Picking at Bones

Article excerpt

Secrets of the Tomb

Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power

BY ALEXANDRA ROBBINS

Little. Brown/240 pages/$25.95

Back when Slate editor Jacob Weisberg was a Yale student interning in Washington, D.C., he once got a phone call from John Kerry's secretary.

"Senator Kerry wants to see you in his

office," the secretary said. "He won't tell me what it is about."

Weisberg figured it might be over an article he'd written, or one that Kerry was hoping he'd write.

The next morning on Capitol Hill, the senator sat Weisberg down and invited him to become a fellow member of Skull and Bones, Yale's oldest and most prestigious senior society.

"Senator Kerry, you're a liberal," the young journalist objected. "Why do you support this organization that does not admit women?"

"I've marched with battered women," Kerry replied, according to Weisberg. "I've supported women's rights. No one can question my dedication to women."

Weisberg turned him down anyway.

Reading this, it's hard not to wish that Kerry had answered instead: "It's just a club, you little twit." But Skull and Bones is not just any club. As Alexandra Robbins notes in Secrets of the Tomb, its membership roster includes three presidents of the United States-soon to be four, if Kerry gets his way-and a legion of famous politicians, diplomats, jurists and businessmen. Not bad for a group that takes only 15 new members a year.

The society is, as the saying goes, shrouded in secrecy, yet the shroud itself is conspicuous. A massive sandstone building with darkened slits for windows and black iron doors 12 feet tall, the "tomb" is a campus landmark, epitomizing the double game that all such clubs play. In Robbins' words: "The society has always demanded invisibility while simultaneously publicizing its supremacy."

Lurid rumors of what goes on inside-- masturbating in a coffin, encounters with the resident "Bones Whore"-are, according to one member, promoted by the group as a "smoke screen" for its real activities.

Last year the journalist Ron Rosenbaum produced a videotape of a Bones initiation ceremony, complete with simulated human sacrifice and someone in the role of George W. Bush (Bones '68) informing neophytes: "I'm gonna ream you like I reamed Al Gore!" Peter Jennings ran excerpts on World News Tonight.

Of course this was all a show for Rosenbaum, the self-styled "Ahab of Skull and Bones, who has been trying to expose the society's secrets for at least 25 years. One of the pranksters told Robbins, "We just wanted to f*** with that p****."

The real initiation, in Robbins' telling, is a whimsical masquerade involving the gentlest ritual abuse at the hands of members playing the Pope, the Devil and Don Quixote, among other characters. One of the book's inside sources (all of whom are quoted anonymously) describes the ceremony as "something like a Harry Potter novel."

For the rest of their time in college, the members (known till they graduate as "knights, thereafter as "patriarchs") meet twice a week for dinner and a kind of group therapy. Sessions devoted to sexual history, quaintly referred to as "Connubial Bliss," serve to break down inhibitions before the wider-ranging autobiographical talks and sometimes-harsh interrogations. Society songs ("sacred anthems") and indoor soccer ("boodleball") keep the atmosphere from getting too heavy.

Robbins' account of formal and informal activities is convincing, as is her detailed description-evidently based on a surreptitious visit-of the building itself, down to the height of the walnut wainscoting in its sanctum sanctorum. Contrary to the starkness of the facade, the interior turns out to be the ultimate grandmother's attic, crammed with "stuffed moose heads, candles, mannequin knights in armor, antlers, boating flags, manuscripts, medieval artwork, old photographs, a samovar, a Buddha on an elephant, a trunk full of woolen blankets and statues of Demosthenes. …