Image: Christopher Getman and Handsome Dan the 17th
Douglas Healey  /  AP
Christopher Getman, the president of Mory's Board of Governors, poses with Yale's mascot Handsome Dan the 17th inside the legendary eating and drinking club on Wednesday.
updated 12/29/2008 5:28:50 AM ET 2008-12-29T10:28:50

Mory's, a legendary Yale eating and drinking club that traces its roots to the Civil War, has a powerful membership that includes two presidents named Bush. Foreign leaders and movie stars such as Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Dan Aykroyd, Tom Hanks and Jodie Foster have patronized the club.

But Mory's has fallen on tough economic times and has temporarily closed and laid off its employees. The club may not reopen after the winter break.

"We're going to try," said Christopher Getman, the newly appointed president of Mory's Board of Governors. "Right now it's going to be a long uphill struggle."

The club had an endowment of about $2 million a few years ago that was "crushed" in the financial meltdown, Getman said. Mory's was already struggling as Yale students and faculty increasingly turned to the trendy restaurants and bars that have opened in recent years in New Haven.

Former President George H.W. Bush visited Mory's last year to receive the Mory's Cup award. He was known to dine at the club with his granddaughter Barbara, who graduated from Yale in 2004.

'Distinct sense of history'
Secret Service agents were regulars outside the club, which has drawn royalty from Jordan to Belgium.

"You felt a distinct sense of history as soon as you walked in," said Christopher Buckley, a best-selling novelist and son of William F. Buckley Jr., a founder of the modern conservative movement. He noted that a picture of the first President Bush in his Yale baseball uniform hangs on the wall.

With more than 14,000 members, Mory's calls itself the largest private club in the world. A lifetime membership costs $2,000; until the 1970s it was just $15.

Former Presidents Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford and William Howard Taft visited Mory's, as did Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, according to Getman.

Mory's traces its history to 1863 when a group of Yale students returning from crew practice stopped in at a tavern run by Frank Moriarty and his wife. The oarmen were impressed with the unpretentious alehouse, which quickly gained popularity among the Yale set.

Grilled sardines
Mrs. Moriarty, known simply as The Widow after her husband died, served Welsh rarebits, eggs on toast and grilled sardines when she wasn't knitting in a rocking chair. At closing hour, she simply said, "Twelve o'clock, gentlemen."

A later owner encouraged Yale singing groups, leading to the famous "Whiffenpoofs" singing group in 1909 whose future members included Cole Porter. The male singing group, whose theme song about Mory's was sung by Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby, sang weekly at the club and has performed at the White House and Lincoln Center.

When the owner was threatened by increasing real estate values and poor health, Yale students and alumni came to the rescue and converted Mory's into a club in 1912.

Books and memorabilia about Yale and Mory's fill the shelves. Initials and mysterious symbols carved into the tables have been mounted on the walls and oars pulled by victorious crewmen hang from the ceiling.

The club survived Prohibition, including a visit to Yale by prohibitionist Carry Nation, who was known to smash up bars with her cane and bricks. Her photo shows students drinking and smoking around her; Getman isn't sure how they pulled that off.

"There are things that happen here that aren't going to happen anywhere else," said Robin Soltesz, the club's comptroller. "They have to save it."

Buckley, who graduated from Yale like his father, recalled the first article he wrote for the Yale Daily News was about the possibility of Mory's losing its liquor license because it was refusing to admit women. Mory's finally admitted women in 1972 after Yale starting enrolling female students in 1969.

'Cuisine is not what it used to be'
Buckley also recalled the warmth of Mory's on a cold winter's night as the Whiffenpoofs sang and he drank various concoctions from the club's colorful cups. But when he went back recently for his favorite dish — Yorkshire buck — it tasted more like "Yorkshire uck."

"The cuisine is not what it used to be," Buckley said. "It was inedible. It's hard to screw up melted cheese."

Getman acknowledged the problem, saying Mory's was planning to get a new chef and update its menu. He said the club is trying to raise $200,000 to $300,000 and develop a business plan to return to profitability.

The club has also reached out to its lifetime members and asked them to voluntarily start paying annual dues. Getman said he's encouraged so far by the response.

"We feel that Mory's is very relevant to the Yale community and to the experience at Yale and we feel strongly that a lot of members feel that way as well and will step forward to help us as we embark on a new course," he said.

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