Home Arts and Leisure 7 Fun Facts About the Elizabethan Club

7 Fun Facts About the Elizabethan Club

A Yale society that Cole Porter envied

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When Alexander Smith Cochran inherited a vast carpet fortune in 1902, he spent some of it on yachts, fox hunting, a castle and a scandalous divorce from Polish opera singer Ganna Walska. His other expenditures included the acquisition of rare books from the Elizabethan era. Desiring a home for this priceless collection, he founded the Elizabethan Club — monikered the “Lizzie” — at his alma mater, Yale College.

At its inception, Cochran imagined a club whose members embraced good conversation, tea and literature. Today, its exclusive membership represents a coterie of Yale’s bibliophiles and humanities students and a Who’s Who in the world of English literature.

Alexander Smith Cochran

Born in Yonkers, N.Y., Alexander Smith Cochran received over $40 million from his grandfather, who built the Alexander Smith & Sons Carpets empire. The sole heir of the world’s largest carpet firm, Alexander Smith Cochran first conceived of the club when he enrolled in an Elizabethan drama course as an undergraduate under the famous professor William Lyons Phelps.

Smith Cochran

When Smith Cochran later passed away from tuberculosis in 1929, Phelps wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times on June 24, 1929. In it, he described Cochran as one of Yale’s greatest benefactors. He also called him one of the most intriguing men he ever knew.

Phelps summarized their relationship in the paper by stating that, although reticent and meek at first, Smith Cochran approached him firmly wishing that a club celebrating Elizabethan works be created. Struck by the rarity of Smith Cochran’s personal collection, Phelps devoted time to achieving the young Yalie’s dream.

The Elizabethan Club

In the letter, Phelps then described how Cochran arrived to his house in New Haven. He informed Phelps that the thing he missed most in his undergraduate days was good conversation. “[H]e thought that if there were a club at Yale with a valuable library as a nucleus, and tea served every afternoon, where only those men came who were sincerely interested in literature and the fine arts, the conversation would take care of itself,” wrote Phelps. Cochran was prepared to buy a house for the club, endow it, present it with all the Elizabethan books he had collected, Phelps wrote.

“A house was bought, the books were installed, and the club was opened in the Autumn on 1911.” He called it an unqualified success.

The Elizabethan Club

At its founding, Cochran bestowed his priceless personal collection of Shakespeare folios and quartos. Included in his initial gift was a first edition of Sir Francis Bacon’s Essays (1597) and More’s Utopia (1551).

Here are seven more facts about the Elizabethan Club

1. Cole Porter wrote songs about it.

Porter, Yale Class of 1913, never was elected to the Elizabethan Club. But his supposed envy of and admiration for the club led him to compose songs and lyrics about it. In his musical, The Kaleidoscope, Porter featured a satirical song called “A Member of the Elizabethan Club.” He also referred to the club in his other piece, “Since We’ve Met.”

Cole Porter at Yale

2. A friendly rivalry with Harvard’s Signet Society.

The Elizabethan Club and the Signet Society of Harvard have a reciprocal agreement and a history of friendly correspondence in strictly Latin. In 1941, the two clubs played their first Lizzie-Signet croquet match. The victor won a silver pipkin, and cocktails followed.

Since then, the Lizzie and the Signet have met for an annual croquet match in the weekend of the Harvard-Yale Football game.

Signet Society cartouche

3. The books are safe. Real safe.

To protect the precious books and its private collection from theft, the club hired the Ockert Safe Company. It then constructed a vault with a 10-inch thickness and three sets of two-inch steel plates. It also has a material layer embedded in the door designed to be acetylene torch-proof. During World War II, the safe company conducted a professional inspection to attest that the vault could withstand a small artillery shell directly.

4. Impressive guest book.

The Club maintains a guest book where guests of club members sign in upon entry to the club. Records show that guests include heads of state such as U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft, and British Prime Minister Edward Heath. Famous poets include Robert Frost, Archibald MacLeish, Sigfried Sasson and T.S. Eliot.

T.S. Eliot

5. Distinguished members of the Elizabethan Club.

Among the club’s famous alumni are four Members of Parliament, Pulitzer Price recipient Daniel Yergin, former Duke University President Richard Brodhead, preeminent art historian Vincent Scully, literary critic Harold Bloom, Emmy Award winner Jeremy Strong and political conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr.

6. How Byronic.

The club’s collection and treasures include a lock of Lord Byron’s hair. It’s accompanied by an authenticating document gifted in October 1926. Lord Byron was a leading English Romantic (but not Elizabethan) poet.

Lord Byron

7. Elizabethan Club schedule.

The Club serves tea every day from 4-6 pm during the academic year. Members can bring one to two guests from out-of-town Thursday through Sunday for tea.

The Elizabethan Club garden


Andrew Song is a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy and a military historian. He is a member of the Army and Navy Club, the Yale Club, Victory Services Club and the Elizabethan Club. 

Images: Smith Cochran, courtesy Saranac Lake Local Wiki, CC by 4.0.  Signet Society cartouche By Beaumarchais56 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48512915.

 

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