chosen for an elite secret society -- 11/19/21

Today's selection -- from Inside Money by Zachary Karabell. Tap Day at Yale was the epitome of the elitist secret society traditions at some Ivy League colleges:
"It happened every May, on a midmonth Thursday. The juniors of the college had been talking about it for months, anticipating what might happen, wondering if they would be included and anointed, or left out and humiliated. The ceremony had originally been private, done in the shadow of night, with rumors of who was picked and who was not only gradually trickling out later. But in the 1870s, the juniors had had enough of waiting nervously in their rooms; instead they grumpily marched out to the Old Campus to wait together. So began the public spectacle of Tap Day that had grown by the turn of the twentieth century to involve hundreds of students and onlookers crowding the streets and cramming the windows of adjacent buildings, covered by major newspapers with the same gossipy pas­sion of the Ivy League football games that had come to define the clubby group of Northeast colleges that trained -- if not schooled -- the young men who would, it was assumed, lead the United States. And of those exclusive schools, Yale in those years was the most exclusive of all.

"The ceremony itself was simple enough, albeit agonizing for the juniors assembled. All college juniors gathered under a stately oak tree near the Victorian Battell Chapel, waiting till just before the clock stuck five, when a small group of derby-wearing seniors, blue suited with the gold pin of membership shining in their lapels, began to weave in and out of the crown.

"Quickly, briskly, they would tap a select few and utter one simple command: ‘Go to your room.’ The ones chosen would scatter while the others were left to face the rest of the year still part of the select but not eligible for the inner sanctums. Even in elite circles, there are rooms within rooms.

"Three ‘secret’ societies, none particularly secret, and called at Yale ‘senior societies,’ would choose on that May day fifteen juniors apiece, for membership in Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, or Wolf’s Head, or any of the other clubs. In the case of Skull and Bones, the most coveted, that meant a place in the Tomb, the society’s neogothic clubhouse, fitting for a group whose alternate name was the Brotherhood of Death. The first decades of the tap ceremony had been a Yale-only affair, but with the rise of American wealth and power, fascination with the lives of the elite grew. Tap Day became a regular feature of the New York Times and other major papers, with reporters keeping a running ledger of who was picked and publishing their names the next day along with colorful commentary.

"Being rapped was the peak of a Yale student's career. It was admittance to the ultimate club, more selective than any club that these men would later join. Once in, they would be embraced by a tight group bound by honor and privacy, where they could all drop the pretense of who they were sup­posed to be and be as they were. They could, safely, confide their feelings, hopes, dreams, fears, knowing that whatever they said would be guarded and never revealed beyond their fraternity. That made the external hoopla all the more striking in contrast. Being a member of a senior society meant the freedom to be yourself; being selected was the ultimate public demonstration of who you were supposed to be.

"Just after five p.m. on May 12, 1912, one of the last men tapped for Skull and Bones was the lanky, handsome and reserved W. Averell Harri­man, Edward's oldest son and already a campus celebrity because of his fa­ther's fortune, which had now passed to him, his mother and his brother. The senior societies amped up the drama of the day, leaving some of the more famous candidates to the last, making them and the galleries wonder whether they would be spurned. But Harriman was not left out; he would never be left out. A senior Bonesman approached him, tapped him and snapped, ‘Averell Hariman! Go to your room.’ A cheer went up from the crowd, ‘Harriman goes to Bones!’ In the phlegmatic fashion that would become hallmark, earning him the nickname ‘the Crocodile,’ Harriman wrote to his mother informing her of the news, ‘It must be a marvelous institution for these men to take seriously and to make as much of it as they do.’ In later years, he confessed that it meant more to him that he let on. ‘It gave me a purpose … To get into Bones, you had to do something for Yale.’ Harriman, downplaying the significance yet acknowledging the accomplishment as a product not of birth but effort, would have done his father proud.

"Edward Harriman never ceased emphasizing work over status, service over money. And like his father, Averell never lacked for ambition. Said his longtime partner Robert Lovett, ‘he was the fellow who like to make the goal.’ That didn’t make him the easiest man, but it helps explain his trajectory. It was also in contrast to his younger brother, Roland, who was more genial and charming but as unquestionably adept. Four years later, Roland would be tapped as well, to the surprise of no one.

"Averell would later look back at that day as an apex, and that from a man who would soar quite high. He had gained entree into the preeminent dub for his class based on who he was. He had not, or at least he did not think he had, bought his way in. He was not admitted because his father had pulled strings. Yet he was also blissfully unaware of the currents then swirl­ing around him. At the very moment of his initiation, the senior societies and their rituals were coming under fire. The public spectacle of who was in and who was out grated on much of the student body at Yale and had led to charges that the societies created hierarchies that undermined the values and mission of the college to educate all young men of the college equally.

"The case against the societies was encapsulated in a novel, Stover at Yale, published in 1912, whose protagonist goes through agonies as he prepares for the fateful day, not knowing if he will be among the select or the left out: ‘When a boy comes to Yale … and gets the flummery in his system, believes in it -- surrenders to it -- so that he trembles in the shadow of a tomblike building, doesn’t dare look at a pin that stares him in the face … when he’s got to the point that he’s scared to think, and no amount of college life is going to revive him. That’s the worst thing about it all, this mental subjugation which the average man undergoes when he comes up against all this rigamarole of Tap Day.’ The book was written with a purpose in mind, and it exceeded its expectations. It sold briskly and hit a nerve. One Yale graduate claimed that the book was to elite college education what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to slavery.

"Notwithstanding the irony of a group of mostly privileged students objecting that some among them were more privileged than others, the commotion over the Yale societies was echoed at other elite institutions. At Princeton, Woodrow Wilson (who had been the school’s president before going on to become New Jersey governor and then president of the United States) had tried but failed to reform the dining clubs, and similar moves were afoot at Harvard (which had a more scholarly reputation). The Yale societies ultimately were not abolished, and indeed were barely changed, but the tension they generated was a harbinger of a much greater revolt against the elites that would happen decades later, in the heat of the 1960s, against a world that had been crafted by the generation tapped in the years just before World War I."



Zachary Karabell


Inside Money


Penguin Press


Copyright 2021 by Zachary Karabell


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment

<< prev - comments page 1 of 1 - next >>