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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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.