The class reunion – the gathering of a given year of graduates at their high school or college – is a Big American Event, and the biggest, most elaborate class reunion is the ‘Harvard 25th’, celebrating the quarter-century from each Harvard class’s year of graduation. When the first of a light snow of Harvard missives arrived a year ago in October, reminding me that the 25th-year reunion of my Harvard Class of 1961 would be the following June, my reactions were mixed. My four years in Cambridge, Mass. had been among my best, but somehow I had grown away from the place, transferring my affections to the smaller, cosier American colleges where I had taught. To keep up with the friends I treasured from my undergraduate years did not require a five-day jamboree. And yet I believed that I ought to go, that I would be missing and evading something if I did not.

While dimly puzzling about this, I received a phone call from Tony Lanyi, one-time Harvard room-mate, now a Washington economist, and a close friend. He had called to persuade me to go, if that was needed. He said he had just been back to a class reunion at his high school in Oberlin, Ohio. Working-class and college graduate, it had been quite a mix, though he guessed that those who felt least successful, either in their jobs or in their personal lives, had tended not to come. Still, going back had been enormously worth it for him: ‘one comes to terms with one’s past.’ How very American, I thought: the quest for roots; self-measurement against the promise of the past; the reunion as a personal and collective stock-taking. A painful business. Meanwhile, however, Tony was persuading me. As a student of American culture, who had had a particular college experience in the United States, how could I possibly not attend this event? Very well, then, I would go and make a little study of it – one Britisher meeting up with his élite classmates of 25 years ago and going with them through the packed menu of dinners, parties, outings and shows, panel sessions, exhibitions, sight-singing with the ’61 Glee Club, rowing on the Charles ... all culminating in ‘Commencement’, the graduation ceremonies for the Class of 1986.

We were, to be sure, an interesting class, the first one to graduate in the Kennedy years, a transitional period between Eisenhower conservatism and the anti-Vietnam War militancy that traumatised Harvard and other universities in the late Sixties. In the 1960 Election a majority of us supported Kennedy and his call for a more active, adept government both at home and abroad. In one way or another we were influenced by the liberal academic culture that spread across America’s leading campuses after World War Two: but we were a diverse bunch, producing a best-selling right-wing author (George Gilder), a leading radical economist (Tom Weisskopf) and the creator of Jaws (Peter Benchley). About a quarter of us had come to Harvard from one of ten famous boarding schools of the northeast, but about a half had attended public high schools across the country. With its massive endowments supporting extensive scholarships, Harvard had made itself geographically the most national of American universities while retaining its powerful links with old Boston families.

Harvard reunions were of special interest to me because of the Class Reports, published for every class at mostly five-year intervals just before each reunion takes place. The Report carries an entry for every known member: a concise ‘c.v.’, followed in most cases by an autobiographical statement. With the exception of Yale’s similar productions, the Harvard Class Reports are a unique documentary expression of an American male élite, saying to each other what they want to say about themselves and their outlook. Starting with the Class of 1963’s tenth anniversary, the Harvard Class Reports were amalgamated with those of its sister college, Radcliffe, following the full integration of the two student bodies: but our Class’s Reports remained male and separate.

The most expensively produced Reports are for the 25th and 50th year reunions. Our 25th-anniversary Report is beautifully bound in ‘Harvard Crimson’, printed on glossy paper, carries ‘then and now’ photos of the 856 of us who responded (77 per cent of the Class), with a map of Harvard at the beginning and a geographical index at the back. The autobiographical entries range in length from a few lines to a couple of pages. Each of us was asked to contribute $25 towards the $60,000-plus production cost, but Harvard paid most of it.

Like the reunions themselves, the Class Reports originated in the 19th century, when the idea of the college class as a locus of loyalty and community was established; class dinners, indeed, go back at least to the 1790s. The Class of 1879 was the first one to produce a ‘Class Gift’ to the university, in 1904, but it was not until the late 1940s that the reunions, along with the Class Reports, became a subsidised arm of Harvard fund-raising, albeit run out of different offices and planned by committees of class members.

As the flow of pre-reunion publications and letters continued, I began to wonder how much the get-together would be a PR creation. The fund-raising appeals were not profuse, but some of the hoopla in the newsletters – the photos of class athletes and the hearty smiles at a pre-reunion party – did not reassure me. A ‘star’ system seemed to be emerging: a number of us were chosen as Commencement Day ‘ushers’, to be decked out in tails and top hats (without doing much ushering), and we voted one of our class to be Chief Marshal, to lead all alumni in the Commencement procession. Our reunion committee had drawn up a short list of nominees, supposedly on the basis of career ‘quality’ plus service to Harvard, the class and ‘the community’: we elected Martin Feldstein, former chief economic adviser to President Reagan.

I had, though, to admire the lavish care reflected in the pre-reunion mailings. On the back of each letter, every name in the class was faintly printed; and the 24-page preliminary guide to events also contained tips on everything from what to wear when to meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous. The $560 reunion charge was not cheap but there were no other charges, no need to buy even a drink or an icecream, and the charge covered wives, partners and children, all of us to be housed in student rooms. The reunion programme offered five full schedules for different junior age-groups, down to ‘The Grapes’ aged six to nine; they would be meeting up with their parents for various events between busing off to picnics, swimming, movies, discos, the circus, the Boston Red Sox, you name it. The welfare state of the Major Reunions Office even offered ‘proctored examinations’ for teenagers with school exams to take. As promising future material for Harvard admission, they were worth taking care of.

People Express took me to Newark, and on Sunday 1 June, the first day of the reunion, I caught the 7.40 a.m. ‘Benjamin Franklin’ train from Trenton, NJ, to Boston. This gave me a good six hours to read and reflect on ‘the big red book’, our Class Report.

In the previous reports our entries had tended to follow a pattern: 1. express admiration for one’s wife and joy in one’s ‘fine’, diversely achieving children, 2. spend most of the report on one’s own career attainments and ‘exciting’ or ‘challenging’ prospects, with some reference to extracurricular offices, 3. say little about the work itself and nothing about one’s parents or siblings, 4. declare that ‘life has been good to me.’ These tendencies remained in the report I was now reading, though bereavements produced more mention of parents and our achievements were more deftly wrapped. Here and there, however, there was also more doubt and wistfulness, more wishing for time to live and reflect, less of the complacent ‘I keep busy by ...’ There was also a sense of limits: our reformers did not delude themselves that they could make much of a difference but at least they had tried. A few entries even confessed to professional failure – I later found that these drew congratulations from others. True, there was a ‘class’ way of saying all this, wry, slightly arch, sometimes witty, but I found moments of moving beauty in what I read. There were also a few eccentrics including an incomprehensible mystic who wrote about mathematics – and an oil and gas entrepreneur who had served for one day as acting Attorney-General of Pennsylvania.

In contrast with the political anguish of our tenth year report in the Vietnam War era, few of the current entries expressed political views. Of those which did, far more were liberal-to-left than right-wing or conservative. The main concerns were the environment and, especially among doctors and scientists, the arms race. Practically no one mentioned Nicaragua or South Africa. As the ‘Ben Franklin’ trickled through the summer countryside, I wondered if my classmates considered, or really cared, that their government was violently subverting another country. On other matters the Class Report did contain a questionnaire survey but less than half the class had answered it. Among those who had, Democrats far outnumbered Republicans, and somewhat more had voted for Mondale than Reagan, but many more expressed prime concern about the US budget deficit than about the arms race or the welfare state.

Occupationally, the most striking revelation of the Class Report was the number of self-employed – in business or law practice for themselves, heading a family firm, or freelance writers, actors, directors. In many cases they had left large organisations; one had shot to the top of Fisher-Price Toys before getting into his own, ‘more expensive form of toys’ – computer products. In 1971 I estimated that only 4 per cent of us were self-employed or the heads of small firms; the number had now more than quadrupled, and that excluded another 18 per cent or so who enjoyed the considerable autonomy of being college professors. Thus at age 46 (as most of us were), many Harvard men had achieved what working-class studies have shown to be the real American dream: not just making good money but being one’s own boss. By contrast, less than 10 per cent of us were working for government, though that group included two Democratic Congressmen.

Reunion headquarters was the Harvard Freshman Union, constructed around an immense, long dining-hall where, as first-year students, we had taken all our meals together before dispersing to the Harvard Houses. I arrived to find a throng of apparent strangers holding drinks, but soon familiar faces appeared. Many of my classmates, I thought, looked remarkably unchanged: unlined by care, and trim. If America was a nation of fatties run by slimmies, these largely were the slimmies. After some chat, I passed on to get my ‘registration package’. It included: a tote bag, T-shirt, sun-hat, bathing towels and 70 per cent silk tie, all decorated with Harvard Class of 1961 motifs; and a small library of programmes, notices and invitation cards. A 35-page booklet gave the names and campus addresses of everyone attending, plus children’s ages. Six hundred of us, more than half the Class, were coming, and the total including families was two thousand.

A red-coated student ‘bellhop’ helped me carry my bags to the student dorm where Tony Lanyi (former room-mate) and I were staying. Many of these bag-toters were women, which embarrassed some of our classmates. Tony and I toured Harvard Yard and observed its latest structure, a plastic-walled, anti-apartheid ‘shanty’ facing University Hall, the main administration building. Harvard, too, was having a tussle over its South African investments. We met more people, got bused across the Charles River for dinner on the hockey rink (ice removed) and so the reunion began.

Excerpts from a reunion diary. Monday. Memorial service in Mem. Church for our 39 deceased. Lesson read by a widow (widows encouraged to attend reunions). Service taken by six clergy, all classmates. ‘The Homily’, by a cleric headmaster, spoke of mid-life vulnerability and the need to pause, to look back but also ahead – ‘waiting on the Lord’. In the words of James Thurber, ‘all men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.’ The blessing was more disjointed: alternating English and Hebrew by an Episcopalian and a rabbi ...

After lunch at Leverett House, I squeezed in to Tom Stoppard’s twenty-minute New-Found-Land, specially written for Ed Berman ’61 of London, naturalised Brit and inner-city showman ... then to a panel session on ‘the spirit of public service’ since Kennedy, chaired by Charlie Halpern, founding dean of a new law school at City University of New York, oriented to ‘public interest’ law (half of its faculty are women). The audience was cautious about Kennedy’s contribution but most agreed on the need for a bigger public sector. Not much was said about who would pay ...

Evening: we rode in 50 school buses with a police motor-cycle escort to the Boston Pops in Symphony Hall, hired by Harvard for the night – we jovially wondered if ‘the traffic’ minded being held up but one or two drivers waved at us. At Symphony Hall we sat with drinks at small tables while ‘our’ children filled the balconies. The cello soloist, Laurence Lesser, was of course a classmate ...

Tuesday. Outings. Passed up the guided tour of Salem with Steve Nissenbaum ’61 (coauthor of the brilliant witchtrials book, Salem Possessed) in favour of visiting the Kennedy Library. We saw pictures and movies of JFK and Robert Kennedy, but the high spot for Tony was seeing in our group a classmate rumoured to have been arrested recently for a retail fraud in collusion with a Catholic church official.

Our bus then took us to Essex County Club for a picnic lunch, ‘fresh air seminars’ and clambake. From Marian Briefer, efficient and perceptive full-time administrator of reunions, I learned that Harvard had invested $700,000 in our reunion, and in effect got it all back from our top donor, who gave three-quarters of a million. In the one-year reunion giving period from June 1985, over half of us gave nothing, but the rest gave just over $3 million; 74 members of the Class donated $5000 or more.

Wednesday. At breakfast time in the Union, Lucy Eisenberg, a Los Angeles attorney (many of the wives seem to be lawyers) told me she was also attending her own Radcliffe ’61 reunion. It was a much smaller, pay-as-you-go affair and she said their Class Report was very different from ours. It expressed more pain, including the worry of caring for ailing parents ... I got a copy and found she was right. It is in fact a revealing document of women in transition, graduating two years before Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, ambitious to achieve professionally, but also carrying the main burden of holding together their families. The entries are less polished than ours, narrower, and more candid ...

I went in the afternoon to a seminar on ‘the global village’: on the growing interdependence of nations. It was chaired by Tony Lake, international relations professor who had resigned from Kissinger’s staff over Cambodia and later headed the State Department’s Policy Planning section under Carter. The discussion started at home with worries about US debt and ability to compete, but moved to Third World concern after a statement by Spencer Jourdain, one of our seven blacks. Spence said the world looked to him like New York City: a rich minority and a lot of poor. Later in the session Dallas and Dynasty became buzzwords as people worried about the damage caused to local societies by American cultural exports. No one referred to actual killing, or to such explosive subjects as Communism, anti-Communism, and Nicaragua ...

Not much need be said here about Commencement Day, for Harvard’s graduation ceremonies are not unusual. As the faculty, the ‘graduands’ and the nine reunion classes gathered in Harvard Yard, a sprinkling of students passed through us with leaflets against South African investment – but that too was not unusual for 1986. I did have my one bad moment of the reunion when Yamil Kouri, a Cuban doctor graduating from the School of Public Health, spoke for the graduate students. He told of joining Castro’s revolution as a Harvard undergraduate, of heading Cuba’s science research centre, of turning against Castro as he became more totalitarian, and of spending 15 years in prison (one and a half in solitary confinement) – sustained by the freedoms he had learned at Harvard, including the freedom to choose the size of one’s family. As a forest rose about me in standing ovation, I stayed glumly in my seat. He was, I am sure, a brave and fine man, and Castro, like some American allies, did dreadful things to dissenters: but I was appalled at Harvard for including such a speech in its ceremonies when the US Administration was invoking hatred of Castro to justify its Latin American activities, and when Cuba’s remarkable reduction of poverty was seldom reported. ‘Our’ President, John F. Kennedy, had supported the assault on Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, and under his Administration the CIA had tried to kill Castro and sabotage Cuba’s economy. I was pleased, indeed proud, that one of my closest friends in the class was Don Herr, a Defense Department official, who had tried to persuade the Nixon Administration that Cuba was no threat to the US and was now seeking to reduce Nato’s dependence on nuclear weapons.

So, in a jangle of political feelings, my return to Harvard ended. My last vision of the place was of Amy, a foreman in the reunion’s student work-force, writing out lists of tips and warnings for next year’s crew. I knew they would help give the Class of 1962 a memorable time.

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