Skull and Bones, the Ivy League,
and the Hidden Paths of Power.

By Alexandra Robbins.
Little, Brown. 230 pp. $25.95.

Secret societies are manna for conspiracy theorists, and few are more secret or more conspiracy-nourishing than Yale’s Skull and Bones. Our current President is a member, as were his father and grandfather–and a strong contender for the Democratic nomination in 2004, John Kerry, was a Bonesman too. In fact, they pervade the highest levels of American government (with a special affinity for the CIA), business and journalism.

Sadly, though, much of what’s been written about Skull and Bones over the years has been right-wing conspiracism, a trend that’s been reinforced over the past few years by the Internet (for a taste, just Google “Antony Sutton Skull Bones”). And the reports exempt from that ideological contamination, like Ron Rosenbaum’s, have been rather thinly and unconvincingly sourced. But a fine exception to these depressing rules is Alexandra Robbins’s Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, The Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power.

Robbins, a recent Yale grad (who was in a much less famous secret society, Scroll & Key), managed to loosen the normally tight lips of Bonesmen young and old to reveal both what goes on within their cryptlike building on the Yale campus and in the dispersed fraternity of Bonesmen around the world. Her analysis of their power is far more complex than the usual conspiracist sort, which usually casts Bonesmen as the puppeteers and the rest of us (“barbarians,” in Bones lingo) as unwitting puppets.

Lest I be accused of careless sexist language use, “Bonesmen” and “fraternity” are nearly 100 percent gender-appropriate words. Some of Robbins’s best reporting is on the twenty-year fight to coeducate the society. First to propose this radical idea was the Bones class of 1971, just after Yale had admitted its first women. Old Bonesmen (“patriarchs” in Bonesese) summoned the rebellious undergrads to a meeting in New York, where they were told to grow up and act like men. The meeting was an occasion for McGeorge Bundy (Bones 1940) to joke, “So Aunt Jemima’s coming to dinner?” With wit like that, it’s no wonder Bonesmen do so well in the world. The patriarchs won, and Bones stayed all male for another twenty years, when the living members finally voted to join the twentieth century. And how did Presidents 41 and 43 vote? They’ve never said, but Bush the Younger did provide a clue when he told a PBS producer in 1994 that Yale “went downhill since they admitted women”–a remark that deserves much wider currency than it’s enjoyed so far.

Gossip is fun, and learning other people’s secrets is a thrill, and Secrets of the Tomb delivers on such pleasures. But it also makes you wonder about our leaders and the institutions that produce them. Though there are some fine and decent Bonesmen (at least one of whom used to work for this magazine), as an institution, Skull and Bones is intensely secretive, hierarchical, bigoted and antidemocratic. Kind of like the Bush Administration.