Cochran’s Club: Exhibit reveals man behind literary society

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Located in an unassuming glass box in the Memorabilia Room of Sterling Library, “Alexander Smith Cochran and the Founding of the Elizabethan Club” celebrates the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Elizabethan Club in 1911. The focus rests mainly on the man who provided the club’s conception and financial support. Fred Robinson, Douglas Tracy Smith Emeritus Professor of English at Yale and curator of the exhibit, explained that he wants a viewer to come away with an appreciation for Alexander Smith Cochran. The exhibit does just that.

Alexander Smith Cochran, we learn, was a member of the Yale class of 1896. As an undergraduate, he took a class on Shakespeare with the popular professor William Lyon Phelps. Phelps recommended that a worthwhile postgraduation pursuit was the collection of rare books. Robinson said that Phelps could assume that most of his class had the financial resources to collect expensive texts. “To get into Yale then, you had to be rich,” Robinson said. “Now, you have to be smart.”

Cochran was indeed wealthy, having inherited a family fortune. In fact, one of the quirkier parts of the exhibit quotes a 1920 newspaper article that states that Cochran was “the wealthiest and most eligible bachelor in the world.”

Taking Phelp’s advice to heart, Cochran acquired a mass of now-priceless titles, mainly from the Elizabethan era. These titles — including first editions of most of Shakespeare’s plays — are represented in the exhibit by a lengthy list. Robinson observed that Cochran’s purchases occurred in a bygone era during which a single collector could acquire a book like the 1604 publication of Hamlet. Nowadays, these books are priceless and rarely sold, found mostly in museums and universities.

Robinson explained that Cochran did not want to “just put these books on his shelf.” He wanted to share them. Cochran had found that his undergraduate experience at Yale lacked a space that promoted intellectual literary discussions outside of the classroom. He decided to create that space.

Cochran wrote his old professor, asking for assistance. Phelps, astonished by the titles in Cochran’s collection, agreed to collaborate in the founding of the club. The exhibit observes that without Phelps, the Elizabethan Club would not exist.

With Phelps as the contact person, Cochran purchased the house at 459 College St., where the club still resides today, and created an endowment that provides staff to serve tea to members every afternoon of the school year. Most importantly, he donated his collection of rare books.

“This club is about two things,” Robinson said, “the books, and the tea. The tea provides the context for the literary conversations. Why are rare books interesting beyond their age? Because the original books are essential for the literary study of English.”

Surprisingly, none of the Club’s books are included in the exhibit, indicative of one of the interesting aspects of the exhibit: what is missing. Robinson justified the books’ absence by arguing that the exhibit is not about “the books, but the man who created the Club.” For similar reasons, Robinson also decided not to include a club guestbook signed by Theodore Roosevelt, T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost. Beyond obstacles in displaying the guestbook (only one page with one signature could be shown at a time), Robinson wanted to make sure that the members of the Elizabethan Club would still have regular access to this popular item.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the entire exhibit is the mysterious removal of one photograph from the display case. The picture — which Robinson said was removed without his approval at some point after he organized the exhibit — shows a student pouring tea at one of the Club’s afternoon gatherings. Robinson explained that the photo’s caption alluded to the fallout from the Club’s decision to change the blend of tea it serves — a move which generated controversy within the organization. Robinson said he does not know who removed the photo from the exhibit.

Mysteries aside, what is included in the brief exhibit is just right. The items were obviously selected with great care. Some of the highlights are poignant portraits of Cochran and Phelps and a letter dating from 1942. The letter is the response of the manufacturer of the Club’s vault to inquiries regarding the vault’s ability to withstand potential German bombs. Fortunately, the vault has yet to prove its strength against such an event, its treasures still safe within.

Alexander Smith Cochran specified that he gave these gifts “not to Yale, but to the students of Yale.” Although the club has limited membership, the exhibit shows why any Yale student should appreciate Cochran and his contribution to the University.

The exhibit has been on display since Dec. 3 and will continue until March 2.

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