Helen Andrews is a 2017 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and has worked as an editor and a think tank researcher.
The younger brother of the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote a letter to his fiancee in 1917 complaining about how depressed and humiliated he felt at having been passed over by all of Yale's secret societies. He had not even been tapped by Skull and Bones, where, through Archie, he was a legacy. "It almost kills me," he wrote. "I want to get to France and forget the whole thing."
It was a fateful choice of words. Kenneth MacLeish left school to join the Naval Reserve Flying Corps, deployed to France as a pilot and was shot down over Belgium on Oct. 14, 1918, less than a month before World War I ended. He was 24.
What is it about Yale's secret societies that makes otherwise sensible people so awestruck? Why did young men like Kenneth MacLeish feel it was a matter of life and death whether they were admitted to the clubs? Strictly speaking, the Yale senior societies are not fundamentally different from the exclusive social clubs found at every other Ivy League school. But no one ever based a horror movie franchise around the Princeton dining clubs.
If it is the secrecy of these groups that you find appealing, "Skulls and Keys" is the wrong book for you. David Alan Richards admits at the beginning that "there will be no 'secrets' here that have not already, somehow and somewhere, been revealed at least once in print." Richards is a Bonesman himself, so he could divulge hidden secrets if he wanted to, but apparently he decided that his book didn't need to be spiced up with juicy insider details.
Alas, without the juicy details, "Skulls and Keys" amounts to little more than a succession of anecdotes, some more interesting than others. Conservative readers will be gratified to learn that William F. Buckley Jr. refused to join the Fence Club if it continued to blackball his friend Thomas Guinzberg for being Jewish. But even the original Bonesmen of the 1830s would probably agree that their dirty jokes ("How did Demosthenes have such numerous progeny when he carried his stones in his mouth?") did not need to be entered into the historical record.
The bagginess of this 800-plus-page tome is made worse by the fact that Richards is not a natural storyteller. (He is a lawyer by profession.) The fight that led to women finally being let into Skull and Bones in 1991 makes a gripping saga: keys to the tomb confiscated, lawsuits threatened, top-secret memos leaked and printed in the Wall Street Journal. Richards fumbles what should be the climax of his book. He waits until nearly the end of the book to mention that one of the undergraduate ringleaders in favor of admitting women was future Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee.
Richards's microscopic view of his subject obscures the larger fact that Yale's secret societies have long been in decline. They no longer have the cultural cachet they enjoyed in the days of John O'Hara and Dink Stover. Undergraduates walk past the brownstone tomb on High Street with no more interest than they walk past Yorkside Pizza. Membership is still sought after by the ambitious for networking purposes, but the secret societies have lost their glamor.
Their decline coincided with the increasingly meritocratic policies of the 1960s. That much is clear. Less clear is what precisely about that seismic cultural shift proved fatal. Mere egalitarianism was never the problem, since left-wing political commitments rarely stopped anyone from accepting admission to a society, even when outsiders accused them of hypocrisy. In 1971 a student columnist noted with indignation that the students inducted that year included "one black militant, a leading spokesman of last spring's Mayday activities, [and] one of the organizers of the charity drive for New Haven." How, he asked, can some of the "most outspoken defenders of the community last spring now be a member of a society that does nothing for the community?"
Old-timers would say things started going downhill when the clubs let women in. Resistance to going coed persisted surprisingly late. The first two times Skull and Bones considered admitting women, in 1971 and 1986, alumni committees voted against it unanimously. To give the fuddy-duddies their due, most secret societies throughout history, since the days of the first Freemasons, have been all male. Perhaps women are less easily impressed by silly costumes and creepy chanting.
Bart Giamatti, who served as president of Yale from 1978 to 1986, believed that the declining prestige of secret societies was an unavoidable consequence of diversity. "What a freshman in 1914 had heard of societies from his preparatory school masters and a freshman in 1944 might hear from one of his numerous classmates whose relatives had attended Yale, a freshman in 1974, more likely than not from a public high school, with no previous Yale ties, would not hear at all," he wrote in 1978 in a history of his own secret society, Scroll and Key. "That ingrained consciousness of societies, that shared sense of what they meant . . . disappeared like smoke in the late sixties."
Even after those public-school upstarts learned what secret societies were, they still were unfamiliar with conventions that were second nature to legacies: whether you were allowed to lobby societies in advance (no), how seriously to take the code of secrecy (very), even something as simple as the procedure for Tap Night, the traditional evening of robes and rituals when all the societies induct their new members. Seniors had to spell everything out to the juniors in advance, which rather diminished the mystique.
Harvard recently announced that it was considering barring students from joining fraternities, sororities and exclusive single-gender groups known as "final clubs." Members of such clubs are already subject to penalties, including ineligibility for certain grants and fellowships. In July, the Committee on Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations officially recommended a total ban.
Yale partisans may be tempted to take delight in the fact that their school has not taken such a humorless stand against a venerable form of undergraduate socializing. But the sad truth may be that, after a long slide into irrelevance, Yale secret societies are not important enough to be worth banning.
By David Alan Richards
Pegasus. 821 pp. $35.