In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s breakthrough novel, This Side of Paradise, his protagonist, Amory Blaine, faces a stressful decision. Where should he go the following fall? Attracted by nothing but prestige, Amory tells a family friend, "I don't know why, but I think of all Harvard men as sissies." He looks more favorably on Yale, which has “ a romance and glamor from the tales of Minneapolis and St. Regis’ men who had been tapped for Skull and Bones.” Ultimately, though, he settles on Princeton, which he famously describes as “the pleasantest country club in America.”
Fitzgerald goes on to describe Princeton's eating clubs in lyrically snobbish phrases: one club is "detached and breathlessly aristocratic," another is "an impressive mélange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers," a third is "broad-shouldered and athletic," and a fourth is "anti-alcoholic, faintly religious and politically powerful."
Over the past hundred years, all three of these colleges have attempted to shed their elitist reputations. They've been coed for long enough that their single-sex pasts are mostly documented in black and white photographs. They've championed affirmative action and established generous need-based financial aid programs. Yet among the Ivies, Princeton is still seen as a bastion of white, upper-class privilege, due in large part to its eating clubs.
When I was at Princeton, nearly a century after Amory's time, I belonged to a club called Cap and Gown. Like all the other eating clubs, it was housed in an on-campus mansion unaffiliated with the university but run by students and alumni. The interior was darkly wooded and well-maintained, evoking grandeur. There are 11 of these clubs today, and they dominate Princeton's social scene. Today, they're most famous for Lawnparties, a twice-yearly event where live bands play and students drink and dance on every lawn, fountain, and balcony available.
Each of Princeton's eating clubs has its own distinct reputation. Ivy is known for its preppiness and generally draws students from wealth, or those who aspire to it. At the opposite extreme, Terrace draws laid-back hipster types. Between Ivy and Terrace, there are clubs for a range of personality types. Tower draws the theater crowd and the politics majors, whereas heavy-drinking swimmers and rowers flock to Cloister.
In contrast with Fitzgerald’s time, all of these clubs include female students, and they're no longer quite so exclusive. Five of the 11 are open to anyone who can pay the membership dues. Still, Princeton has never quite shed its reputation as "the pleasantest country club in America." To get some context, I decided to explore the social scenes at other Ivy League colleges. What I discovered is that Princeton's social scene is actually strikingly progressive compared to Harvard's. At Harvard, there are eight all-male clubs and five all-female Final Clubs. All of the male clubs own real estate. Just one of the female clubs—the Bee—has a house, which it rents. The all-male clubs have property—mansions in Harvard Square. The men who belong to them are typically athletes or from prominent or affluent families, and they tend to be white.
A recent Harvard graduate, whom I will refer to as Steve, was a member of a Final Club. “You are invited to initial events in a cryptic way,” he explained. “You get a note, often with a waxed seal, and they flip it under your door.” That letter spurs six weeks of courtship between members and prospective members.
Another recent alum, whom I will call Jim, belonged to a different club. Jim explained the “punch process,” which takes place in the fall of a student's sophomore year: “Each club hosts four formal events, usually a cocktail party, an outing, a date event, and a final dinner. At each event, the members invite fewer and fewer folks back. So say maybe 200 to 75 to 35 to 25, or something along those lines.”
Between 10 and 20 percent of male students, and around 5 percent of female students survive punch and are initiated into a club. While the clubs might initially punch 200 students, the paring-down process is often predictable. A recent female graduate, whom I will call Stephanie, was not in a club. She explains, “Athletes have a huge advantage. And a lot of it is based on wealth.” As she tells it, “The only way to get punched without a clear affiliation is if you’re very social or if you had very good older friends.”
Jim paints a more forgiving picture. “The clubs are self-selecting communities. They give preference to friends of current members and sons of graduate members. Older students meet younger students through sports teams and other extracurriculars, so that's certainly one way to get into a club, and if there's a guy from say Andover in the Delphic, he's likely to know younger guys from Andover and punch them. But there's no conspiracy there.”
Conspiracy or not, all but one of the many people I interviewed agreed that athletes and wealthier, typically white, students tend to be selected. As with Eating Clubs, each Final Club draws a certain crowd and has a unique reputation. The Final Club spectrum is purely pastel, however, representing various different shades of preppy. The Porcellian is the most elite club, with Teddy Roosevelt and the Winklevoss twins headlining its alumni corps. Stephanie explains that it is the most formal of the clubs, hosting nothing but invite-only events. Legend has it that the Porcellian tells punches that if they turn 30 and have not yet made a million dollars, the club will give it to them. This myth has been neither confirmed nor denied.
In addition to the Porcellian, there are seven other clubs. Stephanie, Steve, and Jim characterized them in this way: The Spee selects a more international crowd. The Fly is for “guys from New York”. The AD is for “lax bros,” the Pheonix is for “football and waterpolo,” and the Delphic is for “ice hockey, baseball, and captains of several major sports teams.” The Owl is “fratty, fun, lots of rugby players and oarsman, very open.” The only club not known primarily for wealthy or athletic members is the Fox, which Jim describes as “open, fun, friendly, nice guys drawn from a range of Harvard extracurriculars, like The Crimson and sports teams.” Stephanie agrees: “There are some nice guys there.”
Self-selecting communities exist everywhere. Few people, for instance, are bothered by the fact that A.E. Pi is a predominantly Jewish fraternity. White, wealthy country clubs might offend people, but unless you live across the street from them, they are also easy to ignore.