Featured Drone: Bruce Boucher '70
This past October, I returned to Cambridge for my fortieth reunion, and one of the highpoints was Friday afternoon tea at the Signet. Seeing the handsomely spruced interiors and enjoying conversation with graduate and undergraduate members alike, I was struck by the differences between 46 Dunster Street today and its earlier incarnation during the late 1960s. So, I ask my younger readers to indulge me as I take a backward glance.
The past is another country, and the Signet of those days was not in the best of health. The climate around Harvard—and most institutions of higher learning—was sour: Viet Nam had the effect of a poison spreading through our lives, culminating with the occupation of University Hall and subsequent “bust” or arrest of student protesters on April 9, 1969, which was followed by the Nixon administration’s bombing of Cambodia in the spring of 1970. In particular, the “bust” sharpened distrust between students and faculty as well as between sections of the faculty itself. The then current mantra, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty”, resonated with most of my generation. Even a Signet evening in honor of Professor Emeritus I.A. Richards was dominated over drinks and after dinner by fierce debates concerning the rights and wrongs of the University’s sending in police to remove the student protesters. Not all the elders were on the side of the administration, and I recall that one graduate student thought he could curry favor with his professor by championing the police action, only to be met with a curt reply: “You don’t trundle children off to jail!”
Back then, membership of organizations like the Signet was not considered cool. For that matter, the building seemed dark, shabby, and uncomfortable. As for lunches, some days we could muster two tables; if you were unlucky, you could end up listening to Timothy Mayer ‘64, a perennial undergraduate and Loeb Drama Center groupie, hold forth on his life story. Women were not members then, but we did have ‘Cliffies as waitresses (I told you, Gentle Reader, that the past was another country). Teas were rare, only once a semester, and our steward, a crusty old soul named Archie Gibbons, seemed to complain to the graduate board about our running of the society almost every week. There was also a cleft between the undergraduate members and the graduate associates. Few of the latter turned up to lunch, and as president in 1969-70, I composed a letter with Giles Constable, the distinguished Byzantinist and head of the associates, reaching out to older members to encourage them to return.
Lest you get the wrong impression, not everything was negative. We still managed to enjoy ourselves. The Signet was a warm and welcome spot for Dubonnet and lunch on a wet day in March, and intimate evenings with the likes of Lillian Hellman, Robert Penn, and Eric Erikson were heady occasions. In particular, Hellman both amused and embarrassed us by her frank discussion of the sex lives of Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, and other contemporaries.
The high point of that period, for me at least, was the dinner in April 1970 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Signet’s foundation. As president, I was expected to deliver some remarks, ironically couched in terms of a toast to Archie Gibbons, and this caused me no little anxiety, partly because of who would be listening. Norman Mailer, the novelist, and Donald Oenslager, the set designer, would be receiving special awards. Kingman Brewster, then president of Yale, was coming with a contingent from the Elizabethan Club, our sister institution in New Haven. George Plimpton, Randall Thompson, and Arthur Schlesinger signaled their intention to attend, and it soon became evident that tickets to the event would be sought after. I turned to my friend and mentor, John Paul Russo ’65, then a newly minted assistant professor in English, for advice on how to combine relevance to the current political climate with a literary allusion. He directed me to an after dinner speech given by Matthew Arnold at the Royal Academy in London the 1870s. There, Arnold alluded to the habit of the ancient Greeks who lived in southern Italy to gather annually and recall that “we were once Greek”. I used this in my prepared remarks as a metaphor of our gathering to celebrate the bonds that drew members back to the Signet across the decades and into its second century.
When the night came, we gathered in a full Eliot House dining hall, and I was seated at the top table with Brewster, Mailer, Oenslager, among others. Paul A. Freund, the eminent constitutional historian and professor at the Law School, served as toastmaster. I remember that Freund began the proceedings by alluding to the fact that 1870 was a classical year, “there was a Ulysses in the White House”. It was also, he continued, a year of transitions: “Robert E. Lee died, and Lenin was born.” Freund’s gentleness and geniality were legendary, and he did a lot to dispel any traces of ill humor in the hall although when Kingman Brewster referred to Nathen Pusey as his “mentor” there were the inevitable hisses from the undergraduates. Unlike Brewster, President Pusey seemed to us remote and out of touch, and he did in fact resign the following year. As for my own remarks, I wove my Arnoldian metaphor into a reference to a modern-day Odysseus, trying to navigate between the Scylla of student radicalism and the Charybdis of reactionary political authorities; I drew hisses from either side of the divide for that, which made me feel I had struck the right balance.
My one other clear memory of remarks that evening came when Norman Mailer spoke upon receipt of his medal. One of my classmates, a friend named John Short, heckled Mailer rather gently, trying to get a rise out of him. I don’t remember what John said, but I remember that Mailer brushed it off by replying, “ I wouldn’t object to your heckling me if you did it with more wit.” After the dinner was over, Alan Heimert, then Master of Eliot House, presented me with a sign that an undergraduate had put on the doors of the hall that evening: “Closed for Elitist Dinner”. It provoked a mirthless laugh on my part as Eliot House in those pre-“randomization” days held the reputation as the preppiest house at Harvard, but clearly that particular student failed to see the irony.
After dinner that evening, most of us returned to the Signet for drinks into the night. On balance, the dinner passed off in a relatively good-natured atmosphere, but the following weeks saw the bombings of Cambodia by the Nixon administration, the Kent State shootings, and campus disruptions across the country, which drew some four million students to boycott classes. Just before graduation, I remember having dinner with John Paul Russo and Walter Jackson Bate, a charismatic professor of English and something of a hero of mine in those days. Bate asked what the student unrest was about. I gave him a political answer about the widening of the war and lack of transparency within the administration over its plan to end it, but Bate came back and said, “yes, but what is it really about?” I was stumped for an answer and still don’t know what he was trying to get at. Perhaps, he meant that my generation had tasted of the fruit of the tree of good and evil and was now trying to spit it out. I do know that the same sour atmosphere pervaded commencement that year, which saw an invasion of the dais by protesters over rents in Cambridge and the speediest mass graduation in Harvard’s history: the administration was clearly worried about further disruptions.
These are all distant memories now. At my twenty-fifth reunion, I remember watching commencement in the Tercentenary Theater and marveling at the good humor and bonhomie. At one point, a classmate remarked to me: “This is graduation we never had.” It was true, and I experienced similarly positive feelings when I returned to the Signet this past October. As we were leaving, I told my wife Diane that admitting women as members had been good because it helped improve the atmosphere and make the Signet more like Harvard as a whole. She replied, “it wasn’t only a good thing, but it was the right thing to do.”
Bruce Boucher '70
Bruce Boucher has been director of the University of Virginia Art Museum since 2009. After Harvard, he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and continued his graduate studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art in the University of London. He was a professor of art history at University College, London, for twenty-five years before returning to this country as curator and head of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. He is the author of several books and articles on Italian Renaissance and Baroque art, including Andrea Palladio: The Architect in His Time and Italian Baroque Sculpture.