two years later at Yale on May Day 1970 in demonstrations surrounding the trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale, and then the following week, most tragically, with the National Guard’s killing of students at Kent State in Ohio.

It was of course Vietnam, called by one journalist “the San Andreas fault in the hearts and minds of Americans,” which most fundamentally challenged presumptions that had informed the Cold War thinking of the 1950s that had done so much to define American attitudes and experiences in the years following the Second World War. It ran like a pestilence through American society, impeaching the “system” and its leadership in the eyes of a generation, largely shattering the conventional faith in the decency of American purposes.70 For some, the war was combat, for others journalism, for others active, even violent, protest, and for most it was avoidance—but none escaped what one member of the class of 1964 at his twenty-fifth reunion called “the scars of our interaction with history in the Indochinese peninsula.”71

Three members of Elihu had gone off to Mississippi in the fall of 1963. Four members of Skull and Bones after their graduation in 1966 all enlisted: John Kerry (future Senator, presidential candidate, and secretary of state), Frederick Smith (later the founder of Federal Express), David Thorne (to be President Obama’s ambassador to Italy), and Richard Pershing (grandson of “Black Jack” Pershing, America’s senior military commander in the First World War). Before leaving, Kerry had written his Class Day speech in the quiet of the Bones tomb, calling for a restricted U.S. role in Vietnam, and also about the duty to serve. On February 17, 1968, Second Lieutenant Dick Pershing, who had last seen his clubmates at the November 1967 Yale-Harvard football game, perished near Hung Nuhn in Vietnam.72

For that quartet and its class, military enlistment was an acceptable postgraduate choice. (The first open forum on the Vietnam War at Yale, in 1965, saw Chaplain Coffin in a minority, criticizing Joe Lieberman for supporting the war.) As the casualties mounted and the nation soured on the execution of the war, its conduct became increasingly contested across the country’s campuses, along with much else that followed in the name of national defense. Many who joined the services during those years of combat, like Kerry on his return home in testimony before the Congress, joined those who did not in challenging the hegemony of Cold War presumptions that still held sway among their elders. Others, like Dick Cheney, in and out of Yale College twice while briefly a member of the class of 1964, sought student deferments or, like the class of 1968’s George W. Bush, alternative service in National Guard units. Following the establishment of a lottery to induct draftees with low lottery numbers, no names from the class of 1970 were to appear on Woolsey Hall’s memorial to Yale’s Vietnam dead.

The war strain was so great that at the June 1969 graduation, William McIlwaine Thompson, the class secretary, was permitted to be the first speaker at a university commencement since 1894 (other than President Kennedy, for whom an exception had been made in 1962); Thompson, a Nixon voter in 1968, told the graduates, faculty members, and parents that “frustration and despair” because of the Vietnam war had overwhelmed his class. Over time, the disagreements over race and that war, when joined by the contemporaneous cause and conflict of women’s liberation in the succeeding decades, birthed what Patrick Buchanan called the “culture war” at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

One historian has concluded that these disagreements have now become so rooted in different ways of “apprehending reality, of ordering experience, [and] of making moral judgments,” that they have undergirded both the institutionalization and the politicization of two fundamentally different cultural systems.73 The senior societies had, of course, nothing directly to do with these larger developments, but at their difficult birth and through their growth in the 1960s, in the disdain for all forms of authority which necessarily accompanied the many and varied targets of protest, the prestige and cohesion of these venerable organizations were sorely tested, and some were to go under.


On Yale’s Commencement Day in 1773, Nathan Hale argued the affirmative in a debate on the question, “Whether the Education of Daughters be not without just reason more neglected than that of our Sons.” He won the debate, but not the point. Roughly a century later, Daniel Coit Gilman helped persuade Augustus Sweet to establish a School of Fine Arts at Yale, with the donor’s express wish and condition of his gift that women be admitted (the first two, and thus the first two women students at Yale, were daughters of Bones alumnus Professor Benjamin Silliman Jr., Alice and Susan Silliman, entering in 1869). Another full century on, compared to the decades-long patterns of fitful admission into Yale College of the sorts of undergraduates who were not Caucasian males of Protestant stock, the eventual inclusion of women was relatively swift. Although the institution was in many respects a different place in 1960 than it had been before World War II, as far as women were concerned little had changed since 1934, when the university secretary is said to have harrumphed to the wife of a law student, “Young woman, we tolerate women at Yale, but we don’t encourage them.”74 In time, bringing women into Yale College would transform gender relations at the institution and contribute to reducing the barriers to professional careers for women in the society at large.

By 1960, it has been estimated that women comprised 36 percent of American undergraduate students.75 They were a significant presence at that level in most of the other schools of the Ivy League, whether through “full” coeducation (Cornell, admitting limited numbers since 1872) or “coordinate” coeducation (at Harvard, with separately administered Radcliffe College, whose students attended classes and socialized with Harvard males, and Brown with Pembroke College, since separate but unequal was the conventional wisdom on the sexes at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton until the late 1960s). Yet culturally and symbolically, Yale and other prestigious all-male institutions and traditions, from Rhodes scholarships to White House stag dinners, seemed to define leadership and excellence in male terms. As a New York Post columnist crudely put it, “[w]hat makes a dumb broad smart all of a sudden? They don’t even let broads in a joint like Yale.”76

Even before admissions dean Howe in 1956 broached the notion of all-female residential colleges, in the Oxbridge manner of separate colleges for women, proposals to coeducate Yale College had been discussed, since the 1910s, but as Yale professor Thomas Bergin noted, “such suggestions had never been taken seriously by either the great majority of the alumni, the Corporation, or the undergraduates themselves.”77 Howe had stated the obvious: the all-male college was “outmoded,” both positively harmful, since the separation of academic and social life was no longer the American social norm, and—to Yale’s detriment—clearly less appealing to the current generation of intellectually gifted male students that the college sought to attract (especially high school graduates, long educated with girls, who found Yale’s single-sex arrangement bizarre). Some prospects began to decline admission in New Haven for rival institutions which were coeducational, and the Yalies’ “weekend exodus” in search of female companionship at the Seven Sisters colleges and in New York City disrupted the residential colleges’ founding purpose of fostering community.

The strong countervailing concern was that women would not occupy the positions of responsibility and authority in American society that the graduates of Yale, “Mother of Men” in its school anthem, had occupied and should continue to occupy. Even Yale’s psychiatrist-in-chief, Dr. Robert L. Arnstein, argued that something would be lost if women came to Yale: a rare, hard-to-define ability to form close male friendships, which would ultimately detract from campus life and the educational process. Furthermore, the fear persisted that if Yale College educated fewer males, its contribution to the American establishment would inevitably decline, and thus over time and inevitably so too would the school’s prestige and influence.

An allied fear among alumni with Yale family histories was that reducing the number of men admitted (no one thought an expansion of the college’s undergraduate population would occur any way but incrementally) meant, in a zero-sum game, that many fewer slots for their sons. The Newswarned that coeducation would “come down the chimney, like a plague,” and Griswold moved quickly to calm the alumni waters roiled by Howe’s proposal in 1956 by stating flatly for their magazine that “We are far from convinced that it [coeducation] would be the right course of action. There is not the remotest possibility of its taking place in time in the forseeable future.”78

That future accelerated quickly under his successor Brewster, and a more liberally minded Yale Corporation and student body that pushed him. The Griswold-appointed Committee on the Freshman Year in its 1962 report had held that “We think Yale has a national duty, as well as a duty to itself, to provide the rigorous training for women that we supply for men.” This opinion was ahead of undergraduate sentiment: a poll the next year of the 1963 freshmen in the class of 1967 confirmed opposition to coeducation by a ratio of three to one, with their giving much the same reasons as those of the alumni: tradition, custom, preservation of the Yale image, and a belief that women were not men’s equals. This attitude changed in short order: by May 1966, four out of five undergraduates polled said they would favor some sort of undergraduate education for women at Yale if adequate financial backing were available.79 Certainly part of the explanation was the increasing fraction (from 1963, a majority) of each incoming class which came from the coeducational public high schools.

Brewster responded by reopening the question of establishing a coordinate women’s college in New Haven, and in December 1966, Yale and Vassar College agreed to conduct a joint study to investigate the possibilities of some form of joinder of their institutions (in 1966, only 5 percent of all male undergraduates were in all-male institutions like Yale and Princeton, and they were just two of eighteen all-male and thirty-five all-female colleges to plan coeducation or coordinate affiliation between 1966 and 196880). When Vassar jilted Yale in November 1967—presumably having nothing to do with an earlier football game halftime formation by the Yale Marching Band showing a “Y” proceeding slowly into a “V”—Brewster chose to press on with direct admissions.

On November 4, 1968, a student-sponsored “Co-Education Week” brought to New Haven seven hundred women from twenty-two Northeastern colleges to spend six days at Yale in two three-day shifts. (The Yale Daily News featured a formal announcement, placed by a member of Elihu, that Skull and Bones, “in cooperation with the New Haven Garden Club,” would that week hold “an open house for all Yale’s co-eds” and gave instructions on how to find its tomb.) The Yale Corporation voted to admit women to Yale College on a full coeducational basis in the fall of 1969. Brewster was said to have promised alumni that Yale was committed to producing “1000 male leaders a year,” so that the number of men would not be reduced, but five hundred women would be admitted, half first-year students in the class of 1973, and half sophomore and junior class transferees.

Thousands of applications came in, including one from a thirteen-student Radcliffe dormitory applying for admission as a unit. In September 1969, 588 women undergraduates enrolled, including from 2,850 applications, 230 fresh(wo)men, meaning only one in fourteen applicants was admitted, compared with admission of one man for ever 7.5 applicants. Three-quarters of them were from public high schools, comprising 18.3 percent of the class of 1973, of whom 18.3 percent were Yale daughters, as against 12.5 percent of the 1,029 men. Of the 358 women transferees, 203 enrolled as juniors in the class of 1971, and 155 as sophomores in the class of 1972, 44 of the aggregate being alumni daughters. Six in the class of 1971’s intake and ten in 1972’s were black women.

The Seven Sisters colleges, close to Yale in social composition and geography, provided more than their share. Of the transferring females, fully 124 were from just three of them, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. The number of coeds at Yale was to rise incrementally, to 1,500, once new housing became available, and the women’s admissions quota was dropped forever in December 1972. The talent of the first five hundred which Yale selected was so high that they were to be dubbed “the Superwomen,” and their gender was to earn consistently higher grades than men at Yale until the ratio of applications to acceptances for the two sexes began to level out.81

As noted in a New York Times Magazine article on the admission of the first classes of coeds, which the author, a member of the class of 1970, said, “on paper were the female versions of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch,” their male counterparts were pondering one question. Where everything was so masculine—the entire residential college system, the social clubs, and the weekend dating system were all predicated on Yale’s being an all-male institution, as were the absence of bathtubs, the four-inch thick dormitory doors designed for the male hand, and the lack of a gynecologist in the student health department—just how were the women going to change the college?

One high school senior from Minneapolis told the Wall Street Journal that she “would be willing to forego baths for four years to gain her ambition in life: membership in Skull and Bones.” But it was a serious question, said the Times piece: “What about Mory’s, the Whiffenpoof haunt, or secret societies like Elihu, Book and Snake, or Skull and Bones? Will the tombs open for women?” These questions paralleled those asked in a Yale Daily News article published the February before they arrived: “Will Mory’s go coed? Will the girls be admitted to the senior societies? (That is, if anybody cares whether anybody is ever admitted to a senior society).”82

Two women graduate students arriving at Yale the year before the admission of females to Yale College, Janet Lever and Pepper Schwartz, took the school “as a laboratory” to examine the sudden intrusion of females in the 1969-70 academic season, looking at “one year in the life of an institution, one year of great change, compromise and discussion” in their 1971 book, Women at Yale: Liberating a College Campus. Shocked at finding their own admission to Mory’s where they felt like “intruders,” could only occur on “ladies’ night . . . open to us only as dates and wives,” they were even more perturbed by the “mausoleum-like” tombs of the senior societies, although they acknowledged their role and power.

“The ‘tombs,’ they wrote, “as the societies are called have traditionally marked the apex of achievement—an encouragement to begin making a success of one’s life from the freshman year on. Besides their prestige value, they offer a chance to become friends with the people ‘most likely to succeed.’ And they introduce the ambitious student to successful, often famous society alumni. . . . While many students reject the elitism that is inherent in the societies, an important minority regard the societies as part of their journey toward ‘making it.’ In that sense, they do give a ‘tone’ to the campus.”83 From their sociologist/feminist perspective, the authors lamented that there were “no major changes” in any of the abovegrounds during the implementation of Clark’s new policies and before coeducation, while contradictorily then noting that “they are composed of an elite of achievers who run the gamut of nationality, race, religion, and political affiliation.”

They quoted a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who defended his membership in St. Elmo’s, “and many ‘hip’ looking people would tell us about the benefits of their society.” They cited a member of Bones whom they had known before he was tapped, when he made light of the secret societies, but was now “quite serious about his organization and quite committed” to his fellow members. “While we have seen this same kind of allegiance among fraternity men, we have never seen it in someone who would certainly be anti-establishment and anti-fraternity on almost any campus we could imagine. Perhaps the elitism of the society of fifteen, as opposed to the quasi-elitism of a fraternity of eighty, made the difference.” But given the senior society ethos, “these men were literally hand-picked as ‘leaders of leaders,’” and the “institutional directive is to join the inner circle of those who succeed.”84

Lever and Schwartz clearly and correctly recognized that the philosophy of leaders and leadership cadres was a continuing theme of Yale life, and this gave the senior societies a special kind of validity, since they were “societies of merit, not inheritance,” and as such fit well into a competitive, democratic system. Yet if the men of Yale were still achievers, still leaders, “it was to be expected that the Yale women would also fit into this category, and this brought up a very serious question: “How would the new ‘chosen’ mesh with the old? How would traditional female role assignment, i.e., subordinate and unchallenging womanhood, mesh with the Yale woman’s inheritance of the Yale ethos, to succeed and, especially, to lead? Obviously, changes and compromises would be essential if Yale were truly to incorporate a new kind of Yalie into her code. A revision of traditional roles would take place—or a serf population would be created. No one really knew which way it would go.”85

The only illustrations in Women at Yale were a number of cartoons by Gary Trudeau, class of 1970 and Keys, from his Yale Daily News comic strip Bull Tales, later famous as the nationally syndicated Doonesbury. The first reproduced is of his title character, sitting in his dorm room on election day (here quoting the internal monologue word balloon) “in a new J. Press suit, waiting the nod from a prestigious society which he will flatly turn down in his protest against elitism!” At 6:30 P.M., late in the Tap Day afternoon, Mike Doonesbury opens his door to a frazzled-looking, dress-suited senior gripping a walkie-talkie, who says “Skull and Bones, accept or reject, Goddamit.” In the final panel, Doonesbury looks directly at the reader and thinks, “My only regret is that I am not on the john right now.” Only News readers would know that his character was recalling the legend of Kingman Brewster, declining a Bones tap from his locked toilet stall in 1941.86

During the November 1968 Co-Education Week, some of the senior societies (Lever and Schwartz’s book says there were then about twenty, above and below ground) had sponsored open houses, although most held their luncheons in nearby halls, thereby preventing the exposure of their private meeting rooms.87 When would women, the newest but last caste, be admitted to the tombs? Professor Argyris, for one, had no concerns about that prospect for the system. “At Yale, the coed societies [with the Seven Sisters schools] undergo the same kind of experience as the all-male ones. In my view, in fact, they have a richer experience.” He concluded (opining in 1968) that if Yale were to go coed—estimating, wrongly in the event, that it would take another five years—“this will not undermine the society impulse per se; but there will be greater pressure to co-educate the societies.” His interlocutors, recent Yale graduates of the all-male class of 1967, were not so sure: “It’s a pretty safe bet to say that twenty-five years from now, black-suited seniors will be seen marching but in lock-step at some such dire hour as midnight, as ferociously serious as ever. Whether an occasional skirt will come swishing out of the dark and heavy portals is interesting to ponder.”88


The imminence of the arrival of women, which made men’s senior societies seem suddenly old-fashioned, and the on-campus controversies over the great issues of war and race roiling the nation, making the societies seem trivial, resulted by the spring of 1969 in a partial collapse of undergraduate respect for the traditional verities of the entire system. “Can it possibly be true,” a Yale professor wrote in to the Yale Daily News, “that those who would save Biafra, help the Hill [New Haven’s blackest, poorest neighborhood], reorganize the curriculum, resist the draft, stop the war, feed the migrant fruitpickers, get rid of neckties in the dining halls and parietal hours [limiting women’s presence in the dormitories], bring in coeds and enshrine Che [Guevara]—that they would also like to join a secret society?”89

The strains had been building for some time. Fewer and fewer collegians had previous Yale and/or senior society affiliations. To take Scroll and Key as an example: only three members of the 1967 crowd had previous Yale and senior society ties. In the late 1930s, the number of Keysmen with Yale ancestors was 64 percent, dropping to 51 percent in the 1940s, then to 48 percent in the 1950s, and to 35 percent in the 1960s. Even fewer knew about their society from having forebears in it, on average only 8 percent, or less than two in each fifteen of the 1960s, whereas in the late ’30s it had been 20 percent, then 18 percent in the postwar ’40s, and even in the ’50s, twice as many at 16 percent.

While fewer students came into the societies with preconceptions, also fewer were those in some sense automatically attached to the past, or feeling any obligation to perpetuate it in a form their fathers and brothers had preserved. New members, showing the strain in the college and in their personal harmonics, also felt less inclination to remain if they were not happy: in each of the portraits of the Keys crowds from 1967 to 1972, fewer than fifteen members are shown, although full delegations had been tapped originally. The 1970 delegation, one of whose members was an SDS leader and later remembered by its own society as “the group that almost sank Keys,” had two dropouts in its first month, never met in their usual sanctum, kept many rituals only loosely, invited outsiders to visit (although not to meetings), and fought hard with the alumni to admit women.

The club for 1971 which they elected was initiated the week after the tumultuous May Day weekend and addressed by the patrician World War II veterans John Lindsay ’44 and Avery Rockefeller ’49. Comprised of seven whites, four blacks, and three Hispanics, it was similarly fractured, the diversity so great that bonding was hard to achieve, and the full fifteen never met together. Keys was hardly alone in the continuing disarray: a member of its 1972 delegation, interviewed for membership at Berzelius and Book and Snake in the spring of 1971, found that at the former they watched Berzelius’s color television on Sunday nights, and that few members of Book and Snake troubled any longer to attend the regular dinners.90

Yale College’s social changes had been vertiginous. When the class of 1970 arrived in 1966, they had short hair, ties and jackets were mandatory in the dining halls (and had been since 1952), and if a woman was found in a student room after parietal hours, the penalty was expulsion. By their senior year, hair was often shoulder length, tie-dyed T-shirts might be worn to meals, and not only were the parietal rules gone, but a coeducational Yale even had coed dormitories.91 Moreover, the whole notion of the value of leadership was at issue, in a new era that now elevated communal values over the hierarchical ones that had formed the core of the senior society system since its inception. When Calvin Trillin returned to Yale in 1970 to write about changes there, he “asked a group of seniors whether they had anyone in their class who was going to be President. After a puzzled silence, one young man said, ‘President of what?’”92

On April 28, 1967, the Yale Daily News printed the spring’s election results for all the abovegrounds. This was the last time it was ever to happen. The following spring, some members of the junior class held a meeting a week before Tap Day to protest the “intentional secrecy and rigidity of the societies,” with one student declaring, with casual disregard for the concept of private property, let alone the traditions of private clubs: “There is an elitist quality to the present society structure which perturbs many people. We are also concerned that societies use their time and funds for constructive projects in the community.” The News editorialist concurred: “The closed attitude which most of the societies maintain tinges Yale with parochialism and anachronism.” The day after this editorial appeared, society elections were published on page four, but Bones, Keys, Wolf’s Head, and Manuscript did not announce theirs.93

In the spring of 1969, the senior society system came under the most sustained assault since the class vote in 1883 calling on the Yale administration to abolish the system. One News columnist, titling his piece “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” analogized the senior societies to a prostitute, and Yale to a pimp for tolerating the whore’s continual appeal to the seduced customers, the undergraduates. By the week before Tap Day, urged on by another News opinion writer, firebrand Tim Bates, who favored choosing participants in societies by lottery, more than 275 members of the class of 1970 had signed a pledge not to accept election or, alternatively, not to enter the society buildings unless and until alumni trustees effected a number of specific reforms.

The petitioners’ formal demands included that the incoming delegations have the right to establish their own house rules (by which was meant being able to bring in a friend or a date); that they be allowed to make the tombs available “to a wider segment of the Yale community” having “a legitimate need for the facilities of the societies,” such as undergrounds, or an art exhibit; and that they be “informed about and consulted on financial affairs in order to make those funds available to a wider segment of the Yale community.” These were felt to be the “minimum innovation necessary if the societies wish to remain in tune with other changes taking place at Yale, and if they wish to remain relevant to the students they purport to serve.” More alarmingly, the pledge’s sponsors claimed that an equal number of students refused to sign, preferring the radical position that the societies should simply disband, pushing the aggregate numbers of society opponents up to nearly half the class. Even within the societies there were such rumblings: a member of the 1971 Bones delegation, Wilbur Johnson, teaching in New Haven’s ghetto the summer after being tapped, asked to make use of some of his society tomb’s rooms for classroom space and was denied.

Two other News editors pushed back, calling Bates’s stance “presumptuous and sanctimonious” and concluding that the “attempt to fit society decisions to a recklessly egalitarian new-liberal dogma falls flat.” To the News reporter whose article on the juniors’ petition challenge was titled “Societies Face Sea of No Faces,” representatives of the societies themselves stated that while they believed they would complete their full delegations, they had found it much more difficult during pre-tap to get advance, affirmative promises to join. Several of the undergrounds admitted to being hard-pressed to fill their quotas of fifteen, and even Spade and Grave, described in the story as “the oldest, most prestigious, and wealthiest of the undergrounds,” found itself with only nine members by year’s end. Meanwhile, the coed undergrounds with Vassar, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith declared their existence was threatened by next year’s influx of coeds.94

The graduate boards of the landed senior societies were understandably not prepared to consider sharing their real estate and overestimated wealth with the invitees of neophyte members or outside groups, and their current delegations pushed through the traditional elections, all in due course achieving their canonical fifteens. Yet the pressure for “reforms” could not and was not completely resisted, as reviewed in a News article published the following fall. While a study of seven of the eight abovegrounds found that the changes effected were more symbolic than substantive, with more fundamental reforms blocked by “alumni, member conservatism, and by the societies’ inability to define their relation to the community,” and by the lack of undergraduate financial control (only in Elihu did the seniors share that board power).

Five—Book and Snake, Bones, Manuscript, Elihu, and St. Elmo’s—were now said to “seem” to have the authority to set their own “house rules,” meaning admission of non-members to their halls when meetings were not in progress. Berzelius and Wolf’s Head could not revise such rules without the approval of their alumni, then unforthcoming, but Berzelius members could now bring their friends into their tomb. Elihu, the most liberal of them all, was said to be in the process of developing a program “aimed generally towards the community,” without providing details. All shied away, in this fall of 1969, from the larger question of coeducation, believing it too soon in the academic year to think about.95

A Manuscript subcommittee composed half of current undergraduates and half graduate members proposed in early 1970 that the delegation be enlarged to about 30, including juniors, and that the society drop out of the tapping system, allowing prospective members to meet at the society before committing. By later that spring, the Manuscript delegation of 1969–70 had became unruly and disrespectful of the society experience, inviting strangers into the house, alienating faculty advisors, ignoring their membership bills, and preferring to eat pizza and smoke dope in the basement rather than dine with their elders upstairs. The society’s trustees met to discuss actually disbanding the society, while establishing an ad hoc committee to consider further reforms. These, which were provisionally approved, including broadening the Thursday night meetings to include women, underclassmen, and graduate students, while reserving Sunday nights for the year’s delegation and all honorary and graduate members.96

Into this fraught atmosphere for one particular senior society, and overwhelming others who had been attempting to complete their contingents before elections on April 24, 1970, swept the Yale-wide crisis afterward known as May Day. The date, the first weekend in May, had traditionally been College Weekend, devoted to plays, picnics, and drinking contests.

A murder in New Haven had led to the indictment of the national leader of the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale, for a trial to be held right next to the Yale campus. The Black Panthers, the Yippies, and other groups called for a massive rally on the New Haven Green on the first of May and a shutdown of the university, and rumors promised violence across the campus and city. The peril seemed real: up at Harvard on April 15, an SDS rally protesting the Panther trial, involving three thousand marchers, resulted in the hospitalization of 214 people and $100,000 in property damage when Harvard closed its gates to the participants. Posters went up in Cambridge thereafter, reading: “Come to New Haven for a Burning on May Day.”

Storefronts in New Haven were boarded over, and before thousands gathered on the Green that weekend, Yippie Abbie Hoffman and local Panther Doug Miranda both called for Yale to be burned down; ultimately, there were two fires in the Law School, and a bomb went off in Ingalls Rink. In anticipation of chaos, the undergraduates decided to strike and shut down classes, which the faculty itself voted might be suspended. Suspicion arose that President Nixon, who hours before May Day announced the invasion of neutral Cambodia (his speech closing with the claim that “Here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed”), and Vice President Agnew (who attacked Brewster’s patriotism for saying publicly that he was “skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States”) both wanted one particular university to explode in violence in order to fan hostility toward academia among the majority of Americans.

As it happened, tragedy was averted, despite the presence of tanks on the roads leading into New Haven and four battalions of National Guardsmen who had received gas grenades, ammunition, and the word that they would not be prosecuted “if you shoot someone while performing a duty for the State of Connecticut.” Reversing the Harvard example, Yale chose to open its residential college gates to the 15,000 protesters for shelter, children’s day care, food (granola, brown rice, salad, and fruit punch), and more speeches and “workshops” in the courtyards. This followed a two-and-a-half-hour rally on the Green damning and blasting Brewster, whom Yippie Jerry Rubin persisted in calling “Kingston Brewer,” and, of course, the police. As urged by and privately agreed with the university administration in advance, the speakers had otherwise counseled calm, and the crowd was with them. Thirty-seven people were arrested, but only one was a Yale student, and he was soon released.97

Classes at Yale resumed on May 4. Later that afternoon, National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio, armed with the same orders and weaponry as their brethren in New Haven, shot into an unarmed crowd of student protesters. Crosby, Stills & Nash were to sing of the victims, “four dead in Ohio,” not naming the ten wounded there. Yale had literally dodged several bullets.

The senior societies could not deflect or otherwise control the events of May Day—indeed, this year they were ignored, there being no coverage of or commentary on the senior societies in the student newspaper in the run-up to the weekend—but May Day certainly upended them. Because of the strike and its attendant turmoil, there was no Tap Day. Instead, each society moved independently in late April and early May to select new members as best they could amid the campus unrest.

Of course, the clear and present danger was the prospect of violence to persons and property, on the prevention of which the societies’ black members in particular—now to be found in virtually all of the abovegrounds—were focusing their leadership skills, while Doug Miranda cried, “the Panther and the Bulldog gonna move together!” Senior Glenn de Chabert ’70, the former head of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, which included almost all of the college’s 250 black students, was a member of Wolf’s Head and of the Yale Strike Coordinating Committee formed by the black undergraduates, caught between self-serving pseudo-revolutionaries and an unjust system. He worked with that committee’s chair, sophomore William Farley ’72; the juniors Ralph Dawson ’71, moderator of the BSAY, and his classmate and the class’s secretary, Kurt Schmoke, who both were to follow de Chabert into Wolf’s Head (Schmoke declining a Bones tap in an antiestablishment gesture); and freshman Henry Louis Gates Jr. ’73 (to be tapped for Book and Snake), among others. The group had become so alarmed at the escalating threats of violence that they attempted to force the black female members of the BSAY to seek protection during the weekend rally within the strong stone walls of the Scroll and Key tomb, much against the women’s wishes. In the end, after May Day, Miranda was to castigate the BSAY for “jivin’ and half-steppin’” and failing to follow the Panthers’ lead.98

Not at all foreseen, but resulting almost as swiftly because of May Day and the social currents which underlay it, was the partial collapse of the senior society system itself, in the effective extinguishment that spring of some of its exemplars.

The venerable underground Spade and Grave, using a new rented house because their previous one had burned down, found that members began to lose interest in the group in the winter of 1969, although seven men for the 1970 delegation were successfully tapped. Given little guidance by their departing graduate members and left to their own devices, they became increasingly vocal about how the society system had to be changed. Their year started with a retreat to the house of one member’s parents in New Hampshire, where they gave their autobiographies, but cohesion did not follow, and by January 1970 they felt the end was nearing. The atmosphere was reflected in that year’s Yale Banner, chaired by one of their members, Jeremy Travis: it was now in two volumes, between colorful “super-graphic” covers, full of informal photographs of bearded, side-burned, and mustachioed undergraduates. By the spring of 1970, while dealing with the larger questions of militant blacks and the expanding Vietnam War, the membership had little or no inclination for internal Yale matters like electing a delegation of successors.99

Another underground, Mace and Chain, similarly disappeared. Even Scroll and Key was roiled with the iconoclastic spirit of its 1970 crowd—who insisted that their group photograph not be taken in their tomb, but outside before a split-rail fence in a Woodstock-like field, with the men garbed in paramilitary shirts and shorts—and heard calls from graduates seriously debating closing the place down. Calvin Trillin that year met Carlos Stoddard, class of 1926, chairman in his day of the News, and then serving as executive secretary of the Yale University Council. “He told me, shaking his head in sadness and puzzlement, that the seniors in Keys were quite a different sort of crowd than we had been [in Trillin’s class of 1957]. ‘You know what they told me?,’ he said. ‘They told me that the Keys garden is elitist.’ ‘The Keys garden is supposed to be elitist, Mr. Stoddard,’ I said, trying to cheer him up.”100

The disruptions at Manuscript far exceeded those at Keys. Shortly before the traumatic events of the long May Day weekend, one of the members of Manuscript’s ad hoc committee decided to issue fifty invitations to various members of the Yale community, calling on them all to become members, and even held a cocktail party in the house to welcome them. Thereafter, seniors in the current delegation actually tapped twenty-five men, indicating that they planned a different sort of society. They compounded the offense to their elders by offering up their building to the visiting protesters for lodging and meetings over May Day. The society’s horrified trustees reacted swiftly, repudiating all election offers, terminating the year’s program for the class of 1970, and changing the locks at their hall. It was a real possibility that this, the seventh landed senior society, would never again reopen its newly locked doors.101

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