The first time I tried to go to Ivy, I wasn’t allowed in. I was a pre-frosh visiting Princeton University from my hippie high school in Oregon (mascot: pine tree), where we spent our weekly assemblies singing “With a Little Help from My Friends” while our bearded ceramics teacher, Dale, strummed a guitar. I hadn’t yet discovered that rejection is something of a rite of passage at Ivy and Princeton’s ten other “eating clubs”—co-ed upperclassmen hangouts that offer the sustenance of a cafeteria by day, the alcohol-fueled debauchery of a frat house by night and the customs of an East Hampton country club always.
Princeton’s admissions office foisted me on a sophomore girl—a pretty brunette in a cute sundress to my Gap bell bottoms—who immediately informed me she was going to Ivy for the night. She kept a six-foot distance between us as we rushed past Princeton’s arches onto a street just off campus lined with the flag-flying Tudor and Gothic mansions that house the eating clubs, all of which were bigger, older, more grandiose and better groomed than anything in the Pacific Northwest. To my high school self, the idea of a place like Ivy—a private members’ club refereed by twenty-year-olds—was utterly improbable, the sort of thing that disappeared long before women got to vote.
My host slipped by Ivy’s bouncer, who stopped me at the club’s vaguely medieval front door—probably for some banal reason, like the fact that I was basically a child. As the door slammed shut behind her—I like to think my host really meant to look back and say bye—I caught a glimpse of an elegant room with polished hardwood floors, red leather couches and a sweeping staircase full of beautiful people laughing at exclusive anecdotes. Two things happened in that moment: I became obsessed with the Ivy Club. And I swore never to attend Princeton, a haven of outdated East Coast elitism, so concerned with social hierarchies it has a monarch’s title embedded in its name.
But then I got in. Suddenly, this world of status and blue-blooded privilege of the kind I’d only seen in Ralph Lauren ads seemed not only real, but accessible. Free to indulge my Ivy mania, I binged on club trivia (It was the oldest! Founded in 1879! Lit candelabras at dinner!), then lectured friends back home about the politics of Ivy “bicker” (the application process), as I poorly-but-earnestly tried to disguise my fascination as outrage. Ivy, I’d explain, was so selective it once admitted only 11 new sophomores. “EVEN JESUS TOOK TWELVE!” protested the Daily Princetonian, our student paper. With past members like Bill Ford, John Rawls and Michael Lewis, getting into Ivy seemed like a harbinger of future success. So naturally, as a type-A overachiever craving approval, I was desperate to join.
Ivy was a place that derived its power from that phase in life when we care deeply about what other people think of us. It’s a mindset that, for how much everyone loves telling young people not to crave the approval of their peers, is really much less unsettling than the alternative: having to face what you think of yourself.
There are bars in Princeton. But in my four years there, I never saw the inside of one. Princeton’s eating clubs were effectively drinking clubs—places we could sip free beer and make out to Journey without concerning ourselves with IDs or worrying about socializing with strangers. (Non-Princeton students aren’t allowed in, unless as a member’s guest.) We all passed back and forth between the clubs with relative ease.
But where students at other schools might have ventured off campus to bars where a more diverse group of people gathered for a nightcap—and where they could fact-check their sense of themselves against the real world—we insulated ourselves within our miniature tribes. Each club had its own personality and attracted a particular type of person depending on whether he or she spent their free time rowing crew (Cap and Gown), unearthing up-and-coming Norwegian synthpop bands (Terrace) or planning for Newman’s Day, the drinking holiday based on Paul Newman’s apocryphal wisdom, “24 beers in a case, 24 hours in a day. Coincidence? I think not,” (Tiger Inn).
On Thursday, Friday, Saturday and sometimes Tuesday and Wednesday nights, we’d descend on Ivy to drink the golden nectar, Milwaukee’s Best, that flowed from the tap room. We played Beirut and Robo in wood-paneled rooms under oil paintings of blonde men and lacrosse players, while doing our best to live up to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Ivy in This Side of Paradise as “breathlessly aristocratic.” The guys in Ivy wore tuxes more often than the football team its jerseys, and we’d gather in the club’s library to toast with glasses of André, pinkies out. Knowing people like Rawls had been in Ivy lent a certain gravitas to chugging bladders of rosé during Tour De Franzia night, when we’d dress up in spandex and race each other to stashes of boxed wine. And to throwing up the wine, later, in the Ivy bathroom. (Maybe Michael Lewis once puked here too!!!)
This past spring, I went back to the club for my first Saturday night in eight years. Since the ignominy of getting turned away at the door would have killed me, I recruited not one, but two current Ivy members to be my hosts. At the last minute I brought my husband for good measure, so I wouldn’t have to face rejection alone. Like old times, we started the night with Popov and warm Diet Coke in a dorm room. Around midnight, we trekked out to Ivy.
“Welcome back,” the bouncers said. “Good to have you.”
Little seemed to have changed. The theme nights were the same (Vive la Tour de Franzia!); the going-out uniform was the same (my sophomore host and I showed up in a matching uniform of black jeans, black t-shirt, black leather boots); even the fake nonchalance at whose people’s parents did what was the same (“That guy’s dad owns The Atlantic,” someone whispered to me, pointing). The biggest difference appeared to be that Beirut had been replaced by Chesties—a game where you try to bounce ping pong balls off your chest into cups of beer, mostly by flailing around with your upper body.
After losing three rounds in a row, my husband and I excused ourselves to nurse our beers. The Milwaukee’s Best tasted flatter than I’d remembered. Not bad; just something short of the ambrosia my Ivy memories had led me to expect. The club also seemed different—less like a glorious mansion filled with antiques, and more like a big house filled with old stuff.
As I watched small talk between strangers who were eerily identical to all my friends in college, I had the feeling of being in a night club when the lights come on and the allure and mystery dissipate in the face of clearly seeing how the magic has been constructed. Ivy was a place that derived its power from that phase in life when we care deeply about what other people think of us. It’s a mindset that, for how much everyone loves telling young people not to crave the approval of their peers, is really much less unsettling than the alternative: having to face what you think of yourself. Getting into Ivy offered the smug satisfaction of having been judged and accepted by my classmates. Now there was a more nagging insecurity, one that never stopped, of judging myself. Whether I’d become the person I’d wanted to become.
One of my hosts for the night, a sophomore girl, found us and picked up where we’d left off swapping stories about Ivy’s parties. The new bouncers, who were stricter than before, had put the kibosh on a rager one night because some kid threw a beer on the freshly painted ceiling in one of Ivy’s rooms.
“Who do they report to anyway?” she wondered. She took a sip of beer and sighed. “I just don’t know why they cared so much.”