Commentary Magazine


Memoirs of a Fraternity Man

I recently learned that my college fraternity, Phi Epsilon Pi, has become defunct, its chapters all over America having closed their doors and locked them for good, and I found myself unexpectedly sad at the news. I say “unexpectedly” because, insofar as I have thought about them at all, I rather disliked fraternities in general and my own in particular I was sure I despised. Fourteen years ago, at the end of my freshman year at the University of Illinois, I moved out of Phi Ep (Psi Chapter) at the first opportunity and into an apartment. Not long afterward I was to leave the University of Illinois, at which point I lost all interest in fraternities whatever. A few months ago, however, I happened to mention to a very perceptive woman that I had spent a year at the University of Illinois and belonged to a fraternity there. “Don’t tell me which one,” she said, “I’ll bet I can guess. You were a Phi Ep, one of the elite effete.” Appallingly correct! Appalling because of all the various views I have of myself—and their range is extravagant—that of a fraternity man is perhaps least prominent of all. Phi Epsilon Pi is now dead. Its song is over but the melody lingers on—apparently even in me.

The song itself began fifteen winters ago at Chicago’s 12th Street Illinois Central Railway Station, where, as a mid-year graduate of a Chicago public high school, I was setting off to college. The decision to go “downstate,” as the University of Illinois campus in the dismal twin-cities of Champaign and Urbana is still called, was an utterly conventional one. At that time of smaller college enrollments, the state university had to take anyone who had a high-school diploma, but in fact many people who finished well in the upper reaches of their high-school graduating classes went to the University of Illinois anyhow. For many of us, most of whose parents had not themselves gone to college, the University of Illinois was about as far as our horizons extended. Going to college was not then—though it was fast becoming—the automatic business it now is for the majority of the children of the middle class. It was a matter still in the realm of decision, and while I and almost all my friends chose to go, we did so with the greatest possible seriousness. To demonstrate that seriousness most of us chose the glummest of majors: accounting, marketing, economics. I myself could not go quite that far, but I was not above the need to establish my purposefulness, which I did by informing my relatives and parents’ friends that I was going downstate to study something called “pre-law.”

Implicit in the decision to go downstate to college was the decision to join a fraternity. To do otherwise was very nearly unthinkable. The University of Illinois was then one of the largest and most active “Greek” campuses in the country. Fraternities and sororities not merely abounded but gave the place its tone, coloration, and (finally) character. To choose not to join a fraternity, to live instead as an “independent” was, at the University of Illinois, to cut oneself off on almost every level: socially, academically, even gastronomically—to consign oneself to a life as lonely, colorless, and sterile as the single piece of bologna that went into the sandwiches served for lunch at the men’s independent dorms.

There were, of course, a great many independents at the University of Illinois, though I suspect that in the vast majority of cases their independence was enforced by financial limitations, by social inadequacies, by simple discrimination against them on the part of fraternities and sororities. I was not myself independent by temperament nor did I have independence thrust upon me in any of these negative ways. My father, a successful businessman, had made clear that he would pay every cent involved in my education, and he was not about to boggle at the extra cost of a fraternity for his son. Having gone to an intensely social high school, one so divided off into scores of clubs, fraternities, and sororities as to make it almost a mini-University of Illinois, I suffered none of the social awkwardness, or inexperience, that might have kept me out of a college fraternity.

Still, not one to take chances, as the train pulled out of the 12th Street Station for Champaign, I was dressed for approval. Consider the outfit: a brown Harris tweed jacket, a maroon cashmere sweater, a careful rep tie over a white button-down oxford cloth shirt, Cambridge gray trousers with a small buckle in the back, and plain-toed cordovan shoes. The semester before a good friend of mine had been blackballed from a leading Jewish fraternity at the University of Michigan for, among other things, or so I thought, his rather individual style of dress, which included a penchant for white sweat socks. My own socks were black and rode high up on the calf.

Virtually all fraternities were, of course, segregated by religion or social class, and within each group there were fairly rigid hierarchies of status. Phi Ep was one of the elite Jewish fraternities. Its scholastic rating was high, its record in intramural sports was excellent, and its showings in Stunt Show (the campus musical-comedy competition), Spring Carnival, and other university events were superior. But in larger part, the fraternity’s status derived from the social background of its membership, or rather from that of a handful of its members. The collective identity of some fraternities might be based on a single member, usually an athlete. Around this time, for example, Sigma Chi seemed to be totally epitomized in the person of Hiles Stout, a football player from Peoria, Illinois. Stout was Sigma Chi: small-town, blond crew-cut, burly, something less than highly cerebral. Phi Ep was not so conveniently summed up in one person. But the typical member would have come from the Chicago area, probably either from one of the more prosperous Jewish suburbs to the north or Lake Shore Drive. He would be slender, well-turned-out—his principal source of haberdashery being Brooks Brothers—and with hair worn short and parted to one side, in the style then known as the “Princeton.” While his father probably made his money working for someone else, or had a small business of his own, he himself would be headed for the professions—medicine, law, dentistry, or accountancy. There would be a self-assurance about him, a casualness that came from a sense of being at ease in the world. And the truth is, he really was at ease in the world; he knew where he wanted to go and he knew precisely how to get there.

The Phi Eps admired few things more than casualness, the difficult trick made to look easy, the conventional move stylishly executed. So, in those days, did I. Although I never seriously considered pledging any other fraternity, and although I was flattered by the hard rush they put on me, as a matter of form I showed some hesitation about accepting their pledge pin.

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There were twelve of us in all in the pledge class that year and for the most part we were a fairly similar lot; or at any rate most of us dressed and talked roughly alike and seemed to share roughly similar values. Most of us, but not all. The twelfth member of the pledge class, Marv Schmidt, was another story. Not to put too fine a point on it, his clothes were wrong, his style was wrong, he really didn’t, as the saying went, “quite fit in.” Schmidt was an engineering student, and the reason, the sole reason, he was asked to pledge Phi Ep was that one of the members, an upper classman from a small town in Arkansas who also studied engineering, wanted an engineer for the pledge class and was able to prevail. But Schmidt excepted, we were the pick of the pack, the best there was, the most intensely sought after candidates for the Jewish fraternities to come downstate in February of 1955, and there was pride in that.

Once settled in, pledging was not as irksome as I feared it might be. Unlike most of the other fraternities on campus, the Phi Eps did not paddle their pledges—a sign of their superior civility? But at least one pledge was assigned to each table in the dining room and we were all instructed in a rigid set of table manners: knife placed across upper right portion of plate, blade turned in; all food both passed and received across the body, and so forth. Five nights a week we were herded back into the dining room at seven-thirty for study hours, which lasted till ten. Each morning two of us were assigned wake-call, which involved waking the members—gently, oh, ever so gently—for their morning classes. After lunch and often after classes we ran errands: picking up members’ laundry or dropping it off, fetching a book from the library, buying a packet of envelopes, or picking up clothes from the dry cleaner’s. Saturday mornings we did a general housecleaning.

Although pledges slept in a common dormitory on the top floor of the fraternity house, each of us was also assigned to a member’s room, where we kept our clothes and books. I drew Sidney Straus. Sidney was the son of a multimillionaire, a self-made man who owned, along with other holdings, what was then the premiere hotel in Miami Beach and a controlling interest in one of Chicago’s major banks. “I’m glad you’re going to be my roommate,” Sidney said when I arrived at his room with my books and suitcases. “I was worried I’d get that German kid, Schmitz, or whatever his goddamn name is.” Sidney proved an amiable roommate, being, as it turned out, rarely there. A graduating senior, engaged and soon to be married, he seemed to spend most of his time aloft in airplanes, carrying out obscure, though clearly not petty, errands for his father’s various businesses. Within less than ten years, he would be president of his father’s bank in Chicago. From photographs that appeared from time to time in the Chicago press, he seemed not to age at all—at thirty-five, as at twenty-one, he still looked fifty-four. Short, pudgy, already nearly bald in his last year at college, it was as if the fates, in endowing Sidney so well financially, had exacted in exchange his youth.

But then nearly all the seniors among the Phi Eps seemed almost excessively mature. A kind of heavy seriousness, thick with sobriety, was the model not merely aspired to but generally achieved. The Phi Ep seniors were older men, and though only just past adolescence touched with the gift—curse?—of perpetual early middle age. Harold Goldberg, the president of Phi Ep at that time, had all the playfulness of a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Dark and extremely earnest, he wore the same sweaters and washpants that everyone else did during the week, but never seemed quite convincing in them. It was only in a suit, and at that rather a severe business suit, that he looked at home and really comfortable.

Once I began living at the fraternity, it began to take on a different, more variegated, less idealized, look. A common fraternity phenomenon in those days was “the closet case,” a member who had either been left as a legacy from some Phi Ep older brother or who simply represented a mistake in judgment, a lapse of discrimination. These unfortunates were asked not to show up at certain important occasions—rush weeks, big dances, exchanges with prestigious sororities. Phi Ep had no formal closet cases, though it did have a number of members whom it chose not to feature too prominently. These ranged from Bernie (“The Animal”) Lefkovitz to Kenny Gaynor. I liked The Animal from the start: hairy, rough, he was what he was, with no airs about him. Kenny Gaynor was something else again—a fop of such extraordinary dimension, a character so clearly made of cardboard, that he would be unbelievable in the pages of a novel. Soon after I had unpacked my things in Sidney Straus’s room, Kenny came by to inspect my ties, which hung on a rack against the door. “Not bad at all,” he commented with gravity. “You should see Schmidt’s.” And here he made a face—a wrinkling of the nose, a puckering of the mouth—appropriate to the swallowing of some small vile animal. My own foulards, challis, reps, I should gauge, rated from him somewhere between a C+ and a B—.

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Phi Ep also had a number of members who did not come from Chicago, and were therefore known as the “out-of-towners.” There were not many such members, at most they comprised perhaps 15 per cent of the total, and in general they tended to fall a cut below the Phi Eps who came from Chicago. They were from such places as Paragould (Arkansas), Minneapolis, and Memphis; from as far away as New York City and from as nearby as the Illinois towns of Springfield, Mattoon, and Peoria. The out-of-towners were thought of as having a special cachet for the fraternity; they made it seem somehow less parochial. Since no one knew very much about them, they seemed, most of them, to be trailing along rather extravagant pasts. The members from Paragould and Memphis, for example, were said to have been all-state football players in Arkansas and Tennessee. One member from New York—he was in the pledge class preceding mine—claimed to have been offered a bonus to pitch for a major-league baseball team as well as to have scored higher than anyone else in the history of certain Regents’ exams. He was a liar of such magnitude, such purity, such transparency, that one had to strain really to dislike him. Although a pre-med student, he took great pains never to be caught studying, but would announce the highest grades nonetheless. He would return from the simplest coffee date or movie with his face covered with lipstick in a kind of Jackson Pollock effect. Phi Ep in fact was loaded with pre-meds, and on the whole they were a dreary lot. The pressure of getting into medical school showed badly on all of them. Having to bend themselves to this single purpose so early in life, they quickly grew dull, and some of them quite mean.

So far as cultural interests were concerned, there was bridge and there was musical comedy, especially musical comedy. In those days a madness for musical comedy was common not merely in Phi Ep but in the Midwest generally. I used to think it a Jewish phenomenon, but in fact it was more widespread, touching, at one time or another, almost everyone of the middle class. Hard-eyed businessmen, Mafiosi, crushing mothers—all were enormous suckers for a musical. It was not unusual for the well-to-do in Chicago to take a week or two off for a trip to New York, and see nine or ten musical comedies in a row. Men in the used-car, finance, or steel business, men otherwise without the least grain of sentimentality, would sit there with their wives, eyes wide, jaws slack, entranced, as boys and girls traipsed across the stage shrieking “Pajama Game! Pajama Game!” Then they would see the same shows, or at least the more successful of them, again when their road companies came through Chicago, and comment on the relative merits of the two different casts. Then they would buy the albums, which they listened to over and over again.

Phi Ep’s zeal for musical comedy was of a piece with all this. For our pledge dance, we did an elaborate revue called “New Faces of 58.50” which we worked on for about six weeks, honing our thin parodies of the original New Faces songs into bland perfection. But this was as nothing compared to the fraternity’s effort for Stunt Show. For this production, Phi Ep teamed up with a sorority to compete against every other fraternity and sorority on campus for the best performance of a musical-comedy routine. Although the competition did not take place until late in the fall, rehearsals got started the previous summer. Once the school year began, those Phi Eps involved in the show would troop over to our partner sorority every night for further rehearsals. As the competition drew closer, weekends, too, were taken up with rehearsals. No matter which sorority was involved, Phi Ep invariably made the finals.

More was at stake, it soon became clear, than the Stunt Show competition itself. The hope was to win the damn thing so that the following year Phi Ep could have as its partner one of the great Wright Street sorority houses. Wright Street faced the campus, and lining it were the sororities of Kappa Alpha Theta, Pi Beta Phi, and Chi Omega, all of them prestigious and none of them Jewish. Was it only fifteen years ago that America seemed so very much a country of small towns and so very much under Protestant domination? It was indeed, and the plan at Phi Ep, though it was never worked out in a dank basement on a pool table under a bare light bulb, was to sing and dance its way into the heart of America, or—what was much the same thing—into the living room of the Theta house.

In case I make myself sound superior to all this, I should emphasize that I was as good and obedient a pledge as any of my pledge brothers and no less strenuously wished to become a member. It was with a longing eye that I looked upon the pins and paddles and beer mugs and other accoutrements decorated with the fraternity’s crest and Greek letters (supplied by the Balfour Company, Inc., makers of fraternal jewelry and accessories). Like everyone else, I did as I was told and I submitted as meekly as everyone else to the humiliations to which a pledge was subjected.

One such humiliation that stands out is the time we pledges were awakened late at night and marched down from our dormitory to the living room by Al Sampson, a member from Arkansas who was known for his rich appetite for country ribaldry. We expected the worst. The worst, which we had all heard about, was something called with brutal simplicity “The Meat,” a very rude exercise having to do with getting a raw piece of steak up and down a staircase while naked and without the use of one’s hands. It was a stunt calculated to bring about solidarity throughout the pledge class by humiliating each of us in precise democratic measure.

After lining us up in the living room, Sampson, with a great show of anger, began with verbal abuse. We were a terrible pledge class, he shrieked, one of the worst ever to come through the house, and he, for one, was goddamn sick of us. We would shape the hell up, fast, or answer to him. He walked down the line, blasting each of us in turn. Then he put us through calisthenics: push-ups, sit-ups, deep knee bends. Next we were told to strip. We all did so, except for Billy Schwartz. The son of a Chicago fight promoter, Billy, though small, was a very tough kid; normally even-tempered, he had a notably low tolerance for taking insults. As the rest of us stood there, vulnerable in our nakedness, Billy announced that he didn’t care what happened, he wasn’t about to take his pajamas off. Sampson went red in the face. He said he was going to leave the room for ten minutes, during which time the rest of us had better convince our pledge brother to strip. If we failed to do so, he could promise us that our lives in Phi Ep would be made more miserable than any of us would care to contemplate. Ten minutes later Sampson returned to find us, Billy included, unanimously naked.

Part of being in Phi Ep, or for that matter in any fraternity, involved going along with the game—and this included members as well as pledges. Ronnie Klein, an upper-classman, was large and lumbering. At twenty-one he had an old man’s mind inside a middle-aged man’s body. He was the son of a rich man who had extensive holdings in real estate in Chicago. Less conservative by choice than tired by temperament, he never made a move of any kind without first elaborately plotting it out. Yet even Klein, surely the least romantic of figures, when he became pinned—and to become “pinned” in those days meant one was engaged to be engaged—went through the traditional “pinning serenade” like everyone else in the fraternity. Standing in front of the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority house across the street from Phi Ep, Klein stepped out before the rest of us, and in a voice more appropriate to the reading of a personal bankruptcy statement, sang about how Gibraltar might crumble and the Rockies might tumble but his love was here to stay.

As the semester wore on toward final week, pledging eased up, and everyone began concentrating on grades. One night we pledges were called into the regular Monday night fraternity meeting for a bull session in which each of us was told, singly, of our inadequacies, of how disappointingly we had turned out, of how far short we had fallen of the Phi Ep measure. The week before finals we went through our last ordained ritual of this period, singling out the member who had been hardest on us as pledges throughout the semester. One evening before dinner we grabbed our man, dragged him out behind the house, tied him up, and dumped pancake syrup, sand, and feathers on him, as the rest of the Phi Eps looked on. Then came the week of final exams, after which we all, members and pledges, left the campus for the summer.

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The fall rush at the start of the following semester was, of course, much more hectic than the winter one had been, and the traffic of potential pledges coming through Phi Ep was thick. The fraternity pretty much knew which incoming freshmen it wanted from Chicago, though it was still sitting in judgment on certain marginal types and kept on the lookout for out-of-town freshmen that no one had any line on. The rushees came in regular sessions: some remarkably confident and poised, others nervous in their eagerness to please. They were met by the Phi Eps in the foyer of the house, walked into the living room, shown through the upstairs floors. But all the while, it was they, not Phi Ep, who were on display.

The evenings of rush week were devoted to blackballing sessions—or “spot” meetings, as they were called, for the word “blackball” was never used. At these meetings it was decided who would be offered a bid to pledge and who would not. The meetings ran well into the night, sometimes breaking up at three or four in the morning. As might be imagined, some very fancy talk was involved, with everyone putting the finest possible point on everything he said. “I don’t wish to reiterate what Mickey Schwartz just finished saying,” a representative comment might run, “but it seems to me this kid is, on balance, hardly Phi Ep material.” Which was of course just another way of saying what was apparent to all but could not be said straight out: that a rushee was too ugly, too garishly dressed, too aggressive, too shy, too broken out, too “Jewish,” or too something else which put him beynd the Phi Ep pale. Kids were rejected for much the same reasons that I and almost everyone else who sat in on these meetings had rejected the other fraternities on campus to pledge Phi Ep. There was very little subtlety about the procedure—one either approximated the Phi Ep mold or fell hopelessly, irretrievably, short of it.

That rush week presented only one noteworthy incident, which involved the blackballing of a “legacy.” This particular candidate wasn’t, strictly speaking, in that category—technically, to be a legacy either one’s father or older brother or brothers had to have been a member. His brother-in-law, however, was a Phi Ep who had graduated about three years before and some of the upper-classmen present at the meeting had known him. At one point, one of them telephoned the brother-in-law in Chicago, then returned to announce that he would be driving down that night—such was the urgency of the matter—to talk on behalf of the blackballed rushee, his wife’s younger brother. The major claim against the candidate seemed to be an insufficiency of distinctly admirable qualities. The opposition would take the floor and ceaselessly reiterate, “I don’t wish to reiterate, but this kid doesn’t show me anything.” Finally, sometime around three in the morning, the brother-in-law arrived. Dark, with a close-cropped haircut, and wearing a light blue cashmere sweater over a white button-down collar shirt, he was still vintage Phi Ep. After being introduced to the meeting at large, he spoke of his young brother-in-law’s eagerness to be a Phi Ep. If he were not asked to pledge the fraternity, he said, he very probably would not remain downstate for more than a semester. He had chosen to come to school here precisely because of Phi Ep. He was exactly the sort of kid that Phi Ep could make a man of, which after all was one of the things the fraternity was about. Everything, in short, was brought up but the main point: the kid would be unthinkable if he were not a legacy; but, goddamn it, he was a legacy! At the next vote, taken while his brother-in-law was out of the room, it was decided that the bid would be extended after all. Tradition had held, and we all shuffled off to bed.

A few weeks after the pledge class of ’59 had been assembled and school had gotten underway, my own pledge class was awakened late one night and told that we were on “hell week.” During the seven days that followed we got almost no sleep, we were made to wear a suit and tie to class, and were allowed out of our suits only to get into work clothes suitable for executing our hell-week project: building a restraining wall roughly three feet high and seventy or so feet long behind the fraternity house. When we were not either in class or working on the wall, we were locked into various rooms, sometimes separately, sometimes together, where we were left to study a small, maroon leather-bound book containing the fraternity’s history. At odd hours throughout the week we were arbitrarily shifted about from room to room; we were shouted at, rather than talked to; members who had been friendly now froze us out. The week droned on, dreary and wearying.

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Early Sunday morning, at the end of the week, our initiation was at hand. Phi Ep’s ceremony was not, as I have since learned, as elaborate as that of other fraternities, or especially of some sororities, where incoming members were said to have been moved by the ritual to the point of tears. At Phi Ep we were brought down to the living room one-by-one, blindfolded. When the blindfold was removed, we found ourselves in a candlelit room with all the curtains drawn. There, as each of my pledge brothers would do, and as every member in that room had done before me, I was put through the litany of Phi Ep’s history. I was asked to name its founding members, to recite its historic dates and events, to reel off the names of its various chapters round the country. At the end of it I was told that I had done execrably, and then instructed to enter the chapter room, a small room off the main one which generally served as the site of all-night bridge games. Before this moment it had been exclusively off-limits to pledges.

In this privileged sanctuary the officers of the fraternity awaited me. They asked if I thought I deserved to be initiated into Phi Ep. I mumbled that I did indeed so think. They asked what I thought I could contribute to the fraternity. I mumbled some clichés about continuing its tradition, augmenting its prestige on campus, and so on. Everyone in the small room then rose to shake my hand. There remained to instruct me in the Phi Ep handshake, in the use and meaning of the password, and finally to place the fraternity’s pin on my shirt. Again there were handshakes all around. As I left the chapter room to return to the living room, I was met by applause and still more handshaking.

At lunch that day, after our entire class had been initiated, there was much singing and an air of high self-congratulation. The whole bizarre business had worked, another successful rite of passage had been brought off. Exhausted, I went to bed shortly after lunch, to sleep for seventeen straight hours. Before falling off I recall feeling confidently—more confidently than I shall probably ever feel again in my life—that I had arrived.

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Postscript

And yet—it is a very long story, to be told, perhaps, another time—sooner than I or anyone else would have dreamed, I was to depart, both from the University of Illinois and from Phi Ep, expelled from the one and disowned by the other. For more than a decade I would have nothing further to do with Phi Ep nor it with me. Then, on a visit to Champaign, I was suddenly overtaken by curiosity to see what had become of my old fraternity. I telephoned the University’s Intra-fraternity Council to get the address of Phi Ep, for I had heard that the fraternity had moved out of its large white house on Third Street. A secretary gave me an address but the house to which she sent me was locked and quite empty. Phi Ep, it turned out, had ceased its formal existence the semester before. “It was a damn good house,” a young man I met in the offices of the Intra-fraternity Council at the Student Union said. “In their last year, just before folding, they won intramural sports on campus.” Phi Sigma Delta, another of the Jewish fraternities, had also folded, not just on the Illinois campus but all over the country. A third Jewish fraternity, Tau Epsilon Pi (TEP) still existed, but had fallen on evil days. I remembered the TEP house as a grand and richly furnished place; now it was distinctly shabby. The piano was banged up, the furniture needed reupholstering, the whole place could have used a paint job. (I was later to learn that if the TEPs aren’t able to muster a pledge class of at least twenty-five this coming fall, they, like the Phi Eps, are in danger of going under.)

When Phi Ep dissolved, a few of its members had joined other fraternities, and two of them were now in the TEP house. One came down to meet me. He was in chambray shirt and Levis, and had mutton chop sideburns connected to a thick black mustache. Nonetheless, he was still a fraternity man, for on meeting me he clasped my hand in what must certainly have been the Phi Ep handshake. He invited me up to his room where the other former Phi Ep was waiting.

Our conversation there was given over almost wholly to their unhappiness. The school, they said, was an enormous drag these days. All they seemed to do was study—or else sit around and talk about their future. As the talk continued, one of the things that emerged was their reverence for me because of the fact that I was a Phi Ep in the good old days when the fraternity was strong and being a member of it meant something. To my own eyes everybody on that campus seemed strikingly unhappy, but it’s possible that as fraternity men they were even more so. For they were, quite simply and quite astonishingly to anyone who could remember back to what fraternity men had been only a few short years before, out of fashion, out of phase, and entirely out of joint.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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