The decline of the Yale tradition

Manuel Gonzales-Luna ’08 is looking for the “midnight navy blue” version of a coat he saw in the J. Press catalogue — a slim, bound affair that looks like it might have been printed on a Gutenberg press. Owner Jim Fitzgerald has helped Gonzales-Luna find the coat in his size, but now, next to the cashmere lining J. Press’ shelves, “midnight navy blue” looks black, and Gonzales-Luna can’t possibly wear a black coat with his brown dress shoes. He pauses under a massive oar, a souvenir from a mid-century championship Yale crew team, to survey his options.

“Definitely black, and I need navy,” he says.

He’s actually the only customer right now and, in an era where undergraduates “want to wear their T-shirts and jeans as long as they possibly can,” according to Fitzgerald, Gonzales-Luna may be the York Street boutique’s only student patron for some time.

“They just don’t know any better,” Gonzales-Luna concludes, surveying the empty shop.

Regardless of whether they “know any better,” patrons are not flocking to institutions like J. Press and Mory’s the same way or for the same reasons they used to, and New Haven’s remnants of “Old Yale” have had to evolve in an attempt to avoid becoming novelty items.

New Haven is built around its pillars of pride. Louie’s, Sally’s and Pepe’s still thread tourists up the sidewalks, hungering for the very first burger or pizza slice. As for the University itself, Yale’s unofficial theme song might as well be that “Fiddler on the Roof” ditty about tradition.

But then there are the nebulous in-betweens, those self-referential commercial temples to Yale and Elis that aren’t technically a part of Yale, but have been co-opted by the monolith. Yale football captains from decades past smile beatifically from Mory’s walls, residential college pride is enshrined in J. Press’ line of scarves, and the scrawled monograms on Naples’ tables have become holy texts writ small and permanent.

Vietnam and hippies came and went, country club class became politically incorrect, and the quip about J. Press giving way to J. Crew went from clever to canned. Can a school that is no longer steeped in sartorial niceties sustain monuments to Cole Porter’s Yale in a city that centers around greasy carry-out joints, $10 weaves and industrial Swedish furniture?

There is something irrelevant about tradition in general — everyone is so busy looking to emulate a mythological experience that they miss out on the thing itself. But it’s a paradox particularly relevant to Yale, where traditions are held sacrosanct, and the whole campus is so overrun with custom that you can’t step on a single flagstone without there being a story behind your footprint.

At Yale, “Once a precedent, twice a trend, three times a tradition,” said Deputy Provost for Undergraduate and Graduate Programs Lloyd Suttle ’69 GRD ’75, who holds three Yale degrees and has nearly three decades of tenure in various administrative positions.

If we are so hellbent on creating our own Yale lore, it may be questionable whether the old haunts can even stay in the books.

The short answer, of course, is that most of them don’t. History professor emeritus and Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, who has studied and taught at Yale almost constantly since his undergraduate days, offers a litany of once-venerable, now-buried Yale traditions: Though shoe store Barrie Ltd. managed to become Paul Richards without cheapening its penny loafers, and the alcohol at George and Harry’s failed to change when it became Naples, nobody meets for steak and a beer at Old Heidelberg or looks forward to their refund from the Yale Co-op any more, Smith said, citing once-proud institutions from his undergraduate years.

But some Yale traditions survive, and some even make it to a ripe old age. Mory’s, the quintessential Yale-New Haven tradition, has between 11,000 and 16,000 total members depending on attrition, manager Jim Shumway said, and is currently the largest private club in the world. But the proportion of the club’s members who are undergraduates has gone into a free-fall during the past few decades, despite a relaxation of membership requirements — now, $40 and being buddy-buddy with a single Mory’s member gets you in the door — with only 600 or so of its members undergraduates today.

Noah Mamis ’08, who frequents Mory’s on a weekly basis for meals with the Yale Political Union, said visits to Mory’s have become a nod to former patrons rather than a nod to the place itself.

“Mory’s only still exists because it is a Yale tradition,” he said. “It’s certainly not the food.”

Part of Mory’s waning appeal came with its waxing inclusivity — Yale is a brand built on a foundation of entrenched tradition and entrenched elitism. When the first in New Haven’s long line of bulldoze and build urban renewal plans came along in 1912, a band of Yale alums created the Mory’s Association. Lifetime membership only used to be offered to male sophomores, juniors and seniors during their time at Yale, according to Shumway.

In 1969, Yale opened the floodgates to members of the opposite sex, and, Eli elitism being out of fashion, its female denizens began to lobby for their own spot at the tables down at Mory’s.

“Mory’s said, ‘Damned if we’re going to let women in,'” said Smith. “But a group of women with some very good legal advice sicced the Connecticut Beverage and Alcohol Board on them. Grab an institution by its liquor license, and a deal will follow.”

Graduate students were allowed admission two decades afterward.

Yale was de-stratifying, and fast. Howard Lamar GRD ’51, history professor emeritus and former president of Yale, recalls the first sally against Yale dress sense coming with a “charming breaking of tradition” in the 1940s, when returned World War II veterans were allowed to wear chinos instead of grey flannel suits.

But with what Lamar calls a more “open and democratic Yale” came a more open and democratic definition of what constituted brand name and tradition. Today’s upper crust is “The O.C.” and “Beverly Hills, 90210,” where sex appeal supplants the hierarchies of superbly cut lapels and fraternity pins that John O’Hara and F. Scott Fitzgerald so painstakingly evoked in their chronicles of the upper middle class.

When being classy is a product of market forces, survival becomes a matter of capitalism or capsize for retailers, even ones whose merchandise hung in the White House dressers — George H.W. Bush once patronized J. Press. Yale at one point required jackets and ties of all its students in all its dining halls, so J. Press was guaranteed an influx of freshman clientele, not to mention a new purchase with every splash of gravy that caught an Eli’s high-waisted trousers. When Bermudas and flip-flops became okay, Elis only needed one formal suit, and that, too, often languished until the first round of senior interviews, Fitzgerald said.

With enforcement of the drinking age, which reverted back to 21 in the 1980s, came another blow. Smith can remember when Mort’s, a liquor store on Chapel Street, used to hang a “Welcome Freshmen: Get Your Snorts at Mort’s” banner during Camp Yale and, when he was a residential college master, serving alcohol to all his students. With carding and ID policies, he said, it has become more difficult for Mory’s, which isn’t quite a bar but values its ale, to remain the perennial hangout.

And Mory’s, which withstood three decades of lobbying before adding ice cream to its menu, has lost undergraduate clientele. Rather than a gathering spot for chums out to lunch, Mory’s became the province of alums, athletic teams and family reunions during commencement.

According to Radley Daly ’49, former president of Mory’s, the Mory’s association board’s mantra is “Keep Mory’s Mory’s.” But being fundamentalist about Ye Olde Yale will not answer Shumway’s more pressing question: how to keep Mory’s relevant.

“The times changed, and we didn’t change with them,” Shumway said. “That’s what we’re trying to do now.”

Mory’s is now into marketing. Shumway wants to rebuild its appeal as a faculty club, and snag freshmen from the time they arrive on campus. He’s putting Mory’s mousepads in those freshman goodie bags that the Broadway merchants give out, holding September open houses and adding sustainable food and discount student options to Mory’s rarefied menu.

“We’re never going to be a Bulldog Burrito you want to grab food from every day,” Shumway said. “But we want to be a place you think of going for a night out.”

The irony, of course, is that, according to Shumway, Mory’s used to be the place for bluebloods to slum it. Originally a saloon on Wooster Street, smack dab in the middle of Little Italy, Mory’s — which opened in either 1861 or 1849, depending on whom you talk to — was once where the crew team got liquored up cheaply on their way home from practice, Shumway said.

So the next Mory’s may not need to feature Brooks Brothers apparel — it could be sitting right under our noses. Smith ventures that “Educated Burgher maybe means a lot to your generation,” while Suttle hypothesizes that Toad’s might be it.

But Mory’s, more so than even other traditions at the folklore-fertile Yale, has leaked beyond Yale’s wrought-iron gates, according to Jordan Strom ’07, a member of the Whiffenpoofs. Thanks to the Whiffenpoof Song immortalized by Rudy Vallee, even non-Elis knows about Louie and cups at Mory’s, he said, citing requests to hear “the one about the tables down at Mory’s” from the time he was a freshman. Before taking over Mory’s, for example, Shumway was part of a barbershop quartet that sang the Whiffenpoof song at bars in Virginia in exchange for alcohol.

And the appeal of Mory’s, Shumway said, consists in memorializing Yale, both old and new — he is currently lobbying the Mory’s Association board members to allow the “We Suck” poster from the notorious 2004 Harvard-Yale game prank to join presidential portraits and photographs of athletic teams from decades past on Mory’s hallowed walls.

Mory’s appeal is “metaphysical” says Shumway. It’s “good people, good company and a good atmosphere,” says Daly. It’s “an amalgamation of ambience and history that makes for a fun and unique experience,” says Mamis.

The appeal of Yale’s traditions is something along these lines: perhaps irrational empathy for generations past, and premature nostalgia on behalf of generations future. Dean of Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel ’75, who led Yale’s alumni association from 1997 until this year, said every Yale tradition is built around plain bullheadedness.

“You can only become a tradition by a peculiar process of refusing to adapt to the times long enough that the times understand that they must adapt to you,” Brenzel said in an e-mail.

After a trip back to his room to pull on the actual pair of brown shoes in question, Gonzales-Luna is back at J. Press to try on the size 40 coat that hugs his narrow shoulders and is lined with enough padding for the Texas native. He ultimately decides not to buy the coat — it’s a fashion faux pas he won’t commit today — but Gonzales-Luna knows he will find himself back at the corner of York and Elm streets at some later date.

Even though today J. Press plays John Mayer and Sister Hazel on scratchy FM radio and probably serves more attorneys from Bridgeport in a month than Yale students from across the street in a year, said Gonzales-Luna, he can’t just abandon a place he sees as a staple of Yale culture.

“I appreciate quality and tradition,” he said. “Without that, what’s Yale?”

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