An English Woman remembers Cornell in the ’20s
In June 1927, Elspeth Grant was graduated from Reading University in England with a diploma in agriculture; she was only 20. In honor of the occasion, her uncle, who was also her guardian, decided to give his precocious niece a gift of some sort. Would she like a horse, he asked? No, she wanted to go to America.
Her relatives were aghast. Americans were barbarians, her aunt warned. They lived in hot houses and said pardon. Worse yet, people sat for weeks on end on top of flagpoles (which was true, in a manner of speaking) and if you drank one of those Prohibition-style cocktails you were apt to go blind.
But she wouldn’t listen. She had to go. “Everybody, at that time, wanted to go to America,” she would recall forty years later in the first volume of her memoirs, Love Amongst the Daughters: Memories of the Twenties in England and America. “It was a magnet, a lodestar, a beacon, the source of everything new, exciting, and peculiar.” (She wrote under her married name, Elspeth Huxley; she is unrelated to the famous Huxley family of authors and scientists.)
So, she went to America. One day in September 1927 — her account does not say which — the young adventuress was aboard a steamer bound for New York. A week later she was unpacking her bags in Ithaca.
She began to feel the tremors of culture shock almost immediately. On the morning after she arrived on the Cornell campus, she was awoken by someone who said she was her new “grandmother.” Was this some sort of joke? Not at all. This loquacious young woman was exactly who she claimed to be.
Cord grandmothers, to be sure, were a familiar fixture of Cornell life in the fall of 1927. For years, all women entering Cornell had regularly been entrusted to the care of older and presumably wiser junior and senior women — big sisters, really — who took it upon themselves to teach their innocent charges the rules and maxims of campus life.
“It was all very strange,” writes Huxley, who was used to the colder, more cynical climate of Britain. “In England you slid unobtrusively into the stream of life and no one minded if you sank or swam. If you sank, you drowned. Here–people were on hand to buoy you up.”
Another thing that surprised her was her classmates’ craving for groups and committees. Cornell, it seems, was a breeding ground for Babbitts:
“It was not rugged individualism, that seemed to a European, at least to this European, to characterize American life so much as a contrary inclination to cluster: to join groups, clubs, societies, chapters, teams, and act together; to become an Elk or Buffalo or Rotarian or Mason or Daughter of the American Revolution or sister of the Ancient Order of the Nile; or, at the least, Cincinnati treasurer for the Class of ’21, or chairman of the local alumnae chapter of Alpha Sigma, or president of the Glee club, or fixtures secretary of the mycologists’ circle, or secretary of the study group on the philosophy of Swami Babu Bai: Americans out of their own, not in a group, felt naked, unprotected, insecure. If the campus was a microcosm, they were the world’s greatest joiners of committees. There was a committee for everything you could think of and for many things I would have defied anyone to imagine.”
This communalism which Huxley speaks of found its highest expression in Cornell’s vast, ogreish fraternity system. In 1920 the Cornell Daily Sun described Cornell as being the greatest fraternity center in America. It was. The 1920 Cornell yearbook lists no fewer than sixty fraternities and ten sororities, a number unmatched by any other college in America, before or since. There were only slightly fewer in 1927.
Since Cornell’s social life revolved around its fraternities — it was particularly difficult to do much of anything in little, isolated Ithaca on one’s own — no single event was more important, or one more electrifying, than the annual fall rush. The greatest wish of Cornell’s beanied underclassmen (men had to keep their frosh beanies on all the time) was to be asked to join one of the more prestigious, or moneyed, houses. Conversely, the ultimate horror was to be rejected by them all. It all depended on who he was — or who, with luck, he might turn out to be:
“Desirability was complex and subtle. It could rest squarely on riches — any son of the president of General Motors or Standard Oil would be desirable in the extreme. Other qualities in the father might reflect desirability upon the son: the offspring of a distinguished senator or scientist, physician or actor, socialite or athlete, would be rushed by the best fraternities. Otherwise, it was a gamble on the fortunes and talents of newcomers. Who would become the future captain of football, stroke of the crew, president of the Student Council, editor of the Sun, star of the basketball team, champion of athletics? Or even, on a lower level, worthy of election to Phi Beta Kappa, the egghead society–
“Some students received no bids at all. This was a very real disaster, imprinting the stigma of social rejection and all that that implied. Not to be rushed was to be excluded–”
“It was a cruel system,” Huxley concluded, “crueler than the British class system which so offended most Americans, because it was consciously applied and even more rigid. It had caused student suicides.”
Though she avoided the rush, Huxley nevertheless received bids from two sororities. One, she was told by an acquaintance, had a high snob rating. The other was sort of campus beehive, its members known for their fantastic interest in “activities” (sports, Student Government, Panhellenic Council, debating, acting, etcetera).
She decided to toss a coin for it. The second house won out. Her new sisters were overjoyed. Upon arrival at the sorority house, along with two other pledges, she suddenly found herself beset by a pack of “howling dervishes.” “Flailing arms enveloped us, we were pressed to bosom after bosom until I literally gasped for breath.” The shy English girl didn’t quite know how to respond. “No wonder Americans regarded the British as a cold, standoffish, frigid lot, barely human. We were.”
But pledging was really a serious business, as serious — and mysterious — as joining a religious order. Unlike the fraternities, the sororities did not torture or terrify their initiates; they mesmerized them:
“The sisters, it was true, did not include chastity among their vows, but they did include reverence for the ideals of the sorority and obedience to its rules. A sorority had ideals, it had a ritual and insignia like the Masons, and an initiate must pledge her faith and dedicate her talents to the prosecution of those ideals. A bond deeper than that of ordinary friendship was believed to unite her with her sisters not only on the campus here and now, but throughout the country and for the rest of her life. This was not a matter to be taken lightly, and none did take it lightly. To be pledged was a solemn affair–”
Another ritual that was taken very seriously was football. Like their counterparts on other campuses, Cornell students during the 1920s shared an enthusiasm for football that knew few bounds. For three months, it seems, people thought of little else. Distance was no obstacle. When the varsity played away, hundreds of students crowded into Bailey Hall auditorium to watch the play-by-play, as relayed by radio, on something called a gridgraph — a huge, green, electronic scoreboard marked to the scale of a football field. During the action, a little light lit up next to the name of the player who had contact with the ball, while another light, representing the ball, bounced crazily around.
When there was a game at home, naturally, the whole school — and apparently half the living Cornell alumni — turned out. The resultant spectacle would have done Busby Berkely proud:
“After we had assembled in the stadium — thirty thousands of us, I believe — and bought our chewing gum and bags of popcorn from white-clad student vendors in pork-pie hats, there was a hush of expectancy. Then, from beneath the stands, the cheerleaders burst forth like so many toreadors, clad in tight white trousers and short crimson jackets and carrying megaphones. At first each young man crouched close to the ground, palms flat, like a frog: a mutter like the distant sound of breakers began to issue from the stands. The cheerleaders then dashed along the ground in a half-crouching position, like squirrels; the cheering slowly gathered force. Suddenly they sprang high into the air like so many Nijinksys, every finger outstretched; the cheering burst forth in a mighty roar. Each one behaved as if his body was a baton in the hands of some frenzied maestro of the spirit world–”
Huxley was somewhat bored by the game itself, which, by British standards (that is, simply compared to rugby) she found rather static. Everyone else, of course, was absolutely enthralled. “People take it all so seriously,” she once remarked to her escort. “They seem to mind who wins.” “Sure they mind who wins,” he replied, clearly puzzled. “Don’t you?”
She liked the half-time activities better; then again, it was hard not to. On the field below, the resplendent, booming marching bands of the contesting schools paraded and cross-paraded, sashaying to and fro in their campaign hats and Sam Browne belts until — fifes, bassoons, drums and cornets suddenly falling silent — initials of both host and visitor were spelled out in huge, human letters. Overhead, meanwhile, there would often appear two aircraft, painted in Cornell colors and trailing banners, whose pilots would cut their engines, swoop low, and croon in amplified voices something like: “I’m high, high, high up in the clouds smoking Old Gold cigarettes.”
The least fulfilling aspect of Huxley’s brief but eventful sojourn at Cornell were her classes. She apparently did not learn much at Cornell. It was not her instructors’ fault; she thought they were quite learned, friendly too. I fault was to be found, it was with the American system of higher education, en masse. She sympathized with the faculty:
“Their classes were too large and the syllabus too rigid. They had to stick to their guns and keep those guns trained on target. Numbers overwhelmed them; with so many students, to give each one individual attention was impossible. They were crammers, really. For the students marks were everything — alphas, betas, gammas. We were on the assembly line–”
The multiple-choice exams that were used to grade Cornell’s 6,000 students were, in actuality, little more than “memory tests.” In England, by way of contrast, exams generally consisted of long, difficult essay questions; the emphasis was more on originality and imagination than on mere recall. “The aim here was to answer questions; there, to ask them.” Foreign educators make the same point today.
All the same, Cornell — as Huxley soon discovered — was anything but an easy place to go to school. Englishmen went to university to become intellectuals and Renaissance men. Americans were more practical. They wanted “to study, to learn how to concentrate, and to qualify for a job. You could not fritter away your time in punts, had there been any, or in butteries and cinemas, or in just doing nothing–.Life was real and life was earnest, with little time to dream, to idle, to pose, to speculate; and none at all to breakfast at 11 or champagne, or polish off your luncheon with port at 4 o’clock–”
Cornellians were like hummingbirds, flying this way and that, always busy, always in motion. When they weren’t studying, they were pursuing activities; when they weren’t involved in activities, they were playing sports. And when they weren’t doing that they were toiling at part-time jobs:
“Almost everyone found paid jobs in the long summer vacation, but this was not enough. Every fraternity house and dormitory, male and female, gave free places to a few students in return for free labor. All the domestic work and the upkeep of the campus was thus provided for; in this respect the university was like a huge medieval monastery. In those days of prohibition it even brewed its own wine from raisins and concoctions in laboratories.”
Cornell — like other Ivy League colleges — was known as a “millionaire’s school” during the prosperous Twenties; nevertheless, a survey undertaken by the Cornell Alumni News in 1927 confirms that almost 3,000 Cornellians — half the student body — were gainfully employed during their spare time, clocking as many as twenty or twenty-five hours per week as waitresses, custodians, dishwashers, babysitters, night watchmen, general laborers, beauticians, New York newspaper correspondents, stable hands, railroad signalmen, and freelance bootleggers, among other things. Wages generally ranged from 20 to 50 cents an hour. (Bootleggers presumably made more.)
Huxley couldn’t get over her classmates. “Their energy never ceased to amaze me– I was caught up as if in a whirlpool, hurled hither and thither, from lecture to seminar, library to lab, for feeling transmogrified. “My admiration for Americans who could take this in their stride, and get degrees and earn their keep in the bargain, swelled like an inflated balloon.
“Balloons, indeed, seemed shortly to be all about me, their colours indescribably bright, their antics prodigious, and accompanied by fireworks; my feet felt like thistledown. At least they did continue to support me; others were less fortunate. Before long people were going down on all sides. When I saw a girl trying to rise from a window recess, wobble a few paces and collapse in a heap on the floor, I thought she had taken ill. A couple of boys picked her up and carried her out. ‘She just overshot the mark a little,’ my partner said unconcernedly. A little later, screams of uncontrolled hysteria broke out; another girl was trying to tear off her dress and more or less succeeding, until forcibly removed by another set of swains–
“You did not need a bouncer at these hops, but you did need a good supply of carriers-out–”
Lt. Theodore Twesten, Cornell’s chief of campus police between 1919 and 1927, once boasted to a reporter for the New York Times that Cornell had one of the driest campuses in the country. This, he said, was largely due to the high moral integrity of Cornell’s coeds, who absolutely refused to dance with any man who had even the faintest smell of alcohol about him. “No man,” he declared, “can drink at Cornell and be in good standing socially.”
He must have had the wrong school. “The liquor seemed to affect girls more than the boys.” Huxley remembers, “though you were apt to come across apparently dead male bodies hunched up in the parking lot, overcome while fetching fresh supplies from automobiles, ore propped against walls or steps. ‘The liquor hit them,’ people said. Hit was the word.”
Cornell may not, in fact, have been the wettest college around during the Prohibition, but it certainly wasn’t one of the driest. Though a conservative school in most respects (a straw poll taken during the 1928 presidential campaign showed that both students and faculty preferred Herbert Hoover over Al Smith by more than 2 to 1), it is doubtful whether anyone had qualms about flouting the Volstead Act. Indeed, if anyone stuck out it was not the drunk, but the teetotaler. No student was properly equipped without his hip flask, or his bootlegger.
The faculty also had their bootleggers, and would help their students in a pinch, if need be. Huxley herself relates how she once did a friend a favor by picking up a bottle at the home of one Professor Bally, an instructor in the College of Agriculture. Some professors even tried their hand at distilling themselves. Wrote Morris Bishop ’14, Cornell’s official historian: “The elders set the example, infringing the law to satisfy old cravings or out of mere bravado. Noisome brews bubbled in many a professorial cellar.”
And what about sex? How much of that was there during the Flapper Era? Were Joe College and Betty Coed as promiscuous as their scandalized elders alleged? By the standards of the pre-World War I era, indeed they were; by our standards, probably not.
“During the night,” says Huxley, recounting her memories of the 1928 Junior Week, “there was a good deal of going, if not actually to bed, at least to a parked automobile.” By this time — Junior Week was held in February — the once modest Englishwoman was clearly more willing to do as the Cornellians did. “If I went on a blind date and necking was expected, necking there would be; I would not hang back like some timid prude, earning a bad name for all British girls.” Indeed, if anyone deserved to be called timid it was the oversexed Cornell men, who often liked to remind their female classmates of their sexual and athletic superiority:
“It was not as bad as I expected. Most of the blind dates turned out to be soppy rather than impetuous; they kissed, of course, and fondled, but while resorting to well-tried devices to arouse desire, were content to leave it unsatisfied, and to lie for long periods of time more or less immobile, curled up like hibernating bears–
“The full rigors of love were not, as a rule, accorded unless you wore a boy’s fraternity pin, or demanded unless this had been given; the pin was a pledge. If you finished with a boy, you were supposed to return this pin; but my friend Billie had a mania for collecting them.”
Finally Commencement came. It was much the same as it is today: Much nostalgia, much ceremony, much fear. Like everyone else, Huxley was apprehensive. “Suddenly,” she sensed, “the future is on top of you, starting tomorrow, instead of something distant, vague, and full of glories. What if it should be full of flops? Not that, in this summer of 1928, there seemed much to fear; like the expanding universe of the astronomers, our world was inflating towards higher, better, brighter things.”
Black Friday, and the Great Depression which followed it, were only sixteen months away.