Current Issue

June11, 2008

Vol. 108, No. 15

Rally 'Round the Cannon

Street signs: Ten years after the clubs' nadir, a massive social change occurred virtually overnight

By Gregg Lange ’70
Published in the June11, 2008, issue


Gregg Lange ’70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.
Gregg Lange ’70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.

You could have somebody much worse to work for than Marilyn Marks *86, the edita di tutti editori of this humble yet ancient journal. Grovel, grovel. But seriously, she not only supports the raising of less than savory items in a good cause – my March 21, 2007, salute to the 200th anniversary of the Great Riot of 1807 comes to mind – but she is enough of a positivist, for a sane person, to put out an issue on Princeton's most influential alumni (Jan. 23, 2008) guaranteed to gain her enemies: The folks who agree with the list think it's obvious and take it for granted; those who don't get into a snit. My purpose in expressly noting these admirable traits – forthrightness and optimism – is to note their combination in one of Marilyn's recent columns. She's the only Princetonian I know who recently has mentioned in public the Dirty Bicker of 1958.

This was not Princeton's finest hour, and it was the clubs' worst. Even 50 years later, the phrase reverberates on Prospect Avenue.

The eating clubs had been under various stages of suspicion and attempted circumvention by the University since the day Woodrow Wilson 1879 took over as president in 1902. But the story of Dirty Bicker actually begins with a student mini-uprising in 1940 against the clubs' perceived selective cruelty of the day. The resulting reforms – including the ability of sophomores to form fixed groups rather than bicker solely as individuals, and a guarantee of a bid to anyone who wished to join a club – were named informally after the chairman of the Interclub Council and president of Quad who chaired the committee: They were the Goheen reforms.

A world war and the GI bill disrupted the orderly flow of sophomoric life for a while, but by 1950 similar questions again had bubbled to the surface. Almost 80 percent of the bickering Class of 1952 refused to join any club unless everyone who bickered received a bid. The resulting "100 percent bicker," held together often with tape and baling wire, stumbled through the next decade and more. Except for 1958.

The release valves on bicker pressures had been three: Wilson Lodge, in which independent upperclassmen ate in Commons; Prospect Club, a nonselective co-op whose loyal membership was small but committed; and the allocation of unbid sophomores to various clubs by the ICC at the tail end of bicker. When two clubs in 1958 shifted to open sign-ins, the ICC felt that their availability relieved the council of the burden of distributing "100 percenters" (easily one of the most pejorative terms ever coined on this campus) to other still-selective clubs. The 23 sophomores without selective bids disagreed, and refused to go away quietly.

Fifteen of the 23 were Jews.

The result was a national flurry of anti-Semitic presumptions about Princeton compounded by the opaqueness of bicker. The ICC said, in essence, that the clubs weren't really aware of the demographic characteristics of the 23; if anything, that made matters worse. (The resulting trauma persisted for decades; if you haven't read Geoffrey Wolff '60's wonderful novel The Final Club, written in 1990, you should.) Bob Goheen '40 *48, in 1958 the new president of the University and to this day the only club member ever to hold that office, tried to broker an agreement, but it was too late.

In the end, Goheen gave Wilson Lodge a new building in the proposed New Quad, which broadened its attractiveness but ironically led directly to the death of Prospect Club. Then, a week before bicker the following year, he held a press conference at which he openly doubted the clubs could achieve 100 percent bicker. The ICC took the hint and managed to do it, avoiding at any cost a tally of those left out again. The Princetonian editorially congratulated the new Wilson Lodge pioneers and the clubs who volunteered allocation slots under duress, but added, "What does it all mean?"

This profoundly uneasy social state held on remarkably; it took the second shoe 10 years to drop. In the meantime, if you were a sophomore and wanted to party on the Street your last two years, you had to bicker; if you were a sophomore under indictment for mass murder who chose to bicker, you received a "bid." The echo of Dirty Bicker was always within earshot.

Then, in the fall of 1967, in a startling four-week period, the club hegemony fell apart for good:

Nov. 2: Twelve members of Ivy, then as now the Mount Olympus of clubdom, resign, including the senior class president, the top two editors of the Prince, the club treasurer, and the star center of the basketball team, saying changes must take place on the Street. The president of the sophomore class says he may not bicker.

Nov. 6: Sixty members of the sophomore class say they'll join the Wilson Society in Wilcox Hall, successor to Wilson Lodge, rather than bicker. The president of the junior class says he'll resign from Colonial unless it gives up bicker. The weak Key & Seal Club says it may have open enrollment for sophomores.

Nov. 13: The Prince editorially challenges the administration to offer something viable in place of the clubs.

Nov. 22: Only nine days after the challenge, the trustees, led by president Goheen – still battling away after 28 years – agree to run the former Court Club at 91 Prospect St. as a University facility if there are sufficient members. Terrace announces it will not bicker.

Nov. 27: In an open letter in the Prince, 85 sophomores, beyond the 60 going to the Wilson Society, pledge not to bicker if Court Club (almost instantly renamed Stevenson Hall in honor of Adlai Stevenson '22) will be ready for fall 1968. They include an array of class officers, varsity athletes, and social leaders. They take great pains to state they don't object to bicker; they object to anyone having to bicker to have a social life.

Nov. 30: The grad board of Key & Seal, seeing the writing on the wall, sells its building at 83 Prospect to the University, which incorporates it into the new Stevenson Hall next door.

In recognition of its new role, the Wilson Society was awarded prime dorm space in its adjacent quad for 1968 (a shocking change by Goheen to the hidebound traditions of room draw) and became the instantly-more-attractive Wilson College, 60 years after Wilson himself had proposed residential quads. More than 220 members of the Class of 1970 did not bicker in February, 130 of them joining the first section at the old Court and Key & Seal. Stevenson Hall (also dubbed Random House by somebody with a sense of humor) held its first meal and party at 91 Prospect St. May 3, only 24 weeks after the sophomores challenged the administration to do something immediately.

The multifarious Princeton undergraduate social scene has changed a great deal since then (of course, in odd ways it hasn't changed at all), but never as it did in the month of November 1967, the final and emphatic burial of Dirty Bicker from 10 years before.

Bob Goheen's food at Stevenson Hall wasn't half bad, either.
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CURRENT ISSUE: June11, 2008