Ian K. Smith's latest book, "The Ancient Nine," draws on his days when he was "punched" for one of Harvard's elite final clubs - traditionally all-male clubhouses situated in mansions on Harvard Square that hold secrets and antiquities. (Per Smith, members have included Matt Damon, T.S. Eliot, Bill Gates, President John F. Kennedy, President Theodore Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst.)
In the novel, Spenser Collins is a member of the class of '91, a native of Chicago's South Side and pre-med student with some very legacied friends. When he's not studying or playing for the Harvard basketball team, he tries to charm an independent young woman who works on campus. Then Collins is selected to join the Delphic (aka The Gas) - a club created by J.P. Morgan Jr. Collins is set on a path of privilege unseen by many and winds up trying to solve a centuries-old murder at the club's core.
Although "The Ancient Nine" is fiction, Smith says this - his 16th book - is the most autobiographical of any of his works because the main character was based on his experience of being accepted into Delphic Club.
"A lot of the character's actions, how he gets in the club, his background is autobiographical," Smith said. "I really wanted to keep it as close to my experience as possible, because I thought my experience was quite unique. There were maybe three other blacks in my club at the time, so it was very few of us. Very few of us got punched to join, and - true to the story - I don't know why I got punched, because I was completely antithetical to what a club person is: I didn't come from money, I wasn't a legacy, my family didn't winter in Florida. ... (I)t really is autobiographical in how this character is kind of a fish out of water and then stumbles upon this mystery as he's asked to join this society."
The exclusionary nature of Harvard's clubs has garnered media attention throughout the years - most recently when three final clubs decided to go co-ed and seek formal recognition from Harvard rather than face sanctions imposed by the university. Smith, who started writing and researching "The Ancient Nine" while a senior at Harvard, thought now was the time to release his book.
"When I was a senior, I decided I wanted to tell this story one day. I didn't know when ... so for 25-plus years, I have been tweaking, researching, adding, and then last year there was this big controversy on campus about the university trying to close, disband, open up - somehow influence these clubs."
The Tribune talked to Smith recently while he was in town; this interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: Your book is about secrecy and intrigue; how much of that is grounded in reality?
A: Let me say this: These clubs have had members and graduate members who are the who's who of America - presidents, Supreme Court justices, governors and kings. These clubs have also been known for the treasures buried in them. Famous paintings, artifacts: these clubs have them. So when you ask me how much of it is true, let me answer that by saying that a lot of what the story talks about as far as valuables and masterpieces and antiquities, (they) are there in those clubhouses - these huge, alarmed mansions, and they are typically only accessible to the members.
Q: In the book, the Delphic Club houses a replica of the Amber Room - originally part of the Charlottenburg Palace, given to Peter the Great and missing since World War II. True or false?
A: It's a great question, but I can't answer that. These clubs have been largely exclusive and not open to women and to minorities, and I felt like it was my duty in this day and age to try to pull back the curtain. These clubs started in the 1700s. The makeup of Harvard and this country was very different then, and now the complexion has literally and figuratively changed, and so I'm opening this up to the rest of the world.
Q: Do Delphic members really get a $1 million graduation gift?
A: Let me just say it like this: In certain clubs, the graduate members have been very benevolent to those who have joined in the ranks as graduate members. There are some things that I'm willing to share and be open about, but there are other things that out of respect to the privacy of other members that I should not speak too widely about.
Q: What's the difference between the clubs?
A: Some clubs are more WASP-ish, some clubs have more jocks, some clubs are more artistic. T.S. Eliot, the great poet, was a member of one of the clubs, so there are certain clubs that have certain ilks. Clubs punch you. If multiple clubs punch you and multiple clubs admit you, then you have a choice. Otherwise you're pretty much stuck with the club that punches you, and, if you're lucky to get accepted after the rounds, then that's the club. I got punched for two clubs. The Delphic had more athletes; they seemed more well-rounded. The other club was a little more cerebral, a little more laid-back, a little quieter - that was the Phoenix. For me, I felt like I had a better rapport with the members of the Delphic.
Q: Are you expecting a backlash from members about the publication of the book?
A: I'm not hiding it. Some members I've told, and they've been excited over it actually. This book is not an expose or a political piece. Some members may have a problem with it, but I think most people will say it's a pretty fun story.
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