Geniuses From Harvard Made This Dumb Culture

Not long ago, a few of us old guys were sitting around after dinner, shooting the breeze. It was the sort of scene that Heart of Darkness , Victory and many other of Conrad’sbeststoriesbegin with.Youtellmeyour story, I’ll tell you mine, and all will comment. One guy reported on a moment of rare hideousness: the sight of Ellen Barkin and Ronald Perelman attempting to walk along Newtown Lane in East Hampton with arms and lips intertwined, an ungraceful coupling that reminded the narrator of dung beetles mating on a Discovery Channel insect show. This reminded one of the others present that he had achieved a rare double; in the excited tones usually reserved for accounts of bongo-stalking in the savannas of Botswana, he told of spotting, in the very same faubourg, not one, but two Miller sisters, those duty-free heiresses who’ve made a postgraduate career of marrying the bin ends of the Almanach de Gotha .

“You should have seen the shop doors fly open at their coming!” he exclaimed. “Like muskrat traps!”

“Muskrat!” sniffed one of our number derisively. “Those girls don’t know from muskrat!”

“Speaking of which,” said a third, “didn’t they go to Brown?”

And before you knew it, we were off on a discussion of the current state of the Ivy League.

We began by briefly considering a matter that seems to have The New York Times deeply concerned: the apparent drop in Jewish enrollment at Princeton.

“Could it have anything to do,” asked someone, “with the fact that Princeton doesn’t have a law school, a medical school or a B-school? That could be a turnoff for future my-son-the-lawyer types.”

“Yeah,” commented another, “but what about teachers?”

“Same thing. You can get a great liberal arts education down there, which in the old days would be the first step on a teaching career, but nowadays, who wants to teach? The money stinks and even worse is the P.C. gang in the saddle. With those clowns running things, a good liberal arts education is probably a disability for a would-be professor of English, say.”

At this, heads shook, and then someone asked: Which Ivy League institution did we think had declined the most?

“Well, what about Brown?” one guy asked contentiously.

“Ah, no,” said the eldest among us, gravely. “Nothing can come of nothing.” Recognizing the quotation, and taking his point, we all smiled.

(At this point, however, I must exercise authorial privilege and elucidate the citation for undergraduates and recent graduates of Brown–and possibly Harvard–as coming from King Lear , which is not the kind of jet in which Daddy used to fly the family to Aspen and Lyford Cay before he sold his derivatives business to the German bank and bought the Gulfstream, but a play by that guy whose name is in the title of the Gwyneth Paltrow movie.) Quickly, we ran through the rest; none seemed right. Not Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell. Two of the group continue to regard Penn as not properly Ivy League, but as an interloper, in the same spirit that Old Confederate types in Charleston or Mobile probably look upon Arkansas. As for Yale, the only graduate present–this correspondent, Class of ’58–was forced to admit that his alma mater had virtually ceased to exist for him since the unlamented presidency of Beano Sch(m)idt and that he now knew–and cared–so little about what went on there that any opinion he might render would be useless.

Not that it mattered, because at one and the same moment, each and every one of our withered visages lit up with enlightenment, and, as one, we simultaneously uttered the sacred name of Harvard.

“You realize, of course, that most of the stupidest stuff in the movies, on TV and in the print media is either created by or under the control of Harvard men,” said someone.

“Point well taken,” another responded. “Hear, hear!” cried others.

“I mean, look at Time ,” the first speaker continued, evidently determined to be the evening’s Marlow. “A great Yale institution ruined by Johnny Harvards.”

Your correspondent said nothing. As a son of Yale and kin thereby to Luce and Hadden, I make it my policy never to comment on such matters, lest I be accused of wall-pennant partisanship. That a magazine founded to tell Americans what they need to know, what they should know, now gives its cover to one Ricky Martin, who is I believe a Latin singer, probably elicits comment on the far side of the grave that should not be printed, even speculatively, in a family newspaper.

The conversation continued in this wise for a while, then someone gave voice to a truly terrifying thought.

“Do you know,” he said, “I’ll bet the best-known Harvard graduate in America today is Conan O’Brien.”

At this, we fell silent, until someone piped up, “What about Kurt Andersen?”

“Who?” asked several of us.

“The fellow with the book. At the End of the Century . Meet the Millennium. Something like that.”

None of us others knew what he was talking about. We fell, as a group, silent. All that could be heard was the soughing of the wind in the majestic trees outside. That is, we thought it was the wind, until the end of the evening, when we went outside and found the night dead still. One of our number took it upon himself to investigate and was able to report back that what we had taken to be the breeze in the branches was in fact a noise emanating from a local bookstore some five miles distant: the legs of a display table creaking under a great weight of unsalable copies of Turn of the Century .

As it chanced, I reflected upon this conversation under sad circumstances a few days later, at the funeral of my friend Alton Peters, who for the nearly 50 years I knew him brought grace notes of cultivation and enthusiasm, along with much comfort and wise counsel, to several generations of his and his family’s friends. The service was replete with noble music nobly performed by choir and soloists, and by a homily on Alton’s life, delivered by a fellow Harvard graduate and Harvard friend, the Rev. Stephen S. Garmey, that was uncommonly eloquent. And uncommonly to the point of the man for whose life and friendship a thousand people had come together to give thanks. Many in the congregation had Harvard connections; the ushers, a good number of whom I had known for 50 years and then some, were drawn from Alton’s own Harvard life. As I listened to Steve Garmey, I couldn’t help thinking, and I am sure many others did, too, how the man being eulogized epitomized a kind of Harvard being that seems no longer to exist.

Cultivated, generous, value-conscious, progressive, learned, discreet. And as knowable, and as admirable, for what he is not as for what he is.

Ambitious but not careerist. A believer in standards. The sort of man whom Housman had in mind when he wrote of those “who carry back bright to the Coiner the mintage of man.”

Harvard meant something then. A wonderful admixture of substance and style. It was something more than a job at Universal Studios or a good table at Spago.

So where do we find our Harvard men today?

At Princeton, perhaps.

Ah, what bad times are these.

O tempora, o morons!