Some of New England’s most distinguished statesmen and jurists kept a part of their past quiet later in their careers. They had performed as drag queens in Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club theatricals.
Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club for 170 years has staged theatricals featuring silly plots, collegiate humor and men in drag. It started out as quite a departure for Puritan New England, which frowned on such frivolity.
Presidents from John Quincy Adams to John Fitzgerald Kennedy belonged to the club. But you won’t find photos of any former president, U.S. ambassador or Supreme Court justice in a gauzy dress and wig.
It’s hard to argue the drag performers didn’t know what they were doing. Boston had an emerging gay subculture in the late 19th century, and the Hasty Pudding Theatricals had a reputation as homosexual influences.
Hasty Pudding Club History
Twenty-one Harvard juniors founded the Hasty Pudding Club on Sept. 8, 1795 in the dorm room of an undergraduate named Nymphas Hatch. Harvard food was notoriously awful, so they mandated that ‘the members in alphabetical order shall provide a pot of hasty pudding for every meeting.’
The Hasty Pudding Club merged with another called the Institute of 1770, to which John Quincy Adams belonged. For half a century the Hasty Pudding Club put on mock trials, debating such issues as Harvard presidents or mathematics.
In 1837, drag made its debut in the form of James Russell Lowell, who partied at Harvard more than he studied. He played Abby Roe in a breach of promise suit, and dressed from head to toe as a woman.
The Hasty Pudding Club held its first drag theatrical on Dec. 13, 1844, a tragic burlesque called Bombastes Furioso. Distaffina, the female lead, wore a low neck and short sleeves.
“On her introducing a fancy dance the applause almost shook the house down,” wrote Lloyd McKim Garrison in a club history. “Afterward they ate hasty pudding, the actors kept on their dresses and Distaffina was nearly bothered to death by her admirers.”
A Charming Girl
Every year since then, the club has staged plays except twice during each of the world wars.
One early member nearly bankrupted the Pudding by paying $15 to the Boston Museum for his costume and wig. Garrison suggested it was worth every penny: “He looked a stunningly pretty girl in it.”
The actors sometimes kissed each other under protest, but one actor conceded, “Charles P. Greenough was a very charming girl. Up to that time, though, I had never been tempted to kiss any girl so much as Harry Williams of ‘65.”
By 1854, a critic called the first diva a ‘vision’ in ‘tights and a thousand gauzy skirts in a professional style.’ In the 1880s, the Hasty Pudding Club took its shows on the road to New York and Philadelphia.
The club launched many theatrical careers, including those of Alan Jay Lerner and Jack Lemmon. Lemmon performed under a pseudonym because he’d been placed on academic probation. It prepared him for the role of Gerald the double bass player who disguises himself as Daphne in Some Like It Hot.
Hasty Pudding makes news every year when it bestows its annual Man (since 1967) and Woman (since 1951) of the Year award to celebrity entertainers. Jane Fonda established a tradition of showing up for the award when in 1961 she came to Cambridge to accept hers unannounced. A parade, a banquet and a roast accompany the awards.
Many famous people belonged to the club, including William Randolph Hearst, Charles Francis Adams and Joseph P. Kennedy. Robert Todd Lincoln played an obese and cruel-hearted parent. Ironically, J. P. Morgan (Class of 1886) nearly bankrupted the Hasty Pudding Club during his tenure as business manager.
Men in Drag
Before he rose to eminence as a religious leader, Phillips Brooks (Class of 1855) played the huge Princess Glumdalka, Queen of the Giants, in Tom Thumb. Brooks became Bishop of Massachusetts, rector of Trinity Church and author of the Christmas carol, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., later a Supreme Court justice, played the ‘widow’ in A Gentleman and Lady in a Peculiarly Perplexing Predicament in 1865. Holmes had returned to Harvard from the Civil War, where he was wounded. In the risque play, a man and a woman must reluctantly share a room in an inn.
Philosopher George Santayana (Class of 1886) famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Perhaps his experience with the Hasty Pudding theatricals inspired the comment. He played Lady Elfrida in Robin Hood in 1885. As Lady Elfrida, he fell in love with Allan-a-dale and was rescued from the arms of Sir Reginald.
I Am Willing
Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., Class of 1872, played Imogene the Fair in Alonzo the Brave in 1869. He spooned at the male lead, uttering lines like, “Eyes so killing, looks so thrilling,” and “Cooing, billing, I am willing.” He might have done otherwise had he foreseen his future dignity as majority leader of the U.S. Senate.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a history major, played a chorus girl in 1903 in Catnippers, a comic opera set in India. A reviewer called the show‘diverting’ and ‘well staged’ and noted the future president ‘got a good deal of fun out of it.’
Humorist Robert Benchley (Class of 1913) played the hairdresser Miss Mayme O’Brian in the Crystal Gazer. He wore a cheap costume that attempted to be stylish. “I may be only a hairdresser, but Heaven deliver me from ever being compromised,” Mayme declared.
William Weld played leading lady Vera Similitude in the 1966 Hasty Pudding production, Right Up Your Alley. He wrote his thesis underneath the stage during the show in between his scenes. His classmate Mitch Adams recalls him wearing a dress and wig with a legal pad on his lap. Weld also participated enthusiastically in the kick line during several Hasty Pudding shows. Later he won election as governor of Massachusetts.
This story about the Hasty Pudding theatricals was updated in 2020.