Will Mory's survive? (And should it?)

Bob Handelman

Bob Handelman

Bare, carved tables are part of the club's essence. View full image

The block of York Street between Elm and Grove streets is busy night and day. Denizens of both town and gown are buying salads at Au Bon Pain, browsing for books at Labyrinth, lining up to dance at Toad's Place, ordering slices at Yorkside, or hunching over laptops and drinking coffee at the Publick Cup. Amid all the hubbub, at the end of the retail strip, the Federal-style house at 306 York seems strangely quiet. With just a small brass plaque on the door for a sign, it could easily be mistaken for a secret society or another old house converted to offices for a Yale department. You would never guess that inside is an establishment that considers itself, in Shumway's words, "the place for Yalies."

Whether or not that is still true, Mory's is inextricably linked to Yale. In function, it is a restaurant, serving lunch, drinks, and dinner six days a week in three dining rooms and a number of private rooms upstairs. In organization, it is a private club open to most people with a Yale affiliation. Students can become members for $40 per year. Faculty, staff, and alumni pay annual dues that now run $250, but around 75 percent of the club's 15,000 members are non-dues-paying "life members" -- alumni who purchased that status as students for a modest sum before the rules were changed in 1972.

And in legend, Mory's is the place where Yale students have met for nearly 150 years for good times and overindulgence, drinking alcoholic punches from silver trophy cups and singing traditional songs. Yale's a cappella singing group the Whiffenpoofs was founded at Mory's in 1909, and the group still sings there every Monday night during the academic year. Their "Whiffenpoof Song," recorded by Rudy Vallee ’27, Bing Crosby, and others, put the name of Mory's on the lips of pop music lovers all over the country from the late 1920s to the late ’40s.

But in recent years, Mory's appeal to students has slipped sharply; it now carries a reputation as an expensive, formal place for special occasions. Ironically, the Yale rowers who "discovered" the original Mory's on Wooster Street in the 1860s were more or less slumming when they stopped in after practice on the harbor one day. The students were smitten by the tavern keepers, Frank and Jane Moriarty, and the place soon filled with Yale students. The Moriartys moved twice in order to get closer to campus, first to Court Street and then in the 1870s to Temple Street. The bar fell into decline after the Moriartys died, but in 1898, a German immigrant named Louis Linder took over. A singer and music lover, Linder encouraged singing groups to visit Mory's and helped to revive its popularity.

In 1912, Linder, whose health was failing, lost his lease on the Temple Bar. The thought of Mory's closing was too much for students and alumni to bear, so a number of them hatched a plan to convert the bar to a private club. The incorporators explained in the Yale Alumni Weekly that the place was worth saving as "a genuine institution of considerable value to Yale life, because of its atmosphere of spontaneous democracy and hearty comradeship." They bought a house at 306 York Street -- Mory's current home -- and set about transforming it into as close an approximation of the old bar as possible. They moved not just furniture and pictures from the walls, but also wainscoting, the fireplace mantel, and the entire front entrance.

So in its current location, Mory's has more or less been a museum from the beginning,sentimentalized and preserved in amber by long-ago graduates. Old Mory's hands often repeat with pleasure the legend that it took 20 years of lobbying (or 30, depending on the telling) to get ice cream on the menu.

Not all of Mory's history of resisting change is so benign. For its first 60 years as a club, only men could become members. When Yale began admitting women undergraduates in 1969, some privately run student organizations, such as St. Anthony Hall, went co-ed soon after. Mory's admitted women in 1972, but only after picketing, a boycott, and a legal challenge to the renewal of Mory's liquor license by a group of women faculty. Another group that was apparently seen as a threat to the sanctity of Mory's -- students from Yale's graduate and professional schools -- did not become eligible for membership until 1991. And although Yale's managerial and professional workers can become members, its clerical, technical, service, and maintenance workers cannot.

Mory's current troubles were brought home to members in June, when Tyler sent out letters explaining that the club had been driven "into the red" and that "everyone will have to get involved to keep Mory's afloat." Tyler told faculty, staff, and alumni members that their dues would be raised from $165 to $250. More controversially, he asked the club's local life members to convert to dues-paying members and pay $200 a year.

It wasn't long before the Yale Alumni Magazine heard from a handful of alumni who were in high dudgeon at the suggestion they begin paying dues. Mory's life members are noticeably proud of their status, and they have fought previous attempts to make them pay. "I signed up in good faith in sophomore year, and I know it's not a good deal for Mory's," says one life member, "but they should have thought of that in 1966."

As it turns out, the conversion to dues-paying membership is voluntary, and no life members are going to be turned out of the club. But the board's willingness to tinker with life membership is a sign of just how serious Mory's troubles are.

Although it's too early to know how members will respond to the dues increase, Tyler says he believes it will provide a short-term solution to Mory's problem and buy the club time to make changes to its menu, hours, layout, and operating procedures. The question facing Shumway and the board is: how much change are they and their clientele willing to accept? Should they heed their motto—"Keep Mory's Mory's"—and tinker slightly with their existing model, surviving with the help of charitable contributions, like an actual museum? Or should they make more-dramatic changes in order to try to make Mory's relevant again?