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.”