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March 29 2013
Sex & Low Beach
by Whitney Wei
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The question is not whether you are a New Yorker, but which New York you live in. The same could be said of the Ivy League: You go to Columbia, but which Columbia do you go to? This is not exclusively a matter of address, but that is a good place to start. The most elite version of Columbia can be found at 434 Riverside Drive, where roughly 20 Columbia undergraduates live in an ornate four-story building that has been privately owned since 1899. This selection of students are members of the fraternity Saint Anthony Hall, better known as St. A’s.
St. A’s is one of three secret societies at Columbia. The other two—the Sachems and Nacoms—are comprised of seniors who are “tapped” among campus leaders. St. A’s, on the other hand, has a storied reputation for choosing members from the moneyed internationals and card-carrying WASPs of the undergraduate population.
But while St. A’s might have secrets, it is only a secret society to a limited degree. In fact, St. A’s benefits from its aura of exclusion and elitism.
The society is well-known for curating a selection from the masses to stand in the house’s ballroom—whose chandelier you might recognize from the cover of Vampire Weekend’s first album—and mingle among them. And who can blame them? There would be little satisfaction to be gained from membership in an isolated, anonymous elect.
A society based not on merit, but on wealth, is not inherently unethical. But for a journalist to honor St. A’s’ request for absolute secrecy—when “The Membership” insists on placing not a heavy curtain between itself and the rest of the school, but the equivalent of a flimsy, plastic shower curtain—contradicts the way its members have chosen to move through our university community.
Having a secret society is one matter, but St. A’s is not that. Rather, it is a quasi-exclusive society that is not a secret, but insists on perpetuating an aura of having secrets. It hosts parties for the public, but discriminates against that public with a strict door policy. It generally does not contribute to the Columbia community, and in fact excludes itself from that community. It refuses to speak to the press, and thanks to a bit of legalese appending its emails, restricts this reporter from quoting the two no-comment emails penned by Taylor Sanders, a Columbia College senior, which were sent to The Eye.
But St. A’s provides no compelling reason to respect its request for complete secrecy. It gives the press no choice but to rely on secondhand sources, who would not bother (and why would they?) to paint the organization in a positive light: ex-girlfriends, students who were tapped by the society but refused membership, students who were chosen but dropped out, anyone who crossed the threshold of The Hall to play champagne pong in the last four years, and members of ADP, Columbia’s other “literary” fraternity, whose leadership happily agreed to a lengthy interview in “The Moose Room” of its brownstone. These are their stories.
“Well, they have to pay for the Asian slave in the basement,” says Jessica*, a Columbia College junior and an ADP affiliate. “He does all their laundry,” adds Graham*, a Columbia College senior and also an ADP affiliate. The two friends exchange a glance. “You do know about the Asian slave living in the basement?”
I had asked if they’d heard any rumors about the yearly dues for St. A’s. I already knew that a personal chef prepares meals for all members of the fraternity, even for those who don’t live in the house. At the time, I also believed that calling St. A’s “just nice off-campus housing with its own meal plan”—as an anonymous member of the society told The Eye in 2007—was not wholly inaccurate.
I didn’t know the urban legend of St. A’s’ “Asian slave.” Or did I?
Two weeks ago, Marianne, a Barnard junior whom multiple sources identify as a member of St. A’s, posted a short film on her public Vimeo account titled “Gaby.” The video follows a lone man as he cleans various large rooms in “The Hall.” One sees the fraternity-esque billiards room with the 1020-style opaque green lampshades and the soft yellow (“an apt white” that offsets “the carpet, a tattered oriental,” to quote the Eye reporter who was allowed inside the house) ballroom with white crown molding and a grand piano.
The second half of the video adds a soundtrack recorded from a large social gathering or party. The viewer understands the loud chatter as having been previously recorded in the rooms “Gaby” has just meticulously dusted with a rag.
As the description of Marianne's Vimeo posting states, the film was a creative assignment for an architecture class at Barnard. According to a source also in the class, when Marianne presented the work, she refused to acknowlege her affiliation with St. A’s, though she confirmed that the man in the video is the cleaner of 434 Riverside. She said that although she knew the cleaner personally, she herself was not part of the society. “We’re friends,” she explained.
This half-truth undoubtedly curried favor with viewers and made the implied social contrast in the film less uncomfortable. Even if it was merely an attempt to protect St. A’s, it enabled Marianne to effectively attenuate her already significant position of privilege as a Barnard student. Matriculation is, for many students at Columbia, only the very tip of an expensive education. Marianne is no exception, having been schooled at the Lycée Français de New York, which counts among its students the Jolie-Pitt clan and Madonna’s daughter Lourdes.
The videographer’s association with St. A’s makes the clip all the more problematic, or naïve, depending on one’s sympathies: There is no mistaking the discrepancy between sound (leisure activities of the rich) and image (the cleanup left to others, who are not invited to the party) in the footage as a criticism of class difference. The viewer’s interpretation of this sharp juxtaposition blurs with the knowledge that “Gaby” is cleaning up after the presenter herself. Or perhaps they really are friends.
“You don’t mean slave?” I venture tentatively.
Noting the look on my face, he continues. “Regardless of whether you believe the story, the point is they have live-in help.” Graham pauses. “In their frat.”
In 2007, The Eye reported that the yearly nonresidential dues for St. A’s members were $5,200. (To this day, the cost of living in the house has still not been officially reported.) It is difficult to judge the accuracy of this statement, not because the student being interviewed for the article chose “Bunny Money” as her pseudonym (and talked incessantly about the “Cornish hen” prepared for their “luncheon”), but because she alleged, among other facts, that old squash courts were on the roof of 434 Riverside.
The ADP contingent laughs when I bring up the courts, and Jessica flips through her iPhone to show me photos she has from parties on the roof. The author of the original Eye story did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication; it is impossible to determine who supplied her with the price of dues, and whether or not that source was trustworthy. As a point of reference, the dues for ADP are $600 a year, plus an initial $300 as a one-time induction fee. “We can keep our dues really, really low,” Graham says, “because we don’t throw our money to dumb ice sculptures.”
A photo of St. A’s’ own John*, a Columbia College senior descended from the namesake of a Columbia building, licking a swan ice sculpture surfaces in my brain. (It can be found on the public Instagram account of a fellow St. A’s member.) I let the dig slide.
“At the end of the day, we’re students,” Graham explains. “We’ve never had a champagne fountain. We drink box wine.”
Columbia: Diversity University?
Then again, St. A’s is the least of the story when one wants to explore the history of rich kids at Columbia. The society counts only around 30 students in its membership, which is about 0.5 percent of the Columbia undergraduate community.
Certainly, a partial roster of high schools attended by those current members of St. A’s who were confirmed by sources includes a remarkably high proportion of elite secondary schools: Andover, Exeter, Choate, Trinity, St. Paul’s (a New Hampshire boarding school), Rye Country Day (located in Westchester,
the second wealthiest county in New York state), St. Paul’s Girls’ School (in London), and the Cate School (a day and boarding school in California).
But you do not need to be a member of St.A’s to find yourself sipping Cristal on a Thursday night at Columbia. In 2006, the Blue and White smartly noted that the “makeup [of Sachems and Nacoms] is diverse in the way Columbia is, which is to say, sort of.” Even a society that selects based on merit is drawing from a financially privileged undergraduate pool.
That the University would rather we didn’t quantify just exactly how privileged our undergraduate population is makes the socioeconomic landscape surprisingly difficult to determine. Federal Pell Grants, a key indicator of socioeconomic diversity, are awarded to students whose parental income totals less than $40,000. Twenty-nine percent of Columbia’s student body uses Pell Grants to pay for its tuition—surprisingly, the highest percentage among Ivy League schools.
In an online profile of the class of 2016 (aggregated for admissions purposes), the University tells us that 56 percent of the class is on some form of financial aid. Given the possible range of coverage from student to student, this statistic is fairly worthless. It does not
by any means suggest that 56 percent of students are “poor”—however that might be defined—since many students remain eligible for some financial aid even if their annual family incomes amount to $200,000.
It’s more helpful to analyze the inverse statistic: 44 percent of the freshman class is on no financial aid whatsoever. Columbia estimates that it costs $61,642 to attend the University as a full-time student each year. It makes sense, then, that a large portion of the student body comes from prestigious private schools, though this is not to say that private school-graduates are exclusively wealthy.
Director of Communications for Columbia College Sydney Gross wrote to say that the College does not release the number of students who were privately educated before Columbia, and only after some prompting would The Office of Undergraduate Admissions say that “the majority of Columbia students have attended public high schools.” One can estimate the numbers of private school-graduates, though, by looking at the websites of prestigious feeder schools, which often list where their graduating seniors have matriculated.
In just two academic years (2010-2012), Exeter sent 34 graduates to Columbia and eight to Barnard, making Columbia the most popular destination for Exonians. Choate, a boarding school in Connecticut, has sent 40 students to Columbia and Barnard over the past five years. St. Paul’s sent 20 students to Barnard, Columbia College, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science from 2008 to 2011.
But it’s the LA day school Harvard-Westlake that takes the honors, with 64 students who chose to attend any of the three undergraduate colleges between 2008 and 2012.
Private schools in Manhattan continue a long tradition of filling the University coffers. Over five years**, Columbia accepted 28 from Dalton, 24 from Trinity, and 22 from the all-female Brearley. Collegiate, the elite boys’ school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has sent seven students in the last four years. Among them is author Thomas Pynchon’s son, Jackson, a Columbia College senior who was tapped by St. A’s, but is no longer formally associated with the organization. He did not return a request for an interview.
It’s clear that St. A’s cannot base its claim to cool on the wealth of its membership alone. After all, of the many relatively wealthy kids at Columbia, only a tiny fraction makes up its ranks.
Is it fair, then, to exclusively target St. A’s as a hub of obnoxiously entitled kids at Columbia? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.
According to multiple sources, the president of St. A’s is Cristian, a Columbia College senior. He told an online style blog that he “doesn’t have a Facebook,” and rejects a public persona in favor of a “low profile.” (No matter that his pictures are all over the party photography database of Patrick McMullan Company.) He goes on to insist that one must never spend less than $100 on a pair of shoes, because “you absolutely cannot fake good construction.” His father, a Columbia alumnus, is a managing director at Goldman Sachs.
St. A’s dads are always “generic banking types,” Graham tells me, “just like our [his and my] parents are ‘generic lawyer types,’” he added.
“There’s a difference between being a kid in the trappings of wealth and inhabiting what it means to be evil-wealthy,” Matthew* tells me, rolling his eyes. “They’re all young, there’s nothing there.”
Matthew graduated from Columbia in spring 2012, but occasionally heads back to his alma mater for the Thursday night parties and to visit friends in the house. “There’s nothing to find,” Matthew insisted to me when we first sat down for drinks near his rent-controlled apartment downtown. “It’s just a bastion of privilege.”
“It isn’t really a secret society, or a literary society, or anything,” Calvin*, a Columbia College junior from England who occasionally dons a suit and heads to a St. A’s party, tells me sarcastically. “They want to think they aren’t a frat, but they’re a frat.”
I said I wasn’t so sure.
Calvin conceded that St. A’s is a fraternity in the same vein that ADP, the other coed literary fraternity, is. Then he added that ADP “is probably cooler though—they don’t need to keep you out of their party to ignore you.”
Jessica confirmed a rumor that St. A’s has recently been poaching pledges from them. But even though she openly admits to double-tapping between the two societies, Jessica is quick to point out that ADP “has an open rush to the public that lasts three weeks.” Information about rushing is available on its website. Its parties, too, are open to the public. ADP might be selective, but anyone can rush. More than once, if they so desire.
“St. A’s-ey people are the kind of people who, in their opinion, deserve to be there,” Victor*, a Parisian sophomore, tells me of their parties. “And you—a nonmember—are there because there are merciful gods.” Victor was tapped but didn’t see the point in accepting a bid when he could attend the parties anyway.
A Columbia alum from the ’90s responded to an email query with a quip: “The A stood for ‘assholes,’ of course.” But even if they are assholes, that doesn’t mean their parties are “a bunch of kids throwing money in the air and snorting coke off each other’s stomachs,” said Calvin.
Well, maybe not their stomachs.
A Barnard alumna—a former dancer who still wears a top-bun that flatters an immaculate set of cheekbones—met me in Chinatown to talk about a fling she had with a member of the house her freshman year. She recounted a night when “they started snorting cocaine off a mirror in the chandelier room.”
But that was in 2007, a mere year after The Fed—then more of an alt-weekly—ran the piece “Coke: Who Snorts What?” The subhead on the article? “Why You’ve Heard About St. A’s and Cocaine.”
I asked her if she liked the people she met at St. A’s. Answer: Not as much as they liked each other. “He was so obsessed with being a member, it was a cult to him,” she says of her former paramour. “He thought everyone at CU was inferior,” she said, and he had “no interest in anyone from the outside—unless someone was sleeping with someone else.”
Their affair didn’t last, and she didn’t speak to any members of the house for the next four years. “They would see me at 1020 and ignore me. It was as if I never existed, they never knew me, they didn’t know my name.”
From the first St. A’s party testimonial, I began to see why one might be unable, or unwilling, to suppress the urge to steal something: a combination, perhaps, of assumed wealth on the part of the hosts— thrown into relief by the stocked bar and catered plates of food—and the obscene boredom of their guests getting ignored.
“Colossal reward, no questions asked, for retrn [sic] of persian rug, with inestimable personal value, stolen from St. Anthony Hall Valentine Dance,” reads a 1978 classifieds ad placed in Spectator.
Fourteen years later, Spectator proffers up a bit of déjà vu: “REWARD for the return of grey-tweed overcoat taken from St. A’s Valentine Party. No Questions asked.”
Times haven’t changed: A recent Columbia alumnus said his friends stole “a dumb, small (like, 8-by-10) drawing” off the wall at a St. A’s party their sophomore year. They were frequent guests of the house.
“I received an invitation to one of their ‘cocktail parties,’” Rachel Valinsky, a 2012 Columbia graduate, wrote in an email. Valinsky is from Paris, “so maybe they assumed I was rich and fabulous?” But she found herself to be more of a prop than a welcomed guest. “I was specifically not allowed to bring a plus one, and by the end of the night still had no idea what the whole thing was about.”
Sophie Abramowitz, a 2011 Barnard graduate, attended a party at the house once, too. Abramowitz remembers “a projector playing moving pictures of a beach on a loop. I think someone was playing the piano? It was depressing, so I left.” It was a birthday party for some nonmembers of St. A’s, “which maybe explains why they weren’t drinking gold-flaked tequila and laughing uproariously like I’d imagined.”
St. A’s provides your typical frat experience “with better ambience,” said Gideon*, a Columbia College senior. “The parties consist of standing around, smoking in the billiards room, and staring at each other like idiots.” Or else, staring at masses of red balloons festooning the ceiling of the chandelier room, as I imagine the guests last week did for their annual Valentine’s Day Party.
As with any college party, the wild St. A’s soirée is probably less decadent than what one might imagine, but the imaginings are still amusing. Is it absurd to think these students would “[toss] caviar at people on the sidewalk,” as one anonymous Bwog commenter joked?
In light of an incident six years ago, this jab loses its flavor. As the 2007 Eye article reports, after a St. A’s “tea party,” two members of the society were questioned by the police for allegedly throwing a heavy gin tumbler from the second-floor balcony at someone and shouting “fucking faggot!” The victim of the sexual slur identified one of the perpetrators as “a former president” of the society.
It’s hard to say whether St. A’s is cleaning up its ways because it’s keeping its activities on lockdown.
In short, St A’s parties are “lame and boring and they don’t want you to know,” Calvin*, the English junior, told me laughing, as we finished up our interview. Does he still go? “Of course,” came the inevitable answer.
The Myth of St. A’s
A strict door policy does not a good party make. It’s a tactic designed to keep out those undesirables who will ruin the party with their unwantedness, and, as an added form of entertainment for those inside, to increase the desire of the interlopers to gain entry.
A secret party—which sounds like an oxymoron, except for when dealing with St. A’s—is not the same as a party with a bouncer. St. A’s prefers the latter, possibly because, even if the party sucks, the host can at least turn to a guest and revel in its exclusivity.
But luckily for us losers, there’s a tautology helping us to sleep at night: A bad party is a bad party. The booze at St. A’s might be fancy and free, but at the end of the day, a frat party is a frat party, subject to the same standards of fun as, well, life.
Which is to say: St. A’s is smart to stay silent. Even a half-hearted attempt at secrecy, coupled with exclusivity, is enough to imbue the society with an aura of cool. It would be quite difficult—even if the house were now filled with, dare I say it, moneyed kids forever tethered to the résumés of their parents, rather than true, Withnail-type characters—to put even a dent in the well-shellacked myth of St. A’s.
One cannot make casual mention of the society without hearing of its legendary initiation rituals: Pledges may or may not have to prove their loyalty—and, perhaps more importantly, access to cash flow— by burning a plane ticket to China, throwing two-carat diamonds in the Hudson, or smashing a Rolex.
The image of a burning plane ticket undoubtedly lost its full impact when the world went the way of the e-ticket; The same is true of St. A’s itself. The current crop of St. A’s kids seems to be struggling to embody a persona that, frankly, might be on the wrong side of history.
This explains why, in just the last five years, the society has been slowly going underground, at least in terms of press coverage. Today, we certainly wouldn’t see a blind item like this one, which ran in Spectator in 1989:
“‘We’d like three bartenders for our party this Saturday night,’ said the St. Anthony Hall member to the Columbia Bartending Services representative on the other end of the line. ‘And make them the THREE HOTTEST BABES YOU HAVE.’”
St. A’s was always aloof, but a tolerated throwback to a bygone era of the Ivy League—like the faded patches on an aging professor’s only tweed blazer; one that, if unfashionable, still existed within the larger fabric of the University.
If St. A’s isn’t leaving our community any time soon, then Columbia journalists should at least get the opportunity to lampoon them. I, for one, would have also liked to publish this quote in Spectator, which ran in 1989:
“[There] was Jeff Rake with his sweetheart from Penn, Torrey (“That’s two ‘r’s honey.”) at the St. A’s party. Come on Jeff do you really have to import?”
Or to end my last column for Spectator with this anecdote, as Alexandra Kuczynski—the New York Times reporter—did in 1990:
“On my way to the bar, a perennially drunk member of St. A’s sidled up to me, slid his arm around my waist and said, ‘Hey Toots, nice outfit.’”
It’s up to The Eye, Spectator, the Blue and White, Bwog, and other publications to get St. A’s—in all its glory, imagined or otherwise—visible within the community again.
St. A’s can pretend all it wants that it’s not a part of Columbia. But the reporting community here exists to remind us of certain truths, like the fact that St. A’s members are still in college.
Just like us.
*Names have been changed for privacy purposes.
**Trinity and Dalton numbers are from 2007 to 2011; Brearley numbers are from 2008 to 2012.
With additional reporting by Peter Sterne.
A letter to the editor responding to this article can be read here.
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