Wellesley Remembered:
Reminiscences of a Harvard Man

Wellesley Magazine Fall 1992

1) see also

2) see also

SOME MEN are born to Wellesley, some achieve Wellesley, some have Wellesley thrust upon them. In my case, it was the latter. I have been ministered unto by a mother-in-law (Wellesley '21) a wife (Wellesley '48) and a daughter (Wellesley '76). Not long ago, perhaps out of regard for my demonstrated skill as a survivor, somebody up there thought to ask me for a few memories and impressions of the place.

At first, it didn't strike me as a wise thing to do. I had lately been much taken by a cartoon showing three tough young women at a bar watching a man with a super hangdog look and revolver in hand, about to blow out his brains. Out of the mouth of one of the babes came a comment. "At last a man who really gets it." Besides, it seemed to me that my billing would too much resemble one of those old tombstones that so much distress modern feminists. You know the kind. After the departed woman's name all that appears is Daughter of ..., Wife of ..., Mother of ....

But then I began remembering Wellesley and the way it looked when I first found my way there. The College, after all, gave me my heart's desire (hereafter referred to as Wellesley '48), a dangerous thing for a young man, as anyone understands who pays attention to fairy tales. The only thing more dangerous than getting your heart's desire is not getting it. So I began to warm to the project.

"Why shouldn't I?" I said to Wellesley '48, when the issue came up. "I'm a veteran Wellesley watcher. There's a kind of Wellesley mafia at my office. I've taught courses at a couple of colleges for comparison. Maybe they'll even let me talk a bit about what seems to be going on up there today."

Despite forty years of marriage and four children, Wellesley "... you'd better do it under your maiden name ..."'48 still has deep misgivings about me - as a potentially homicidal driver (who has never had an accident), a political madman far to the right of Pepin the Short (I'm unreliable about the glass ceiling), and when all else fails, just for being a man at all.  "If you write that piece," she says briskly, "you'd better do it under your maiden name." Wellesley grads never give up. On good days that is part of their charm ....

The thoughts of youth are wrong, wrong thoughts.  So it is necessary to confess that my earliest memories of Wellesley are mostly romantic. Exploring the Hunnewell estate by moonlight. Deliriously canoeing on Lake Waban. Spoonholding. (Good grief! Was that the word?) Above all, sitting in sweet pain in a battered convertible on a sunny Sunday afternoon while, beside me, Wellesley '48 implacably insists on reviewing her lecture notes for Professor Houghton's Monday morning final on the Victorian Poets.

Radcliffe girls, then recently integrated into some Harvard classes, resolutely buffed their nails during I. A. Richard's spine-tingling lectures. On the banks of the Charles, moreover, everybody did most of his work at the last minute, by desperate cramming during an extended reading period - a perfect preparation for a career in journalism. But on the shores of Lake Waban, I soon found, nearly everybody worked like a dog from day one right up to exam time. My rivals for attention turned out to be not only other young twerps from Cambridge and New Haven, but also the demands of some amazing teacher-scholars such as Walter Houghton, Grace Hawk, Thomas Procter and Paul Lehman. (I still identify the latter as the guy whose Religion exam tormented Wellesley '48 with the question: "God wrote the Pentateuch. Discuss.")

I grew vicariously proud of the place for its beauty and its intellectual rigor, and sometimes in the years that followed, It did the right thing often when other institutions were doing the wrong thing.for what seemed to me its courage. It did the right thing often when other institutions were doing the wrong thing. Harvard needed better undergraduate teaching but did little to encourage it. Vassar pretty well ruined itself by its misalliance with men (though I gather, twenty years on, that it has recovered somewhat). Among other things, Wellesley hired the best and brightest of the Harvard section men I knew of, snapping up people like Robert Garis and Beverly Layman. As Harvard College was slowly nibbled away at by the graduate schools, Wellesley seemed to have a kind of genius for keeping wonderful teachers who could write.

I admired Wellesley extravagantly for its unfashionably realistic and tough-minded decision not to be stampeded into going co-ed in 1971, partly at least to foster the distractions of the mind over the distractions of hearts and hormones until after graduation, or at least to confine the latter to weekends. It took courage and brains. There were financial risks, I think, and endowment risks and a possible decline or narrowing of the applicant pool.

A time came when I grew disillusioned with Harvard.  Among other things, it had let general education courses wither away and created a smorgasbord of courses which, with characteristic Charles River modesty, was called "The Core Curriculum." It got so that the only sense of vicarious pride I got from news of collegiate achievements came from Wellesley: a little glow as the place began to break records, and not only among women's colleges, for minorities successfully graduated, for endowment and alumnae giving, for the SAT scores exhibited by its pool of applicants, for academic honors to its teachers and recognition of its athletic teams and coaches. (I am a fan who thinks that Title IX [part of the Civil Rights Act that guarantees equal opportunity for women in education], adequately applied, may over the years do more for women and American society than the National Organization for Women.)

Somewhere along in those years, The Well, fountainhead of brownies and ice cream, was replaced by Schneider and beer. Freshmen in the Village were moved to new dorms. That controversial science building went up. Wellesley '76 won a writing prize, and some years later, a Stevens Traveling Fellowship that took her to Paris, and, as it turned out, has kept her there pretty much permanently.

Wellesley '48 got a Ph.D. from Columbia. The College began to use the campus in summer for conferences and educational programs. The housemothers, no longer stern and silver-haired, looked like near-contemporaries of undergraduates, their apartments filled with crying children, plastic toys, and broken tricycles.

This was the time (it is still with us) when it was believed that you couldn't achieve much of anything in the world without having an immediate "role model" at hand, something women felt that society hadn't previously provided. But it was hard to imagine that these young women, distracted by their own small progeny, would have much time to cope with the occasional undergraduate suddenly seized with the desire to slit her wrist or run off with a master carpenter. And I sometimes thought that they were there to discourage bright undergraduates from immediate matrimony, the fate of my postwar generation: a little touch of harried domesticity to make the lure of law school, or an M.B.A., more appealing.


back to index
 | top of page

Wellesley '21 (the mother-in-law of paragraph one) challenged the rules by occasionally shinnying down a Claflin drainpipe to There is no putting the genie of free sex back in the bottle.go dancing. Wellesley '48 dutifully "signed out," took her turn at "bells," and helped serve formal tea in Claflin - all part of a now long-departed past. Wellesley '76, the beneficiary of the new freedom, didn't need to do either. By her time, visiting men could stay in the dorms night and day for a couple of weeks, plus extensions.  There is no putting the genie of free sex back in the bottle, of course. But men virtually living in the rooms seemed counterproductive. Lovers' quarrels. Slammed doors. Roommates forced out of their own rooms. Cries of "Let me in! Let me in!" Sudden, tearful decisions to change quarters - in short, not sex so much as disruptive domestic squalor. Why pay upwards of $20,000 a year, a father might wonder, for something that soon enough life provides in abundance and for nothing? What life doesn't provide, anyone who has worked will tell you, is time to read and study, to acquire some knowledge and intellectual standards by which to judge the world.

Not much in contemporary culture makes it easier to run a really tough liberal arts college. In the 1970s security cards to get in and out of dorms were introduced. Curfews disappeared. There were more rapes. But despite a rising decibel level and the aforementioned domestic squalor, Wellesley kept rolling.

I am acquainted with a handful of women who graduated during that decade. Most went on to graduate or professional schools and have done splendidly. I think of them as young, but they do a good deal of biological clock­watching and many more are unmarried than would have been the case after the war. The young men, still in their own emotional nurseries, all seem to want to go to bed on the first date, but show no inclination to marriage. (Some women have even begun to wonder if there is a way to recreate the courtship periods of the past, when you had an excuse to keep from going to bed - and thus could be sexually assertive and choosy at the same time.)

Nothing new in that. What is surprising and pleasing is that, whatever their differences in talent, character or brains, they remember Wellesley as this marvelous, tough place that they complained about but to which they are still grateful. "I loved it," one told me. "But I didn't know how wonderful it was until I went on to Yale and heard J. Hillis Miller droning on as he deconstructed Wuthering Heights."

Wellesley's intellectual demands have stood them in good stead. Another said, "I've never worked for a company that expected the same quality. Never the same rigor. Not forced - it was just expected." She pauses for reflection.

"There was also a slight sense of mission, a sense that we were in a privileged place and that in some way, some time, not for selfish reasons, we would put it to use to do something for the outside world."

As with Shakespeare's Henry V, projecting heroic future memories of Agincourt, the names still come back to them with awe and admiration: Eugenia Janis and Miranda Marvin in art history, Sylvia Brown "who wrote the Greek textbook," poet Frank Bidart, Ingrid Stadler in philosophy. It is not surprising that the day has come when a national poll of college presidents, deans, and admissions officers by U.S.News and World Report ranked Wellesley fourth among all American liberal arts colleges.

Fathers are notorious worriers and curmudgeons, even when their daughters have long since left college. Sometimes I feel gloomy about bits of news from Wellesley that now drift my way.

A New York Times story about a girl who said that after being reared in some loving suburban family with a golden retriever she would have been "disconcerted" as a freshman to be assigned to a "lesbian with a live-in partner as head of house," something that had just happened at Wellesley.

A lot of mildly depressing news, I guess, comes under the heading of "the politics of race and sex on campus," to quote a professional gadfly who now lectures on the college circuit. It troubles me to see the polarized rhetoric of outrage and hostility spreading to the shores of Lake Waban, not because of the positions held, but because the kind of blindly partisan language involved destroys sensible discourse, amounting in itself to a kind of intellectual squalor - the very antithesis of what Wellesley stands for. Savage and divisive opinion, in short, without supporting knowledge.

The last Wellesley magazine, along with a nifty speech by Hillary Clinton, carried a modest article entitled "The Rodney King Verdict ... and Wellesley," which described the campus as in "turmoil" this spring, including a march to the President's house. People who did not join in were liberally labeled as "racists." The label was also applied, apparently, to anyone who thought it was less than a neat idea to invite Al Sharpton to speak at Wellesley. To judge from the article, nobody at Wellesley, pro or can, had any precise idea of what Sharpton has done, says or really stands for. Perhaps even more lamentable, those who advocated finding out felt intimidated.

To all this an old Wellesley man can only say sadly, "Oh wow!" Life and history both teach us that institutions can be ruined more easily than the young usually imagine. For them, institutions are like parents, always there, to pay, to keep things running - and to be blamed. But it isn't so. As John Leonard once put it: "You go on making decisions and after a while it gets to be your fault."

I do not wish to see this small, tough, splendid college undone by black racism, militant lesbianism, or by outraged backlash against either. More especially, I do not want it destroyed by the popular notion that, since everything is to some extent subjective, there are no reasonably fair and objective standards - for judging the politics of Al Sharpton or discussing who wrote the Pentateuch.

I can hear a voice that says "Mellow out." When I made the above points to a Wellesley '78 friend, she was reassuring. "We had marches, too." she said. "But don't worry. The work was too hard to pay much attention to politics. You had to get to class next day.