Undercover at Princeton’s Eating Clubs

022607 article bicker Undercover at Princeton’s Eating ClubsOn Saturday, Feb. 17, the University Cottage Club, one of Princeton’s most exclusive eating clubs, threw its annual lingerie party. Around midnight, the club—which was founded in 1886—was packed with male and female students in various states of undress, and a girl in a black negligee was reflecting on how race and sex still play a significant role in the club’s selection process.

“This club is filled with good-looking people and girls who eat salads,” said the athletically built brunette, who was not a member of Cottage. “This year, they let in one black girl—because she was pretty.”

How could she be so sure that looks were the deciding factor? “She had no affiliations,” the brunette replied firmly. “This club cares about affiliations.”

Indeed, the scantily clad female revelers inside the white-trimmed brick mansion—a New Jersey historic landmark with a library, billiards room and dance floor—were by and large Caucasian and “salad-eater” thin. And the skinnier they were, the more skin they were showing. “There’s gonna be a contest in their minds, believe me,” said a Cottage member, a varsity-baseball player, limning the psyches of the ladies in lingerie. “They’re going to come out swingin’.”

Male members of the club are typically known as “jocks” and “Southern good ol’ boys”—but a sophomore named Jeff was out to dispel stereotypes. “I don’t think this club’s sexist,” he said. “I mean, look around—I think the guys are wearing less clothes than the girls!”

Nearby, in the club’s crowded tap bar, a tall, hairy male student was wearing nothing but a wrapped present covering his genitals, à la Justin Timberlake’s Saturday Night Live “Dick in a Box” sketch. A fellow Princetonian walked by and slapped the box to the floor. Many boys broke out laughing. Several girls looked away, blushing demurely.

The elitist nature of Princeton’s eating clubs has long been a cause of controversy. An outgrowth of the university’s ban on fraternities in the middle of the 19th century, some 20 eating clubs have lived and died along Prospect Avenue. Today, only 10 remain, five of which are still selective clubs (the others, known as “sign-ups,” are assigned to students via a lottery system).

The university’s official line is that the clubs are not affiliated with the school—aside from the fact that roughly three-fourths of the school’s upperclassmen take their meals there. “The university does not regulate the eating clubs,” said Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt. “The clubs are managed and operated by their membership. It’s important to understand they’re independent establishments, similar to a restaurant.”

In November of last year, however, in anticipation of the upcoming eating-clubs rush season (a process known as “bicker”), the school announced an increase in financial-aid packages to address the $2,000 price difference between the eating clubs and the university’s dining plans, tacitly acknowledging the eating clubs’ place of primacy in the firmament of campus life.

Each club has a different vibe, and on Saturday night, a general spirit of merriment and community was apparent along “the Street,” as students refer to Prospect Avenue. (At the sign-in club Colonial, for example, inductees were being directed to jump into a giant tub of pudding and Crisco.) But in conversations with various students at a handful of the more exclusive clubs, it was clear that race and class are still significant issues for Princeton students undergoing bicker in 2007.

At the Cap and Gown Club, which was having a members-only formal dinner party that night, a short, voluptuous female engineering major in a white cocktail dress described the landscape. “Tower is theater majors, artsy people—but conservative,” she said. “Terrace is very artsy, experimental with drugs. Cottage is very snobby, lots of legacy people”—meaning scions of Princeton alumni—“mostly all white, a bit discriminatory. Ivy also is legacy, mostly white, filled with the beautiful skinny people.” (Calls later to each of the clubs went unreturned.)

The scene at Cap and Gown, known for its athletic membership, appeared racially diverse. In fact, nearly every member who was asked what distinguished this club from the others used the words “chill” and “mixed.”

“It’s a good mix,” said a junior named Logan. “You get called out if you’re a dick; everyone tries to be chill.”

His friend, a guy named Lev, agreed. “Pretty much, if you’re chill, you’ll get in,” he said.

Not so with the Ivy Club, which a ’96 alumnus said, a bit disgustedly, “is now a vice den that would make Tony Montana weep.” A current student who recently failed bicker there described the process as extremely selective. “Obviously, the chances of a minority person being eighth-generation at Ivy bicker is zero,” he said, referring to a white girl from an “old” family who was admitted this year. “Minorities who get in, get in for a reason. They’ve usually already been through finishing school and have the right affiliations.”

By “affiliations,” the source was referring to the various other fraternities and clubs on campus. “Each group—St. A’s [the literary society, St. Anthony Hall], Theta, Zeta Psi and so on—they each have their one token, and those are the minorities that get into Ivy,” said the source. Rejection can be emotionally devastating. “People kind of go into hiding,” said the source. With perhaps a note of bitterness, he described recent admittees, including Sophie Schmidt, daughter of Google chief executive Eric Schmidt (“Absolutely plain,” he sneered); Luisa de Carvalho, granddaughter of deceased billionaire beer mogul Freddy Heineken; and Alice Lloyd George, a descendant of the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

There were also some surprises.

“University student vice president Josh Weinstein got hosed,” said the source. “He’s been doing amazing things for the students, but that’s not really what Ivy considers important. His mother is a bigwig at the clothing line Tahari, but that didn’t suffice either.”

Francesco Lugli was a close friend and fellow Chi Phi frat brother of Ivy president Wyatt Rockefeller. “Everyone thought for sure Fran would get in—he’s even friends with all the hot girls in Ivy,” said the source, citing one of them, Lily Cowles, daughter of actress Christine Baranski.

The source also reported that the bicker process at Ivy this year was corrupted by factors weirder than race and wealth. “Lola Adekunle accidentally locked herself in the Ivy’s walk-in freezer, and one of the people she texted to come rescue her was Tamara Watson, who was one of the bickerees that she had interviewed,” he gasped. “That’s totally against the rules—and, of course, Tamara ended up getting in.”

This year’s Ivy bicker guide, a six-page, single-spaced document, features a red-highlighted section on “dirty bicker,” meaning members interviewing pledges with whom the member has a previous relationship. “This should go without saying, but you cannot bicker someone you know (or have heard enough about them to ‘know’ them well, i.e. your best friend’s best friend that you have not ‘met’),” the manifesto commands. “You cannot be predisposed to giving a person a particular card prior to bickering them (i.e. you would never give them a down card or an up card due to certain preconceptions or relationships).”

Since the decisions came down on Friday, Feb. 16, spurned Ivy pledges have been buzzing about the unfair treatment Ms. Watson may have received. “She rescued her bickerer from being frozen,” the source said incredulously. “If that’s not going to prejudice you, what is?”