Every year a select few Yalies exchange their crew sweaters and cords for long robes. In darkness and surrounded by candles, one might imagine, they're not celebrating Halloween, but participating in the initiation ceremony of the most prestigious club at Yale, the Skull and Bones Society.

For a “secret society,” Skull and Bones has certainly generated a lot of buzz, especially during the 2004 presidential election, since both John Kerry and George W. Bush are lifelong “Bonesman.” The former candidates are just two of many club members who have garnered powerful positions in the country - a disproportionate number considering the Yale society “taps” just 15 new members each year. However, the chosen ones are always Yalies with high potential, like the captain of the football team or son of a former President.

Founded in 1832, Skull and Bones is said to be the “2nd Corps” of a society started earlier at a German university. The aura of its skull-and-crossbones logo is also reflected in its sepulchral, granite headquarters on the Yale campus, called “the Tomb.” The off-limits building is rumored to have housed the stolen skulls of Geronimo and Poncho Villa.

Why this preoccupation with death among the members of this ultimate old boys’ club? In a 60 Minutes segment on the club in 2004, writer Ron Rosenblum, a Yale graduate who observed one of the costumed initiation rites, said that one of the society’s purposes is to teach members that “life is short. You can spend it, if you have a privileged background, enjoying yourself, contributing nothing, or you can spend it making a contribution.”

Over the past decades, the elite club been charged with less altruistic motives, including nefarious links to the CIA and other influential organizations. These connections are explored in such recent books as Fleshing Out Skull and Bones, edited by Kris Millegan, and Secrets of the Tomb, by Alexandra Robbins.

Given its position at the pinnacle of the “eastern establishment,” it’s not surprising that Skull and Bones has made its mark on preppy fashion. Shorts and swim trunks with the skull-and-crossbones insignia are available at J.McLaughlin. Ivy League mainstay J.Press stocks lapel pins with the logo. As an interesting take on sub-cultural fashion Skull & Bones by Jared Paul Stern sells ties, tote bags, men’s oxford shirts and polos with an insignia like the Yale secret society’s, but with a broader appeal. Mr. Stern uses it with bold colors to create a style he labels “prep-punk.”

That’s reminiscent of the link between punk and prep made in The Official Preppy Handbook, edited by Lisa Birnbach, back in 1980. “A subgroup of Preppies are connoisseurs of punk,” according to the Handbook. This hybrid group ranges from those who like to dance to punk music to others who “would dye their hair blue if they didn’t work in law firms.” Could the skull and crossbones be powerful enough to unite such disparate groups? A “barbarian,” as Skull and Bones members call those outside their society, is left to make the decision alone.


by Stan Tymorek

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