Valerie Pavilonis

The Elizabethan Club, like most exclusive places on campus, is inconspicuous. I found it by accident a few months ago, when I was looking for the School of Music and instead found myself gloriously turned around. Its exterior is infuriatingly yellow — not sunflower and sunshine yellow, but yellow’s more pensive, less yellow cousin — infuriating because yellow is an inviting and cheery color, and I have this unfortunate habit of needing to explore pretty buildings, so how could they make a building yellow and then not give me swipe access?

Locked doors are the physical manifestation of the barriers to entry that secret societies and clubs like the Elizabethan emulate. You get in by knowing the right people, by schmoozing your way into the right circles and by having the privilege of time and resources to spend hours on end reading, debating and growing for purely your own sake and enjoyment. Locked doors mean that meritocracy is a sham if you don’t have that one conversation with that one guy who has a friend who you should definitely talk to and I can put you in touch with his assistant but he might take a week or so to get back to you because he’s with his family abroad and has a strict no-phone rule. Locked doors also mean insatiable curiosity, which is almost as infuriating as the less-yellow-than-sunflower-yellow building, because I am supposed to be better than caring but alas, here I am, caring. Which is why, a few weeks ago, I didn’t quite know how to feel when that door was unlocked and I walked inside.

The Elizabethan Club, the “Lizzie” for short, was founded in 1911 by Alexander Smith Cochran, a stupendously mediocre student at Yale who, around 15 years after he graduated, amassed a collection of Elizabethan era literature (including Shakespeare quartos) that, instead of donating to the University Library system, he gave to the Club’s first undergraduate members. Along with the collection, Cochran also gave money to purchase the house and an initial $100,000 endowment. He hoped that, as the Elizabeth Club Constitution states, “This club shall be the promotion among its members and in the community of a larger appreciation of literature and the arts and of social intercourse founded upon such appreciation.” Members, comprised of Yale undergraduates, graduates, faculty and staff, pay $12, which accounts for a key to the house that can be used after graduating, as well as lifetime dues. The house is a cellphone-free zone, albeit many people throughout the Club use computers. From 4 to 6 p.m., however, even computers are prohibited, a rule to encourage face-to-face conversation for the two-hour period in which tea is served.

Over 100 years after the Club’s inception, the house and the original collection still stand. The physicality, save for some wallpaper renovations, is largely the same. The books, save for the shelf reserved for literature published by Club members, are largely the same. I wanted to figure out if this physical constancy extended into the space itself: what does it mean for the Lizzie, a bastion of Elizabethan Literature, to exist today? Does its on-campus membership — 65 undergraduates and 20 to 30 graduate students and faculty, as of Jan. 21 — mirror the growing diversity of Yale’s campus? If so, is that alone enough to justify its existence? The answer, predictably, is complicated, and it differs by the person. But, across the board, members of the Lizzie, ranging from the largely inactive to those seated on the Board of Governors, agreed on one thing: times are changing, and the Elizabethan Club has a duty to reflect that, a duty that it is taking seriously.

 

Welcome to the Lizzie

The first time that I entered the Club, I was escorted by Adrian Bonenberger, a Yale alum who joined the Lizzie in 2002 as an undergraduate and now works at the School of Medicine. That morning, I joked to my friends that I wore my cream-colored turtleneck on purpose, so I could fit in. As exclusive spaces on Yale’s campus go, the Lizzie is fairly accessible (albeit expectations are quite low). After all, guests are allowed into the Club on Thursdays through Sundays (out-of-town visitors, however, can be brought throughout the week). But, even so, there was a sense that the second that door to the Lizzie opened, I would be closer to “Yale” Yale than ever before, the Yale University that my parents tell their friends that I’m attending, with wrought iron gates and polo shirts and embroidered napkins and croquet in the summer. So, cream-colored turtleneck.

Bonenberger and I met in Blue State so that we could get coffee — I don’t drink coffee, but it felt like the Yale thing to do — and then walk over together. I almost forgot that the opening of the door was supposed to be some big metaphor for institutional transcendence because he brandished a key and the door was opened and I walked inside, not realizing the significance of what had just transpired until the door closed behind me.

He gave me the quick tour: the Green Room, the Purple Room, the wall of books written by members of the Club — “my book should be here, but I don’t see it. Someone must have checked it out” — the Punch Room, filled with archives of the English satire magazine by the same name. The garden outside, where they do in fact play croquet when the weather is warmer. The comically bank-like and every-movie-where-they-do-a-heist-like vault where the Club’s original collection is held. It was early enough in the morning that we were the only people around when we began the tour. Around halfway through, a newly minted member of the Club meandered upstairs and settled down in one of the rooms to edit an essay. When Adrian asked him how he liked the Club, he looked around in awe for a second before answering, as though he forgot where he was: “It’s incredible.”

Adrian and I talked for an hour, mainly about the space itself. I had planned to ask about diversity anyways, but the conversation naturally settled on the topic.

“It was already fairly diverse when I was here. I’m not sure if Yale became more diverse and the Club reflected that, or if it was the Elizabethan Club’s doing, but it’s a more diverse place than it was. Politically, intellectually, ideologically, and in terms of race, sex, ethnicity, gender. Everybody isn’t wearing a suit and a tie or slacks here. There were more ties then, and there’s not as many now.” He added, after a second’s pause, “that’s a good thing.”

For Adrian, the Club is not so much a protector of Western culture as it is intellectual energy as a whole. “I think so long as it continues to make sure that intellectuals, regardless of socioeconomic status, religion, etc. are being sought out and embraced, the Club is doing its job. I have seen a positive trend in that direction during my time here, and that trend ought to continue.”

Claire Saint-Amour, a junior majoring in classics and member of the Lizzie for eight months, considers the Club a home, a spot on campus with “a kitchen and living room and fireplaces,” and a space for conversations. She was introduced to the Club fairly early on in her Yale career, through a professor in Directed Studies, which she took as a first year. While Adrian’s experience with the Club was one of noticeable diversification, Claire spoke of a process that was still lacking: “the typical pipelines, like Directed Studies, are places where upper-middle-class white liberal elites hang out.” If DS students are sought out by DS professors who are also members, it makes sense that the demographics of the Lizzie would remain stubbornly stagnant. However, Claire also spoke with a hint of optimism: “I think the Lizzie is like DS in that it is having that conversation and making an attempt to diversify, but is definitely a little bit behind the College.”

Ananya Kumar-Banerjee, a junior majoring in Ethnicity, Race and Migration, was a seed member of the Lizzie, one of four sophomores initially invited to join the club, who then recruit the other members of their class. Ananya made it clear from the beginning of our conversation that she does not support Directed Studies. “I didn’t become an English major and would still not do it because of the reason that I do not wish to reread or re-engage with the Western Canon. A big part of my education here has been being able to read and engage with ‘ethnic literature.’”

I asked her whether the Club fell into that same Directed Studies-esque category. “Recently, there has been a concerted effort by women alumni of color to change the makeup of the Lizzie and open up the space. There’s an incoming opening class every sophomore year of four members, and my year, all of us identified as women at the time, so it was four women, three of whom were of color.” She paused for a moment, and then continued. “Which is not to say that representation is enough to change a space, but it does mean something, and it presents the possibility for awareness in a way that having an all-white group necessarily does not.”

I still didn’t quite understand how Ananya could be a member of this Club that is, quite literally, named for literature that constitutes a large part of the Western Canon, that represents the Yale made famous by television shows about rich white girls and books about money and power and nepotism and corruption and the fact that the English, as she said, “are responsible for a lot of the violence and trauma that my family has historically incurred.” After all, according to Ananya herself, people joke that the Lizzie is the “White Cultural Center.” How does she justify being a member and implicitly perpetuating its existence? What purpose is it even serving today? This last one I asked her directly.

“That’s a good question.” Here she paused, eyes momentarily flitting upward as she described ruminating on this same tension when she was invited to join.

“From the outside, it can seem like a very white space, which it is, in some ways. It’s the Elizabethan Club. I don’t know, I think it’s hilarious that I, of South Asian origin, benefit from it. The conclusion that I came to is that I enjoyed going there and having free food and free caffeine, and to reject that space that had admitted me, was a type of virtue signaling because it would be like an ethical stand but wasn’t associated with any real action. I think it is important to be ‘in’ and not ‘of’ an institution. It may seem like a reductionist perspective, and perhaps it is. But that’s just not the way I think about it. It’s action-based for me.” Another, longer pause. “So the answer is really I don’t know.”

Ananya mentioned a conscious effort to diversify the incoming class. I talked to a current senior who is a member of the Board of Governors and previously served on the admissions committee — and requested anonymity for privacy reasons — about whether this decision was deliberate or more so due to the changing nature of member nominations.

The Board of Governors’ duties vary depending on the year. Last year, the Club revised its constitution, but this year the meetings have focused on more detail-oriented aspects of the Club’s existence. My source pointed to a meeting a few weeks ago as an example, where the main topic of discussion was whether to change the types of sandwiches offered during teatime. The admissions committee, comprised of both current undergraduates and older members of the Club, always has the important job of deciding which candidates to admit. For a candidate to even be considered, they need two letters of nomination. The first comes from a member of the Club, and the name of the candidate is then posted on a bulletin board located in the back of the Club, for all members to see. A person then needs to have the letter seconded (it is possible, although rare, for someone to write a letter against a candidate) before going up to committee. Sometimes more letters are requested. Often, the committee reads the letters, discusses and then votes on who they want to admit.

He said that admittance was “a numbers balancing act.” I pressed on what exactly that meant. “In explicit terms, we would think about not just the number of people but the proportion of women, less so people of color, but definitely something we’re thinking about. The Club has really diversified in the past year. The beginning of my sophomore year, the Club was extremely white and pretty male-dominated, so it has been great to watch the Club change its demographics. Part of that is deliberate conversations we had in admissions.”

Ananya mentioned that there was a push by women of color alumni to diversify, but the senior on the Board of Governors mentioned something else, too. In 2017, the Club’s black, live-in steward retired, subsequently prompting a transition to catering for tea-time and the hiring of two day-time employees to take care of the house.

“I got my key beginning of sophomore year from a black man who lived in the house 24/7. That’s pretty ridiculous for 2017. He ended up retiring, and it was pretty clear that the next person we were hiring didn’t need to be a steward. Now it’s two white women.”

British tea, wafers and diamond cut bow ties

I returned to the Lizzie six days later to talk to Elise Broach, a Yale alumna and author who occasionally teaches courses on creative writing. For her, the Lizzie serves as a touchstone and sanctuary, a familiar home to come back to year after year (she was nominated during her junior year as a Yale undergraduate). She showed me her key to the Club, a slightly anti-climactic, slightly worn rusty gold. Our conversation about the Lizzie and writing in general was extremely pleasant, but a hint of hostility briefly peeked through when I slipped up and called the Club a secret society. I was quickly interrupted and corrected, as though the mere act of speaking the word brought an energy into the space that needed to be concealed.

“This is almost the opposite of secret societies. It wasn’t particularly popular people who got in. I mean, I’m here.” She laughed, and the moment passed, the hostility dissipating as quickly as it had injected itself into the conversation.

Because I came in the afternoon, I arrived in time for tea. Every day of the week has a rotating (but constant) menu of sandwiches to accompany the Club’s own special British blend of tea, wafers that I recognized from a French study abroad information session I’d attended earlier in the week (which confused me because England and France are not the same, thus commencing my Wikipedia rabbit hole before I came to the realization that I am most definitely focusing on the wrong aspects of my experiences in both the Elizabethan Club and the French study abroad information session), hot water with tea bags, an assortment of cookies and a gluten-free section cordoned off to the side (it was rather sparse, but props to them for having one). Thursday’s sandwich is cinnamon toast, which I heard is one of the crowd favorites, and for good reason. I don’t normally drink tea, so I don’t think I can make an adequate comparison, but I will say that it was the best tea I’ve ever had in my life, and I assume that if I was a regular tea drinker I would say the same thing because they have their own British blend of tea, and the only people who have their own blend of tea are the kind of people who know what tea is supposed to taste like.

Elise is a writer, so she understood when I said that I wanted to explore with my notebook for a few minutes. I would have taken my computer, but at 3:56, four minutes before tea, a woman came around and told everyone to close their laptops. I took my third cup, tottering on the saucer which was piled high with wafers and cookies and a generous scoop of brown sugar, upstairs and into a corner. I listened to the conversations. One professor who teaches in Directed Studies was talking animatedly to two other people. In the span of a minute, I heard both the phrases McKinsey and British socialism. In a different room, a student was explaining the scheduling surrounding senior societies to what looked like a very confused professor. Across from them, someone was talking about procrastinating on their writing homework by watching Netflix. Someone else was telling a friend about their film class. Only two people were speaking in a language other than English, but they switched about halfway through their conversation. Something to do with finance.

After a few minutes, I went to the back to take a look at the Club’s bulletin board, where everything members need to know is posted. House Rules: my personal favorite is that children are only welcome on “designated special occasions.” Wares available for purchase: Necktie Striped ($60.00), Necktie Plain (unstriped: $33.00), Bowtie (striped or plain: $34.00), Scarf (26’’ Square: $33.00), Pin ($10.00), New Tea Blend (¼ LB: $7.00, 1 LB: $16.00). An asterisk in the corner indicated that diamond cut was available for the bowties. The list of undergraduate members: 41 seniors, 16 juniors and 8 sophomores, with spaces available for 4 more seniors, 14 more juniors and 6 more sophomores. First years are not admitted. The list of current candidates, divided into those with two or more letters and those with just one, as well as notes indicating that more letters are requested on some. The names are required to remain on the board for at least two weeks before they go to committee.

After over an hour, I surreptitiously glanced at someone’s watch (they really should invest in clocks, considering that technology is limited during tea time). Three minutes before I had to leave.

Elise and I planned to walk out together, and she waited patiently as I grabbed my bags and coat. I hadn’t planned any more interviews in the Club itself, so I spent a few seconds soaking in the atmosphere. The musky smell with the slight cinnamony taint of the warm toast. The rich, blue-ish wallpaper. The metal sculpture by the entrance holding an invitation to a Valentine’s Day formal in between its hands. The people, which, I realized after the fact, includes me, thinking my thoughts, inhabiting that space. That means something. I think.

Two minutes before leaving, I stopped. It felt weird to just walk out the door: I wanted confirmation that my presence had, somehow, fundamentally changed the institution. Stealing a dish from Yale Dining is a physical representation of the institutional nature of this campus steeped in tradition, blue-rimmed plates and all. Taking one is, in a sense, taking charge of that narrative. Directed Studies is as traditional as Yale can be. Taking DS while also having serious criticisms of the very existence of the course, being “in” and not “of” an institution, attending Yale University, being a member of the Elizabethan Club — all spaces that are historically amplifying and/or directly engaging in acts that have caused deep harm to marginalized communities — is complicated and confusing but also not complicated or confusing whatsoever. You either get it or you don’t, which is why, one minute before leaving, I went back to the tea station and grabbed as many wafers as could fit in my pockets without crumbling. French or English, they were delicious, I was hungry, and I needed some physical validation that I had changed the Elizabethan Club, even if it just meant that they had a temporary wafer shortage.

I wanted to take one last look, but I stopped myself. Chances are that I’ll get to say hello at least once more in my lifetime, and, if it hasn’t changed physically in the past 109 years, it won’t change that much in 30 more. But, who knows, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Green Room will turn Red and the Purple Room will become Orange and the $34.00 diamond cut bowtie will only be $15.00. Maybe conversations about decolonization will dominate teatime. Maybe languages other than English will fill the space. Maybe Directed Studies-hating people “in” and not “of” institutions will overshadow those who have traditionally benefited from the Club.

That, however, is for the future to reckon with. As for now, slightly behind schedule, I forced myself to turn toward the street, letting Elise walk ahead. I shut the door behind me on my way out.

Madison Hahamy | madison.hahamy@yale.edu