The Magazine

Harvard Fare

The author, Radcliffe '49, enjoys the late show.

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By CYNTHIA GRENIER
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Cambridge, Mass.

It was only a few minutes after arriving at Currier House in the Radcliffe Quadrangle for my 60th class reunion last month that I realized things really had changed. The bathroom facilities in the dormitories--shared now during the academic year by males and females alike--carried little stickers on each toilet door to the effect: "You Are Not Alone. If You Have Been Forced Into Sexual Activity Against Your Will, There Are Many People at Harvard Who Can Help."

Then followed a list of five possibilities, concluding with "Call the Harvard Police."

Altogether some 39 members of the Class of 1949 made it to Cambridge, most from the environs, their voices still reflecting the Boston accents of my childhood, although two flew in from California and one from Florida. As one woman observed wryly, looking around the dinner table, "We've all become generic." We were not the only reunion convening at Harvard this year: Representatives from 1939, 1944, 1954, 1959, 1964, 1974, 1979, 1984, 1989, 1994, 1999, and 2004 were on hand as well.

The next morning we were driven in vans over to Harvard Yard to listen to a symposium on the arts--or so it was identified in the program. It turned out to be a fairly tedious discourse on Shakespeare with Professor Stephen (Will in the World) Greenblatt getting one of his pupils to recite a passage of Queen Gertrude from Hamlet addressing Laertes, illustrating how we could recognize the queen was lying.

Nicely enough executed, but relevant to our day and age? No. The Class of 1954 at least had symposia on "The Future of the Global Economy" and "Understanding America and the World." Who knows how interesting they were, but at least they were of our time.

Actually what may have been the most interesting day in Reunion Week was the discussion that took place among some 30 members of the Class of 1949. So many shared experiences: so many widows, so many living in assisted living facilities or contemplating such a move. Many like Raya Dreben, in the second class to include women who graduated from Harvard Law School, who is technically retired but working harder than ever as a consultant. A surprising number of Radcliffe women who had married on graduation had produced four children and now spoke of grandchildren--and even an occasional great-grand offspring.

Among all of these women who may not have known one another circa 1949, they clearly felt a kind of primordial bond--not a sentimental attachment but one that is genuinely moving on a fairly deep level. Somehow, something over the years had been learned.

It was also interesting to hear the number of women who complained how they had felt shut out, scorned by the Harvard professors, in their day. Our class was the first to share all courses with our Harvard classmates. Maybe it's because I grew up with a brother 18 years my senior, but I always felt comfortable with men at Harvard and never hesitated going around to ask questions or get to know the professors. I recollect talking a professor of Milton into raising my grade from B to B-plus because I had never had a B and his grade would ruin my record. He bought it!

This year's commencement took place in what was referred to as the Tercentenary Theatre, although it is not a theater per se but the area between the Memorial Church and Widener Library, decked out with three huge crimson Harvard banners. Flying overhead were the bright standards of the 13 undergraduate houses, occupied these years, of course, by both sexes.

Tall men in full morning dress, complete with cream-colored double-breasted waistcoats and black cardboard top hats--Harvard, hit by the recession, apparently was unable to afford the rental charge for silk toppers--directed the masses of classes swirling around Harvard Yard. The senior reunion classes were ordered to march into the theater between the rows of the graduating class of 2009, who cheered and applauded us on our way.

Yes, they all looked very terrifyingly young.

The commencement addresses were, on the whole, what you would expect--that is to say, high-minded banalities--although Secretary of Energy Steven Chu mercifully lightened his discourse with glints of wit and a welcome keen intelligence. The day before, the Harvard members of ROTC had received their commissions from General David Petraeus. In a video sent afterwards to all alumni, however, all mention of ROTC or General Petraeus was omitted.

Honorary degrees had a definite flavor of political correctness. Pedro Almodóvar, the Spanish film director, was awarded one for his "colorful, campy" film work. Joan Didion, of whom I wrote in these pages on November 21, 2005, and not in complimentary terms, was another recipient. Wynton Marsalis trumpeted us all out of the Yard to "When the Saints Come Marching In."

(I checked later with the Commencement Office and, as far as the staffer there knew, no other movie director had ever received an honorary degree from Harvard University. I guess the works of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Luis Buñuel--not to mention John Ford or Frank Capra--weren't colorful or campy enough to meet Harvard's standards.)

Political correctness also triumphed when it was announced that a chair had been established for the study of homosexuality. Its name? The F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality. I happen to have taken Matthiessen's course in American literature, and one of his landmark works, American Renaissance (1941), still sits on my shelves. But F. O. Matthiessen (1902-1950) was the quietest, most discreet, deepest-in-the-closet of gentlemen, and I have to wonder what he would think of his eponymous chair.

The last day ended with a series of awards to assorted Radcliffe worthies over the generations, and discussions of the influence (or lack of influence) of the Radcliffe curriculum throughout their careers. Seated next to me in the front row was a small, elegant woman who entered leaning on a cane. I could see that she was definitely senior to me, but was taken aback to learn that she was a member of the Class of 1930: Frances Addelson, 100.

"I'm blind as a bat, dear," she said to me, tapping her glasses. "And hearing?" She touched her hearing aide. So what do you say to someone who is a century old? I asked how she liked being at Radcliffe/Harvard again: "I love it," she said. "Everyone wants to interview me, all those journalists. It's great."

I wished her another hundred years as we said goodbye. "And you too, my dear," she replied.

Cynthia Grenier is a writer in Washington.