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Posted on Thu, Sep. 12, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Structures of power, secrets and publishing

Mercury News

``There has always been something a little different, a bit `off' at Yale,'' writes Alexandra Robbins. But why stop at Yale? Describing his objections to a column about to be published in Vanity Fair, Toby Young writes, ``Satire was supposed to be a weapon with which the disenfranchised attacked the Establishment, not the other way round.''

What we have here, in other words, is the Eastern Liberal Establishment rampant, holding sway over the poor doofuses in the flyover states through the power of association, expressed in arcane rituals as varied as the drinking of ``blood'' from the skull-shaped ``Yorick'' to seal one's membership in Skull and Bones, or the manner of achieving entrance to the New York nightspot of the moment.

To enter Bones, you must be one of the 15 Yale juniors at the top of the ``tap'' list; to enter the Bowery Bar, you must be in the good graces of at least one of a handful of publicists. In both cases, the power is closely held and wielded in shadow, until the end result -- the choosing of a Cabinet, for example, in the one case, and the bestowal of fleeting fame in the other -- becomes obvious even to the likes of you and me.

Robbins is herself a graduate of Yale and a member of a secret society; it is not Skull and Bones, but she will not tell us what it is. She used to be on the staff of the New Yorker, a Cond้ Nast publication. Young is a British journalist -- he prefers the term ``hack'' -- who for a brief while managed to wangle a place on the staff of Vanity Fair, also a Cond้ Nast publication.

Young was frankly appalled at what he found in New York magazine journalism, although Young embraced the brave new world of sycophants and toadies, arrogance and bribery with an enthusiasm limited only by its reluctance to embrace him.

In his native land, Young writes, the gentlemen of the press, long accustomed to being sneered at by the Establishment, regard getting ``too chummy with the kind of people who appear in Hello! -- the British equivalent of Style -- . . . as a betrayal of the hack warrior's code,'' and wouldn't dream of drinking with them unless the job demanded it.

New York style

Not so in New York, where ``the publicists tend to look down on the journalists'' as ``just another bunch of wannabes clamoring to get past the velvet rope.'' He notes that of the 16 people injured when publicist Lizzie Grubman drove her Mercedes SUV into a crowd one night, several were journalists. ``White trash,'' she yelled at them, and it's pretty clear that Young understands her point of view perfectly.

Robbins' take on the groves of academe, New Haven-style, is more difficult to pin down. In a tone surprisingly neutral, considering the shocking-inside-story implications of her book's subtitle, she outlines the history of Yale and its secret societies, the peculiar rituals of Skull and Bones, the oldest of them, and the well-known, interconnected names that have emerged from it, including three presidents, two of them named Bush.

Yale, in Robbins' view, was founded by people who were annoyed with Harvard (just as Princeton was founded by people who were annoyed with Yale), and Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 by a man referred to as ``General'' William Russell because he was annoyed with Phi Beta Kappa. (His military rank was bestowed by the Connecticut National Guard.)

This was during a time when Americans were fascinated with both the democratic spirit and its opposite. While Andrew Jackson's cronies were spitting on the White House floor, Alexis de Tocqueville (an author much admired, and much quoted, by Young) was writing that democracy in America was not to be equated with liberty. Many of the Founding Fathers were Masons, whose penchant for secret rituals once may have helped guard the anti-royalist society from spies. But secret ritual became beloved for its own sake in groups as diverse as Joseph Smith's new Mormon Church and Gen. Russell's new club at Yale.

``Tapping'' -- in which a senior Bonesman would clap a hand on the shoulder of an expectant junior on the appointed night and shout, ``Go to your room!'' -- was a public ritual. Most of what Robbins describes, however, goes on inside the Tomb, the boys' secret clubhouse, ``a cold, foreboding Greco-Egyptian structure of brown sandstone with sparse narrow windows of dark glass.'' Inside are a kitchen, a dining room, an Inner Temple and various other rooms -- three stories and an attic. If the kitchen looks ``something like a butler's pantry in an old estate house,'' the rest of the Tomb ``resembles more the Victorian house of a pack rat.'' One member describes it as looking ``like a college dorm room . . . old drafts of term papers . . . socks underneath the couch, old half-deflated soccer balls lying around.''

Elite core

As both decor and decorum partake of this sort of frat-boy chic, and since Robbins describes Bones as representing a sort of elite among the Elis, and since Bonesmen do indeed form a sort of Establishment nexus, from William Howard Taft to Archibald MacLeish, from McGeorge Bundy to Winston Lord, from George Bush the Elder to George Bush the Younger (a legacy if ever there was one), one might marvel that the republic has lasted as long as it has, were it not for the possibility that school days are less of a formative influence than we might suppose.

But again: Why stop at Yale? ``After three years at Oxford,'' writes Young, ``I was shocked by how little dissent was tolerated at Harvard'' where ``the most striking thing'' was ``the absence of any real intellectual diversity.'' When he moved on to Vanity Fair, having been summoned by editor Graydon Carter to ``hang out'' for a spell, Young found himself in a world so removed from that of the people who presumably had purchased the Cond้ Nast magazines that everyone traveled by limousine, no one paid for tickets to anything, product demonstrations such as the premiere of ``GoldenEye'' were covered as though they were actual events, and Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, had, by common consent, her own elevator.

As it turns out, Young didn't have what it takes. He wanted to sell out, but no one was buying squat, balding Brits that season. When Young tried to increase his shelf appeal by obtaining a credit card with ``Hon'' (for ``the Honorable'') in front of his name, no one got it -- they thought it was his first name, pronounced ``hun.'' Carter rejected his story ideas as puerile or worse. The old wheeze about how the salesman has to believe in his product turned out to be true: Young understood the celebrity culture his magazine glorified, but he didn't believe in it. Not believing, he couldn't play the game. The 175-word celeb photo captions he wrote were, it turned out, pretty much all he was capable of while he was there at the heart of the beast.

Back in London, though, he seems to have achieved perspective. ``How to Lose Friends'' is both cogent and entertaining. His personal story -- his quest among the canyons of Manhattan for debauchery or, failing that, love -- is uninteresting, or maybe just too familiar: Yes, American journalists don't drink the way they used to, Toby, or can it be they just don't drink with you? But his observations along the way are fascinating, funny, and not a little disturbing.

SECRETS OF THE TOMB: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power

By Alexandra Robbins

Little, Brown, 231 pp., $25.95


By Toby Young

Da Capo Press, 340 pp., $24

Contact David L. Beck at or (831) 423-0960.
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