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Before the Fall
Letters home from future Yale president A. Whitney Griswold painted a wry, carefree picture of life in the Class of 1929. But the class, which just had its 70th reunion, was soon to learn some hard lessons.

This year’s Yale reunions were distinguished by a very special gathering of the Yale College Class of 1929. As the official reunion roll ends with the 65th and after, this unofficial 70th reunion—which drew ten class members—was a remarkable demonstration of longevity and the Yale spirit. The first Yale class to award degrees to more than 700 graduates, '29 produced many notable alumni, including two whose contributions shaped Yale intellectually and culturally in the 20th century more than any other—Paul Mellon and A. Whitney Griswold.

The quarter-century history of the Class of 1929 proclaimed that “no class was ever so swiftly and so thoroughly bereft of illusions as the Classes of 1929.” Graduating four months before the stock market crash and the onset of the Depression, theirs was also the last class “to enjoy a sunny break in the historical storms.” Born in the era of Teddy Roosevelt, they grew up in the shadow of World War I and entered Yale in the fall of 1925. Yale in the late twenties was in the throes of great upheaval-literally-as dozens of campus area buildings were remodeled and razed to make way for the building of the “New Yale.” Some old traditions also disappeared, most notably compulsory Daily Chapel, which was dropped after two centuries in May, 1926.

A. Whitney Griswold, the future history professor and Yale president (1950-63), penned vivid and humorous portraits of the era in letters to his parents. The series begins sedately in September 1925, when he proudly reports that he bought all of his books at the Yale Co-op for $12.50. The next letter is a “true Whit” commentary on the Freshman-Sophomore Rush: “Altho the Rush had been officially called off, we knew the Sophs would kill any of us they caught outside the Oval, so we, 859 strong, tore for the Oval, and shut the big iron gates. Well, things began to quiet down, and a bunch of us got banjos and things and began to sing like the true gentlemen we were. Then a lot of pie-eyed sophs began to come into the Oval and smash windows. We didn’t do anything until two freshmen, who lived in cottages off the Oval, and who had tried to go home alone, came over the back fence of the Oval without a stitch on, and two suits of B.V.D.s were thrown over after them. Then about 50 of us got together, and made an attack on the sophs outside the Oval. We chased them away, and then ran around the block, our object being to strip all sophs we caught. We caught four and made them impersonate Cupid back to the campus. You should have seen one guy walk across the street with nothing on but the arm of sweater. I guess you shouldn’t at that.”

By April 1926, Griswold’s financial situation had badly deteriorated, but as he wrote: “I’m not, however, the only penniless student at this noble institution. Doc [Carl] Hardt has sold so many old suits that he has to buy some new ones and is now worse off than ever before, having 17 cents till May.” Defending his squandering of 25 cents a day for snacks, he continued: “I know this sounds like a lot, but if you had feathered eggs that peeped at you, embalmed beef, and defunct fish staring you in the face at least six times a week, I’m sure a milkshake and a doughnut would find a place in your pancreas, as we call it in Biology.” (From freshman to senior year, tuition rose by a third from $300 to $400.)

In the spring of 1929, Griswold’s letters to his parents turned poetic: “Just at present the miracle of spring is upon our campus, the grass actually turning green in a few sunny places. Languid seniors tasting of delights to come doff hats and coats and snap their fingers at work. It is indeed becoming hard to stay indoors over a fascinating volume on ‘Economic Problems in Abyssinia.’” His personalized commencement week schedule described Class Day Exercises as “Deep Breathing, Flexing Biceps, Trunk Bending, and Skinning the Cat. This should give you a clue as to what happens to young men before they peddle bonds, etc.”

But life was about to get more complicated than Griswold or his classmates could have imagined. Prophetic of the economic disaster soon to strike, the 1929 class poem by Washington Dodge, 2d, began: “For one brief interlude we lived a dream, A golden dream that lingers still with Spring.”  the end


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