One of the first things I noticed about Harvard Square was that it was not square. At its center was a long island that formed a triangle. At one end was a baroque subway kiosk. Legend has it that a Harvard president opposed its construction, leading to the Crimson headline: PRESIDENT FIGHTS ERECTION IN HARVARD SQUARE. A later Harvardman recalled his arrival in the Square: “I came as thousands of others have, from the semi-darkness of the subway into the blinding sunshine of Cambridge and Harvard and the Yard.”
The kiosk was guarded by telephone booths. At the north end of the triangle was a newsstand that carried everything from Confidential to Le Monde. Traffic flowed on all sides of the island, making its way around the orange and yellow buses moored alongside. At the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street, a cop sat in an elevated enclosed booth, yelling through his loudspeaker at the DeSotos, Packards, and Fords below. The businesses lining the square ranged from three all night eateries to the stolid Harvard Coop, a department and book store whose cooperative economics have been thoroughly enjoyed but not emulated by generations of Harvard capitalists. Across the street was the mass of Harvard Yard, the original campus of the university.
The gate through which I passed to find Wigglesworth Hall, my freshman dorm, bore an inscription: “Enter to grow in wisdom.” The Harvard student body was diverse by the standards of the 1950s, which is to say mainly that there was a rough parity between white male public and white male private school graduates. All the states were represented; there were foreign students, athletes, seminal scientists and so forth. There were Jews and even a handful of blacks. Harvard’s job was to turn them all into Harvard men. Of course, some minorities were more equal than others. Out of a freshman class of 1,000, 70 were graduates of Exeter and 30 came from Andover. Still, Harvard was also willing to dig deep into such non-preppie lodes as Brookline High. An Alumni Bulletin article of the period suggested why. It reported that the admissions committee had found that a considerable proportion of the private school graduates coming to Harvard were sons of public school graduates. This posed a problem:
Apparently, the pattern is that a public school graduate goes to Harvard, does well in life, and then sends his son to a private school where he may turn out not to have quite the drive and ambition of his old man. There is nothing like coming from the wrong side of the tracks to put the spurs into a man. But what do we do about Harvard sons?
Faced with the prospects of its scions turning from National Merit Scholars into dissolute preppies in just one generation, Harvard, much like the Marine Corps, sought men who would appreciate its spurs.
Until recently, most of the women in my family hadn’t gone to college. There was a 1925 graduate of Smith and a great-great aunt who was the first American woman to get an MA from Oxford, but they were exceptions. Most of the men went to the University of Pennsylvania including one great, great, great grandfather; three great, great, grandfathers; two great grandfathers; two grandfathers; one father; and three uncles.
It was not a past one was expected to ignore. We went regularly to the Mask & Whig performances and Penn football games were among the few sporting events my parents openly approved. Unfortunately, Penn wasn’t that good at football; it even had an official song for losing: “Drink a highball at nightfall… for tomorrow may bring sorrow…”
The president of Harvard evaluates this essay for the author’s mother
My father wasn’t sure anyone should go to college. Whenever the matter of higher education arose, he would propose an elaborate alternative, including one year’s travel in Europe and a year working for a labor union. Since he had spent nine years on campus, neither my siblings nor I took his views seriously. My older brother, who graduated from high school at 16, decided not only to go to college but to attend Harvard. My older sister followed at Radcliffe. My parents were clearly unhappy, but acceded. My mother never tired of saying, “you can always tell a Harvard man but you can’t tell him much” and my father began to ascribe his older children’s failings to egregious Cambridge influences rather than, as formerly, to innate inadequacies.
Germantown Friends was also unimpressed by the Ivy League. If it favored campuses, they were schools of discreet and/or Quaker provenance, such as Swarthmore, Haverford, Earlham, Antioch and Oberlin.
Unlike my older siblings, I was disinclined to rebel openly against my parents. My brother and sister had paid a heavy price for their regular proclamations of independence, and I had discovered that quietly going one’s own way was far less likely to invoke parental wrath. It certainly was easier on a stomach that needed little instigation to fail me.
I applied to Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Penn and Harvard and was accepted at all four. Somehow I got up the nerve to say I didn’t want to go to Penn, but remained undecided about the rest until a weekend visit to Cambridge. Staying with my brother, I tasted for the first time the wondrously free life of a college student. It did not occur to me as I slugged down a beer at a Saturday night party in a squalid but noisy Kirkland House room that on that evening on thousands of campuses across America students were having much the same experience. I gave all the credit for collegiate emancipation to Harvard. What’s more, Harvard had awarded me one of its 29 honorary freshman scholarships, so it seemed the place liked me as well. I returned to Philadelphia determined to go to there.
It took less than 24 hours, however, for the suspicion to arise that Harvard and I might not be well matched. Returning from my first Social Science 2 lecture, telling myself that I would understand it if I thought long enough, I sat down to read Max Weber. I was no further than seven pages along when I broke out into a cold sweat; I hadn’t understood a word. Worse, in the days to come, I would find classmates discussing Weber as though they were critiquing the latest issue of Time. Some could even compare Weber with Marx, despite the fact that Marx was not even scheduled to be read for another two months. These students were prototypical proto-Harvardmen, already on their way towards what songwriter Allen Jay Lerner called Harvard’s “indubitable, irrefutable, inimitable, indomitable, incalculable superiority.”
Suddenly my cum laude from Philadelphia’s Germantown Friends School seemed not much after all. I passed Soc Sci 2 with the help of cram sessions sponsored by indulgent brighter colleagues but my satisfaction in doing so was diminished by recognizing the gap between us. I didn’t think like them; I didn’t talk like them and, worse, I didn’t want all that much to be like them. Whatever intelligence I possessed did not seem the sort required to excel at Harvard. Long afterwards I would figure out that much of what Harvard was about was a giant game of categories, in which real people, real events and real phenomena were assigned to fictitious groupings such as The Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, or the Freudian Tradition. To those immersed in this game, the imaginary assumed a substance of its own; as classics professor John Finley is said to have remarked, “Sometimes, I fear my son thinks that life is real.”
I had come to Harvard full of passion for phenomena I could see, feel and touch; now it was implicitly suggested that these were childish things to be put away. The educated man concerned himself primarily with what they meant, with which other phenomena they belonged, and what theories could best explain their existence in the first place. I didn’t want to spend my life putting things into little boxes; I wanted to take them out, turn them over, examine them closely, do something with them, and tell others what I had found. If you were brazen enough to think inductively, that is to say to examine evidence and consider what it might all mean — in short to use one’s innate capacity to imagine, to dream and to create — you risked being regarded ignorant, or at least odd. You were, after all, being educated to digest grand principles, major paradigms and random certainties and then to sort and file all of life’s phenomena by these convenient categories. In such a cataloging system, the accidental, the chaotic, the imagined, the malevolent, the culturally unfamiliar, and the unique often got misplaced. I had come to Harvard with some vague notion that it would teach me how to use my own intelligence better, that I would learn how to educate myself. I didn’t understand then, and wouldn’t until many decades later, that the American establishment wasn’t really all that interested in that sort of thing. From the intellectual epicenter of Cambridge to the political apex of Washington, education was something one received, rehearsed, and regurgitated. You didn’t play with it, experiment with it, and you certainly didn’t make it your own — even if, like the shape of Harvard Square, it turned out not to be as officially described. Life at Harvard was thus several steps removed from life as I knew and hoped it to be. It seemed more like conversations with upper class Philadelphians to whom anecdotes were valued not for themselves but for their references to familiar persons or places. A bad story about a Biddle or Northeast Harbor was preferable to a good one about some person or place they did not know. At Harvard, of course, it wasn’t Biddles and Northeast Harbor, but rather Hume and the Hegelian dialectic.
The dean of freshman, F. Skiddy von Stade Jr, once said to me, “You people from Germantown Friends look so good on paper. Why do you do so badly here?” It was a fair question; a number of GFS graduates were on probation and one had dropped out. I couldn’t answer the question, but I quickly contributed to his stereotype. I drifted into a schedule that kept me up drinking – once a whole fifth of bourbon before bed – and talking much of the night while sleeping through classes. By the middle of freshman year I received a postcard from my English instructor: “Mr. Coles requests the pleasure of your attendance at the next regular meeting of his course.” I was quickly becoming, without malice aforethought, a Harvard dissident.
What I didn’t know when von Stade asked me about Germantown Friends was that he had already vetted me and other students in a curious manner, almost as if I were applying to be a secret agent or a member of a holy order rather than merely a freshman. Years later I came across an exchange of letters between von Stade and my father in which the dean wrote, among other things:
I should like to ask you to write me as fully and as frankly as possible about the background, interests, and special needs of your son. If there are deficiencies in his earlier education, or handicaps in his personality or health, I sincerely hope that you will tell me about them. This information will be available only to your son’s Faculty Adviser, to the Medical Department, and to members of this office.
My father rose to the challenge with a letter – about half of which was devoted to bragging about his family including the fact that his great uncle had been Harvard dean of Latin. Referring to me (as always) by my middle name, my father also turned to more immediate matters:
At the present writing, I think Houston would like to be an Edward R. Murrow or an Elmer Davis. He has substantial interest in music – both the drums and the clarinet – and in writing and political science. In sports he is not particularly good excepting in sailing, where he is quite good. He has worked on our farm in the summers so that he is strong and healthy. He has always been willing to take responsibility and leadership. . .
Houston’s dangers are that he is rather good looking and he could easily become conceited, and I think that Harvard could instill an intellectual arrogance which would be undesirable. When he is disciplined, he will conform but conforms at times in a literal way which may seem to be lacking in the fullness of cooperation. He has taken responsibility well though he needs development in this respect. On the whole, I do not anticipate any great problems with him at Harvard other than those which are inherent of’ any good college and its tendency towards intellectual parochialism.
The former Justice Department official closed with an eloquent caution:
I have tried to write frankly and trust that this information will be received in the same spirit in which your letter was apparently written.
Since discovering this exchange, I have occasionally wondered how many of these freshman dossiers ended up elsewhere in the interest of the state or of some prominent alumnus seeking a new assistant. As with much intelligence gathering, however, von Stade’s efforts fell a bit short. Alston Chase gave an example years later in the Atlantic Monthly:
8 Prescott Street in Cambridge is a well-preserved three-story Victorian frame house, standing just outside Harvard Yard. Today it houses Harvard’s expository-writing program. But in September of 1958, when Ted Kaczynski, just sixteen, arrived at Harvard, 8 Prescott Street was a more unusual place, a sort of incubator.
Earlier that year F. Skiddy von Stade Jr., Harvard’s dean of freshmen, had decided to use the house as living accommodations for the brightest, youngest freshmen. Von Stade’s well-intentioned idea was to provide these boys with a nurturing, intimate environment, so that they wouldn’t feel lost, as they might in the larger, less personal dorms. But in so doing he isolated the overly studious and less-mature boys from their classmates. He inadvertently created a ghetto for grinds, making social adjustment for them more, rather than less, difficult. . .Whereas other freshmen lived in suites with one or two roommates, six of the sixteen students of Prescott Street, including Kaczynski, lived in single rooms.
One of those who lived at 8 Prospect Street under the guidance of proctor Francis Xavier Edward Murphy was my friend Ed Hinshaw who was several classes behind me. When I learned of this decades later, I was stunned. Hinshaw, who would drop out of Harvard, later becoming a leading TV anchor in Milwaukee and a top executive of his broadcasting company, had none of the characteristics of an anti-social over-studious grind. He was, in fact, one of the most hopelessly gregarious people I have ever known.
I never considered you a mad genius, I remarked to Ed, who replied that he had tired of living with one and told von Stade that he had to get away from his roommate. “We thought you’d be a stabilizing influence,” replied von Stade to the freshman scholarship student unwittingly drafted for his social engineering project. Providing Ed with stabilizing influences was apparently not considered.
A decade later, von Stade had further problems with his students as James Glassman wrote in Harvard Magazine:
300 students walked into that stolid gray administration building with the statue of John Harvard out front, rousted deans and secretaries from their offices, and moved in. “We are holding University Hall to force the Harvard Corporation to yield to our demands,” said the statement they issued on that warm afternoon, April 9, 1969. “We intend to stay until we win.” But 17 hours later they were gone, rousted themselves by 400 state and local policemen in riot gear that included long batons and, memorably, helmets of robin’s-egg blue.
Glassman wasn’t actually there, but senior tutor Roger Rosenblatt was and described what happened in his book, Coming Apart: America and the Harvard Riots of 1969:
F. Skiddy von Stade, Dean of Freshmen, and Archie C. Epps, an Assistant Dean of Freshmen, were roughed up and hustled down the stairs. Epps was the only black man in the administration, and because of that he suffered the radical students’ particular derision. He was pushed against a wall, then down a flight of stairs, then up against a water cooler, and out the northwest door. . .
[Dean Burris Young] was a popular dean with students and had lived in a freshman dorm for many years. . . . He was standing in [Dean] Glimp’s office when the occupiers broke into the building. “We never thought they’d do it,” he said. “One of the worst of them started to drag Skiddy [von Stade] down the hall. Skiddy had a bad back and he was in his sixties. I yelled out, ‘Don’t bend him over, you son of a bitch!'” Like many freshman proctors and deans, von Stade had the bearing and temperament of a friendly boarding school headmaster. He came from the horsey aristocracy of upstate New York, had leathery skin, and spoke with a loud, hail-fellow voice. It was said that he once had kept polo ponies at Harvard. He looked terrific in riding boots.
While the precise nature of von Stade’s offenses are not clear, his attitude toward social change – as expressed that same year and recalled in the Harvard Crimson in 1974 – probably didn’t help:
When I see the bright, well-educated, but relatively dull housewives who attended the Seven Sisters, I honestly shudder at the thought of changing the balance of males versus females at Harvard. Quite simply, I do not see highly educated women making startling strides in contributing to our society in the foreseeable future. They are not, in my opinion, going to stop getting married and/or having children. They will fail in their present role as women if they do.
Von Stade had plenty of support for such views. Professor John Finley, classics scholar and master of Eliot House, said about the same time that “I’m not quite sure people want to have crystalline laughter falling like waterfalls down each entry way of the house at all hours. I should think it would be a little disturbing if you were taking advanced organic chemistry.”
Although Harvard men don’t like to talk about it, the Harvard dissident – with a few exceptions such as the Unabomber – belongs to a long and tolerably distinguished tradition. It includes Henry Thoreau, who had little truck with the place after he was through, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips who left Harvard a list of social causes to which it had contributed nothing and Ralph Emerson who complained that graduates come out “with a bag of wind, a memory of words — and do not know a thing.” Ogden Nash and Pete Seeger dropped out as did Bill Gates and Matt Damon, who left to pursue acting. William Randolph Hearst was asked to leave because, as a member of Hasty Pudding, he was pursuing acting too much. Benjamin Franklin, whose opinion probably doesn’t count since he never went there, thought that Harvard students “learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a room gently (which might as well be acquired at a dancing school).” They graduate “as great blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.”
In the 1890s, V.L. Parrington, on his way to becoming a noted historian, entered Harvard from Emporia College. The experience, Richard Hofstadter writes in The Progressive Historians, “can be characterized only as a provocative disaster.” For his twenty-fifth reunion class report, Parrington wrote,
The past five years I have spent in study and writing, up to my ears in the economic interpretation of American history and literature, getting the last lingering Harvard prejudices out of my system . . . I become more radical with each year and more impatient with the smug Tory culture which we were fed on as undergraduates. I haven’t been in Cambridge since July, 1893. Harvard is only a dim memory to me. Very likely I am wrong in my judgment, yet from what little information comes through to me I have set the school down as a liability rather than an asset to the cause of democracy. It seems to me the apologist and advocate of capitalistic exploitation — as witness the sweet-smelling list of nominees set out yearly for the Board of Overseers.
There were other varieties of dissidents. Like the student of my era who departed this vale by backing himself into a rotating airplane propeller. Or my classmate who robbed a statue from the Fogg Museum, jumped off a trans-Atlantic steamer as a poetic gesture, was later spotted driving a motorcycle down a San Francisco street clad only in a crash helmet, and who subsequently wrote incomprehensible poems from his asylum, dutifully published in a Harvard Square quarterly. Or those who simply left the place, some of them still doing quite well even without the blessing of Harvard. Or the sixty odd members of my class whom the class secretary couldn’t find by the 20th reunion, including two of my freshmen roommates. Or the women who were in every one of my classes but who are still non-persons of the Class of ’59 because they were students of Radcliffe rather than of Harvard College. After all, one of the privileges of Harvard was to note only that which it wished to see: the worst thing that could happen to a Harvard student, in the eyes of Harvard, was that he be “expunged.” The university simply denied he was ever in attendance.
The women of ’59 never got there in the first place. Thirty years after she graduated in 1962, New York politician Elizabeth Holtzman would say, “Nobody protested. We didn’t know yet what was unfair. I felt privileged to be getting a Harvard education.” A New York Times article the year of her graduation said that “Radcliffe girls,” like those from other women’s colleges, “don’t DO much of anything beyond marrying and raising children.” The article was written by a Harvard man. And in another NY Times piece, Peggy Schmertzler of the Radcliffe class of 1953 recalled, “I remember the deans’ telling us an educated person made the best mother. . . She could sing French songs to her children.”
There were other deviations from the stereotype: a sample of the 20th anniversary report of my class, presumably near the peak of its career, found almost half the members of the class didn’t bother or didn’t want to tell their Harvard brothers what they were up to. Among those who did there was one chief of a UN peacekeeping mission, one “financial associate of John Hay Whitney,” one teacher of transcendental meditation, one car dealer, one travel agent, one founder of a human potential school, one airlines pilot, one owner-laborer-deliveryman of a firm making indoor potting soil, one funeral director, and one janitor who was a homosexual and proud of it. Among those who did not report, I know some who did interesting and useful things, some who went crazy, and some who had a struggle that, instructive as it might be to others, was hard to put in print. Those who did report were consistently upbeat:
I have continued to be a member of “Top of the Table” of the Million Dollar Round Table, a group composed of the top three hundred agents in the world, each member producing in excess of seven million dollars per year.
I am a partner [in) an organization of fourteen outstanding life insurance agents. . .
A year ago we purchased a small bank which we have succeeded in doubling in size during the past year. . . .
We also have involved ourselves in other ventures, from apartments, to hamburger franchises, to modular farming…
The wisest thing written in our 20th anniversary report was Bryce Nelson’s one sentence entry: “Why do alumni reports describe people with more idyllic lives than the people we know in real life?”
Despite the variations, the stereotype persists not without reason. In a hundred-page sample of my class’s 20th reunion report, three quarters of those listed were university professors, businessmen, lawyers, doctors, in government or in insurance. The next highest category was architects (2%), those in secondary and elementary education (2%), those who had died (1.5%) and journalists (1%). Put another way, if you went to Harvard to become a journalist in the late 1950s, you would have stood a better chance twenty years later of being dead. On the whole I preferred journalism.
Only three people in the sample had gone into the ministry, one into conservation, three were librarians, one was a musician and there was one art dealer. The figures tell a lot more about what Harvard was about — an upscale vocational school for a select number of professions — than what Harvard said it was about. Those who went to Harvard knowing this, and wanting this, got an education with which most, I suspect, were more than satisfied. Those who did not want to be lawyers, doctors, university professors, vice presidents of corporations or members of the Million Dollar Roundtable could discover Harvard’s indifference to their aspirations with frustration and even bitterness. They had come, after all, with a high school student’s vision of Harvard as a cornucopia of opportunity, a vision fostered by the generalized myth of Harvard, by enthusiastic high school teachers more dedicated to teaching than most of the professors the student would find in Cambridge, and by the self-promotional rhetoric of Harvard and Harvardmen.
The Harvard dissidents penetrated the illusion early. It didn’t take long to discover that we had chosen a pin-stripe boot camp, an MIT of establishmentarian science, a place where one traded in the provincialism of one’s home town for the more elegant and still remarkably Tory provincialism of Cambridge. The adaptation to this discovery varied. Some of us never adapted well at all. The disjunction of our Harvard experience left us somehow out of sync with the world. When what Harvard promised proved false, it did something to other promises as well. On the other hand, I sometimes think that refusing the world on Harvard’s terms means little except that Harvard was the first Emerald City we had encountered. We would have taken off the green glasses somewhere, whether we had gone to Harvard or not.
In truth, there was a lot about Harvard that I enjoyed. Even Soc Sci 2 — after I realized I was going to pass. Soc Sci 2, taught by intense, red-headed liberal Samuel Beer, covered six revolutions — including the French, the industrial and the Nazi — with enough enthusiasm for real people and events to keep me interested. Each revolution required a two thousand word paper. The climax of the course led us from Nietzsche to Hitler to an evening of Nazi propaganda films and footage of concentration camps liberated just ten years earlier. The concentration camps were gruesome, but the movies the Nazis had made to celebrate themselves were in some ways even more horrific, depicting as they did millions of Germans voluntarily surrendering their souls as millions of others were involuntarily losing their lives. In one of the films, the frame was almost entirely filled with an overhead shot of Nazi soldiers. One thin corridor cut through the dark mass and down it walked three tiny figures — Adolph Hitler and two aides.
Many of the more popular courses earned themselves nicknames. “Boats” was about maritime history, reputedly a gut ( or easy) course but one of my favorites. I suspect Professor Robert Albion attracted derision not merely because his course graded easily, but because he was teaching what would later be called social history, in which the course of human events was not entirely decided by great men. Harvard preferred great men.
“Nuts and Sluts” was a social relations course (Harvardspeak for pyschology), and the basic fine arts course, with its midday slide shows, was called “Darkness at Noon.” “Heaven and Hell” — or “Stardust” — was a combination of astronomy and geology, the celestial part taught by a friendly Dutch professor named Bart J. Bok. Bok, as a science popularizer, came a close second to the physics instructor who proved that for every reaction there was an equal and opposite reaction by departing his lecture on the topic aboard a well-greased cart propelled by the jet of fire extinguisher. Bok, for his part, could give a phenomenal one-man imitation of the solar system. Starting with a right finger (the moon) raised high and circling his left fist (the earth), and with both then circumnavigating his head (the sun), Bok would rotate and move in an appropriate orbit across the wide lecture hall. His description of how the speed of light was first calculated was similarly dramatic: a race with chalk across forty feet of black board and back again. In October of my freshman year, I wrote home:
Here beginneth the second epistle. Friday I took my first hour exam. It was in Nat Sci and I don’t dare to say whether it was hard or easy until I get my mark. Prof. Bok got a wild hand of applause last Wednesday for his description of what happens when a galaxy containing positive electrons meets one containing negative electrons.
One day we sat down in the high pitched lecture hall to find a huge brass ball hanging from the ceiling above a circle of chalk markers on the floor. Bok’s pendulum, however, turned out to be not as frictionless as Foucault’s; it refused to reflect the earth’s rotation. At the end of the lecture Bok walked over to the ball, stared at it, shrugged, and said, “Vell, ze earth she does not move today.” At his last lecture, he announced that he would be leaving Harvard to become the head astronomer at the Canberra, Australia, observatory. He explained: “Every man muz follow hiz star. And ven your star itz in ze Southern Cross, you go to Australia. Gut bye!” And walked out to a standing ovation.
Some of the best professors were either new to Harvard ways or just visiting. Guest professor Robert McKenzie gave a remarkably clear exposition of British politics which we fed back to him on a three-hour final that posed the single question: “Who governs Britain?” The sociologist David Riesman arrived from the University of Chicago my senior year. His reputation had preceded him; there were so many applicants for his course that a cop was assigned to keep order. Reisman’s course was excellent, but even better was what occurred several months after it was over. My paper on the relationship between musicians and audience in popular music had been read and graded by a section man. But that summer, I received a three-page, single-spaced critique from Riesman. The most thoughtful comment I received from a Harvard professor had arrived after graduation.
Riesman, who apparently wrote many such letters, was a teacher, something that set him off from more than a few of the faculty. One Harvard professor explained to a visitor: “We have what is known as a reading period when there are no lectures. This comes between a one-week Christmas vacation and a two-week exam period. So you see, that gives us on the faculty a five-week period when we don’t have to teach and we can do what we really want.” John Ciardi once noted that a “university is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students.” Harvard was a university.
If I had chosen one of the conventional majors, I might never have made it through. Fortunately, or inevitably, I found my way — academically and geographically — to a backwater of the university: the anthropology department, which lived like an Amazonian tribe well off the main campus in the dusty, dim recesses of the Peabody Museum. Out of some four thousand undergraduates, only 20 majored in anthropology, five of them former students of Howard Platt at Germantown Friends School. I had taken a general anthropology course my freshman year and had found it a refuge from the incessant abstractions being discussed elsewhere. To be sure, there were plenty of Principles, Theories, and Categories, but the greater time was spent on observation and reporting, not so far removed from my journalistic interests. Further, once among the artifacts stored with faded labels in long, ancient, wood rimmed cases, or passing a canoe or totem pole en route to class, one felt distinctly free of Harvard, fully liberated from the Major Ideas of Western Civilization. In those dark corridors was the path to a world of variety and exploration, a field trip into all that lay beyond Harvard Square.
I had no intention of actually becoming an anthropologist. There were practical problems such as a sybaritic streak that made unappealing the thought of living months with strangers without radio, bars and jazz. And while the results of archeology were often fascinating, the effort involved in achieving them required a patience well beyond my own. Thus I became something of an oddity within the larger oddity of the department of anthropology: someone majoring in the subject for non-professional reasons. My professors and instructors, however, took no umbrage. They regarded me with the tolerance for which anthropologists are known.
Besides, as I would come to notice, anthropologists were often people who, like myself, were not totally at home in their own culture. You sensed this listening to Clyde Kluckhohn rhapsodize about France while pacing up and down the lecture hall stage in combat boots. Cora Dubois, a onetime student of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, strode into class in a trench coat as if just off a flying boat from the Pacific and held me enthralled as she described the sex lives of the people of Alor, a small island in the Dutch East Indies where she had spent considerable time in the late 1930s, living alone and handing out medical supplies to win over the villagers. Her passion for trench coats may have come from her service in the OSS. She had headed its Indonesian section during WWII and later participated in the Free Thai underground movement. I believe it was Dubois who told us of a Pacific tribe that believed a woman could only conceive as a result of multiple acts of intercourse, thus allowing the semen to accumulate in sufficient quantity to produce a baby. I liked this idea and, given a growing concern over the precipitous potential of personal relations, I thought it a considerable improvement over those arrangements actually in place. In any case, I do know it was DuBois who wrote on my paper concerning the Nagas of India: “This is pretty good journalism but it is bad anthropology.”
It has been part of my personal myth that I never went to class, did most of my studying during the two-week reading period before exams, and generally eschewed all academic matters while interned in Harvard Square. While there is some truth to this, it has been deeply exaggerated. I did attend and pass a large number of courses, I must have studied for them (my notes suggest at one point a goal of 20 hours a week, with the current week logging nine and a half), I truly enjoyed some of my courses and Bart J. Bok scribbled on one of my papers “Very good summary of the solar prominence situation.” At the same time, however, I recall an exceptional amount of time spent on the banks of the Charles in the spring trying to cram 600 pages of information into my head in 48 hours, being unable to stay awake for more than 20 minutes in one of the comfortable chairs in Lamont Library, and generally living on the edge.
I think what finally almost did me in can be best explained by the analogy of criminality. I had started, much as the criminal life commences, with some mild offense such as shoplifting or hubcap stealing. When I found I could get through courses I didn’t like by relying on native wit and a long reading period, I began to take ever greater risks, stealing, so to speak, cars and mugging little old ladies. Now it was time to hit the bank. I don’t know why I took “Darkness at Noon,” although perhaps it was out of a residual urge to pander to my parents’ cultural obsessions. But how I thought I could pass a course whose substance consisted of hundreds of slides without actually looking at them is now beyond any explanation other than the pathological. I robbed the bank and was caught. I flunked the first semester. I hold no grudge against the professor or Harvard for this. Any student who identifies an architectural drawing of Notre Dame’s main floor as a Renaissance garden deserves to flunk. (I sat in the back of the room and my hangover and lack of sleep truly gave the columns a bush-like fuzziness).
I was put on probation, at which point I reformed sufficiently to purchase a complete set of black and white prints of every picture shown in the course, packaged in two green boxes by a Harvard Square emporium. I also went to class and succeeded in bringing my final grade up to a D, high enough to receive a highly provisional reprieve. In its wake, I thought seriously of leaving the place. But one mid-day in the huge dark-paneled dining hall of Adams House, I proposed this course to Stephen Graubard, an instructor connected with the house. Graubard, already a bright light on campus, was later editor of Daedalus and one of the nation’s leading academic intellectuals. He suggested that I struggle on. “A Harvard degree,” he said, “will come in very handy one day.” In one short sentence, Steve Graubard had told me all I wanted to know about Harvard. Finally, someone had explained succinctly what we were all doing there. I didn’t like it; it was one reason I was feeling miserable. But it was true. So I stayed.
There were some other reasons I almost flunked out. In sum they recall the Maine story about the man who won a free trip to New York City. When he returned, a reporter met him at the railroad station and asked him how he liked the New York. He replied, “Gahd, there was so much goin’ on down to the depot, I never did get to see the village.”
There was a lot going on at the Harvard depot almost from the moment I got there. A month after arriving I wrote home:
I have become assistant manager of the yacht club which means I keep the record of the races and figure the standings and get the freshman who are to race in the weekend races. It is interesting and allows me to see exactly where I am from day to day and not have to wait a week for the latest results to be posted. Right now I have dropped to 10th place in the club, but am still in second place among the freshmen.
At Harvard, sailing was considered a minor varsity sport, but those of us who engaged in it thought of it mostly as fun. It was in this spirit that I violated the rules of the New England Intercollegiate Sailing Association by inviting a woman who had been a Germantown Friends School classmate to crew for me in a race at Tufts. Her name on the form was sexually ambiguous — Allison — and it would not have been a problem had I not won the race. This attracted a protest from the crew that came in second and I was hauled before a hearing of the association board, a solemn collection of New England preppie alumni. I wasn’t angry, I just thought it weird. The New England Intercollegiate Sailing Association censured me, but the only lesson I really learned was that alumni who went to all-male prep schools could be kind of strange.
At the time I was placed on probation I had just been elected station manager of WHRB, the campus radio station; was hosting and producing a four-hour weekly news and entertainment program; covering the Cambridge city council; working for the Harvard public relations office; holding another part-time job with the Fund for Harvard College; working on a fundraising project for Radcliffe College; playing drums in a band; racing on the Harvard varsity sailing team, having an active social life and setting a recent record for the number of hours spent at the Adams House dining hall engaged in conversation — my personal best being the day I arrived early for lunch and stayed through dinner.
Since my allowance was heavily constricted, I early sought ways to supplement it. Thus I had found my way to the Harvard News Office, which handled public relations for the university. It was called the Harvard News Office because Bill Pinkerton, the crew-cut, graying ex-AP man who ran it, believed that the best public relations was to tell journalists honestly what was going on at the school, unadorned by flackery, puffery or dog and pony shows. Admittedly, it was a principle that was relatively easy to pursue since Harvard and its professors were regularly discovering or contending something of newsworthiness. Bill needed only to report on it, AP style, to a receptive press. My job included doing news releases about students for hometown papers and some experimentation with radio tapes. The Harvard News Office was the epitome of a well-functioning office, filled with good humor, good work, efficiency and a conscience.
My efforts at the news office led eventually to simultaneous employment by the Fund for Harvard College, which was launching a then unprecedented $85 million capital fund drive, beginning with an hour-long program on national CBS radio. I was assigned, among other tasks, to record free-flowing interviews with students to be used as sound-bites on the program. The pay, the prospect of having one’s work broadcast on national radio and the chance to associate with a genuine New York producer, all appealed to me and the university seemed happy with my work. On March 31, 1958, President Nathan Pusey wrote me:
The vagaries of advertising and promotion are such that often credit does not go where credit is due. Mr. Bentinck-Smith has spoken often during the last few weeks of the vast amount of interviewing and recording which you did for “The Case for the College.” I wish to send you my thanks, on behalf of Harvard, for the energy and skill with which you carried out this extracurricular activity. You contributed in large measure to the success of the Program. . .
Less than three months later, on June 23, the Senior Tutor of Adams House also wrote me:
I am writing to let you know that the Administrative Board voted to place you on probation instead of severing your connection with the University as a result of your second consecutive unsatisfactory term record this spring. Although still far below what you could easily do with a decent amount of work and interest, your marks did show considerable improvement the first term and were so close to satisfactory that severance would have seemed unnecessary concern for the letter of the law. . . It seems to me that you should consider fairly carefully this summer what you want to do about your academic career. If you don’t want to put in the time and effort to produce a satisfactory result then it would be something of a waste of time to be here. If you do want to complete next year, however, you should make up your mind to do a good job and exert enough self-discipline to do it ….
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
My term as station manager thus lasted only through the summer. In the fall, I had to resign the post and, like numerous similarly sanctioned WHRBies, perform on-air activities under a pseudonym. The ready room for all this was Adams A-36, located in that corner of Adams House known as the Gold Coast, which had rooms that were once private apartments for wealthy students. Our entry had an elegant stone and wood lobby and sumptuous suites. Better yet, the Gold Coast was well removed from the House offices, their prying functionaries, and the general flow of Adams House traffic. Across the street was a large Catholic Church in front of which Cambridge Mayor Eddie Sullivan would leave his car parked for every mass the Sunday before election day. Adams House also faced the bright red wooden house that served as the headquarters of the excommunicated Catholic priest, Father Feeney, known for his virulent prejudice and extreme liturgical views. Father Feeney’s cadre wore priestly garb but to my eye looked more like hit men than theologians. We left them alone and they largely returned the favor, although once, when a Jewish friend was working in front of Adams House on his car with a black classmate, Feeney himself crossed the street to berate the latter, warning him that he would never become any whiter hanging around with a Jew.
The isolation of Adams House A-entry permitted a certain amount of liberty from the college’s draconian parietal rules, which required that women be absent from student rooms by early evening. The ambience and the privacy made our entry a favored center for social activities ranging from trysts to post-game parties. At least two of my friends claim, although I don’t recall it, that Coleman Hawkins was among our visitors. Harvard’s houses were a cross between dormitories and small colleges. Each house had its own stereotype: the jock house, the intellectual house, or — in the case of Adams — the determinedly eclectic house. The houses had their own dining hall and recreational facilities (an indoor swimming pool and squash courts being another Gold Coast legacy at Adams House), as well as clubs and organizations that replicated on a smaller scale the university-wide versions.
Author (r) with Bill Kelly plotting the cover for a non-existent album
Faculty were assigned to the various houses and encouraged to eat there and participate in House functions. Many of the faculty took this responsibility seriously and as a result, much of the contact I had with Harvard professors took place over marginal meatloaf or melting ice cream. One had to apply for a house at the end of freshman year and be interviewed by the house staff. My prospective roommates and I had already figured out that the best rooms on campus were the large suites in Adams A and B entries. We also figured out, as we carefully filled up our roster of five, that Adams House was looking for variety. Reviewing our socio-demographics, the house secretary asked, “Do you guys really like each other or did you just come together to get into Adams House?” It was a fair question for our number included not only myself, a prospective anthropologist from an upper class family, but an Italian public school graduate from New Haven, a classics major who went to Andover, and a returning Navy veteran concentrating in Russian. I was the only one not on a scholarship. We assured the secretary that we had the highest regard and friendship for each other, whereupon she assigned us to Adams A-36, with its four decent sized bedrooms, large, dark-paneled living room and non-functioning fireplace.
We actually did like each other, and though the vicissitudes of Harvard created considerable turnover, the suite kept its warmth. One prospective roommate never made it to sophomore year. Another left college permanently to end up a Xerox executive. A third, brought in hastily when we feared an empty bed might mean the loss of the suite, also flunked out. He remained living with us for the next semester, unbeknownst to Harvard, as he started his career as an encyclopedia salesman. Judging from the calls coming in to ELIBERO (the acronym of our telephone number), he was not much more reliable as a purveyor of encyclopedias than he had been as a student. He did, however, lend the suite a certain character, largely as a result of a maiden aunt who would periodically, and without notice, dispatch exotic packages to us. Once a box containing scores of soap cakes from motels across America arrived at the door. On another occasion, a huge carton containing similar quantities of toilet paper appeared. We strung the toilet paper on a bamboo pole, jammed it between floor and ceiling in a corner of the room, and then built around it a pyramid of paper rolls — a pop art construction before its time that slowly deconstructed with the passing of the semesters.
The happy heart of the group included Greg Dickerson from New Hampshire; Terry Murphy from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; Mike Bell, whose mother ran a free-thinking and sometimes controversial bookstore in State College, Pa.; and Rocky Whitman, nicknamed in high school wrestling days, who would drop out to join the Army and later revert to Gren as he became involved in the civil rights movement and progressive politics. Years later, when the Washington City Paper referred to me as a “Harvard brat,” international lawyer Terry loyally (and pro bono) rose to my defense in a letter in which he pointed out that:
A classmate from an old Yankee family once reported that he “saw just enough of Sam at Harvard that [he] didn’t have to get to know any of Sam’s friends.” Most of us, in fact, were scholarship students . . . None of us was in any of the renowned ‘final’ clubs that sheltered the real Harvard brats.
Outfitted with dingy, used furniture, a refrigerator stuffed in the closet next to the fireplace, and a huge abstract painting on loan from an artist who could find no other place to hang it, our living room became an attractive meeting place for friends at all hours of day and night. In fact, A-36 is probably one of the few college rooms to have been memorialized by a serious bard. Tom Whitbread, then a tutor and later a well-published poet and professor at the University of Texas, would visit at unpredictable hours, his arrival often smoothed by the beer that accompanied him. One early morning, after his hosts had either passed out or fallen asleep, he left a thank-you note. It read:
Terence this is stupid stuff
Smith is strewn about the floor
Dickerson is getting tough
Whitman has gone out for more
Agape has left the room
Orion lives up in the sky
I hear a thin soft voice of doom
The time has come to say good-bye.
We could be appropriately sophomoric, such as when we turned a Ronson can into a flame thrower with which to torch the sandwiches on the window sill below ours. Or when we celebrated the launching of Sputnik by using a working model based on the “electric gun” designed by proto-physicist Reilly Atkinson of Hollis Hall. Ours was a wine bottle filled with lighter fluid into which we inserted a sliced electrical cord with just two strands of wire touching each other. A cork firmly jammed into the bottle served as the space capsule. We hid behind the large sofa and at the end of the countdown put the plug into the wall. A magnificent blue explosion filled the bottle as the cork headed for the ceiling.
Such inanities, however, did not impede A-36 from eventually spawning three professors (Colorado, Minnesota and Bryn Mawr), a corporate executive, a community organizer, a journalist, and an international lawyer. The room produced two law degrees, one OBE, one Phi Beta Kappa, one Fulbright scholar to Iceland, several bouts of academic probation, five drop-outs, three veterans, and three participants in the civil rights movement. Each of us had our own virtues and vulnerabilities. The former we celebrated and the latter we handled collectively, at times almost unmercifully. Thus when Terry was wending his way through problems associated with having made two dates for the same Harvard-Yale game, we forced upon him daily debriefings and ribald analyses of his plight.
Mike’s problem was a profound preference for sleep over classes. I once returned to the suite to hear a radio blaring from his room. I called a greeting and getting no response after several tries, quietly opened his door. Mike had placed his clock radio at the furthest point from his bed and he was lying face down on the floor in full slumber, his hand stretched futilely towards the radio, still some feet away. Greg’s problem was that he was a precocious intellectual with a large number of roommates who had, at least for those few years, other things on their minds. Professor John Finley thought highly enough of Greg to pay him a surprise visit, the announcement of which caused the most serious attempt at cleaning that the suite ever endured. We admired Greg’s ability with the ancient tongues and attempted to keep him cheered throughout the long, painful creation of his senior thesis, the only honors paper A-36 produced. As the thesis reached deadline, we formed a paper brigade, running each page of his draft to a professional typist as soon as Greg had finished with it.
My problem was that I was getting fat. Although I had consumed plenty of wine at home, Harvard introduced me to beer. Much of the beer was purchased at Cronins which, stuffed with tall wooden booths, resembled the large waiting room of a railroad station. It had a high ceiling against which ricocheted the voices and clashing silverware of young Cambridge. The place was owned by an genial Irishman named Jim Cronin. Towards the end of my stay at Harvard I interviewed Jim for WHRB and he told me he liked Harvard students although he thought some of them had a little trouble with communism. It was the second time I had heard this. When I had returned from Europe on the Liberté one summer I found myself waiting on the huge dock for customs well after all the other passengers had left. An inspector approached me, apologized and explained that I wasn’t the Sam Smith they had been seeking. He glanced at my passport, asked me where I went to college and, when I told him, inquired, “Ever have any trouble with communism?” “No sir,” I replied and he waved me off, not bothering with my bags.
You could get a small glass of beer at Cronins for a dime — a dimie. The first time I went there as a freshman, well under-aged, I joined my sister and some of her graduate student friends at a table waited on by the motherly Frannie. I looked older than I was and Frannie never asked for my ID. Thereafter, whenever I went to Cronin’s I sat at one of Frannie’s booths. It was not until late in my senior year that Frannie came to the table and said apologetically, “They’ve got the inspectors in here and I’m gonna have to see everyone’s ID — even yours, Sam.” I handed her my driver’s license and watched as Frannie calculated how many years she had been conned. She looked at me with eyes worn by centuries of Irish oppression and said, “Oh, Sam.” I still feel bad about it.
The dimies, combined with a regular roast beef sandwich with Russian dressing at Elsie’s nightly around ten and a number of well buttered English muffins at the Bick at midnight, and/or two, and/or four and/or six am, had a phenomenal affect on my constitution. By the middle of my sophomore year I was up to 230 pounds — fully fifty over what I had weighed at graduation and not a gram of it firmed by anything remotely resembling exercise. My roommates designated me Fat Jolly Sam, or Fat Jolly for short. I didn’t particularly like this nickname, but it was part of our unspoken covenant that accuracy was not cruelty, a covenant I not only accepted but practiced. What I did not like about the nickname was not its use, for after all it was meant as a term of affection, but rather its accuracy and my lack of will or skill to do anything about it. Eventually, I would cut back on the visits to Elsie’s, switch from beer to whiskey, start lifting weights regularly at the Harvard gym, and arrive at graduation only ten pounds heavier than when I left GFS. In the meanwhile, however, there were some complications, the most notable being the announcement by my father that he was giving me an English tailored suit, made to order by his favorite firm on Saville Row. The measurement form arrived at Adams A-36 and I turned to my companions for advice. We lacked both a math major and a tape measure but, fortified by a few beers, my roommates set about to measure me using a yard stick. All 230 pounds of me were checked, loudly disputed, and then rechecked before the form was dispatched to England. A few weeks later a letter arrived:
DEAR SIR: With reference to your esteemed order, we regret to find when going into the measurements you have given, that these do not appear to be quite in order, and we do not feel we could with confidence make up a suit. We wonder if you would be good enough to have the enclosed form completed, if possible by a local tailor, and returned to us at your earliest convenience. Your further esteemed commands shall have our best and personal attention.
With our compliments, we remain, Sir, Yours faithfully, JONES CHALK & DAWSON, LIMITED D. Robinson Director
P.S. Have you a snapshot of yourself which would help?
I was measured by a local tailor and in time the suit arrived, a massive device that could withstand the worst cold of Boston or the loss of all of Her Majesty’s colonies — magnificent on Harold MacMillan no doubt, but leaving one of my friends to comment that I was the only person who could make an English tailored suit look as though it had come from Robert Hall’s, a discount clothier of little repute.
While working for Harvard provided a steady flow of income, my favorite, albeit unpredictable, employment was as a musician. I had been initially as uncertain of my musical potential as I had been of my ability to cope with Weber and Marx. There were many musicians in the school, not a few with professional experience. My era would produce Joe Raposo, the composer of Sesame Street songs including It’s Not Easy Being Green, and jazz pianist Steve Kuhn.
Fortunately, people like that were so good they didn’t play ordinary collegiate gigs, a genre left to the likes of Bob Brenman or Larry Yanuzzi. Even Larry was already so professional that he had a stage name, Larry Vanne, not to mention a Chordovox, an electronic accordion that eliminated the need to pump the bellows.
As early as Octobr 21 of my freshman year I had put together a gig at Briggs Hall, Radcliffe for one of mixers known as jolly-ups. According to a note from one Luci Weiss, our group was “the most vital interest of the party and unanimous opinion was that this was the best jolly-up that Briggs had ever had.” And in my papers I found years later a business card from Jonathan Bingham, secretary to the governor of New York with the notation “wants band sometime.”
But it was a lot easier just following the lead of Bob Brenman, later Dr. Robert Brenman, a saxophonist who had played several summers in the Catskills. This seemed immensely impressive and so it was with no little alacrity that I accepted his invitation to join a dance band he was forming.
For the next four years, our group worked the collegiate dance circuit. It also served as the house band for the SAE fraternity, which survived, despite Harvard’s ban on such societies, hidden in dark, cramped quarters above the Bick. In the place of fraternities, the college had final clubs, which were collegiate imitations of the Racquet, Metropolitan or New York Yacht clubs their members would soon join. Only about ten percent of the students joined final clubs and maybe another ten percent tried but couldn’t get in. That left 80% of the college indifferent, a fairly healthy resolution of a potentially sticky problem at a school so obsessed with achievement. Since my name was still in the Social Register, I was “punched” for two clubs as well as for the Hasty Pudding, the theatrical group, but after one luncheon audition, quickly decided that I was eating with the most boring people I had yet met on campus, and dropped further procedures forthwith. SAE, despite the disapprobation of the university, tried hard to maintain the fraternity tradition, including the consumption of inordinate quantities of beer. With Charlie Kurzon noodling at the piano, Bob Nagatani on bass, and myself on drums, Brenman led us through his fake book (of the illegal sort then purchased for 25 bucks under the counter at a music store) inexorably starting with its first number, Over the Rainbow, and proceeding page by page through the long evenings. If there was one musical lesson I learned from Bob, it was that one could choose tunes as easily moving in strict pagination as one could by any more complicated system one might devise.
As the evening progressed, both audience and musicians loosened. Nagatani would start spinning his bass, I would bounce my drum sticks off the floor and Brenman would play Night Train lying on the floor with feet kicking in the air. The evening would inevitably close with a slow, soupy version of Good Night Sweetheart, within which Charlie deftly interspersed Brahms’ Lullaby, although at that point it was hard to find anyone who noticed. Playing such gigs was as much a matter of stamina as skill. The major challenges included circumventing a proposed drunken vocal by a member of the fraternity or saving one’s Gretsch pancake snare drum from the impending descent of an off-balance Harvard lineman. The Crimson Crew was up to the job though, once playing at the Harvard SAE from 8 pm until 2 am, then packing our gear and traveling to Boston University, where we played at that campus’s chapter of the fraternity until eight in the morning.
There were other problems, as suggested by a note:
Played for an hour at the Cafe Mozart with Don and Larry. We then went up to my pad where a party was in progress consisting of people I knew only slightly. Don had his date and another girl along. About a half hour later, Don passed out cold, so I laid him on Rocky’s bed and took the two girls down to dinner. When we came back, Don was still sleeping so I opened all the windows in the room and the cold night air brought him around. One half hour later he was playing sax at a dance at the Harvard Crimson. . .
My drum set was damaged only once (although it was pawned at the end of each term to cover my inevitable fiscal deficiency) and the proximate cause was not a Harvard lineman but an inebriated Harvard professor. I was standing in the kitchen of Professor and Mrs. John Kenneth Galbraith, who regularly hired a group I put together for their spring party, when I heard a snap unlike any rim shot I had ever produced. I returned to the living room to find the mournful prof eyeing the large crack he had just created in the head of my beloved red pancake snare.
I had been in the kitchen listerning to the Galbraith’s cook tell me how she handled one of the most fearsome icons on the Harvard campus: English professor Perry Miller. Miller had come into the kitchen and caller her “honey,” to which she had responded: “Don’t you be callin’ me honey, Mr. Miller. You call your wife honey but you sleep with your wife. You don’t sleep with me so don’t you be calling me honey.” I decided the Galbraith’s cook was among the bravest people in Cambridge.
There was plenty to keep one busy around the Square. One evening, several of us found a Volkswagon that seemed badly in need of being situated on the sidewalk. We were engaged in lifting it there when a Harvard cop approached. The most composed of our number politely turned to the policeman and said, “Excuse me officer, we found this car on the sidewalk and are trying to return it to the street. Could you give us a hand?” Without a word — because Harvard cops tended to come from that constabulary tradition that wasn’t looking for trouble — the officer helped us put the car back where it belonged.
I dated in a pattern inversely correlated to imminence of academic disaster and with an eclecticism that ran from Miss Freshman Radcliffe (my older sister set me up) to students from the Newton Convent of the Sacred Heart. Fumbling, with varying degrees of success and haste, out of the repressed sexual mythology of the fifties, the typical Harvard student of the day (if he dated much at all) did so in a fitful manner more resembling window shopping than clear-headed pursuit. We were thus astounded when our friend John Neary announced that he was planning to marry even before graduation. Nothing could have been further from our minds.
Many of the places one went with dates were the same one went without them: Cronin’s, Elsie’s, Cafe Mozart, Mount Auburn 47, or the Brattle Theatre. Once, while sitting in Elsie’s, a date told me she was going to a therapist. I had never known anyone who had done that. I told her I knew why I was screwed up; I just didn’t know what to do about it.
Mount Auburn 47, which opened in 1958, was a coffee house located just around the corner from my entry of Adams House. Joan Baez got her start at 47 Mt. Auburn, later known as Club 47. The club would become increasingly famous with time, eventually becoming more important for folk singers than similar spots in New York. Reputedly an up and coming Bob Dylan sang there between acts, Bruce Springsteen was refused a gig there, Bonnie Rait hung out there, and Muddy Waters attracted the Cambridge police who, according to one account, “couldn’t believe that the loud music could be coming from a place that only plays ‘folk’ music.”
There was also Eric von Schmidt, with whom I even played a couple of practice sessions when he was wondering how guitar and just brushes on snare would sound together. But for me, the time was mostly about jazz. Just as the Harlem Renaissance has been treated mainly as a literary phenonenom, so it was with the beat era. After all, it is writers and not artists and musicians who get to tell the story afterwards.
I never paid much attention to the writers and poets. While a couple of my friends mounted teletype paper rolls behind their typewriters in imitation of the author of “On the Road,” for me it was Miles and Bird and Thelonious who were the epitome of beatness, not Kerouac or Ginsberg. And even Kerouac described his writing as “spontaneous bop prosody.”
Besides, Miles and Thelonius actually came to town, the former once playing most of a concert with his back to the audience and the latter once sitting silently at the piano as his partners turned the introduction into a endless bass solo punctuated by a single note on the keyboard.
“Play something,” a man sitting at a front table demanded. Thelonious let the cigarette fall from his mouth to the stage and then kicked it onto the man’s table. Rising slowly, he stepped down from the stage and began to circle the perimeter of the room staring blankly at his audience. Word was that he was taken to a hospital late that night.
Club 47 later moved from Mt. Auburn to Palmer Street which caused a crisis in nomenclature that was eventually resolved as Tom Rush once explained to an interviewer, “They moved to Palmer Street which is a little short street and they actually had the building renumbered to 47 so the numbers on Palmer Street go 1-2-3-47.” In 1968 it was renamed Passim which, the owners said, was Latin for ‘everywhere in the book.”
Places such 47 Mt. Auburn brought Boston’s poets, folksingers and the explicitly disenchanted to suggest into a mike or over expresso that the 1950s were not all they had been cracked up to be. It was a gentle message, because it carried little suggestion that there was anything we could or should do about it. We were strong on analysis and abysmal at action. We, the minority who felt something was wrong, were like dinghies come adrift, lacking the power to do more than to rock aimlessly in inchoate discontent. I bought a beret and shades, which went well with my cigarillos and my Balkan Sobrani-filled pipe, but had not the slightest idea what to do with them other than to feel slightly superior, somewhat existential, and probably condemned to a future in which one could expect to achieve little except the maintenance of personal honor and the avoidance of banality.
It was, after all, what we were being taught at the Brattle Theatre. The Brattle, two years before I arrived at Harvard, began running Humphrey Bogart films in repertoire throughout reading period. We gathered faithfully and repeatedly to learn from the master, mimicking such lines as “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Later, in the sixties, when I was over thirty. it was said that people my age couldn’t be trusted; It wasn’t true, though. We could be trusted. We just couldn’t be relied upon. Our cultural heroes didn’t man the barricades. They hit the road. Our goal wasn’t to overthrow the establishment, someone would say later, but to make it irrelevant. Or, like Miles Davis in concert, to play with your back to it. Some of us made Bogart an anti-hero in part, I think, because we already suspected that America was our own Casablanca, a place of seductive illusions and baroque deceptions, where nothing was as it appeared. Bogart, with skill and cool, knew how to adapt to the chaos and deceit without betraying his own code. It was a model we needed.
We had been taught that if we crawled under our desks, we would be safe from The Bomb. Even our teachers lied to us. Yet, like Rick in Casablanca, it never occurred to us to try to change the world. When change finally did come, we would do what we did best. We adapted. From conventional sex to free sex to frightened sex, we adapted. From mass movements to monomaniacal interest groups, we adapted. From integration to nationalism to political correctness, we adapted. From communes to condos, we adapted. From Beatles to rap, from bongos to cell phones, and from Aquarius to apocalypse, we adapted. And given that these weren’t our revolutions, we did it pretty well.
The one revolution that was truly ours, the civil rights movement, the boomer braggarts claimed for themselves. And, being the silent generation, we let them. Our virtue and our failing was that we would never enjoy the hubris of those older and younger than ourselves. Our virtue because we were modest enough to actually have learned something from what happened; our failing because the footing never seemed solid enough to permit us to do much with what we had learned.
Whatever our expression of the times, there were enough of us that we were never lonely. We found each other at the Bick or Mt. Auburn 47 or at WHRB. WHRB was started during World War II as an AM station, using as its antenna the university’s electrical wiring system running through huge tunnels with the steam pipes. Its signal was not supposed to be heard beyond the campus, but there were periodic reports of it being picked up as far as Medford and Worcester, thanks to miscreant radiation. In 1957 WHRB was given an FM license, becoming a real station legally heard throughout the Boston area.
Author at WHRB
WHRB was a radio station, but it also functioned as a counter-fraternity, a salon des refuses for all those who because of ethnicity, class or inclination, did not fit the mold of Harvard. Other organizations sought students of the “right type,” WHRB got what was left over. Eccentric WASP preppies, Brookline Jews, brilliant engineers, persons obsessed with a musical genre, addicts of show business or their own voices, seminal journalists, future entrepreneurs, prospective advertising executives, and persons of heretofore unrequited imagination and energy filtered through the door in the alley known as Dudley Gulch to become part of The Network. As you entered, there was a control booth on the left and in the narrow hall a stand that held a large thick black covered journal of the sort once favored by lawyers and accountants. This was the Comment Book – or CB – the living Torah of the station. In it, notices of import and nonsense were written or stapled in undifferentiated order. Amusing excerpts from the news wire might be followed by a serious critique of a recent program. Hardly a notice appeared without someone, perhaps many someones, commenting on the notice, each addendum ending with a slash and the symbol of the writer. These symbols — mine was a puerile SAM — were carefully explained in an index at the beginning of each book, along with the names and addresses of any former members, “ghosts,” who might have wandered in during the interim. By WHRB’s fiftieth year there were 2,300 ghosts and 227 volumes of comment books stored in some archive, a remarkable trove awaiting a Ph.D. student seeking to write a cultural history of Harvard outsiders. Here are some entries from April 24, 1958:
The psychology story on ATN [All the News] was one of the worst I have ever heard. Much too long and clumsily written/mrf KAS:
JAN reacts sensibly and calmly to constructive criticism/KAS
Like members of other underclasses, we tended to treat each other with brutal directness — anything from diction to ethnicity was fair game — while maintaining a united front towards larger Harvard. Perhaps in our language we wanted to mock the disingenuous civility of the Harvard patois. We were, after all, different. We were actually doing something. We had the Federal Communications Commission logs of every minute of the day to prove it.
It was in the comment book that I learned that one of my classmates had failed a paper assignment, in part because he had footnoted large sections to “the unpublished works of Richard Zachs,” who, it turned out, was his roommate. And it was in the comment book that we all followed gwh’s — always lower case — repeated efforts to pass “Heaven and Hell.” gwh, a classical music announcer of mellifluous intonation, would later become a Methodist minister, but it was a career being seriously impeded by the general science requirement. On one occasion he stapled his entire exam blue book into the CB. Asked to describe an atom, gwh wrote, “An atom is very small. No one has ever seen an atom. Lucretius was the last person to write in an engaging manner about the atom.” When called upon to draw a chart showing the typical pattern of a solar prominence, gwh demurred: “I don’t remember that chart, but one I do recall and liked particularly is the following.” His final exam not only produced a failing grade, but two pages of exasperated comment from the section woman: “How can anyone fail to see the beauty of the stars, the fascination of the solar system? Your eyes must be closed. . .”
She obviously did not know gwh. His eyes were not closed; they were just elsewhere. gwh, after all, was the person who had once broadcast the complete daily New Bedford fish tonnage report in the manner of a funeral oration, complete with strident symphonic background. gwh also managed, prior to graduation, to redesign all rail passenger service in Florida, the existing schedule not being to his satisfaction. Some years later I ran into him in Harvard Square. He was attending Harvard Divinity School and I asked him how it was going. “Well, Sam,” he intoned, “this semester we learned that Moses didn’t exist. Next semester we take up the New Testament.”
When I reminded him of this several decades later, gwh said, “Ah yes, Harvard Divinity School was trying on one’s faith. One of our professors told us, ‘Gentlemen, our duty is to effect the burial of the dead. What God does with the body afterwards is his business.'” Otherwise I pretty much lost track of him after graduation, except for one postcard bearing the photo of an empty Massachusetts village green with the notation: “Sometimes the silence here is terrifying.” Then in the sixties, he phoned me in Washington and, with no other greeting, announced, “Sam, this is gwh. I have just bought the observation car of the Royal Blue. If you care to have a drink with me, Terry, and some others you may come to Track 17 at Union Station at 5 pm.” I did. Long after, I asked gwh what had happened to the observation car of the Royal Blue, a famed Baltinore & Ohio express train. He told me that he had written without avail to several presidents of railroads seeking a siding. Finally he wrote a letter to the head of a short line that went like this:
DEAR SIR: I am a poor Methodist minister and I need a place to park my observation car. Can you help?
The short line president responded with a deal. He explained that no one had ever prayed for his road and if gwh would promise to do so, he could have a siding. The arrangement worked for several years but then “the president of the short line began to covet my observation car and I finally sold it to him for three times the price I had paid for it.” A long pause. “Of course, I immediately stopped praying for his railroad and it shortly went bankrupt.”
gwh was not a typical WHRBer because there was no such thing, which meant, among other things that Adams A-36 fit in quite well, producing two news directors, one sports director, and one program director. Among WHRB ghosts are a network correspondent, a former assistant secretary of defense, communications lawyers, radio station owners, the president of the Conference Board, an NPR correspondent and the editor of an alternative newsletter. Many are still in broadcasting; many have never been heard from again. Both gwh and the president of the Conference Board are dead.
I thought that might be the case with another friend until he called me from a motel in Laurel, Maryland, a town best known for its race track. He was the product of a fine Catholic education whose arguments were welcomed for their Jesuitical eloquence whether one agreed with them or not. I had seen him a number of times after college, for he had ended up at Fort Holabird in Maryland, where they trained soldiers for military intelligence. I was vaguely aware that he had become enamored of the horses and even more vaguely aware that he had gone to Vietnam with something called Air America, then only rumored to be a CIA front. It was good to see him again, although I was puzzled how he had come to be traveling with a beehive blonde, a decade older then himself, and her fourteen year old son.
As dinner progressed, he gave a carefully edited review of his life since our last meeting, during which I learned that the beehive blonde had once worked in a casino in Batista’s Cuba. I was curious, but failed to pursue, a couple of names he dropped such as Egil Krogh of Watergate notoriety. He had, he admitted, been in intelligence work, but was far more interested in describing his growing fascination with the turf. According to his version, he had primarily followed the horses, from Laurel to Vietnam and back to Laurel. After dinner, my friend settled back and said, “You may have noticed that my story had a couple of years missing from it.” I hadn’t, but nodded. “And that I mentioned meeting Egil Krogh.” That I had noticed. “Well, I got into a bit of trouble over a racing matter with the Mafia and it ended with me spending some time in Allenwood,” the federal penitentiary. A few days later, he came to my office and tried to sell me on publishing his fail-safe system of betting. I declined and never saw him again.
One joined WHRB after a rigorous competition devised to determine whether one was competent and eccentric enough to belong. Once a member, you were entitled to engage fully in the internal politics of the station, played out daily in the comment book and culminating in election meetings in Studio B so raucus that there had to be a sergeant at arms, whose primary job was to prevent the disappearance of quorum. It was while serving in this capacity that I shredded the shirt of my friend Lew Walling as he forced his way out the door. A few years later Lew’s luck would turn. His name is one of the first forty on the glazed black wall of the Vietnam Memorial. The first one had died in 1959, the year I graduated.
One of the earliest WHRB stories I heard was of a station camping trip. The participants, I was told, quickly divided into two groups. The first arose early and enjoyed the attractions that nature offered. The second slept during the day and played bridge all night. But a few did both and they were the ones, it was pointed out, who came to run the station. It impressed me but not enough to learn bridge, a game still underway in Studio B many evenings after one am.
My interest was journalism. I signed up for the news department and was quickly baptized by news director Dick Comegys, who had the skill and temperament to run a broadcast news operation but would become a minister instead. Dick told me that my first assignment was to interview the president of the Arab League who would be arriving at the station in a few minutes. Just like that. I have no idea what I asked the poor man, for my knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs at that point came largely from the Bible, but I somehow stumbled through the interview and into Comegys’ good graces. I suspect that Dick didn’t care what I produced, only whether I would freeze. It was a silent message that one could and should be able to do anything. It was not unusual for the president of the Arab League to come to the station. After all, Duke Ellington had once played the upright in Studio B, Eleanor Roosevelt had visited for an interview and Leadbelly had performed for four hours live while being plied with Scotch. Once a staffer was sent to try to entice Robert Frost to tape an interview, a seemingly futile task since Frost had always refused to appear on radio. The student went to Frost’s home and started discussing poetry, never daring to broach the invitation. Frost enjoyed the talk and invited the student back. On the third visit, he finally asked what had brought the student over the first time. The student explained, Frost accepted, and subsequently made his first radio broadcast ever on WHRB.
And then there was my note referring to a live folk music program: “We had the usual motley collection of musicians and would-be musicians. The best by far were Bill Woods and a beautiful girl named Joan.” Joan was a Boston folksinger brought to the station by her friend and later Vietnam casualty, Lew Walling. Lew also helped launch her career, getting her a seminal serious gig at 47 Mt. Auburn. In her first appearance on WHRB, Woods, the host, had stumbled over her name. “Is that Byeez or Bias or. . .?” Joan Baez, on the day I took note of her, had come to participate in what was known as WHRB’s “Musical Orgies.”
Joan Baez was a rare woman to enter WHRB other than as a staffer’s date. Some of us wanted to have women members and talked about but it still being the Fifties, that was about all we did. Still, one year after I graduated, the first women went through the station’s competition and joined.
During most of the year, broadcast standards at the Network were as high as those on many professional stations. For example, I was allowed to host a jazz show, Jam with Sam, and to do news reports but not to read the regular commentary I wrote. My voice wasn’t considered good enough. During the reading and exam period, however, the station permitted any staffer to take a block of time as WHRB went on the air 24 hours a day to provide music to study by. Whimsy was encouraged. Mike Bell did a regular eight hour stint of Eastern European classical music and I once played a Music Minus One version of Mozart’s clarinet quintet minus the clarinet. We would have eight-hour live folk or jazz orgies; I hosted one of the latter that featured over 35 campus musicians including eleven drummers. By the time the station was a half century old, the term orgy had been registered as a trademark and planning orgies had become an orgy in itself. Not only had the station presented 168 straight hours of Art Blakey recordings but the staff that same year listened to 500 hours of Mozart to find 220 for airtime.
Dispensation was also regularly given for a well-designed trick or “croque” derived, one was told, from “a crock of shit.” The best croques required even the unsuspecting to act as though nothing had happened. Thus I was expected not to fall apart on air as I tried to quietly leave the squeaky wooden chair in Studio A only to find that someone had fastened the belt strap on the back of my chinos to its rungs. Nor when I read a newscast that began “Here’s the latest news hot off the wires of United Press,” as the staffer beside me lit the newsprint copy with his Zippo. I was, in that instance, annoyed but cool until a few seconds later, when the engineer sprayed the studio window in front of me with a foam fire extinguisher, at which point I broke up beyond repair. The more elaborate croques required great planning, such as the never-ending symphony, comprised of the codas of about a dozen different compositions carefully spliced onto the end of the victim work. There was also a version of the 1812 Overture untouched except for the spot in which the cannon fire was respliced with the sound of a crying baby. And then there was Yehudi Menuhin and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Substituting for Yehudi’s cadenza was a skilled student violinist recorded in studio B. He played according to the transcription for many measures and then hit a bad note. He stopped, tried again. Another bad note. On the third try, he said, “Oh, to hell with it” and the Philadelphia Orchestra came blazing back. It was this skill and perversity that helped to produce the notorious black box, a device that could circumvent the telephone company’s then only internal use of tone switching, It was alleged that a WHRBie, using the box, had managed to reach Worcester via the White Elephant Hotel in Katmandu. And it is true, or at least can be reasonably argued, that WHRB may have been the birthplace of hacking.
One of WHRB’s ghosts who graduated in 1965, wrote me in 1999 confirming that hacking may well have started at WHRB. He and another student “built a black box, but our great discovery was the Blue Box. That was discovered sort of by accident, as the result of a long chain of events, including a Wagner orgy which required dubbing a pirated version of Seigried using an audio oscillator borrowed from the techies. . . One part of this wasn’t quite so fun: being interrogated by 12 FBI agents, who ended up annoyed that ATT had contacted them, once we explained that we had gotten into military bases only “because they were there.”
Little of the eccentric activities inside WHRB were reflected on air. WHRBies took broadcasting, if little else, seriously. When I played an Earl Bostic R&B record on Jam with Sam, jazz director Reilly Atkinson took me aside to lecture me firmly against attempting any future heresy. It was a time before format radio and while classical music filled the bulk of the schedule, there was plenty of room for jazz, folk, country, and play-by-play broadcasts of Harvard games, both at home and away.
I eventually became news, sports and special events director. I also produced and hosted a weekly four-hour collage of news, interviews, poetry, live and recorded music of all varieties, and strange noises, called The Saturday Show. One of our advertisers, Minute Man Records, allowed us to pull anything out of its stock for airplay in return for commercial time. I would rummage around its shelves looking for selections of Celtic verse or the music of the Royal Dutch Air Force Band to play between a conversation with a professor and live jazz. Several times I played Lennie Bruce records, making nervous mentions of Mary Jane Morris, secretary of the FCC. Our competition at WHRB was the Crimson, although it often pretended not to notice. We would share joint news briefings with university officials such as Dean McGeorge Bundy, who would lean back in his chair with his feet on his desk and implicitly dare us to put him in a corner, saying things like, “We are sparring with ten foot poles, gentlemen.”
Our work was immensely aided by the fact that I had a battery operated tape recorder. These devices were extreme rarities. One of our staff, Jim Flug, supplemented the machine with his motor scooter so that, in effect, we had our own mobile news unit. Flug, who later would become news director and even later a respectable Washington lawyer, once snagged an interview with president-elect John F. Kennedy (at Harvard for a board of overseers meeting) by jumping into his limousine and shoving the tiny mike in his face.
The most noteworthy figure to appear at Harvard during my tenure was the newly victorious Fidel Castro, who spoke to 8,000 enthusiastic faculty and students (including one from Brandeis named Abbie Hoffman) at Memorial Stadium. Castro was still considered a hero by many Americans for having overthrown the egregious Batista. While those of us who had taken Soc Sci 2 knew that not all revolutions were for the better, there was about this one a romance that took my thoughts far from Harvard Square as a top Castro lieutenant, sitting in front of my little recorder in the Bick, told me of his days with Fidel in the mountains. Castro was booed only once according to my broadcast report later that evening, when he “attempted to defend the execution of Cuban war criminals after the revolution. Castro asked his listeners, ‘you want something else?’ and proceed to give them a fifteen minute further explanation.”
My story continued:
Some of Castro’s aides expressed a feeling of relaxation during the Harvard tour in comparison with the formal diplomatic visit to Washington. Leaving the faculty club, Castro’s air attaché was cheered for his snappy uniform by the students who surrounded the area. . . WHRB will rebroadcast Dr. Castro’s speech on Monday at midnight. WHRB’s recording of the event will also be broadcast by the Voice of America and Station CMQ in Havana. With Fidel Castro we were just part of the medium. Our coverage of Al Vellucci was another matter. On a May morning, the Crimson came out with a story that Cambridge city councilor Alfred Vellucci had announced plans to introduce an order asking the city manager to “confiscate” all of the university’s lands because of the Harvard administration’s “lack of cooperation” in solving the city’s parking problems. Vellucci was quoted as saying that “I am going to fine every Harvard student who parks his car on the public street at night unless the university makes all its property available for public parking.” Down at the radio station, I assigned one of our reporters the job of calling Councilor Vellucci. He got an earful:
The citizens and taxpayers are sick and tired of supporting Harvard. The time has arrived when Cambridge should break away and let the state and federal government support the school. Our taxpayers are not able to do the job alone … Our police department has to rush to the university every time the students start one of their foolish riots … The fire department has to go in there on school fires. We have to put police officers on extra duty to handle the traffic situation after one of the football games … Let the university become a state of its own like the Vatican in Rome and pay for its own fire and police departments.
Vellucci added: “John Lund, commander of the local Sullivan Post, American Legion, has told me every veterans organization in the city will support my bill.” He went on like that for twenty minutes. We ran excerpts on the 11 p.m. news and student listeners began calling the station demanding to hear the full interview. It was not just the words; the Vellucci voice lent impetus to the message. It was the precise antithesis of a well-cultivated Harvard accent and even at its most irate had a buoyant quality tinged with the faintest hint of satire that in those amusement and issue-starved years of the fifties, tickled the student ear. These were not times when you worried about the impact of the media on events; there were no seminars on TV and violence, no breast-beating over whether the press covered a hostage situation correctly. There was, however, a lot of boredom and whatever else he might be, Al Vellucci was certainly not boring. I ran the whole interview at midnight and calls from those who tuned in during the middle of it were so numerous that I ran it again at one a.m. The next morning, the story was page one in the Boston Globe — culled from the WHRB interview — with a two column headline:
COUNCILOR ASKS SETUP LIKE VATICAN DEMANDS HARVARD SECEDE FROM CITY
The Crimson had the Vellucci story first, but in its stately way had missed the exploitation potential. It was WHRB’s Vatican angle that caught the imagination of Harvard’s student body. Some of us, I suspect, also subconsciously recognized in Vellucci a man who, despite his attacks on students, was really waging war on a mutual enemy, the Harvard administration. It would still be some years before students learned to stand up to their campus oppressors and Vellucci was a prophetic voice, calling for rebellion not just by the citizens of Cambridge against Harvard, but, subliminally, by the students as well.
The Cambridge citizenry kept calm but not the students. It began, as those things often did, with a peculiarly unrelated and insignificant act the very next night. During a drunken argument in the offices of the college humor magazine over the relative merits of prose and poetry, someone (by some accounts Neil Sheehan, later a famed NY Times correspondent) threw a typewriter out of a window. The riot was on. Two thousand men of Harvard gathered shouting alternatively, “Hang Vellucci,” “Vellucci for Pope,” and “We want Monaco.” Beer cans and water-filled bags were tossed about. Eddie Sullivan, the mayor of the city, showed up in his radio and siren-equipped Chrysler Imperial and attempted to quell the disturbance. He failed to get the attention of the crowd, part of which was busy letting the air out of all four of his tires. From one of the dormitories blared a recording of Tchaikowsky’s 1812 Overture. The cops sent reinforcements to Al’s home but no one strayed from the campus.
The riot ended in typical fashion: once half the students had marched into Harvard Yard, its gates were closed and the ones not trapped inside counted their losses and retired to their rooms or to Cronin’s. Harvard, for a number of years, had actually staged a carefully controlled official disturbance. Each February the entire freshman class would gather in giant Memorial Hall for the Smoker, ostensibly a program of entertainment and relaxed drinking, but in reality a riot within four walls. Under the leadership of a suitably baccanalian master of cermonies, such as Al Capp, the Smoker inevitably featured a singing group from a women’s college which would be rewarded with a barrage of pennies thrown on the stage. When the program was over, the beer would start to flow. Freshman and proctors, deans and students would drink together until brew covered the floor in large puddles.
With what the city would come to realize was his normal tactical brilliance, Al Vellucci had succeeded in turning Harvard against itself. A few students were arrested, a few faced disciplinary action and by one a.m. it was over. Those of us in the WHRB news department went to sleep content in the knowledge that in twenty-four hours we had created a celebrity and a riot. Not a bad day’s work for a few student journalists.
For the rest of my time at Harvard, Crimson reporter Blaise Pastore and I faithfully covered city council meetings, relaying every juicy quote and snipe at Harvard that Vellucci and his cohorts provided. Our mentors at the press table were a trio of sardonic and knowledgeable Irishmen from Boston’s dailies, who loved delivering their sotto voce lectures to a couple of Harvard students as much as we enjoyed hearing them. The councilors were solicitous, especially Al, who recognized our symbiotic relationship. Harvard educated lawyer Joseph Deguglielmo, eschewing bifocals for two pairs of glasses stacked on his nose and forehead in the order required at any particular moment, explained the workings of a city government with great patience, once commenting that he was uncertain how to vote on a police pay increase because he had to keep in mind that each cop was probably receiving, in goods and cash, several thousand dollars more a year than his official salary. It was literally the end of an era. While I was covering the council, James Michael Curley, the former mayor of adjoining Boston, passed away. I had heard the last hurrah.
Mayor Sullivan bore no grudges towards me for his flat tires and was always willing to talk politics whenever I ran into him. One evening I met Eddie Sullivan after coming out of the movies. He was seated in his pale colored Chrysler Imperial listening to calls for the police radio. He waved to me and asked me to join him for a cup of coffee. Over the radio came a report: ‘This lady sez some man exposed himself to her as she was walking home. 6 foot 2 inches, chino trousers [even the criminals wore them then], black hair. . . ‘Eddie talked of his recent nomination for Clerk of the County Court (margin 11,000), urban renewal and the good meal he had at the Lido. . . Jimmy O’Dea, Middlesex D.A. , is apparently really in trouble. He is rumored to have manhandled a woman, and that rumor is cutting his life expectancy in politics sharply. Eddie was surprised that I had first heard the story from a lady from Canada while riding on the Boston & Maine. Although Eddie doesn’t know whether he believes the story, he dropped off a slate with O’Dea to be sure that he was covered when the storm came.
The Cambridge City Council was a real Massachusetts legislature, the sort of place where an Irish labor leader during a dispute over a contract could turn to councilor Hyman Pill and plead, “Look, we’re all Christian gentlemen here.” And Hyman just rocked back in his chair and smiled. It accepted the view that politics was not religion — neither salvation nor perfection was the goal. It was democracy — making the best of a confused and difficult situation. The members of the city council were ashamed of neither their beliefs nor of their compromises with them. The Cambridge city council was the best course I took at Harvard. I not only learned about city government but learned that it had a quality that would be unmatched by anything found later covering the White House or Congress.
City politicians were on their own; they were not actors and actresses performing the lines of speechwriters and bright young staffers. They had to make their own theater and often it was better than what you found on the controlled and contrived national stage. I would also learn that people like Al Vellucci were saying something about the way power is distributed in a city, that their anger was not the rantings of demagogues, but a hyperbolic extension of real concerns. And it reawakened in me an interest in politics that caused me, in violation of the gestalt of the fifties, to form and lead (as the pawn of a far more political friend, Al Friendly) the first student Humphrey for President club in the country.
It wasn’t until twenty years later that Vellucci made the national news. He was mayor now, and under his leadership the Cambridge city council had decided it was time to have a few safeguards against the mutagenic uncertainties of DNA research then underway at Harvard and MIT. The council passed restrictions after a heated debate with university researchers, arguing that “knowledge, whether for its own sake or for its potential benefits to humankind, cannot serve as a justification for introducing risks to the public unless an informed citizenry is willing to accept those risks.” Al, as usual, put it far more succinctly, “We want to be damned sure the people of Cambridge won’t be affected by anything that would crawl out of that laboratory.”
In four short years, I made some wonderful friends and learned how to work around some not so wonderful strangers. Seldom have I been so unhappy doing what I was supposed to be doing and so happy doing what I was not supposed to be doing. Both the exuberance and the despair have only occasionally equaled themselves since and while I blame Harvard for the latter I know it also helped provide the former. Few of my friends have fit the pattern the Harvard stereotype suggests, yet it was Harvard that introduced us. There have been divorces, a stay in a mental hospital, unemployment, depression, dissatisfaction with jobs that others envied them for, even a spell in Allenwood. Where peace has been found it has been sometimes after an enormous struggle that in part seems somehow, but inexplicably, tied up with having gone to Harvard.
Perhaps our problem was that we rebelled before the age of rebellion. Dissident students would later attack frontally many of the things we only picked at.
We lived in a time that did not even want to talk about things that really seemed to matter. The most active political group on campus was the Young Republicans and their main activity was drinking, The biggest collective action were riots inspired by Al Vellucci and Pogo. The drug of choice was booze except for some football players who had discovered peyote and some Social Relations majors who had discovered an instructor named Timothy Leary. The full meaning of the Bomb would not occur to most until after we graduated and even those who considered themselves liberal accepted without question that democracy’s only real threats came from without.
The issues that had seemed important in high school, that seemed related to what we would someday be, turned blandly academic at Harvard. The most important book I read my senior year was Stride Towards Freedom by Martin Luther King. It was not on any of my reading lists. We had left high school ready to take on the world only to taught in college that the world wasn’t to be challenged, but just examined, analyzed and manipulated side by side with the right people in the right places. That some of us refused to concede this has been perhaps the major triumph of our later lives — a triumph of will if not of achievement, like standing on the runway in Casablanca watching the plane take off.
By the time I graduated, the last of the Silent Generation had entered Harvard. Of all the monickered demographics, few have attracted as little interest as this one. We were, for example, one of two generations to have never produced a president. My generational peer, Larry Aubach, once said to me, “We will come and we will go and hardly anyone will know we were there.”
If true, it won’t be entirely fair. Caught between the far more assertive, self-asssured and self-important World War II and Boomer eras, my generation did something for which credit is not usually given by power-absorbed historians: we adapted. And one would be hard pressed to find in the past many examples where a group as dominant as the white heterosexual American male of the mid to late 20th century gave up so much power so peacefully so quickly.
By the time we reached full adulthood, the white males of the generation would find the status that we had been promised already threatened. By the time we had reached full maturity almost everything of social significance that we had been taught had been proved or declared wrong. Instead of continuing the role allegedly held for us in usufruct by our elders, our task, it turned out, was to pass it on to, and share it with, blacks, women and gays.
While this was true of all white American men of the time, it was particularly true of our generation because we served as translators of the new to the old. We had, after all, quietly planted some of the change ourselves with the beat rebellion, the irreverence of modern jazz and interest in the civil rights movement. Our generation was the sleeper cell of the Sixties.
Not that many were conscious of this role. Sometimes the change just showed up as divorce, depression, or lowered expectations. And if you joined the fray you might find yourself not unlike an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War: both committed and separate.
Historians don’t care for inchoate change built on things like anarchistic acquiescence but perhaps some revisionist scholar will discover the unnoted truth that the Silent Generation, by choosing adaptation over resistance, did far more for its country than if it had simply followed suit and elected some presidents and started a few wars. A truth unnoted but perhaps to be expected of those who had, after all, given America the idea of “cool” and “hip.”
I entered Harvard believing with Robert Louis Stevenson that “books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.” I left four years later, joyfully closing my academic career and my association with Harvard. I spurned requests for funds and my entry in the class reports got shorter and shorter. Starting out with a typical desire to tell my classmates how wonderful things were, by the end of the sixties I was writing that my fondest hope for the future would be that never again would so many sons of Harvard have to fight in a war conceived and continued with so much aid from the Harvard faculty. In my 20th anniversary report I wrote only: “Same job, same wife, same car, same kids, same house. Everything else has been different.” And in my 30th: “Things have gone pretty good, so far.” I tried, like Parrington, to purge myself of Harvard prejudices and get on with life. And like Parrington, I have often regarded the effect of Harvard, what it is, what people think it is, and what it does to people who think it is what it thinks it is, to be a net liability to democracy.
Still the Harvard system operates with remarkable efficiency. This is one of Harvard’s most impressive and self-perpetuating achievements. To a loyal son of Harvard, the degree is not only handy later on; it is a gift that keeps on giving. On the gate I first entered upon arriving at Harvard Yard, there was that inscription which read: “Enter to Grow in Wisdom.” As you leave the Yard through the same gate there is a different inscription on the other side. It reads: “Depart Better to Serve thy Country and thy Kind.” No one can doubt Harvard has served its kind to the fullest. And that is why, I came to believe, it is really there.