By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note: There could only be one song to accompany this article, the theme from the 1970 film “Love Story,” written by Harvard classicist Erich Segal. You see, this article is about a love story, too, a love for a special place… and for a lifetime of memories launched from this very neighborhood. Start by going to any search engine and finding the lush “Love Story” theme… designed to put you in the mood for memories… deep, poignant, infinitely touching, forgiving.
It has been 42 years now, almost to the minute, since I first arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts to commence my Harvard education. It was, in fact, the Friday of Labor Day week-end, and I arrived here without benefit of previous visit, without knowing a single person, and with an incipient case of mononucleosis. To compound the challenges, I had about $50 to my name.
And yet, when I first saw Harvard Square… then Harvard Yard… I knew that I was exactly where I wanted to be… exactly. Such insistent insights irrevocably change lives.
The privileged students of Harvard are now just beginning to arrive, the anxious freshmen… desperate not to show the anxieties they could not hope to conceal; the insouciant upper classmen, omniscient, whose every move tells the world that they have been here before and are now the repository of the Harvard mystique, which they know… and defy the rest to find, if they can.
The returning students are keen to put you in your place by retailing the stories of their life-shaping, exotic, privileged summer vacations. This one drops the name of a well-known candidate with at least a chance for the White House. “I had lunch with him just the other day,” the student avers. He does not say the candidate had dropped into a sandwich shop in New Hampshire to shake hands.
He bought a tuna on dark rye, extra pickles, to go. He gulped a bit, handed the balance to the student who was go-fer of the day. Such was the lunch they shared… but while the actuality was unimpressive, the massaged tale more than serves its purpose of enhancing the student’s perceived altitude in the pecking order, where perception is everything. And every Harvard student is a master of perception.
Other returning students drop the names of congressmen in whose crowded offices they interned. There are the many who served the green movement… the others who scrutinized the “must see” locations of a dozen European countries, including the young woman entertained at dinner by the president of Latvia, who just happened to be a distant cousin. The welcoming meeting was capped by a photograph of the president en famille with cousin, autographed of course, very much on display in the student’s dorm room where the flag of Latvia was immediately visible and impressive upon entrance. Harvard students know the value of presidents, to whose powers and office many naturally aspire.
The returning students have a pecking order for everything, including just when and how they return. Upper classmen in positions of power and influence (like editors of “The Crimson,” the most influential student newspaper in the nation) come early. They wish to demonstrate their seriousness and control. The best writers, including those already published in “Cosmo” or the “Village Voice” with even a soupcon of name recognition, come later, at the very last moment. They wish editors to know they are beyond the mundane banalities of time and place… from the very way they enter the newsroom, they tell you the paper is the better for their presence, not the other way round. It’s an advantage they intend to press.
Such students, an early book and film deal already in the offing, know not only the essentials of smooth condescension but the knack of sailing near the edge of impudence and imprudence, without missing a beat. Too, they know the secrets of a glamor so serviceable on a walk down Holyoke Street… or a book jacket with attitude. They walk. Heads turn and boys from small towns and respected families know the misery of sharp desire… never to be fulfilled.
These students, who scoff at the unending ways aristocrats at the Court of Versailles insulted their inferiors while toadying to those they intend to insult tomorrow, are themselves and undeniably masters of such nuances. Who is greeted, how they are greeted, whether there is allowable physical contact or not and where, all these are subject to the most arcane rules and procedures. You have only to watch a small group of students as they walk through the Yard to see it on full display. Find the person in the middle of the group, the most verbal, the most voluble, the most directive, without even a scintilla of hesitation or doubt. He is on display… a beau brummell, for all his shoes are scuffed and jeans ripped. A coxcomb, a popinjay, he yet has claims to your life… and makes suggestions with impunity on what you must do and how… whilst his followers listen, follow and take no liberties, for all they want to. Their time will come… and they will put these invaluable insights to work…
Some students, of course, do not participate in these tribal rites of the young and upwardly mobile. Instead, they sit in their unkempt rooms and vow terrible vengeance on the chosen ones whom they envy and dream of. Years from now they’ll write novels and memoires about how miserable and oppressed they were. They were neither, of course, they just didn’t know what to do and lacked the gumption required to take their places amongst the glorious.
Jenny Cavalleri could have gone either way.
Jenny Cavalleri was a character in “Love Story” so great a hit that people worldwide came to Harvard to see where its protagonists cavorted, played, and loved. She came from no family either and, but for an accident of fate, might have gone through four lackluster years at the College, and then married a suitable Italian boy passing muster with her father. But she knew how to wisecrack… and one deftly timed comment opened her way to a world as unknown as Mars, where those selected by God and birth to flourish had names like Oliver Barrett IV and Harvard buildings named after clever ancestors, the better to mark you, too, for life and ease your way.
Oliver Barrett IV was most assuredly in… and he was determined that Jenny should be in, too… but she, famously, died young, the experiment incomplete and inconclusive.
Like many people in Cambridge, I did not read “Love Story” or even see the film in 1970. They were, after all, infra dig and would never do. I probably thought like many hereabouts that he, a renowned classicist, had let down the side by writing something so un-Harvard. But then I was firmly in the thrall of what one did and didn’t do to make friends and influence the right people.
Years later, when I did my book “Our Harvard” (1982) I asked Erich Segal class of ’58 to provide a chapter. He couldn’t have been nicer or more professional to work with. He opened his essay with this paragraph:
“In September 1954 I and a thousand or so other freshmen gathered in Cambridge, sharing the confident assumption that, having been chosen for Harvard, we were, ipso facto, the best and the brightest. And that very first day we learned the most painful lesson of our young lives: most of our classmates were better and brighter. We spent the rest of our college years coming to terms with this and spent the rest of our lives trying to disguise it. This is the root cause of the infamous Harvard arrogance.” Now a brand-new crop of Harvard students is arriving, each to learn this truth and promptly lock it away, as they master the ways of getting others, especiailly those better and brighter than they, to believe what they want them to believe… When they fully learn this lesson, they will not only be a success at Harvard… they will be ready to take on the world and leave it breathless at their high skills, unmatched abilities, and, most of all, a charm that moves mountains and peoples of every kind. And it will all occur just paces from me… while I watch and enjoy, as I have for so very many years, with many more to come.