Leslie Landgraf says her job is the only one like it in the world.
As the steward of the Yale Elizabethan Society — affectionately known as “The Lizzie” — Landgraf is responsible for the general care of the club. What makes her job so unusual is that it takes up 24 hours of her day. During an impromptu tour of The Lizzie, Landgraf motioned to a stairway, mentioning that it leads to the servants’ quarters where she lives. She declined, however, to divulge how many others live down there with her.
Quirks like this one make The Lizzie what it is today — antiquated, slightly bizarre, yet adored by its student and faculty members. It has a reputation among outsiders — at least those who have heard of it — as a mysterious and elitist institution. Some members attempt to dispel this notion, while others said they see value in The Lizzie’s selective practices.
The Lizzie came into existence in 1911, when Alexander Smith Cochran bought the building on College Street that houses the society. Cochran, who graduated from Yale in 1896, felt that the university needed a haven for lovers of Elizabethan literature and a forum for intellectual discourse. Not only did he buy the building, but Cochran also set up a $100,000 endowment and donated an impressive collection of first edition Shakespeare manuscripts. The vault that contains the Shakespeare folios and manuscripts is said to be able to withstand a direct hit from a howitzer shell, and is opened every Friday during teatime for people to look at the documents.
“The collection of books is an important feature of the club,” said Cyrus Hamlin, a professor who serves on The Lizzie’s board of incorporators, which is responsible for the endowment itself.
The endowment, which had grown to such an extent that The Lizzie funds fellowships at Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, ensures that members only have to pay a $12 fee for life. Ten dollars go to membership and two go to the rectangular key to the club each member receives.
Daily teas are one of the most essential features of The Lizzie. Most members go to the club to study or socialize when tea is served between 4 and 6 p.m. each day.
“It’s the best tea ever — Elizabethan black blend,” member Day Kornbluth ’04 said.
Hamlin also said he feels that The Lizzie provides a great forum for students and professors to interact in a way that does not occur in classrooms.
“I think that the primary function of the Elizabethan Club is social,” Hamlin said. “They offer tea and refreshments at the end of the day and most of the people who come come for that and also for conversation. It’s a question of who’s there — one gets to know students.”
Members –undergraduates to graduate students to professors to alumni — said they feel the club provides them with ample opportunities to meet new people.
“To me, it seems like a really great place to sort of get past the impersonal nature of a lecture or seminar and to really sort of have the academic intellectual discourse with people in a setting where there is no pressure to perform,” recently-accepted member Marc Sorel ’04 said.
Sorel is a former Sports Editor for the Yale Daily News.
Yet despite all of these beloved elements, The Lizzie seems elitist to some.
Member Jessica Kronstadt ’04 said she thinks this reputation is due to the fact that, unlike fraternities or other organizations on campus, The Lizzie does not actively seek membership.
“The Lizzie doesn’t go out and recruit people to join,” Kronstadt said. “And certainly I think the admissions process being really out of your own capabilities and depending on someone else to sing your praises is an element of its elitism because it’s out of your hands.”
Some members of the club try to keep the admissions process a secret, but others freely describe it.
“Undergraduates attempt to demystify [The Lizzie] the best that they can,” member Zach Safir ’05 said.
Once a current member has taken a prospective member to the club, the current member can write a letter of recommendation for his or her friend. The admissions committee requires two letters for most applicants, but some need three.
The committee, led by Earle Havens, a Ph.D. candidate in Renaissance Studies, reviews letters of recommendation and posts a list of candidates being reviewed in the club. Members can write letters endorsing or denouncing different candidates. But most people who pursue a membership to get one.
“Negative letters happen hardly 10 percent of the time,” Hamlin said. “The admissions committee does not turn anyone down based on hearsay.”
But Havens refused to share information about the number of rejections, and Hamlin said he did not know.
The time between the first letter written for a prospective member and his acceptance into the club varies based on factors such as how many applications are being reviewed, the time of year and whether or not a negative letter was written against the candidate.
Some members claim that the club is not as exclusive as it seems.
“People in the club make an effort to include people from all different areas of Yale life,” Sorel said.
Other members acknowledge the exclusivity of the club, but said they do not necessarily see it as a bad thing.
“In order for there to be a club, in order for there to be a place where you can have tea and enjoy intimate conversation, it has to be to a certain extent exclusive,” said Matt Louchheim ’04, The Lizzie’s undergraduate treasurer. “It should be absolutely open to anyone who is interested in becoming a member, but you want members to be interested in the club, participate in the club and that’s why you have exclusivity.”
Features such as the vault or the pull-chain toilet in the second-floor bathroom make The Lizzie eccentric, and one could take its admissions process as evidence of elitism. But some members said they think other campus organizations also have these qualities.
“It is, in typical Yale fashion, an exclusive club,” Hamlin said.