10,000 Chairs of Harvard

This story was originally written for a national magazine at the turn of the century but never printed. In the intervening fifteen years, regrettably if inevitably, some of the participants have died, elders being the repository of communal memory. I have made no note of this fact, nor of any other events of the past decade and a half. The article is printed here, all but unchanged, a sort of literary bogman—or like the Advocate itself.
– D.T. Max ’83

One clement spring evening in 1997, one hundred alumni of The Harvard Advocate gathered at the brownstone apartment of George Plimpton (’48) to honor the magazine, at 131 the oldest continuously published college publication in the country. The honorary chairman was Arthur Schlesinger (’38). The bold-faced guests were Norman Mailer (’43) and Conan O’Brien (’86). The cheeses were from France, the tulips and forsythia hand-picked at the flower market and the single-malt scotch (’86) a gift from Macallan’s. The atmosphere was at once intimidating and intimate. 

When it came time to put the arm on, James Atlas (’71), the president of the magazine’s trustees, got up before the assembled writers, editors, journalists, academics, and lawyers and business people. In his bow tie and Brooks Brothers suit the noted biographer looked like the embodiment of the Advocate we all hoped we held in our hearts. Speaking softly without notes, he went over the talent nurtured by the magazine and talked at length about an institution in peril. Mother Advocate— so called because both the Lampoon, the campus humor magazine, and the Crimson, the campus daily, are its offshoots—was in danger. The paint of Advocate House was peeling. The roof was leaking. The windows kept getting broken. Homeless people had been making the House their home. And, Atlas added, it had now been two years since someone—no one knew who—had stolen the President’s Chair.

Many organizations at Harvard have such chairs, heavy oak thrones of indeterminate but impressive age. The presiding officer drags them out of the corner and sits in them during meetings. Harvard’s throne chairs function as reminders of the legitimacy of the organization, its venerability, and, by extension, the status of those who are associated with it. Considerable prestige attaches to the few organizations—the older publications and final clubs—that have chairs of their own. Consequently, these furnishings also frequently disappear. Harvard’s clubs and publications have been stealing each other’s curios and insignia furniture for generations. But the Advocate throne chair hadn’t turned up in the Lampoon clubhouse’s library, where the Crimson throne chair is chained like Segismundo, nor in the empty sanctum of the Crimson. No graduating senior left it behind in his or her dorm room. Slowly, the undergraduates, then Atlas, now the rest of us, had to realize the truth. This hadn’t been a prank but a theft. The Advocate President’s Chair had in fact been stolen.

Harvard, like the great British universities it was modeled on, is awash in such playful arcana and rituals of the sort known only to initiates and tour guides. A great many, for some reason, involve chairs. The man many wrongly take for John Harvard sits in a stone chair in the Yard, while the more fortunate among professors who gain tenure are said to occupy chairs. There is the Holyoke chair, the five-hundred-year-old three-sided chair of Welsh origin that the president of the university sits in for graduation exercises. A man known only as Old Jones the Bellringer cut three chairs out of the hundred-year-old Class Day tree in Harvard Yard when it was cut down in 1913; they are now kept in Harvard’s archives and shown to potential donors. In 1967 the Lampoon commissioned a president’s chair built on-site in its castle-like clubhouse, too big to fit through the door. It is the largest chair in Massachusetts.

Because of its odd history, those of us involved with the Advocate by necessity held the President’s Chair to be less a reminder of greatness or assertion of privilege than an incentive to achievement. Within the universe of Harvard, the Advocate leads a precarious existence. Like Broadway theatre, it never really flourishes or dies. It has assumed different functions as the publications it gave birth to have pushed it aside. A wonderful description of The Advocate was written by one of the magazine’s officers on the occasion of the publication’s centenary. The Advocate, he wrote, “has been a record of football scores, a caterer to old, pecunious Cambridge ladies; a monger of intra-mural scandal; a register of literary tastes which have often lagged twenty years behind the fact; a club ... a myth; a great organic zilch that often exists more vividly in the minds of its editors than on the newsstands.” The Advocate has published a lot of good poetry over the years, and somewhat less good fiction. But Harvard is an immensely patient institution. It is often enough for the magazine simply to exist. “We must maintain its pages for the next T.S. Eliot or Robert Lowell,” Archie Epps, Harvard’s dean in charge of student organizations, told me.

But when I began looking for the chair, though I had been on the Advocate, I had no idea what it looked like. And neither did anyone else. It was the heart and soul of The Advocate. But was it carved? Did it have our motto on it, “Dulce est Periculum” (Sweet is danger)? “Now that you say throne chair I can kind of see it sitting over there in the light by the French windows,” my classmate Christopher Caldwell (’83) said. We could both remember quite well beer, parties and a squat ugly meeting room with all of us sitting around a large table smoking clove cigarettes considering submissions. This was a powerful feeling, to be twenty and passing judgment on another twenty-year-old’s talent. Schlesinger and Mailer, editors in the ’30s and ’40s respectively, drew blanks too. They couldn’t swear there was a chair. Even Atlas, our best rememberer, embroidered it with baroque gargoyles in The Great Pretender, his coming-of-age novel. How apt that title now seemed. Memory and nostalgia seemed at odds. Was this willed forgetfulness part of the nonchalance those who participate in Harvard’s clubs often assume? The Advocate was, before anything else, a branch of Boston Brahmin culture, a culture in which it was fraught to acknowledge privilege.

Initially, in 1995, when the students of the Advocate informed the Harvard Police of the disappearance of the throne chair, the administration assumed it was a prank. Pranks are, as matter of university policy, ordinarily not a police matter. And they did not reopen the case when the chair stayed missing. When I first spoke to Dean Epps, four years after the incident, he was still confident the chair would turn up. He had a theory of what might have happened: the chair had fallen prey to “the ghosts.” Academic ghosts are educated drifters, often former students who have never quite separated from student life. They are in every college town, locally burnt-out cases. By day Harvard’s ghosts hang out in the Square, mostly in the open space in front of Au Bon Pain. They do not behave like other street people, though some are homeless. They try to get into the school’s libraries, classes, and afternoon teas. At night the ghosts leave their cardboard houses, their newspaper sleeping bags, or their Central Square apartments and walk the empty streets. They go through the trash cans full of newspapers and magazines and dumpsters full of old furniture and broken appliances and food the college leaves behind. Epps thought that one of the ghosts might have become interested in the Advocate and carried off our chair prematurely. But as Epps knew, Harvard outlives its ghost, and one day it would get its own back.

With my coaxing, the undergraduate editors of the Advocate began to recover some details about the events of spring ’95. Initially, when the chair had been stolen, they had pooled their resources to buy a replacement at a Charles Street antique store. Now they were embarrassed about this; the gesture or the replacement had felt off. They remembered too that Advocate House had been broken into not just once, but a half-dozen times in succession. The chair had been stolen first. Next, an intruder had taken some plaques with the names of past editors and a stereo. Then he or she had returned and used an ice chopper to pry off an old oak mantelpiece. Rattled, the undergraduates decided to stake out the building. For two weeks they took turns hiding in the computer room with the lights off, armed with butcher knives they’d borrowed from the college cafeterias. But each time they left, a new break-in occurred. A boom box meant to replace the stereo was taken. Another time the thief came back in to wipe away a sooty handprint left behind. Whoever was breaking in was clearly nearby, with a good view of the premises, an obsessive personality, and maybe even a sense of play.

That’s when the name of a ghost I’ll call Dennis came up. Everyone at Harvard knew Dennis. Although not a graduate, he is the school’s greatest fan. He gives to the alumni fund. He attends lectures. He reads the Lampoon, the Crimson and the Advocate, even the Gazette, the university’s official publication. He is said to memorize the Freshman register. During the late ’80s–early ’90s Dennis was like an honorary member of the Crimson, and, to a lesser extent, the Advocate. He made suggestions for articles and wrote notes in the magazine’s comment book. He slept in the sanctum of the Crimson and in the entryway of the Advocate. The ghost’s relationship with undergraduate life usually comes to an unhappy end, often after the school intervenes. The Crimson threw him out. The University barred him. He found a sunken grate behind the University Lutheran Church just a few feet from the magazine’s clubhouse, where he made his presence known to the Advocate editors by calling the authorities to complain whenever there was a party. The undergraduates suspected Dennis at the time. “We knew he had means, opportunity and motive,” says Chicu Reddy, then an Advocate editor. The editors say they told the campus police, who disregarded the information.

Things have not gone well for Dennis lately. In recent years, the Lutheran Church has fenced off his bedroom. Even Au Bon Pain has banned him. With some difficulty I found his squat, down a staircase behind the church. It looked like a newspaper morgue, but there were no signs of the chair, the plaques or the mantelpiece. I left a note. Then one cool midnight near the Advocate I saw a gray blanket with a Harvard mug next to it and knew I had found him. Harvard alumni of the mid ’80s–’90s recall Dennis as manic. Now he had grown bitter. “A university,” he said, coming out of his blanket and propping himself up on one arm and lighting up a St. Moritz cigarette, “is where a man comes to do his best work. Jeremy Knowles said that.” How could he, when the university, the town, and the undergraduates had all turned against him? When I asked if he knew what had happened to the chair, he told me I had to stop thinking like an undergraduate. Later he emailed me from an account he accesses at a public library to give me his theory of the theft: “As you must be poignantly aware the accession of students to Harvard in recent decades has included many from non Harvard backgrounds who have gone on to nouveau wealth. These presumably would not be the culprits. However for everyday Sam Walton’s whose background includes some Arky High School (relentless razorbacks!) it could add a touch of “settled” authority to a background otherwise bereft of any particular merit other than a few billion.”

Early this year, I spoke to Detective Sergeant Richard Mederos of the Harvard Police Department to tell him a parent of a Harvard student had reportedly just run into the Advocate President’s chair at a flea market in Malden, five miles from Harvard Square, and was going to give it back. Mederos was pleased and amazed. He had been the detective who responded to the Advocate editor’s report of the theft. He had dusted for fingerprints, found none, and, I had thought, pretty much lost interest. This was not the case. “Sometimes you find a case you’re just dying to solve,” he said, “but this one just led nowhere.” He invited me to come by. He is a man of ordinary height, in good shape, around forty. In the gray pants and tweed jacket he usually wears, he could pass for a Harvard administrator, if not for the Glock strapped to his hip. Having had to ignore the disappearance of the chair when it looked like a prank, he was eager to get at it as a crime. “It’s a horse of a different color now, Danny,” he said. He pulled the file with his original notes, and we got into his car. Our destination was an antique store in the nearby town of Somerville. I had already spoken to the Harvard parent who found the chair to arrange the handover, and also to a woman who had a stand at a Malden flea market. She said she and her husband had bought the chair from the Somerville store in summer 1996 at an antiques fair. They had paid $325 for it and put it out on their sales floor with a price of $2,000. For more than two years there it had sat, among the plaster of Paris pottery and reproductions of antiques. “Lots of people took pictures of themselves in it,” she remembered, “but no one bought it.” She said she had no idea the chair was stolen property. The Somerville store told her they’d been stuck with it for a while too. They’d had it out on the sidewalk in front of another of their stores in nearby Everett chained by its cross-piece. They could have bought it no later than mid ’95, shortly after the theft. The Somerville store was presided over by a man named Dave. Antique stores are supposed to keep transaction logs. That ledger might show us who had taken the chair.

Mederos pulled up the car a half block away from the store, and we got out. Car doors shut. We both had our notebooks ready. I found myself copying his slow roll toward the door. The store was an East Village-style kitsch shop, a wonderland of lava lamps, plastic Elvises, and life-sized Laurel and Hardy statues. “Tacky,” Mederos said under his breath as he walked in. He identified himself to a man who was seated and on the phone and showed him his badge. (He is a sworn deputy of Middlesex County, where Somerville is located.) “I’m trying to get some information on a piece of stolen Harvard property,” he began. The man, young, with a light blonde beard and a sweatshirt on, barely looked up. Mederos stayed nice: “I’m not here to give anyone a problem,” he said. He asked about the log. “You’re gonna have to talk to Dave,” the man said. “Buddy,” Mederos said, leaning in so far I thought he was going to hang up the phone for the guy, “No one’s here to jack you up. I’m just looking for the log.” “You’re gonna have to talk to Dave,” the man insisted. At this point I stepped forward: “Do you know where the ledgers are located?” I asked. What I did wrong I’m still not sure but the man’s face changed. He had made me. “Ask Dave to call me, will you?” Mederos said, pulling us out quickly, “Here’s my card.”

Afterward, I contacted Bob Pelham, the man who had found the chair. He told me he and his wife had been filling a room in their home in nearby Melrose with Harvardiana for their daughter Maura, class of ’00, when they saw it at the Malden flea market. Pelham knew Maura would want it for one of her Harvard memories. After the Malden proprietress agreed to cut the price to $500, they made the deal. Pelham took the throne chair home in his van and Maura loved it. But she also began to wonder. The words “Harvard Advocate” were carved on the splat. A few weeks later she went back to college for the beginning of her junior year and asked a friend on the magazine if they were missing anything. The undergraduate editors weren’t sure. What was recent to the Advocate trustees was ancient history to its undergraduate members. But they had heard rumors of a lost chair. They called Atlas. Atlas called Pelham. Could we buy the chair back?

Pelham and I arranged to meet at the Advocate’s clubhouse. The building was dedicated with pomp in 1957, a highpoint in our storied but rickety history. The undergraduate president, A. Whitney Ellsworth (’58), who would go on to co-found the New York Review of Books, rode from the old Advocate quarters to the new clubhouse on a white horse, rented for the purpose, with white cardboard wings. But the Advocate was never rich and its undergraduates never good housekeepers. Over the years the results were predictable. The floors warped. The windows rotted. The doors no longer locked. A smell of beer was everywhere. A ghost named Richter made the fiction room his bedroom and threatened any undergraduate who entered. Another, in a suit and tie, claiming to be an alumnus and a lawyer, cadged a key and used it for his home for a summer. $50,000 from the trustees’ coffers—the product of a Manhattan fund-raiser and a donation from a wealthy alumnus—paid to bring the building up to code and for a state-of-the-art alarm system, although we had nothing left to steal. The Advocate House remains gritty in feel. I arrived early. In the sanctum on the second floor, there were mock-ups of the upcoming issue, empty beer bottles and dirty dishes. The replacement throne chair the undergraduates had bought in 1996 with thrusting finials and a scarlet cushion was there, looking like a theatre prop.

Pelham came in. He was our last hope. But he had the face of a deacon and spoke with Thoreauvian mildness. His ancestors had come over on the Mayflower; they had sold Harvard some of its original land. I was more likely to steal the chair than he was. I had gone back to the Somerville antiques store without Detective Sergeant Mederos and met Dave, the proprietor. Mederos and I had in fact been talking to his brother-in-law John. Dave told me that he’d bought the chair from “an older guy in grubby work clothes and a cap who drove up in a dump truck.” He added that he looked “like a picker.” Some pickers go through yard sales looking for things of value, but the kind Dave meant work the dumpsters. Dave said he’d paid $125 for the chair, asked no questions, and didn’t enter it in his log. The man with the truck is the antique dealer’s version of the dog who ate the homework. The man could have stolen the chair, found it in the trash, bought it off a ghost, recovered it from a student’s room after the end of the school year. It was a dead end.

Together Pelham and I came up to the chair. It sat on a long oak table, as if left there by the same mighty hand that had carved it. Its mass and heft made us proceed respectfully. In the Harvard archives I later learned that, like all Harvard throne chairs, it only dated from the ’10s. It was ordered in around 1919 and manufactured in an archaic arts and crafts style. It turned out to be to furniture what Ossian was to poetry, a retro fraud. But the spirit behind it was far older. On a dusty stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, ten blocks west of Harvard Square, is the Cambridge Lodge of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. Here, not at Oxford or Cambridge as I would have thought, was the closest analogue to that strange attachment the graduate is expected to feel for his college years. Here was the original fraternity, with its male bonding, Greek letters, secret handshakes and insignia-ware. Ceremonial throne chairs were part of the ritual. The Cambridge lodge has a number of such chairs, called “oriental chairs,” to be occupied only by the “Worshipful Master.” Theirs have rounded backs. The Advocate’s has a rounded back. The Masons’ has the motto “Sit Lux et Lux Fuit” (Let there be light and there was light). The Advocate’s has “Dulce est Periculum.” The Masons’ is padded with red and green and vermilion velour cushions. The Advocate’s is bare.

Clubs were particularly active in the early years of the twentieth century, when the Advocate got its chair. The country was losing enthusiasm for immigration. Being the right sort of American was suddenly very important. This was certainly true at Harvard. Under Charles Norton Eliot, the president of Harvard for the latter half of the nineteenth century, the school had been strikingly modern, almost like an urban university. When he took over in 1909, A. Lawrence Lowell, pulled up the drawbridge. He established quotas for Jewish students. He built the residential house system, making sure all students lived on campus. The clubs flourished, and with them, orders for insignia watch charms, beer steins, and even cigarettes. The Advocate was part of this change too, catering, as its business manager wrote in a 1919 ad solicitation to “the very best of the college men, that is the club men and their friends ... .” Lowell fitted out every freshman’s room with a hard oak captain’s chair with a slippery seat and bumpy slats for a back. (This chair, the “Harvard Chair,” is still offered to every Harvard employee on his or her twenty-fifth anniversary.) The design was nostalgic, a replica of chairs used in the nineteenth-century Commons or dining room at Harvard but made bulkier for the supposedly broader Harvard students of the present day. Lowell, of course, had his assigned chair already, the Holyoke corner chair with its oak pommels and hard wood bottom. It wasn’t until 1971 that the chair got some padding. The mother of the incoming Harvard president, Derek Bok, needlepointed a cushion with the Harvard crest on it. In 1991, he handed it on to his successor, Neil Rudenstine, who emailed me his appreciation, adding that he had “no doubt Puritanism lurks behind” the once painful tradition.

This suggestion seems right. Uncomfortable seating is as old as New England. The pilgrims on the Mayflower brought straight, high-backed chairs with them from Europe. It is impossible to fall asleep in such seating. The Puritans and their descendants had another sin on their minds too. Kim Townsend, the author of Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others, owns a model of a throne chair from the 1910s with a tub beneath a hollowed-out seat that places a young man’s genitals in a pot of cold water. Looking at the chair next to Pelham, this carpenter with the face of a deacon, I could see the connection to the dictates of the theocrats of Plymouth. It was hard to see how this chair could have witnessed any but the pleasures of the mind.

 All the same our throne chair was something to behold. It had the name of the magazine and its founding year and a Pegasus, or winged horse, pulling a dictionary by a bookstrap, carved into the splat. Dave had painted the Pegasus a shiny gold, like the Maltese Falcon in reverse. There were heels on the stairs. I had asked the Fogg, one of the university’s art museums, to send over a curator from its decorative arts department. A pair of women appeared in swirling overcoats. They may have wondered how I could be in doubt about the authenticity of a chair that had the words “Harvard Advocate 1866” carved in it, but they said nothing. This was my organization. They compared the chair with a 1969 photograph Atlas had lent me. They noted that the word “VERITAS” had been misengraved on the chair. There was the trace of a chiseled V visible beneath the A. This was also true in the photo. The chair, they said, was real. I could go back to my old life now. And this I did, thinking: real to whom?