Bone Deep

Yale's Skull and Bones society -- with George W. Bush and his father as members -- has been accused of elitism and conspiracy. But members say it's more about brotherhood than birthright.


NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- In the fall of 1967, as anti-establishment fever was hitting the Yale University campus, 15 men gathered in the basement of a crypt-like building on High Street and swore themselves to an old-guard tradition that stood for much of what their decade defied.

Among the initiates was George W. Bush, a 21-year-old Yale senior who followed his father, grandfather and a half-dozen other relatives into Skull and Bones, the university's oldest secret society. With the campus on the verge of tie-dyed defiance, Bush embraced a club that seemed a monument to entrenched power.

The "tomb," as the building is known, still sits on a busy street here, still operates in secrecy, still holds fascination for those who are not members -- and even more for those who are. Now some of the Bonesmen who graduated from Yale that spring of 1968 are vowing to bring money and support to Bush's Republican presidential campaign. The brotherhood, they say, never dies.

Such vows only play into the imaginations of conspiracy theorists who see Skull and Bones as a place where a sacred few are granted success and a lifetime of entitlement. A movie to open this week, "The Skulls," uses a fictitious Bones-like society in a story of murder, intrigue and clubby power -- where out-of-control preppies turn sinister and students glower menacingly amid the rowing paddles and ivy.

At Yale these days, contrary to the movie, no one is running around campus screaming, "None of us is safe!" In fact, less and less mystery surrounds Bones, as recent pledges leak some details of their secret club to "the barbarian world" -- Bones language for the rest of us. Besides, more people are turning down Bones, and quite a few alumni are nobodies, even by barbarian standards.

Those who have visited the tomb describe it as vast and imposing -- with a fireplace big enough to stand in and walls filled with more than 100 portraits of past members crammed together in dusty frames. One Bonesman calls it the sort of Gothic mansion that Batman's Bruce Wayne would have lived in -- with vaulted dining room ceilings and a creaky old dumbwaiter. Inside was a majestic central staircase and gigantic library. Outside, a landscaped courtyard and a deserted tower.

According to John Pogue, a former Yale student who wrote and produced "The Skulls" and once sneaked into the society -- something that even the students who recently rappelled into the courtyard could not do successfully -- the place was a trove of antiques and valuable documents. The building's true size seemed hidden from the street, he said, and the hallways extended maze-like to reveal hidden rooms and hideaways.

"The whole place is massive," says Pogue. "We played soccer in there."

Monuments to Bones prestige sit among the society's collection of skeletons, coffins and assorted death symbols. A study devoted to the presidencies of two former -Bonesmen, the senior Bush and 1878 graduate William Howard Taft, is seen as a place of honor in the tomb.

Now, many members of the club are hoping to add "W' memorabilia to that room. Among the members of the 1968 Bones class, many are still close to the Texas governor. Bush invited about six of his fellow Bonesmen to his wedding -- they were among the few Yale men there -- and the crew gathered at the Four Seasons hotel in Austin to celebrate his 1994 upset victory in the governor's race.

`To the marrow'

The Bones bonds run deep, "to the marrow," as they say. For the past 168 years, Bonesmen have submitted to personal confessionals to seal their brotherhood. At the start of Bush's senior year, the rituals were no different, and the men gathered for ceremonial soul-baring -- what was seen in the club as a sort of "rebirth" into the Bones order -- behind the cold stone walls of the crypt.

To establish a climate of acceptance, each man was granted a Sunday night to retell his sexual history in a ritual known as "CB," shorthand for connubial bliss. Bush offered his testimonial in the same tomb where 20 years earlier his father had shared his sexual exploits -- a ritual of confession the elder Bush performed as a young husband soon after George W. was born.

Contrary to legend, several -Bonesmen said, no one lay naked in a coffin for the storytelling. "I've never been in a coffin in my life," says Ken Cohen, a 1968 Bonesman. The talks, he argues, were designed to build trust and move beyond superficial campus relationships.

"You don't get together two nights a week for a year and do nothing but chat and play pingpong," says Cohen, now an Atlanta dentist. "There's a basis of bonding -- in an organization like ours, it's a jumping off point that historically has allowed a comfort zone."

After the evening immersed in sexual pasts, the men were each given their own night to tell their life history, or "LH," whose contents the brothers swore to take to their graves. Surrounded by creepy death images carved into the architecture, the men began with their birth and kept going.

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