Yale’s Elizabethan Club was founded in 1911, a big year not just at Yale. A pandemic in Manchuria was an unpromising start. This pneumonic plague was fully checked by the wearing of cloth facial masks. A tragic note was struck again by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, in which 146 young women perished. On the national scene, the US Supreme Court issued its first antitrust decree by ordering the Standard Oil Company to be dissolved. The New York Public Library opened its main building. Hubert Humphrey and Ronald Reagan were born, harbingers of a distant future. At Yale, Professor Wilbur Cross transformed the Yale Review into the important literary magazine it is today, and Hiram Bingham undertook the first exploration of Machu Picchu. Yale man William Howard Taft was president of the US; the erector set was invented in New Haven, and Irving Berlin wowed audiences with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” launching a musical style and dance step that conquered the world.
Another Alexander earned more modest fame. In 1911, Yale’s president was Arthur Twining Hadley, its first layman head, rightly celebrated for making Yale a modern research university on the German model. He was also famous as an exquisite taster of fine wine, who occasionally invited students to share his table. Hadley’s idea of his undergraduates was that their horizons were limited and should be untroubled. When approached by influential faculty about the establishment of an innovative new club, Hadley gave a dim response. Bad enough that 1911 was the second of successive years in which the Harvard-Yale game ended in a scoreless tie. Perhaps the college was not ready for an organization devoted to literature, the arts, and edifying talk. But this project had friends. Lobbied by a highly reputed professor of English, Willian Lyon Phelps, and by Yale’s treasurer, George Parmly Day, and nudged by the rivalry of Columbia, Hadley reluctantly agreed to accept this subversive club. Once Hadley’s veto was overcome, from one day to the next in 1911, Yale obtained a world-class collection of “the most precious books” in the English language. With them came a club bringing together a diverse membership of students and faculty. There were to be no entrance fees or annual dues; tea, cookies, and sandwiches would be on daily offer. The Elizabethan Club that ensued is now more than a centenarian, still serving tea and harboring good conversation. No longer limited to male members, it now reflects the diverse composition of today’s college. In its beginnings the Lizzie was feared to bring radicalism to the campus. Instead, as “Lefty” Lewis said long after, it proved to be the organization that “changed the tone and atmosphere of modern Yale more decisively than any other innovation up to the founding of its residential colleges.”
Both the books and the club were the generous gifts of Alexander Smith Cochran, of the Yale Class of 1896, a multi-millionaire, heir to and continuing “boss” of the huge Alfred Smith and Sons Carpet Company of Yonkers, NY. Cochran’s interests extended beyond his factory. In the intervals between the English hunting meets that he loved, he sojourned in London and, in three years, collected many literary rarities, with a forty-two-piece Shakespearean assortment as its core. With them came his conception of a club in which his books might find suitable repose. The foundation and endowment of the Elizabethan Club proved to be the most creative moment of Alex Cochran’s life. Yale faculty helped to bring about its reality with remarkable speed. But Cochran’s concern for the collecting of rare books was soon overshadowed by many other pursuits—yachting, fox hunting, thoroughbred racing, polo, flying, and motoring. He accumulated multiple dwellings at home and abroad and, briefly, a singular wife. Cochran was also the largest single financier of Teddy Roosevelt’s short-lived Bull Moose Party and served for eight months as a Commander in the British Navy. In time, eleven yachts, sail and steam, racing and cruising, many built to his order, passed through his hands. Some excelled in beauty, some broke records for their class.
The Elizabethan Club from its start was a success, giving a home to the most creative undergraduates and famed for its tea. But the amenities of the Club needed financing. In the wake of the First World War, the Lizzie’s leaders, badly needing added funds, appealed in vain to their founder. Undaunted, the Lizzie weathered the storms and short commons of the Great Depression and lived on to gain a secure financial footing in the very much transformed Yale of the twenty-first century. Cochran, who had suffered from TB from at least 1902, continued to engage for brief stretches in one pursuit after the other. A notably short-lived interest of this richest of America’s bachelors was matrimony. Aboard the Cunard liner Aquitania, he was introduced to a celebrated beauty of Polish origin, once an artiste in St Petersburg and Paris music halls. Going by the stage name Ganna Walska, she was now an aspiring operatic soprano, recovering from the death of her second spouse. Cochran, rushing into marriage, lasted six months as a resident husband, then sued his wife for divorce. His lawyer, the famous Samuel Untermeyer, succeeded in drastically limiting the alimony Walska was to receive. But the fourth of her husbands, an heir to the enormous Cyrus McCormick fortune, made her a very rich woman. Done with matrimony two spouses later, Walska devoted the balance of her many years to the creation of Lotusland, a celebrated garden in Santa Barbara, California. She never saw the wedding gift that the Elizabethan Club, unaware that Cochran had walked out of the marriage three months earlier, sent to the newlyweds in July 1921.
Walter Goffart is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toronto and a senior research scholar in the Department of History at Yale University.