Yale University

Class Events

Dick Cavett '58 on Yale reunions

Dick Cavett wrote three pieces for The New York Times on attending his 55th Yale reunion, his 50th, and a Lincoln (Nebraska) High School reunion. Read them below.

Boola (breath) Boola

The New York Times

August 9, 2013

Are you going? I'm not sure. Are you?

My friend Chris Porterfield and I had tossed that ball back and forth for weeks.

Our Yale reunion.

Was it worth the increasing-year-by-year bad news of classmates and friends who were no longer with us? And of living ones to whom time and chance had happenethed to, badly?

Of yakking, cocktail-quaffing classmates, even more boring than we remembered them?

Having endured the common but bitter shock of visual reminders of our advancing age at earlier reunions, both high school and previous college ones, we'd decided and hoped that enough fun could be conjured up to rate the expense of time — and the expense — of going.

I arrived a day late. Checking into the hotel, it was nice to see in the lobby a few unrecognized classmates with their name badges on. They looked remarkably fit. In a virtual sitcom moment in the elevator, I was on the verge of congratulating two of them. They were definitely fit. They were also, alas, from an appreciably younger class, also reuniting that week.

 As with the high school reunion, the apparent age range of my contemporaries was dramatic. The changes in the Yale men were predictable: balding and acquired paunch.

By definition, it was a large number of men all the same age. But it was as if a casting director had been told by, say, Steven Spielberg, "I want by tomorrow a large crowd of male extras (and their wives), some looking 10 years older than their actual age and some looking 10 years younger. And, of course, toss in a few real shipwrecks."

The other contrast was between the gym-goers and those who don't. White hair was everywhere. (Mainly on heads, a comedian might say.) Is hair turning whiter sooner these days? Even at my earlier high school reunion, to look out from the stage over the crowd was to risk snowblindness.

Oddly, since we were Americans, I saw no shocking obesity. Most looked vigorous enough, with, here and there, a few walking wounded.

Laughed myself silly at dinner with my old friend and classmate David Adnopoz. We had been a sort of team in plays, musicals and scenes we did together for acting class, and we giggled foolishly, recalling on- and offstage mishaps that had dotted our theatrical careers in those four wonderful years.

Deliciously, we recalled an event that, in an age of vastly less erotic opportunity than is readily available to today's young folks, had a whopping impact, never to be forgotten. The play was Schnitzler's "La Ronde," which consisted of a progressive series of seductions.

In one of them, a gorgeous, pulchritudinous actress, who went on to bigger things in theater and films, chose to play her scene moving about on her knees in a bed, nekkid from the waist up.

Deftly, E. (one of her initials) managed to cheat the unsuspecting folks out front of even a glimpse of her twinned treasury, but there was full view from the stage-right wings.

Somehow every male in the cast — and crew members who could leave their posts — managed to coincide nightly, crowding and pushing, in that dark stage-right wing for that scene.

I can recall nothing that has happened to me since more vividly.
Again, remember that this was the late '50s, when undergraduate male virginity not only existed but was, in appalling contrast to today, rampant. Without categorizing myself, this counted heavily in our appreciation.

I doubt that a comparable bunch of healthy young fellows of today would stand there, as we did, going quietly mad.

It must have been wicked fun for E. "Do you think E. knows that we can see her breasts every night?" one piping, beardless, callow youth asked.

"Guess," I said. Correctly.

Is it sort of sad in a way that such an adventure couldn't really happen today, now that every sexual aspect, perversion, position and practice, normal and kinky, is — in living color and sharp focus — available to young folks of all ages from the time they're able to press computer keys?

I sometimes wonder how this may have affected the collective psyche. In those "old days" was there more or less sexual health? More or fewer batty Anthony Weiners and Bob Filners? I'd love to know.

Before the farewell breakfast on the sparkling, sunny last day there was a ceremony for the dead.

A chapel-like setting, a hundred or more attending. A brochure for the occasion contained the predictable shocks. Graduation photos with, ironically, lively and grinning faces of those who had — in that dreary euphemism – "passed away" since the last reunion, five years earlier.

I opened the booklet of those who had joined the silent majority, hoping for a minimum of shock. And there was Jim.

He was one of my freshman year roommates. He'd written to me in Nebraska during the summer before Yale, announcing himself as a roommate-to-be and inviting me to his home in Bronxville for a day and night before motoring with his parents to New Haven.

(I just remembered that when Jim's telegram arrived in Lincoln, he had the same last name as a famous comedian. I hoped, in vain, that he was Jim's dad.)

On another sparkling, gorgeous day — all but unheard-of in New Haven, Conn. — together, Jim and I stepped through Yale's Phelps Gate and into our new life.

His parents were always friendly and very nice to me, albeit a touch anti-Semitic. Jim, too. His wealthy Bronxville lawyer father noticeably so. This fact gave birth to a frequently remembered line in my earliest nightclub act, where I talked about all this. The line: "BronxVILLE has nothing to do with 'The Bronx.' [pause] Ever."

Jim was clever and we shared the odd gift of being able to ad-lib song lyrics with correct rhyming and scansion. More of a quirk than a gift.

Once, to the tune of "Davy Crocket," he improvised on the spot a song beginning, "Davy. Dave ben Gurion / King of the Hebrew hordes." I recall fully only one couplet: "He's writing to business friends in the states / They're sending him rifles in gefilte fish crates."

A talent that might have been put to better use.

Jim came wobbling back to our room one morning freshman year, bleary from an all-nighter of booze and poker.

He had just had an epiphany, he said. "I realize, from last night, that I'm capable of something I shall never allow to happen. I shall never allow myself to get swallowed up in a swamp of irresponsible drinking, card-playing and debauchery. I shall not flunk out, sacrificing the ability to say, for the rest of my life, 'I went to Yale.'"

The "went" part became true some months later when Jim flunked out. Owing to the above-named vices.

I never saw Jim again, but got one letter some years after graduation. He was living somewhere in Europe and announced his marriage. "I've changed a lot, as evidenced by the fact that I've married a Jewish girl. Mercy! What would Mom and Dad have said about their darling boy?"

At the memorial ceremony, as the names of the departed classmates were read, anyone who wanted to stood up and spoke about them. I told Jim's story. It got laughs and a nice approving murmur about his transformation.

A row of candles were lighted one at a time as each person was dealt with and spoken of. I can't have been the only person in that room wondering which of us might be candle-represented five years from now. Time to reread Philip Larkin's masterpiece on death, the poem "Aubade."

On the last night, at the class dinner in a big tent, we dined. And the Whiffenpoofs serenaded us. Against actuarial probability perhaps, all but a couple of the original 14 members (from my class) of this great a cappella group were there.

They sang the famous song, the great pitch and harmony required for membership in that elite group — as part of which you got to tour world capitals — still intact.

Finally, we all stood, arms around waists, and all together, swaying from side to side, rendered the famous words and melody. Right from the opening line, "From the tables down at Mory's…" there was lachrymosity among grown men.

I was sorry we didn't also sing the sentimental "Bright College Years," but heard that it had been sung earlier at an event I'd missed. At the end of that old heart-tugger you take out your hankie and wave it in sync with the ultimate words, about how nought can avail "to break the freh-eh-end-ships formed … at … Yale." Much eye-wiping was reported.

Yes, C. Porterfield and I decided, we were glad we went.

(We also agreed, emphatically, that we would like nothing more than to enter Phelps Gate again and do those golden four years over. Right through from the beginning.)

I guess the "cast" of any large school reunion will include certain stock characters: The Class Goof, still goofy; the Disappointedly Unremembered (a little acting required here); the Class Witless "Comic"; the Class Braying Jackass, whose intense, punishing, too-close-to-face conversation feels like a high-speed dental drill on an un-deadened molar; the still-at-it, almost-ducked Class Religious Bore, still with his wretched tracts.

Oh, and the oily flatterer who causes you to be late for something while he describes and presses upon you the manuscript of the 3-pound, 400-plus-page allegorical play he has written, if that is the right word.

An item that, were there were still incinerators, would keep mine humming merrily for an evening.

Unpleasant moments are inevitable, but assuaged, in a wistful way, by things like the discovery of an opportunity missed; meeting someone delightful whom you didn't know and realize you very much wish you'd gotten to know, way back then.

Instead of some you did. Like the members, across the hall, of that certain fraternity, who somehow managed to stumble into our room, just in time to vomit.

Someone said at the close of the dinner, "We hope you'll all come back five years from now. Those who can"; looking as if he might have phrased that better.

It was early evening, getting dark, and while I stood on the Old Campus, looking up at the window of my freshman room, ruminating on ancient events there with my roommates Jim, Karl Muller and Bob Leuze, a voice startled me from behind with, "Hey, you Dick Cavett?"

I couldn't make him out very clearly in the failing light, and for whatever reason I chose to deny it.

He went on, "Then how come you look so much like him? And sound like him?"

I said I didn't know. As he began to walk away, I thought why not give the poor guy a small thrill and said, "O.K., I am Dick Cavett."

"You wish," he replied, moving on.

Good to See You. Is It You?

The New York Times

June 13, 2008

Regarding full disclosure, dear reader, I feel I know you well enough by now to confide that, yes, it was at Yale that I myself learned what it means to be gay.

It was sophomore year and my friend — we'll call him David — and I were sitting side by side in front of a mirror, putting on make-up. (Shame on you. We were in a play.)

"I saw Will Geer this afternoon," he said. You may know him best from "The Waltons." Geer — a great character actor, heavily employed in movies and on stage and until heavily ruined by the blacklist in the '50s — was in a Broadway-bound musical at the Shubert Theater, right near Yale. "He was just strolling around the campus."

Jealous in my celebrity worship, I asked, "Did you actually talk to him?"

DA ["A" is for Adnopoz]: Yeah.

DC: What did you say?

DA: I said, "What brings you to the campus, Mr. Geer?"

DC: Go on. What did he say?

DA: He said, "Just lookin' at the boys."

DC [still fairly fresh from Nebraska]: What does that mean?

DA: He's gay.

DC: That's nice.

DA [laughs]

I hadn't meant it to be funny and wasn't man enough to admit I didn't get it. I realized I was missing something here, perhaps having to do with the word gay. Surprisingly, Cary Grant says it in "Bringing Up Baby," from 1938, but I didn't get it then either. But as in the case of any new word, suddenly it seemed to be everywhere.

David and I got to chortle over this and my other memories last week at our college reunion.

Yale '58. If you must know. I prefer to think of it as our second 25th.

I have still another friend, this one named Chris Porterfield. Roommates at Yale. He and I wrote "Cavett" together, he produced my show for a time, then he rose through the ranks of Time magazine. His two best traits are (a) he is smarter than I am and (b) despite this, he generally treats me as an equal.

Reunions can be deadly, we agreed. We had seen them. While still undergrads, we had looked disapprovingly on gray and graying old fellows from, say, the class of '23, red-faced and slopping their beverages and waxing both sentimental and drunk. Not for us, we vowed. And, if we went, we would avoid as many sing-alongs and ukulele hoedowns with up-tempo renderings of "Boola Boola" as we possibly could.

But we went, and I'm glad. It can be fun to see old acquaintances.

But not always. There are the ones you recognize and then there are the ones you don't, reminding us that time does not treat people equally. Back a ways, at a high school reunion (maybe my 15th?), there was the shock of seeing what had become of some of the women. Some who — back in school — would be among the last choices for the prom had blossomed into breath-stopping loveliness. Balanced, alas, by former beauties who had faded. At both reunions there seemed to be a wide range of ages, even though we were all, by definition, the same age. (Except for some vets who "went in" before college.)

There were no females at Yale when I was there, except visitors like Jane Fonda, who dated a Yalie and caused the rest of us to dream and drool. Ah, Jane and the damnable sound of her high heels clicking on the bathroom tiles above our room at hours beyond "lights out" caused us no end of pain in the lower regions.

Who could have dreamed back then, staring at her in the dining hall, that one day she would engender bags of hate mail for my show in the Vietnam days? Mme. Jane, whom the critic Kenneth Tynan called, in reviewing her Broadway debut in "Tall Story," "this febrile, coltish beauty." In an appearance I made at the reunion one evening I sinfully titillated the crowd by adding, after recalling Jane at Yale, "If you like trivia, Jane uses cherry-flavored chapstick. There won't be time for the rest of this story."

There were many classy-looking wives at the reunion, some of them second, third . . . and at least one fourth. (If at first, eh?)

Entering the class tent opening day, I used hat and glasses to stay unrecognized as long as possible so I could observe unnoticed. (Otherwise, being "famed" causes the "Heisenberg effect" to set in. You alter the game by becoming part of it. People start saying stuff like, "This wouldn't happen to you, of course, but…" — and you have tainted the conversational waters.

Something was wrong. I couldn't figure out why this large tentful of people was different. Then it hit. From where I stood, I could take in at least 70 people and, Mon Dieu!, no one was fat! ("No one" proved to be about 98 percent correct, but a far cry from the latest 40-ish figures the national averages have reached.) Better education leads to better eating? I welcome your opinion.

After a day or so, it hits you that the star of any reunion is Time. It suffuses everything from grayed hair to the sobering number of dead classmates, their faces beaming out from the pages of the classbook in their graduation pictures, with eager looks and hopeful smiles.

Looking at them brought no profundity of thought, but stuff like, "We look equally alive in our pictures, he and I, but he's not alive. Could it as easily have been me?" Then you notice that some have been dead for decades. But . . . uh-oh . . . most of those who are gone have died in the last few years. Even this year. All this brought to mind Philip Larkin's masterpiece, "Aubade." Do you know it?

The poem begins:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now . . .

Shameful as it is to admit, the thing I enjoyed most at the reunion was me. Perhaps I can explain. I was the "star" of the final night and experienced that treat you get too rarely in performing comedy where everything you do works. You are in the zone for sure . . . and you know it for a fact before you go onstage. You can guarantee you'll be good. You can feel it, and nothing can stop you.

As I walked onstage to the cliche expert's "tumultuous applause," the gods gave me my opening line. It was three days after the concession speech and I asked if anyone had had a TV on in the last half hour, knowing that they had all been at dinner. "A bulletin just now," I said. "Hillary Clinton is back in the race." (Pandemonium.)

It has to be said that in a beautiful theater setting, with a good mic and an audience that has "accepted" you from that other medium, it's pretty hard to bomb totally. But this reaction was extraordinary. I've talked to performers who've had this happen — big and small ones. No one claims it's frequent. I asked Groucho once how many times he had been euphoric in performance: where you laugh heartily at yourself along with everybody else, you're surprised and delighted at what comes out of your mouth, you feel you're in comedy heaven and wish you could stay forever, and you're repeatedly refreshed by glancing at the faces of people seemingly helpless with laughter. With surprising seriousness, Groucho answered, "It's a curious thing isn't it? It happens about a half dozen times in a career."

Once in a dress rehearsal of A. Miller's "The Crucible" I came on stage and became Rev. Hale, scaring the hell out of the other actors. Something almost erotic and not of my making had welled up inside me and exploded. It recalled Yeats's "… then awake / Ignorant what Dramatis personae spake."

"What happened to you out there? How did you do that?" people said. The devil of it is that unless you are born Marlon Brando or a lesser great actor, you only get it now and then — and, unlike Mr. B., you can't turn it on whenever you feel like it.

I'll stop here for now, partly because I may be getting a bit weird for your tastes and because I'm afraid that if I try to deal with a startling story I heard at the reunion, I'll botch it. I need more info and checking. It's a story that contains those delightful elements that make any story a whole lot of fun: espionage and murder.

Or would you rather not hear about it?

Hel-LO! You're … Who Again?

The New York Times

June 14, 2013

It takes a certain amount of guts to go to your class reunions.

Particularly when your graduation ceremonies — from high school and from college — are about a half-century back in time. There are too many reminders of "Time's wing'ed chariot."

By the time I signed up for the first high school reunion I went to I had become a "television personality." A fact that skewed the otherwise normalcy of the occasion.

I couldn't wait. What would my classmates' behavior be? Adoring? Awed? Fawning? Pointedly unimpressed?

Would I have the almost surreal experience of actually signing autographs for my classmates? (Yes.)

I blush now to recall how I fantasized what the impact would be of my grand entrance into a milling, partying crowd of those classmates. When it happened, the effect was enough to gratify even an excessive ego. I could immediately see, "He's here!" "He came!" and "There's Dick" on numerous lips.

More confession, this one a bit cringe-making:

What I was feeling, irrationally and way too strongly, it took a moment to identify. It was: why couldn't this famousness have been true back then, when I felt socially inept and awkward with girls? Then would Barbara Britten have gone out with me?

I was partly embarrassed by it all and partly struck with myself. I felt a bit like Bob Hope in a period comedy, stepping out of a carriage to an adoring crowd, with, "I wonder what the dull people are doing."

Not an entirely pretty sight, self-adoration-wise.

Working into the crowd at the Legion Hall, I tried to make eye contact whenever possible. When I was able to actually pluck a name from memory, the reaction was almost embarrassing.

I saw a guy named Berwyn Jones not far away and mouthed his first name through the din, an easy name to read at a distance. "YES!" he mouthed back, pleased as punch. His delight was touching.

Of course there had to be at least one instance of the inevitable. A guy deep in his cups, with a redwood-size chip on his shoulder, shoved at me a big glass of scotch: "I bought you this drink."

"A few sips of wine are my limit," I said politely.

"So I guess you're too damn good to have a drink with a nobody like me?"

Thank goodness, I suppressed anything like, "You're getting close to the truth," as his embarrassed wife led him away.

A surprising thing began to come clear. The girls I'd known long ago in school were now of two distinct sorts. Some of the prettiest had become with time, um, less so. But some who back then would have been, in the awful phrase, "desperation dates" had miraculously blossomed, with time. Into lovely and appealing women.

Time giveth and time taketh away.

A startling piece of news. One of the queens of my class — a beauty and a "big wheel" whom I had deemed a goddess too far above me by half to even speak to — had landed up a divorced mother of three, toiling as a waitress in a roadhouse cafe in Texas. My mind ran to Ecclesiastes' "Time and chance happeneth to them all."

Adonises from my class were fat and balding.

And I still felt inferior to them, as I had way back then. Until winning a state gymnastics championship assuaged any wimp factor floating about.

Quite a few Lincoln High reunions went by, at five-year intervals, before I ventured again.

This time, maybe a decade or so ago, there were only a couple of classmates in the registration room. One said, "You don't recognize us, but we know who you are."

Then I saw it.

A large bulletin board panel displayed rows of 8 x 10 photos of some of our classmates. The shock was immediate. They were those who had — as the world's favorite euphemism puts it — passed away. Even as a kid I wondered, is "passed away" better than being dead? Away to what? Or where? (I still wonder.) There was poor Tom H. and unlucky Ted P. — a car crash — and, oh, no! Not Sally L.!

Too many rows of them grinned out at us from their old, beaming graduation photos, faces full of life and eager promise.

Arriving at Lincoln's Cornhusker Hotel a little late for that night's big dinner, I was greeted by the cheery lady at the desk: "Mr. C., you'll find your classmates at the bottom of that escalator."

"Still standing, I hope," I said. I was Bob Hope again.

From just a little way down the escalator, looking at the people below entering the big dining room, I saw that the nice lady had clearly misdirected me.

There were several events in the Cornhusker that night and this one was obviously one for old folks. An elderly wife helped a lame husband.

And yet there amid the elderly, was that not Karen Rauch, looking great as ever? What event was Karen attending with what looked like elderly relatives?

I didn't get it.

I ran the few steps back up against the tide of the torpid escalator and said to the woman at the desk, "I think you sent me wrong. That looks like a reunion of The Early Settlers Club."

"That's your class, " she said. "I guess that's what happens."

Noticeable shock. Poetry came again. "Time, that subtle thief of youth" ran in my head.

These oldies were me, and I was them.

The strangest part of the aging factor is that, as with suffering, people don't experience it equally.

A goodly number looked recognizably as they had in high school. Others, like those people's parents. The ages seemed to range a decade or more above and below what, by definition, our common age really was.

It was as if the casting department had been told by a movie director, "I need a few hundred extras who graduated high school in the '50s. Throw in the usual number of good-lookers, some not so well preserved. And, of course, toss in a few shipwrecks."

Another bad moment happened. Some parents had been invited and I said to a man whose badge said, let's say, Jim Parks. "Young Jim and I were in French class together," said I. His face changed.

You guessed it. This was young Jim. My brow hottens, just typing this. I've almost gotten over it.

Then there's hair.

In high school, white hair was on the teachers.

Now — to put it rudely — to look out over the audience was to risk snow blindness.

There were side events, including a walking tour of our old high school. Seeing again the old corridors, lockers, and even drinking fountains exhumed long-lost memories. Like the time poor Leland (last name gone) during a fire drill, while the deafening siren drowned any talk or sound, decided to scream, "HI, DICKIE!"

I should have only seen, not heard, this. But in the instant between Leland's intake of breath and his deafening scream, the siren had stopped. His scream had no competition. Leland seemed to shrink about five sizes. I was weak with laughter.

Every head turned as Leland was taken somewhere.

Suddenly, there was my picture. Part of an "L.H.S. Hall of Fame." My fellow "successes" were largely in business or state politics, I gathered — except for me and a pretty blond. My friend Sandy Dennis — yes, that one. Also departed.

Now, sex.

I still can't reconcile my guiltless world in grades 7 though 9, when sex was only rumored, at least for me. There's no avoiding "How times have changed."

In an earlier column I wrote about the variously worded newspaper headlines that year reporting, as one put it, "Fellatio on Junior High Bus — While Others Cheered." Would my Welsh Baptist minister grandfather — upon being informed what the key word meant — have expired on the spot?

Considering that naughty trick of Mama Nature's of endowing the male with his sexual peak at ages 14 to 16, the question becomes why — with virginity now a rarity in high school — don't way more than the few in my graduating class knock (or get knocked) up? Or do they? Keep your answer brief and to the point.

A group of us had opted for the tour of our old school's halls. The sharp young principal ultimately led us to a certain door in the "new section." It was inset and locked, so only a pair of people at a time could peer in the window.

Coming away, they looked puzzled.

My turn came. It was a room that looked like a large kiddies' toy store, all in bright colors with everything padded to prevent injury: tiny tricycles, fluffy, short ladders for climbing, and enough stuff to supply a sizable number of small people with playthings. People guessed at its purpose.

A woman asked if it was a nice charity project where poor kids could come and play.

I don't think anyone guessed the correct answer.

It was for the children of the students of Lincoln High School. There was a collective intake of breath.

Surely a boon for teenage day-care needers.

I haven't been to another L.H.S. reunion. I'm not sure why, but I have an odd theory.

Could it be an irrational fear of walking in to that registration room on Day One and — in a moment out of "The Twilight Zone" — discovering my own picture on the "Those Who Have Left Us" wall?

(Cue theremin music.)