Still Singing for Their Supper
By Bob Sudyk
NEW HAVEN, Conn. It's a frosty Monday night, and in the cozy, mahogany-paneled atmosphere of Mory's, every table is filled with elegantly dressed patrons sipping second cocktails and nibbling appetizers.
At exactly 6:40 p.m., maitre d' Wayne Nuhn bolts into the Main Room, leading 14 young men singing a rousing Russian army drinking song that fills the two-story house. Perfect multiple harmonies soar forth.
After the last note fades, one singer briefly greets the customers. Then a cheer goes up as the revered Tommy McKearny, a waiter of 22 years, places before the chorus two silver, double-handled loving cups filled to the brim with cakes of ice floating in tangy champagne-based potations. The men pass the cups from hand to hand and mouth to mouth as patrons applaud.
These are the Whiffenpoofs, descendants of the original songsters "off on a spree and damned from here to eternity," who still sing for their supper and cups as generations of Whiffs have done every Monday night since the turn of the century.
Throughout the evening, between dinner courses, they erupt in lively tunes, traveling from table to table and to party rooms upstairs, serenading and quaffing free cups earned from appreciative customers.
In 2000, the Whiffs are scheduled for a world tour from South America to the Far East and Europe in addition to appearances at the White House and on Broadway. It's common for several members of the group to "unenroll" from Yale University for the long tour.
This self-perpetuating group numbers 14--all seniors, all male, tapped in their junior year by the senior Whiffs for one year's duty. Many have gone on to entertainment careers.
Mory's hallowed halls are in a building that dates to the War of 1812. The ground floor is divided into three dining rooms, a kitchen and two offices, one of which doubles as a taproom. There are five private dining rooms upstairs and a library where books and memorabilia about Yale and Mory's fill the shelves. In all, the house can accommodate about 200 people.
Walls are covered with pictures of Yale sports teams and varsity captains, historic documents and mementos of campus life. In the dining areas, students, alumni and faculty sit side by side on rickety bistro chairs and in booths. Worn tables are covered with carved initials of the Eli famous, including Cole Porter, Rudy Vallee, Monte Wooley, Vincent Price, Calvin Trillin, Benjamin Spock, William Wrigley and Paul Mellon.
Some of the carved old table tops have been retired from service and mounted on the walls. From the ceiling of one dining room hang oars once pulled by victorious Yale crewmen.
At evening's end, the Whiffs return to the Main Room. After quaffing more cups and tasting the traditional Indian pudding at their long table, they stand and sing their signature score, "The Whiffenpoof Song," leaving many eyes damp. The ritual hasn't changed in nearly a century.
The passage of time remains irrelevant at Mory's, which moves into the new millennium with the same genteel air of the 19th-century English alehouse in which it began. Forever there will be the original table offerings of rarebit, Baker's soup, fried sardines, broiled calf liver and Mory's Mud Pie, though the menu is now much broader.
Stresses Radley Daly, '48, vice president of the Mory's Association: "The honor-bound mission of Mory's house committee forever remains 'Keep Mory's Mory's.' "
It all began in 1861 when Frank Moriarty, a British-born railway mechanic, and his wife Jane opened a neighborhood alehouse. One afternoon, thirsty Yale oarsmen returning from crew practice in New Haven Harbor happened upon this humble oasis. Almost immediately, the stop at Mory's became the most important exercise in the crew's training regimen. Yale men came for conversation, the brown ale in pewter mugs and Mrs. Moriarty's popular rarebit.
After Frank's death in 1876, Jane Moriarty would prepare the specialties of the house--Welsh rarebit (melted cheese with beer batter over toast), eggs on toast, grilled sardines and Golden Buck (Welsh rarebit topped with a poached egg)--then sit in her rocking chair knitting at the back of the bar.
She died in 1885, and sole proprietorship fell to popular waiter Edward G. Oakley. He launched the tradition of Mory's cups and extended a $20 line of credit to all undergraduates. He served a full round of drinks on the house whenever a student paid his bill. Of course, students preparing to pay up would spread the word to their classmates.
After Oakley died, an enterprising German immigrant named Louis Linder took over the lease. Linder renamed the place "Mory's" in honor of the founders.
He loved music and encouraged Yale singing groups to come and entertain for free cups. One of them, the popular University Quartet, began appearing every Monday night.
With typical undergraduate Ivy League fancy, Denton "Goat" Fowler, '09, suggested that the group call itself the Whiffenpoofs, after a mythical animal in the then-current Victor Herbert Broadway musical "Little Nemo." The authorship of the group's signature "Whiffenpoof Song," which has become Yale's anthem, remains a mystery. In February 1909, the Whiffs drew up a constitution and declared themselves a corporate body "dedicated to eating, drinking and good fellowship." (Their song became nationally known when Vallee, '27, recorded it in 1936.)
When Linder's ailing health threatened to close the landmark in 1896, students and alumni rallied to found Mory's Association, a private nonprofit group that would give the Yale shrine everlasting life.
In 1912, the association bought the house that the club now calls home and moved much of the furniture, fixtures and memorabilia from the old location.
The management of Mory's is now vested in a 16-member board of governors (four of whom serve as officers) elected by the membership to rotating three-year terms. The board oversees the running of the club, dedicating itself to preserving all of Mory's traditions.
Board secretary Cheever Tyler, '59, has described Mory's as a place where "the traditions of this college are encapsulated. . . . When you bring people here, they're immersed in what Yale means."
Until 1972, it was possible for Yale undergraduates (except freshmen), sponsored by a member, to pay $18 for a lifetime membership. Mory's cardholders now number more than 18,000, making it the largest private club in the world. Membership now costs $100 a year. The restaurant is not open to the public.
Daly says the biggest difference between the Mory's of today and the Mory's of Louis Linder's time is the dwindling presence of undergraduates. They seem to prefer pizza and fast food, and are put off by Mory's pricey menu and requirement that men wear jackets and ties after 5 p.m.
The dress code is relaxed on nights of football, basketball and hockey games. Nevertheless, the motto of board president Herbert Emanuelson, '51, remains: "If you're going to keep Mory's Mory's, you've got to have a jacket and tie."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company