``There has always been something a little different, a bit `off'
at Yale,'' writes Alexandra Robbins. But why stop at Yale?
Describing his objections to a column about to be published in
Vanity Fair, Toby Young writes, ``Satire was supposed to be a weapon
with which the disenfranchised attacked the Establishment, not the
other way round.''
What we have here, in other words, is the Eastern Liberal
Establishment rampant, holding sway over the poor doofuses in the
flyover states through the power of association, expressed in arcane
rituals as varied as the drinking of ``blood'' from the skull-shaped
``Yorick'' to seal one's membership in Skull and Bones, or the
manner of achieving entrance to the New York nightspot of the
To enter Bones, you must be one of the 15 Yale juniors at the top
of the ``tap'' list; to enter the Bowery Bar, you must be in the
good graces of at least one of a handful of publicists. In both
cases, the power is closely held and wielded in shadow, until the
end result -- the choosing of a Cabinet, for example, in the one
case, and the bestowal of fleeting fame in the other -- becomes
obvious even to the likes of you and me.
Robbins is herself a graduate of Yale and a member of a secret
society; it is not Skull and Bones, but she will not tell us what it
is. She used to be on the staff of the New Yorker, a Cond้ Nast
publication. Young is a British journalist -- he prefers the term
``hack'' -- who for a brief while managed to wangle a place on the
staff of Vanity Fair, also a Cond้ Nast publication.
Young was frankly appalled at what he found in New York magazine
journalism, although Young embraced the brave new world of
sycophants and toadies, arrogance and bribery with an enthusiasm
limited only by its reluctance to embrace him.
In his native land, Young writes, the gentlemen of the press,
long accustomed to being sneered at by the Establishment, regard
getting ``too chummy with the kind of people who appear in Hello! --
the British equivalent of Style -- . . . as a betrayal of the hack
warrior's code,'' and wouldn't dream of drinking with them unless
the job demanded it.
New York style
Not so in New York, where ``the publicists tend to look down on
the journalists'' as ``just another bunch of wannabes clamoring to
get past the velvet rope.'' He notes that of the 16 people injured
when publicist Lizzie Grubman drove her Mercedes SUV into a crowd
one night, several were journalists. ``White trash,'' she yelled at
them, and it's pretty clear that Young understands her point of view
Robbins' take on the groves of academe, New Haven-style, is more
difficult to pin down. In a tone surprisingly neutral, considering
the shocking-inside-story implications of her book's subtitle, she
outlines the history of Yale and its secret societies, the peculiar
rituals of Skull and Bones, the oldest of them, and the well-known,
interconnected names that have emerged from it, including three
presidents, two of them named Bush.
Yale, in Robbins' view, was founded by people who were annoyed
with Harvard (just as Princeton was founded by people who were
annoyed with Yale), and Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 by a man
referred to as ``General'' William Russell because he was annoyed
with Phi Beta Kappa. (His military rank was bestowed by the
Connecticut National Guard.)
This was during a time when Americans were fascinated with both
the democratic spirit and its opposite. While Andrew Jackson's
cronies were spitting on the White House floor, Alexis de
Tocqueville (an author much admired, and much quoted, by Young) was
writing that democracy in America was not to be equated with
liberty. Many of the Founding Fathers were Masons, whose penchant
for secret rituals once may have helped guard the anti-royalist
society from spies. But secret ritual became beloved for its own
sake in groups as diverse as Joseph Smith's new Mormon Church and
Gen. Russell's new club at Yale.
``Tapping'' -- in which a senior Bonesman would clap a hand on
the shoulder of an expectant junior on the appointed night and
shout, ``Go to your room!'' -- was a public ritual. Most of what
Robbins describes, however, goes on inside the Tomb, the boys'
secret clubhouse, ``a cold, foreboding Greco-Egyptian structure of
brown sandstone with sparse narrow windows of dark glass.'' Inside
are a kitchen, a dining room, an Inner Temple and various other
rooms -- three stories and an attic. If the kitchen looks
``something like a butler's pantry in an old estate house,'' the
rest of the Tomb ``resembles more the Victorian house of a pack
rat.'' One member describes it as looking ``like a college dorm room
. . . old drafts of term papers . . . socks underneath the couch,
old half-deflated soccer balls lying around.''
As both decor and decorum partake of this sort of frat-boy chic,
and since Robbins describes Bones as representing a sort of elite
among the Elis, and since Bonesmen do indeed form a sort of
Establishment nexus, from William Howard Taft to Archibald MacLeish,
from McGeorge Bundy to Winston Lord, from George Bush the Elder to
George Bush the Younger (a legacy if ever there was one), one might
marvel that the republic has lasted as long as it has, were it not
for the possibility that school days are less of a formative
influence than we might suppose.
But again: Why stop at Yale? ``After three years at Oxford,''
writes Young, ``I was shocked by how little dissent was tolerated at
Harvard'' where ``the most striking thing'' was ``the absence of any
real intellectual diversity.'' When he moved on to Vanity Fair,
having been summoned by editor Graydon Carter to ``hang out'' for a
spell, Young found himself in a world so removed from that of the
people who presumably had purchased the Cond้ Nast magazines that
everyone traveled by limousine, no one paid for tickets to anything,
product demonstrations such as the premiere of ``GoldenEye'' were
covered as though they were actual events, and Anna Wintour, the
editor of Vogue, had, by common consent, her own elevator.
As it turns out, Young didn't have what it takes. He wanted to
sell out, but no one was buying squat, balding Brits that season.
When Young tried to increase his shelf appeal by obtaining a credit
card with ``Hon'' (for ``the Honorable'') in front of his name, no
one got it -- they thought it was his first name, pronounced
``hun.'' Carter rejected his story ideas as puerile or worse. The
old wheeze about how the salesman has to believe in his product
turned out to be true: Young understood the celebrity culture his
magazine glorified, but he didn't believe in it. Not believing, he
couldn't play the game. The 175-word celeb photo captions he wrote
were, it turned out, pretty much all he was capable of while he was
there at the heart of the beast.
Back in London, though, he seems to have achieved perspective.
``How to Lose Friends'' is both cogent and entertaining. His
personal story -- his quest among the canyons of Manhattan for
debauchery or, failing that, love -- is uninteresting, or maybe just
too familiar: Yes, American journalists don't drink the way they
used to, Toby, or can it be they just don't drink with you? But his
observations along the way are fascinating, funny, and not a little
SECRETS OF THE TOMB: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the
Hidden Paths of Power
By Alexandra Robbins
Little, Brown, 231 pp., $25.95
HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS & ALIENATE PEOPLE
By Toby Young
Da Capo Press, 340 pp., $24