Twice, visiting Princeton, I toured the University Cottage Club.
January, 1955: I joined my sophomore class of 700 to pour hesitantly down “The Street” (Prospect Avenue) on the first night of the three-week selection process known as Bicker. We were underclassmen on “The Architectural Tour” to visit for the first time what were then 17 privately owned, selective eating clubs — Princeton’s well heeled alternative to fraternities. If you were lucky you might be invited to join several clubs. If you weren’t so lucky or clubs didn’t think you fit in, you might get only a single “bid.” Or none at all. So you would probably take whatever you were offered, because in 1955 there were few places outside of the clubs for a Princeton upperclassman to eat.
For roommate Pete and me, the tour had been a blur. We could recall Cannon Club, with its mounted Revolutionary barrel on the front lawn, but not much else.
I did remember, though, for a half-century, a paper under glass in Cottage Club, signed by F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17, who — like me — had come to Princeton from the cold of St. Paul-Minneapolis.
January, 2010: Back in town to visit friends from four college years plus nine more in the Admission Office, I saw an event listing in U.S. 1 newspaper:
Public Tour, Cottage Club, 51 Prospect Avenue, Princeton, 609-921-6137. http://cottageclub.net. Tours of the Georgian Revival clubhouse built in 1906. Past members include James Forrestal ’15, F.Scott Fitzgerald ’17, Jose Ferrer ’33, Governor Brendan T. Byrne ’49, Senators William W. Bradley ’65, and William Frist ’74, John McPhee ’53, and A. Scott Berg ’71. The club is in the New Jersey and National registers of historic places. Free. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
And so I showed up a second time at the club’s front door. In my day Cottage and its next-door neighbor Ivy were the two most selective of all the clubs, a gathering place for the Big Men on Campus, as the names in the newspaper event listing suggested. Fifty-five years later I was curious what the inside looked like. And I was curious how the club system — the only viable social option at Princeton in the 1950s and most of the 1960s — had fared during the times of diversified admission policies that followed.
And, of course, the Fitzgerald connection. As an undergraduate I read “This Side of Paradise” and “The Great Gatsby” on my own — the English department turned down my idea of doing a thesis on what it considered “a minor American writer.” I read slowly enough to take it all in, living a few houses down University Place and across the street from Fitzgerald and Amory Blaine’s boarding house. Pretty soon I realized that nothing written by Fitzgerald was covered by any English class at his own college.
From then on, I checked out libraries, and soon bought and bought. By about 2000, I compiled a 340-page bibliography showing I had 752 volumes — including 79 editions of Gatsby, and about all of the biographical and critical books written.
Critic and Fitzgerald biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli supported my effort — first when I wrote “Call Me Kick!” a St. Paul novel narrated in 1934 by Nick Carraway’s niece, Kick. Second we joined in 2005 to push the Fitzgerald estate for the rights to all of the 1925 “Gatsby” for a New York-based theater company to render onstage every word in the 189-page novel. In December, 2009, the estate granted the rights for a New York run at the Public Theater, where it will open the new season this October.
So last January I parked on Prospect between Cottage and Ivy, feeding the meter with five quarters — that would be enough, I figured. Then I hopped over some snowpiles and headed toward the small opening in the brick wall separating the club from the outside world.
Facade. Spreading Revival Georgian stone and brick — perfectly plotted in rectangular sections, eight windows wide, six over six panes, carving below emblems repeated on vertical bands of inward and outward-jabbing stones — two sloping tile stories to third broken by dormers, book-ended by chimneys, centered with half-sunburst of brick, below the palace crown: a white-railed widow’s walk.
Below the walk — white stone pedestal holding balcony with flags for Country, College, Club (its centered “U” for University locking two letter “Cs”). Below that — stone surrounding a glass fanlight with a protruding lamp: a keystone for the Janus-faced, Sphinx-shaped Cottage — an Anchor to unify all, nautically neat — a “palace” symmetrically suiting its space, dominating the brick-walled lawn and oaks, the clubs on both sides.
I pulled and dropped the knocker. A clunk, but no flurry inside to greet me. I looked up at the unusual light, then read the bronze plaque with the date 1906, and a label as a State and National Historic Site since 1999.
I waited. No guide. Students were off on holiday break.
Waiting, I could recall the tension from 55 years before — the sophomore year open house night at the end of three weeks of Bicker visits. On that night you chose a club and knocked to ask if you were invited to become a member . . . or put on a waiting list . . . or rejected.
It was, I realized, the same shock as spotting the thin letter from the Admission Office that meant rejection — not the fat envelope with forms to fill out for the successful applicant.
Rather than risk another echoing, I pushed and entered. Inside: a sparsely furnished square hall. On each side wall: a mirror, single chair, and antique table. From a modest stack I took an eight-page color photograph leaflet about the club. Clearly no guide here, so I took a seat and read.
I thumbed the leaflet to learn that architect Charles McKim called the overhead a “lantern,” projecting half in and half out of the fanlight, signaling continuity between exterior and interior, two worlds joined. And they met as a keystone where I had identified my Janus-Sphinx-anchor.
Gallery and Courtyard, North. A long rectangle extending left to the dining room wing, right to formal stairs in the distance — ahead, on each side, a long burnished table, longer than docks, board room to feed tribes of medieval knights, floor to ceiling glass doors opening out — the portico square, uncovered, doors leading out from the Gallery and from each of the wings, a “U” shape, bounded at the rear by rows of white columns, covered by a white-railed portico connecting the wings with a walk-across.
Inside: protected by all that warm oak wood paneling. Outside: that glassy view to imagined slopes of lush lawn, blooming gardens, centered with a rectangle suitable for Center Court Flushing Meadows. Scented by the pink fountain, still dripping on concrete inside a circle of snow.
This third room has a wide hall running the width of the building, with long tables running from center to each end. Two reddish hardcover books had been made available, with a carefully printed label, “Please Return to Gallery.”
The first: “The Building of a Club” by Anne W. D. Henry was a 1976 study from the School of Architecture. The second: A guide with a seven-page historical sketch from a 1961 club directory, a constitution with 15 articles, and listings of members by class. I sat at a high stiff chair at the long table, opening the guide to read:
“The loyalty and service of Cottage Men to their University, their Classes, and their Club has made history in every field of activity . . . the privilege of membership . . . so widely recognized as one of the greatest and most lasting lifetime honors a man can win at Princeton.”
The leaflet shows above the gallery, a narrow hallway filled with photos on both sides, showing early club buildings and photos of members. The U.S. 1 events listing noted just a few of the famous Cottage alumni. There was also single wing halfback and Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier ’52, Missouri Senator Kit Bond ’60, former Secretary of Defense James Forrestal ’15, and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles ’08. (Dulles’ younger brother, Allen ’14, the first civilian head of the CIA, never Bickered — fact that was cited by journalists as a sign of his down-to-earth manner.)
Charles Follen McKim (who had designed New York’s University Club, where Cottage members hold an annual ball) produced a monument for any Princeton Princes, a Renaissance palace. He strove for a stylistic distinction between their new club and Ivy, so chose Georgian Revival mixed with Italian Villa, panels to match Henry VIII’s Hampton Court and Princess Diana’s South Kensington. With its facade set back 65 feet from the front gates, sidewalk, and street, McKim created an area of large lawns on each side of the brick walk, where one leaves the public realm before entering the building.
I had learned in Art 101 that McKim belonged to the firm McKim, Mead and White, but his two partners were not credited with Cottage. These were years McKim designed for Princeton, also the years when Andrew Carnegie proposed a gift to Woodrow Wilson (getting an artificial lake, not the library Wilson wanted), years that saw Cottage built, while partner Stanford White designed buildings like the original Madison Square Garden.
One night in 1906 on the Roof Garden of his very own Madison Square Garden, Stanford White had a problem celebrating. He took three shots in the face from John Thaw, husband of White’s mistress, “the girl on the red velvet swing” Evelyn Nesbitt, she 16 to his 47. It was called the crime of the century, inspiring E.L. Doctorow’s novel and the Broadway musical “Ragtime.” It showed that the rich and famous could lead very complicated lives, a fact that might have impressed the young Fitzgerald growing up in Minnesota.
The Tiger Room. Grand windows, draped in burgundy, facing Prospect Avenue, Ivy Club to the south — high ceiling, more casual, modern space than English Gallery, light-painted walls dotted by smaller pictures, and smaller furniture pieces — from inside wall above the fireplace a full-sized Tiger head plunges into the room — but no glass case with signed Fitzgerald paper.
Not even a program from “It’s the Valet,” senior Triangle show for Jose Ferrer ’33, first Latino to win an Academy Award plus Tony nominations for his Cyrano and Iago, opposite Princeton town actor-singer Paul Robeson (who chose Rutgers to become an All-American footballer before opera, stage career, and acrimony over political views).
And nothing here with the Tiger to honor the other acting Ferrers, Jose’s son Miguel or non-relative Mel, who came backstage with his wife — Audrey Hepburn! — when our 1956 Triangle Show played New York.
When young Robeson or the Ferrers were in town, did any read Paradise or Gatsby? While in college did Jose realize his clubmate, Fitzgerald, was more than half-way (1920-1940) through his marriage and his writing career, fighting wife Zelda’s mental illness and his own depression and alcoholism — less than a decade left of life?
Palmer Room: McKim’s sketches drawn up in 1903 — $65,000 pledged as a challenge to members by Stephen S. Palmer, father of Edgar Palmer ’03 — who wanted “only the best for his only son” — with members raising more than their required $35,000, so Stephen Palmer raised his gift to $110,000 — each room to “preserve the privacy and comfort that the sons of New York club members might expect.”
The Palmer Room was spacious and airy. Easy to picture groups in discussion, or wandering out the glass doors to the patio. Cottage purchased this lot on the east side of Prospect for its third building, this with open fields running to Stony Brook and Andrew’s Lake Carnegie. That grand view from anywhere near the rear or center of the club took a breath and held it.
The Red Room. At the south wing’s end, a smaller room, with finer furniture — lavish fireplace with bricked opening and dark wood mantle. I walked up to it to trace the letters: “In memory of Preston K. Covey ’37.” I barely remembered the gentleman, whom I met when he was a local alumnus helping the university by interviewing me in 1953 at the Minneapolis Club.
The Library and Reading Room. Carpeted center aisle between alcoves of double-sided six-shelf sections — like church pews — table with chairs in each alcove, and volumes filling shelves and side walls-decorated in four oak sections up to semi-circle sunburst like facade — vaulted ceiling painted in white bending where book shelves end — centered by multi-lamped gold chandelier hanging on a chain to book shelf tops — at far end a square annex up a step — above it a classical screen, a triple arch on a flat entablature — plaque “In Honor of Thomas Eglin ’54 by his Classmates” — all leading to sun space over rear lawns and gardens ending the south wing.
I walked the library’s center aisle, noting no dust on the benches, with even the ancient books on the side walls dust-free. I slowly passed the first two alcoves. At the third, I stopped. There were no table and chairs between shelves, just a waist-high glass case.
What I had wanted.
In the case were a copied Fitzgerald list, lead sheets for two Princeton fight songs, and three books, one a softcover study and two 1990s reading copies of Fitzgerald’s first and third novels. But best of all — finally — there it was: the signed letter, from 1929, 12 years after Fitzgerald left the university. Ironically the letter recommended a young acquaintance who hardly needed heavy endorsement: Whitney Darrow Jr., later one of the New Yorker’s best and most enduring cover and cartoon artists.
But three cheapie volumes. Did the club have a fabulous collection locked away — say 100 or so volumes by or about their author? A curator of fine books? A first edition, first printing of “This Side of Paradise,” or “The Great Gatsby,” with original dust jacket — one just sold for a record $180,000. But beyond dollars, correct text.
Since 1925 “The Great Gatsby” had been reprinted with corrections leading to the Cambridge Standard Edition edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. But when the Scribner family sold to Macmillan-Simon & Schuster, S&S did not want to pay Cambridge for the authorized text, so it retrenched to an earlier, flawed version.
Bruccoli, the major Fitzgerald scholar from the University of South Carolina (Princeton has never produced one) was angry enough to write a 1991 booklet, “Getting It Right: the Publishing Process and the Correction of Factual Errors With Reference to The Great Gatsby.” Bruccoli lists 61 pages of emendations, textual notes, and explanations, also publishing “An Authorized Version” in softcover.
In the first Fitzgerald biography in 1949 Arthur Mizener makes 11 references to Fitzgerald at Cottage Club, Andrew Turnbull makes four in 1962. Bruccoli in “Some Sort of Epic Grandeur” in 1981 has eight citations. Mizener describes Fitzgerald’s entrance to Cottage in March, 1915, after Christmas sledding and bobbing and petting with Ginevra King, a Chicago department store heiress and Westover School student, until she’s kicked out for discipline.
And Scott was kicked out of his Triangle show, “Fie! Fie! Fee!” because of his academic record. He could not tour but kept working while the Triangle president played football. That Triangle president was Walker Mallam Ellis ’15, a Cottage member two classes ahead. Scott thought Ellis embodied all “apparently effortless qualities of elegance and superiority which were the Princeton ideal.”
Yet today, the edition of “The Great Gatsby” most often sold in stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders prints the flawed S&S text. A shame for a National Historic Site, plus B&N and Borders.
But in October of this year, John Collins and Scott Shepherd with the literary repertory troupe Elevator Repair Service will open at the Public Theater in New York with their full-length performance of “Gatz” (six hours with two intermissions and a dinner break). On tour since 2005, every “he said” and “she said” is read and eventually spoken by a small company in a production likely to give Fitzgerald his first huge New York success.
Going up to Cambridge for previews, New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley called it “one of the most exciting and improbable accomplishments in theater in recent years.”
I stopped when I figured I had reached the dining room wing. Doors around the corner and stairs going up to that third floor with dormers. Fitzgerald had stayed here in March, 1920, when waiting for the publication of 3,000 copies of “This Side of Paradise” and the northern journey of Zelda Sayre, his second major girl (“she gave him a side smile, half of her face, like a small white cliff”), after he lost department store heiress Ginevra King (“she saw through to his profound woundedness, and something quivered inside her, died out along the cure of her mouth and in her eyes”), whom he met bobsledding at St. Paul’s Town and Country Club.
“This Side of Paradise” appeared in April, 1920, with a second printing of 3,025 copies and a third of 5,000 that month. He had hoped to sell 10,000 but never sold enough to catch up with Scribner’s stock.
After their April marriage, Scott and Zelda came back to Cottage to chaperone Houseparties weekend — in costume, liquid heavy. Biographers disagree over which of them woke with a black eye, but club members shoved him out a rear window and suspended his membership — legal according to the club Constitution (Article IX).
He was reinstated so his name appears in the 1976 guide. Legend has Fitzgerald flunking out. He never earned a degree, but he came back five consecutive Septembers, 1913-1917, lived in five different rooms: on University Place, Little Hall, Patton, Little again, and finally Campbell, with Paul Dickey, who wrote the music for his three Triangle shows.
As an undergraduate in Triangle I met Mr. Dickey at one of our rehearsals. He agreed to meet with me to help with my senior year thesis. But the English department ruled, “You cannot waste a full year on a minor American author.” Dickey is hardly mentioned in the critical books, the so-called “Fitzgerald Cottage Industry” that began with friend Andrew Turnbull’s biography, 22 years after Scott’s Hollywood heart attack. We will never know about the composer-lyricist relationship or that of two-year roommates.
The Dining Room. Above the north wing, the pantry and kitchen and storerooms, connected to the dining room by a dumb waiter and elevator; below: the Breakfast Room providing serving line meals mornings and vacations — the main dining wing, formal in setting, paneled on the inside, glassed toward the courtyard, with a trio of golden chandeliers hanging on chains like in the library and a trio of fireplaces like in the Gallery — each with its own carved motto. First, “They Take the Sun from the World Who Take Friends for Life.” Last, “Out of Many Make One.” And in the center, “Ubi Amici Iidem Sunt Opes.”
I needed my book to translate: “Where there are friends there are riches.”
The fireplace mottoes could well describe the goal of the Bicker process (or an elite, selective university’s admission process). Find the people who will fit in, either socially or academically, especially those who will come together in their new setting as friends.
One never forgets Bicker. As a sophomore in January, 1955, I had obeyed the traditional prohibition of freshmen and sophomores from “The Street” until the night of the “Architectural Tour.” The next night and after that every week night for three weeks, my roommate Pete Bredehoeft, from Kirkwood High School in St. Louis, and I would scrub up and find our best jacket and tie and wait in our dorm room from 7 to 11 p.m. for visits from delegations of three or four club members.
Early in the process, most clubs visited most sophomore rooms. As the process evolved: fewer visits, at first nights skipped, then no visit at all from a club. A sophomore then figured the club had lost interest.
What did they talk about? Anything, and more of anything: furniture or objects on tables gave the members an opening, and the sophomores played defense, responding when they lucked into a safe subject. Nothing serious about politics or religion or Princeton and certainly almost nothing about the clubs, until near the end of the process. All this led to that Open House night when sophomores had to visit the clubs and ask whether they had been selected for a bid.
Near the end of the visiting period, a sophomore could feel good if more than one club still visited, perhaps with hints about desirability. Pete and I thought we had a good chance at Campus, Quadrangle, or Tower.
The afternoon of Open House night, sophomores would mix in the muddy courtyard of Holder Hall, the gothic dormitory near the corner of Nassau Street and University Place. Heavy deals were cut. Mysteries increased. But Pete and I began to sense who might go to Tower.
Finally, on Open House night, sophomores moved out from the protective arches of 1879 Hall, to cross Washington Road and start down “The Street.” Each sophomore, or small group of those who had bickered together (“a preferential”), or even a group pledged to join together (an “Ironbound”) would ring the bell at a club they thought might give them a positive answer to the pressing question:
“Have I been selected for membership?”
Rumor told us: you would be greeted with smiles, called by name, and ushered immediately upstairs to the Bicker room, if the club wanted to offer a bid. Or you might have to give your name, watch it checked on a list, and accept a seat in the living room, a bad sign that you were on a waiting list. Or you might be told outright. “Sorry. We don’t have you listed.” And with that, one had to go knock on another door.
Pete and I went first to Tower, meeting our good friend Bill from my Washburn High School; we decided to knock together. Pete and I were greeted and led upstairs, but we saw Bill being pushed into the living room. At the table in the Bicker room we were told we had bids and asked to sign in right away so “you can go out and round up a great section.”
Pete asked about friend Bill. “Not on our lists, sorry.” Pete protested, and I have always admired him for that. The club agreed that if we signed in now, Bill could join too.
Pete protested again, “We’re supposed to have a chance to check out other bids.” The club relented, “Okay, we’ll give you three guys an hour; come back before that and all three of you are in.” That’s what we did. And before early onset of Parkinson’s, Bill Shinn became a top protege of George Kennan ’25, the State Department’s ambassador to Russia.
Usually only a few sophomores were not offered a bid to at least one club. And a few simply chose for principle or convenience to remain independent during their junior and senior years, perhaps to cook on hot plates, or eat at the limited array of dim restaurant choices along Nassau Street.
Close to 100 percent of my class of sophomores submitted to the Bicker process as the only major choice, and they had no choice about higher fees paid to the clubs than they had paid as freshmen and sophomores in the university-operated “Commons.” Up until the late-1960s at Princeton, one really had to join a club to count on eating. During his tenure as university president Woodrow Wilson had fought the club system and lost.
If any sophomore (likely not willing to try 6 or 10, let alone all 17 doors) learned that no club wanted him, he could report at midnight to the back porch at Ivy Club for more negotiation. The goal — with much bickering between the InterClub Council (consisting of the presidents of all the clubs), and the Sophomore Class bicker committee — a 100 percent Bicker happened successfully most years.
But not every year, and certainly not in 1958 when the Bicker process at Princeton became a national scandal. Geoffrey Wolff ’60. who prepped at Choate before coming to Princeton (later working for Newsweek before writing such books as “Providence” and “The Duke of Deception”), fictionalizes that infamous Bicker in his 1990 novel, “The Final Club.”
Wolff sends his very savvy and well-heeled Princeton student Nathaniel Clay to ride the Empire Builder from home in Spokane to Princeton, and to the back porch of Ivy. He becomes a “Hundred Percenter:” one of 23 that year, 18 of whom were Jews, not admitted to a single club.
In his novel, even before Bicker begins, Clay kids with his girlfriend about whether he will be seen as a gentleman or a Jew. The Bicker committee at prestigious Ivy, and the committee at Court Club, far down Prospect, a club where Jews were more likely join, both debate whether Clay with a first name of Nathaniel — shortened to Nat or perhaps Nate — might be Jewish. Clay rolls out the mid-century terms for students held in low esteem:
“. . . wonks and straight-arrows, gamblers who welched on bets, wombats and lunch meat, going to and fro on the earth with some despised Little Jesus, taking it in the shorts with the coxcomb said at a Bicker meeting to have been ‘Hatched from a madras egg.’ Outcast. Not, definitely not, a B.M.O.C. Not an ace. Hosed. Sucker of Maximum pipe. A certified banana. Didn’t pack the gear, didn’t please, unclubbable. Deracine.”
In real life in 1958 Wolff, then a sophomore, “received no bids, and left Princeton for the rest of the year,” according to a 1998 article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “When he came back, he joined Colonial Club.”
Fifty-five years later, the more recent college system offers all students a four-year plan: meals, beds, social rooms, laundries — but, unlike the clubs or the Nassau Inn, no Tap Room. The recent report of the university task force on eating clubs did not stir much controversy, moreover did not find alternatives that would address the issue of discrimination.
Bicker now only takes three days, and only five of ten clubs still select their members. The other five admit by lottery, with sophomores listing their choices. In 1972 my old club, Tower, became first club to admit women, and began the Tower Foundation to bring campus study and club life together. Now professors teach regular courses at Tower, which grew into the Prospect Foundation, with all clubs eventually joining. In the 2010 Bicker, Tower was first choice of 219 sophomores seeking admission for 99 places. Cottage picked 83 from 115 applying, Ivy 65 of 130.
I read that today’s students at selective clubs have a new ritual: they march to the rooms of those receiving bids, and then march them back across campus to the club for the awarding of the club tie, beer, and good cheer.
The task force focused on the role Bicker and the clubs plays in alcohol abuse. In 2009 the march across campus and related revelry led to students being carted off to the McCosh Health Center for treatment (it’s called “being McCoshed”), and then 13 of them transferred to the Princeton medical center. The Daily Princetonian praised then Cottage undergraduate president Ben Bologna’s negative reaction, supported by grad board president Carlos Ferrer ’76, to the new practice: “This is not what Cottage stands for and as a result we no longer want to continue such activity.”
After my tour of Cottage I walked around campus and visited the Center for Jewish Life, built in the 1990s. I asked if any students participated in the Center’s activities but also joined a club. I was told some did — “Terrace or Tower mostly.” I asked if any joined Cottage or Ivy and was told, “Nope.”
The university, with Yale and a year before Harvard, admitted its first women in 1969. Cottage admitted its first women — voluntarily — in 1986. In 1990 Ivy and Tiger Inn started selecting women — by court order.
Even in the 1950s getting into the university had high hurdles. More time, more evidence, more questioning, slower decisions than the Bicker that jumped one into a club — especially the Big Five. Admission was a more distant, more paper-intensive process that might lead to a thin envelope from the Princeton Admission Office. When Jim Wickenden ’62 (also a Cottage Club member) and I served together we often debated our purpose. It had to mean something more than taking a goalie who could stop pucks at our college rather than another. And Jim spoke as former captain of the soccer team.
The admission process. Yes, we thought we made better decisions than the graduate school, where the professors often looked for specialists in their fields. And we looked down on any admission officer who had moved on to consult for a fee.
In the 1960s admission officers were on the front lines of decisions about social change and subject to constant observation and criticism. I began in admissions in the fall of 1963 with a summer interning at Harvard with Fred Glimp and Humphrey Doerman.
Alden Dunham began at Princeton the year before, named to form an actual plan, rather than make random individual decisions, heavily influenced by school counselors at the big and small prep schools and the power high schools around Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.
The second half of the century saw a policy that honored those awarded the highest ratings, or combination of ratings, for academic and non-academic accomplishment, with special advantage given to children of graduates, those who overcome hardships to excel, and those who excel in a particular activity, athletic or non-athletic. Full folders were read by at least two staff members, noted, and summarized before discussion before a committee, composed of a half a dozen staff, including the director, the regional (geographical) director, a minority representative, and one or two staff from other geographical regions.
With her 2009 novel, “Admission,” Jean Hanff Korelitz revived my fascination with the details, the back-up procedures, the checks to make sure we could feel convinced that we really gave a more than simply careful look at every candidate’s materials — but instead making as wise a judgment as possible, taking into account their advantages or disadvantages.
Korelitz, author of “A Jury of Her Peers” and other works, also knows the college scene: Her husband is Princeton professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon and, important for her “Admission,” she worked as a reader for Princeton’s Office of Admission in 2006 and 2007. Korelitz names her fictional admission officer Portia:
“Then when autumn came, her appetite would sharpen and her curiosity build. Once again, she wanted to know who waited in the folders. She wanted to meet them and find out about their lives, learn about what mattered to them, what they’d done and what they wanted from life, hear the passion in their voices when they told her what they dreamed of achieving. That passion was infectious, addictive, and she had spent her working life riding the slipstream of so many hopeful; determined young people; thoughtlessly hitching along on the draft of their greater energy; their extraordinary goals. It felt like a kind of addiction . . .
“The art of admitting students to selective colleges had never really stood still, but the shifts and reversal seemed to be coming thicker and faster . . . a continual shuttle between academic excellence and ‘our kind of fellow:’ and no move had been made without a corresponding chorus of disapproval. Placate the faculty by tightening academic standards, and certain objectionable immigrant groups became a bit too well represented on campus.
“Introduce the notion of ‘character’ into the process to salve the wounded alumni (and keep the Jews out; or at least down), and the faculty let you know how disgusted they were. Let in women: Piss off the traditionalists. Beef up the football team: Watch the academic slide. Show diversity: Insult the traditional applicant pool. Open the door to impoverished students from all over the world. Turn your back on children of the American middle class.”
The term “Affirmative Action,” coined by John Kennedy, was followed by an even flatter term, “diversity,” to appease those claiming reverse discrimination. What matters is action, action to increase opportunity, at the start, or later. And not only for the individual, but for the group that thrives from a mix of students. A mix becomes possible only when admission staff go out where the students are, staff who themselves represent a mix.
But competition to get in — worse every year. My classmates lately tend to assess their odds with a shrug: “Princeton now? No chance.”
For my Class of 1957, applicants numbered 4,300, 3,200 of whom had “the endorsement of their school” for a class of 759, 54 percent from private schools, 67 percent not in need of financial aid, and about one in three admitted.
For the Class of 2014, the number of applicants had risen to a high of 26,247, with 2,148 admitted (plus about 100 off the wait list) to reach a desired class of 1,200. That’s about one in twelve or thirteen admitted.
During my nine years in the Princeton Admission Office (half of Portia’s 16), I put my name on “Rejection Letters” — about 49,872 of them. Later in the New Jersey Department of Education we recruited about 2,000 and placed about 400 teachers in each of eight years — thus mailing about 12,800 rejection letters. Grand total, not counting infelicitous letters to friends: about 62,672. Any pay back? Oh, yes, finally in 1990, after Governor Tom Kean’s two terms (his warm-up to take his honesty, humility, and grit to the 9/11 Commission), the new governor Jim Florio, closed down our eight-year Office of Teacher Recruitment and Placements, then imitated by eight other states and now talked about in many circles.
I made the unemployment rolls for over a year, and had to send out, literally, age nearing 60, enough letters and make enough calls for a grand total of 1,000. I stopped there, and a week later call number 1,001 brought me back to education.
I decided not to leave through the Gallery. I had lost hope of meeting a designated tour guide. Back door seemed right, so I exited onto the landing with trash and recycling buckets. I followed the alley called “Roper Lane,” where bands played and pennants wavered when there was a ballgame down in what was originally Palmer Stadium. As Fitzgerald noted, “No sound inside; except the steady slow throb of silence.”
Curving toward the front path, I remembered Amory Blaine in Scott’s first novel — begun at Cottage, continued weekends at Ft. Riley, and finished in a row house on 599 Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Languishing with club chums he hears the latest: “About one-third of the junior class are going to resign from their clubs.” When Amory asks why, he’s told, “Spirit of reform and all that: Burne Holiday is behind it. The club presidents are holding a meeting tonight to see if they can find a joint means of combating it . . . .”
Amory asks why. “Oh, clubs injurious to Princeton democracy; cost a lot; draw social lines; take time; the regular line you get sometimes from disappointed sophomores. Woodrow thought they should be abolished, and all that.”
Starting on the path toward the street, I turned to look again. Like the row on the Cliff Walk at Newport, where Robert Redford and Mia Farrow filmed their 1974 Gatsby, I faced the real thing. No cottage in the North Minnesota woods. Architecturally unknockable. Glory and grandeur enclosed by red brick and honeysuckle.
I focused on the white latticed Widows’ Walk topping the center, above third floor dormers, above second floor flagged balcony-above lantern projecting out to the street and in to the club. Who was to be given rights to all this splendor — perhaps for a lifetime?
A guy from “Tender Is the Night” shouts, “Old fellow on path wants to see the villa. He’s here studying human nature.” Would I have fit in with this club in 1955? Or this year of the Tiger 2010, with three Princeton graduates on or nominated to the Supreme Court? I might groove with those “evening intellectual discussions” but could not keep pace with Lawnparties.
Korelitz’s Portia (Shakespeare’s fairest arbiter), who gives presentations that make Princeton sound far better than I could, who reads a folder and writes summaries like no one I recall, who touts Princeton’s policy of an aristocracy of virtue and talent, finally admits, “I make judgments for a living.”
Judgments? Well, okay — maybe. The Janus face does look forward and back; the Sphinx-shaped Cottage foundation remains embedded; “male power” to claw with a far-seeing gaze; the lantern anchor, a common base, a place perhaps for “Ubi Amici Iidem Sunt Opes” (Where there are friends there are riches).
Or better: Jefferson’s eloquently languid “aristocracy of virtue and talent.” But even Jefferson’s “aristocracy of virtue and talent sports a burr under its saddle. What’s an “aristocracy”? Whatever results after someone selects someone and does not select someone else.
If lesser luminaries than Charles McKim repair architecture now as needed, why can’t thinkers contain space in a moral frame? Why not a society with fewer horizontal and vertical bands, fewer separations by human differences such as color, shape, income, job, appearance? After all, superficial differences are now belied by the impossibility of clustering DNA into anything simple. DNA surely will open a new lexicon of qualities one might choose as “what matters.”
So how can making judgments for a living stand sufficient to create pride — ebony-sure truths that beget fairness for those selected and those not selected? And might not Truth (fact and action) and Fairness (judgment not judging), guide us to better decisions about people: club, college, congress, court — and choosing up sides on the playground?
Reaching my car, having been borne back ceaselessly into the past, I found my payback. On my windshield, a brand new parking ticket.
Cottage Club tour dates for the new academic year have not been announced. Check http://cottageclub.net for details.