An overstuffed history of the secret clubs that have been part of Yale University tradition since its earliest years.
Want to be a big man on campus in New Haven? First, you’ll have to get slapped—hard. That was, in any event, the old ritual by which at least one of Yale’s secret societies invited new members to join the fold. And what happened when the invitation was accepted? At a certain point in history, as biographer and Yale Corporation historian Richards (Rudyard Kipling: A Bibliography, 2009, etc.) writes, the initiate might have been swept into secret intelligence work. During the Cold War, Yale was laced with “talent spotters who would forward the names of likely agents to the CIA,” and during World War II, the same spotters staffed the ranks of the OSS and other military intelligence agencies even as the societies dwindled as their members were scattered “to far corners of the country or to overseas battlegrounds.” The author begins by examining how these societies formed in the first place. In part, he suggests, they were mutual-aid societies for students struggling to make sense of a place in which the faculty did not deign to mix with their charges, and they were also places for entertainment (Phi Beta Kappa began not as an honorary society but as a dining club). Recent years seem anticlimactic in light of the fraught times of conflict, the Civil War as well as later ones. As Richards notes, George H.W. Bush, a Skull and Bones initiate, had already proven himself a war hero—and, though well-connected, had among his classmates non–upper crust veterans on the GI Bill entering a “doorway to a postwar world.” Indeed, writes the author, the secret societies aren’t just a WASP domain; many have opened to women and people of all ethnicities and orientations, and they have mirrored and sometimes led the larger society in liberalization.
Much too long but full of intriguing revelations and even a little skulduggery—though conspiracy theorists still won’t find all the keys here.