Harvard Notes By Jeff Benitz
Although Harvard College is the wealthiest university in the world it is still
cheap. At a 25+ billion dollar endowment their penury is shocking, unless
you went to school there. To me, the way they hold a dollar before spending
it, is mostly laughable, but I grew up in New England. One learns to expect
that from true wealth.
Let me pick an example of a Yankee Brahmin that underscores my point.
When Katharine Houghton Hepburn took Hollywood by storm in 1932, went
into a lull in her career for a while, then came back with force owning
production and rights to her films, buying out her own contracts with studios
like MGM or RKO, and producers, it was a shock to the Hollywood elite.
Perhaps a look at her name would be helpful. The valuable book collections
library at Harvard is, Houghton Library. There is a Houghton pond by Blue
Hill in Milton, Massachusetts. Houghton Mifflin (1832) is a major publishing
company. Patrick Hepburn, 3rd Earl of Bothwell (1512 – September 1556)
was a subject of both Henry VIII and Mary Queen of Scots. That is Mrs.
Hepburn's pedigree. And Hollywood was surprised she did not hang in
Hollywood circles, wear make-up, court the press. None of that would knock
a New Englander off balance--- she was a Connecticut Yankee! When
colleagues would visit her ocean house in Old Saybrook, called "Fenwick",
they were always surprised and commented that in her bathrooms the towels
were threadbare, the plumbing antique, and her dress absurd. Walking out
on the jetty to the lighthouse by her property, in autumn, she would don a
ragged lining to a jacket instead of wearing the whole coat. To her it was
between weather and a whole coat was not necessary. Through her life she
would swim in the icy Atlantic, every day, all year round, for exercise. In her
home she ran the fireplaces for heat maybe a blanket over her knees as she
got older. In twenty years she may have gone out to a restaurant thrice.
Katharine Hepburn was from a wealthy Yankee family. She inherited the
Connecticut house, "Fenwick". She attended Bryn Mawr, one of the, "Seven
Sister Colleges"; the women's counterpart to the all men, "Ivy League"
schools. The fact she was a skinflint, not spoiling herself by the wealth she
already had and had increased, should startle no one.
I have known too many Boston Brahmins from Weston or Concord,
Massachusetts who have never bought a stick of furniture, it was all
inherited. Their suits are always twenty years old and so are their vehicles.
The suits are Brooks Brothers heavy wool and the cars American. The ethos
is that of a dragon.
You see, money is not to be spent or shown, it is to be piled high in dingy
caves and sat on. The true currency of life to Puritans is privacy. The,
"Antiques Roadshow" a T.V. program from WGBH in Boston is a perfect
example of those who do not get it. (I call it the, "White Trash Roadshow".)
Time after time, the guests talk about how they picked up an item at a yard
sale and do not know anything about it, but more often than not it is people
who were working for someone and found it in their attic and took it to the
trash at the end of the day, then deciding to keep it. Thieves pretending to
do one thing but doing another. They talk of people who died and then
cleaned out the house as a worker or distant relative. The reason they all
say, "Wow" and, "Thank you" is because they think the appraiser has
granted them something. A justification for looting or an explanation for their
ignorance. Who would spend 8-12 hours, like a Soviet breadline, waiting to
see what their kitsch was worth? Only chattel.
I have never stepped into a large but austere house of a New England
Yankee, a true blue blood, who did not know: the wood, date, style, artisan,
or manufacturer of their inherited furniture; who did not know all about the
painter or sculptor and the time he was creating; who did not know how many
threads per inch, the date, the esoteric area of the country the pattern
represents, or how many years it took to make, a Persian rug. In the library
they know if the hard-cover is a first edition book. This is the world of the rich
and cheap. Old money.
Harvard is not only "old money" but an institution where they train their
young, or used to. Today, most goers are middle-class, and from all over the
world. But when you have an institution that is 370 years old it carries
traditions that do not always make sense. It is a cumulative development.
One oddity, one quirk, is that Harvard College does not turn the heat on until
October 1st. Yes, every year the heating in the buildings is not set by
conditions but by date. Determined at some point, in the mists of the past,
October 1st is the earliest they will turn on the heat.
If you live in the Northeast, have you turned on the heat yet? I remember
sitting in gloomy buildings at lecture where in late September you could see
the breath of other students. The sound of heavy snow jackets making a
scratching sound almost drown out the professor. The gripes of students
talking about freezing would drown out the professor but for the fact they
could only complain after class. One student, from Morocco, was dressed so
heavy I do not know how he could write notes. When I spoke to him one time,
wearing simply a button up shirt and puzzling at his heavy garb, he muttered
something along the lines of he felt like Sir Robert Falcon Scott making his
expedition to the South Pole. I pointed out he had not even seen snow yet.
There was one year I remember Harvard turned the heat on in September. It
was an especially cold autumn and I think they thought the hundreds of
buildings were in danger of freezing pipes. That's the only reason they would
break protocol. Likewise, in the summer, it was rare the scrooges at Harvard
would part with their frugality in regard to air-conditioning. In fact, many
buildings are not even air-conditioned. I do not know of any state colleges or
even private colleges who hold to such a regimen. Harvard is not the most
expensive school in the college circuit but they are miserly with their money.
Like most Yankees it is not about comfort or money, it is about nature is
inconvenient. They let you know there is no insulating yourself from it among
the cold marble of Cambridge. Lessons do not always come from
professors. If you want to be pampered go somewhere else.
The fact is, if you are from New England you have learned to wear a sweater
when you visit a friend in October. Their houses are always cold and no one
thinks anything of it. It follows the nature of their personalities. A theme must
be consistent. Self-abnegation is sewn into the leather of a New England
shoe. It is well worn and never discarded. People new to New England do
not understand this asceticism, just as Hollywood did not understand
Katharine Hepburn. Lest we forget, 70 years in show-business, she buried
her posh California contemporaries and lived actively to 96--- in the