Does Yale really rule the world, and does anyone care? With only half the endowment of Harvard, it makes up the difference in Gothic architectural mystique and pure president’s-alma-mater hauteur. But this fall, Old Blue’s dirty underwear is hanging out to dry: There’s a probing investigation of the two-century-old brotherhood of Skull and Bones, G.W. Bush’s ticket to success, and a new movie about Porn ‘n’ Chicken, a Yale club dedicated to two simple propositions: “Fried chicken tastes great. And porn is video of people having sex with each other.”
A closer look at Skull and Bones and Porn ‘n’ Chicken reveals strong, if hidden, ties between the two seemingly disparate operations that threaten to unseat the Yale myth once and for all. “It’s the ultimate conspiracy theory,” laughs ’68 graduate and New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum, who has investigated Bones for the last 25 years. The hidden similarities between CIA directors and shadowy Trilateral Commissioners on the one hand, and a bunch of kids with greasy fingers on the other, signal a shift in America’s definition of success.
September’s Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power, by journalist Alexandra Robbins, quickly became a campus bestseller. Robbins promised the first definitive look inside the world’s most famous undergraduate organization, a clandestine fraternity that connects such WASPy machers as William Howard Taft, Henry Luce, John Kerry, and George Bush père et fils. Robbins, class of 1998, was a member of Scroll and Key, Yale’s second-oldest secret society; she tells the Voice that she left its name out of the book because “I didn’t think it was important.” She used her Yale connections to talk to over 100 Skull and Bones members, yet the result reads less like an exposé than a brochure for wannabe Bonesmen.
Most of the “secrets” of Secrets consist of tedious descriptions of the furnishing of the Tomb (the Bones’ private clubhouse) and hoary rituals stretching back to 1833, the year the society was founded by opium heir William H. Russell. And when it gets to the good stuff—the consolidation and transmission of influence in this country—Robbins pulls her punches. A chapter entitled “The Network” fleshes out the accusation that George W. Bush rode his daddy’s coattails. “[W.] had his press secretary say to me, ‘Skull and Bones is just one of those things that should stay secret,’ ” Robbins recalls. “Publicly he distances himself, but privately he relies on those connections.” After 20 pages of solid investigation—Bonesmen smoothed W.’s way into college, handed both Bushes business opportunities, invested heavily in their campaigns—Robbins sums up as though describing an efficient telecommunications technology: “While the Bush family is certainly Skull and Bones’ most powerful political dynasty, other prominent Bonesmen have also effectively taken advantage of the Bones network.” “I didn’t want anyone to accuse me of not being fair on any side,” Robbins says, displaying a moral neutrality familiar from her subject, Dubya—another insider masquerading as a just-folks outsider.
This coziness with her topic also undermines what should be the most absorbing pages—a peek inside the Bones initiation. For years, rumors have swirled around what really happens when 15 juniors are inducted into Bones on a Saturday night in April. Memorably, Universal’s 2000 schlockfest The Skulls depicted a Bones initiation ritual with a Mafia-style abduction-murder and a bloody ceremony in an all-white, Bond-villain lair. In April 2001, Rosenbaum published a more believable, though still sensational, account in the Observer. Rosenbaum says he felt like an outsider at Yale, a public-school-educated Jew adrift in the halls of WASP privilege. He has been writing about his fascination with the secrets of Bones since 1977. Last spring, with the help of students and an array of night-vision cameras and hidden mics, he recorded the Bones courtyard from the roof of a neighboring dorm. The tape captured many un-p.c. statements (e.g., “Please take that plunger out of my ass!”) and a staged throat-slashing tableau.
Though Robbins repeats all the hot details, which generally coincide with her own descriptions (including a cranium-shaped container filled with red Kool-Aid), she blithely discredits Rosenbaum’s scenario, calling it “far from authentic” based on the statements of Bonesmen. “We just wanted to fuck with that prick,” one told her.
“Can you say ‘reckless disregard for the truth’? Might [her Bones source] have been a bit self-interested in his claim?” Rosenbaum wrote, incensed that Robbins had contradicted his documentary evidence (backed up by sources close to both Bonesmen and students involved in the filming). Of course, given the threats Robbins says she has received from Bonesmen angry at her prying (“There are a lot of us at newspapers. . . . Good luck with your career”), perhaps fear—not incompetence—led her to obscure the story.
Speaking of penetration into hidden places, Comedy Central’s first feature film, Porn ‘n Chicken, premiered last month and is in periodic reruns. In a manner to be expected from the Man Show network, it dramatizes the real-life exploits of four 2001 graduates—porn impresarios, James Ponsoldt, Joshua Newman, Colin Spoelman, and William Marino. In the spring of 2001, news leaked that uptight Yalies were going to make like Larry Flynt, creating a media feeding frenzy that stretched from The New York Times to MTV. The only scene ever shot of the PnC club’s porno, The Staxxx, was destroyed, but by graduation the guys had an agent and a treatment written for a real film, this one telling the story of their lives.
“Frankly, it sucked,” Newman tells the Voice of his shot at cable immortality, ranking it “somewhere below Porky’s Revenge.” As many disappointed reviewers noted, Porn ‘n Chicken featured only brief nudity; its zingy exposition wilted into college-comedy clichés involving corrupt, nasty administrators, and the importance of finding yourself.
Did Porn ‘n’ Chicken, in any of its incarnations, exploit women? The Comedy Central character of “Polly Morphous,” a feisty bisexual feminist and budding porn star, was partially based on a woman in the class of 2002 whom the male founders of PnC filmed in the library, in a lesbian scene involving a strap-on and fisting. (She played an initiate into a secret society.) This woman was one of the only PnC members to be quoted under her own name in the campus papers, while others used handles like “Dallas Everhard” and “Sweet Jimmy the Benevolent Pimp.” A self-proclaimed sex activist, she described the porn performance to the Yale Daily News “as a sort of self-challenge,” a very public way to confront “a personal history of fear and shame.”
But not long after The Staxxx filming session, the real Polly was cut out of the picture. Reporters, nearly all of them men, covered the four founding PnC fathers with a wink and a slap on the back—Time‘s Joel Stein even brought porn star Sydney Steele to a PnC meeting—without mentioning the woman who had done the dirty work. When it was time to make a deal with Comedy Central, the guys all received associate producer credits; the girl didn’t even get money for her life rights. (She refused to be interviewed for this article.)
Even without a secret handshake or ties to the Rockefellers, the boys with boners are profiting from their self-made network. Currently Newman, the “producer” of The Staxxx, who started and sold two tech companies and became a venture capitalist while still an undergraduate, is CEO of Cyan Pictures, an independent film production company on Park Avenue; Spoelman is his VP of finance; Ponsoldt, a Columbia film student and a camera intern on Porn ‘n Chicken, directed Cyan’s first film over the summer, a short about Oxy-Contin addiction in Appalachia entitled Coming Down the Mountain.
Porn ‘n’ Chicken, it emerges, is nothing less than Skull and Bones: the Next Generation. After all, sex, self-promotion, media savvy, and entertainment have far more allure these days than death, secrecy, obscurity, and politics. “Every few months,” Newman confesses to the Voice, “I head over to the Yale Club to watch old men in tweed jackets with corduroy elbow patches drink scotch and ramble about . . . the fun time they had last weekend on Buckley’s yacht. Half of me is terrified I’m slowly turning into them, and the other half is secretly hoping I am.” Conspiracy theories may come and go, but the transmission of power, man to man, is still an open secret.