On the life of Clarence Whittlesey Mendell.
Yale University in the first half of the twentieth century is a lost world even to alumni who attended just a few decades later. New Haven grammar-school children freely roller-skated on college sidewalks while Dalmatians rode on town fire engines. Administrators resisted the new technology on campus—the radio. One Sunday morning a college master’s wife grabbed the wrong bottle from her sideboard and the Episcopalian students in Dwight Chapel received Manhattans instead of wine at communion. A professor’s child reported that her class was asked to contribute fifteen cents towards membership dues in the Atom Bomb Society. The child had misheard the name of the Audubon Society.
Through this world walked Yale’s midcentury Latinist Clarence Whittlesey Mendell (1883–1970). He knew half of New Haven. He was scrupulously fair and honest. He loved laughing, but you had to earn a smile. He was, by nature, a cheerful pragmatist who welcomed new challenges. His office preserved an atmosphere of unhurried composure. He lectured on Latin literature and Athenian drama in a gray suit but never wore the same necktie twice. When his fifty minutes ended, his students felt that they had been “enriched by an association not only with good companions of the past, but with a good companion of the present.”
If Mendell was not predestined to be a Yale man, he at least inherited the disposition. His father, Ellis Mendell, received a Bachelor of Divinity from Yale College in 1877. His mother, Clara Eliza, was the daughter of Charles Barnes Whittlesey (M.D. Yale 1843). The arrival of the Whittleseys in the New World was heralded by the 1650 emigration of a shoemaker to Saybrook, Connecticut. Samuel Whittlesey graduated from Yale College in 1705 and served as a trustee of the College. Of Chauncey Whittlesey (Yale 1728), Yale President Ezra Stiles (1778–95) wrote that he “amassed by laborious reading, a great treasure of wisdom. For literature, he was, in his day, oracular at college, for he taught with facility and success in every branch of knowledge.” Another relation, Elisha Whittlesey (Yale 1779), was a member of the Connecticut convention to ratify the United States Constitution. Elisha D. Whittlesey (Yale 1811) contributed to Chief Justice John Marshall’s multi-volume biography of George Washington.
Although his father attended Phillips Academy Andover, Mendell attended The Roxbury Latin School in Boston. Founded in 1645 by a royal charter received from King Charles I, it is the oldest school in continuous existence in North America. At Roxbury Latin, Mendell earned excellent marks, quarterbacked the football team, and edited the student newspaper. He wanted to follow his father to Yale, but Roxbury Latin played local favorites, only proctoring Harvard entrance exams, and so he earned acceptance to Harvard as a sophomore in high school. His interview at Yale was less pleasing and resulted in a conditional black mark of suspicion on his file. He managed to gain admission all the same.
Mendell arrived at Yale College in 1900 and, with the exception of the two World Wars, devoted his entire life to that community of scholars, receiving his B.A. in 1904, M.A. in 1905, and his Ph.D in 1910. An inspiring teacher, “Clare” was remembered by thousands of alumni. In addition to teaching, he was the first Master of Branford College, the Dean of Yale College for eleven years, and Chairman of the Yale Athletic Association. He had opportunities for promotion elsewhere, including the presidency of Princeton, but remained happily at Yale after meditating on Tacitus’s epigram about Emperor Galba: Capax imperii nisi imperasset. (He would have been an effective ruler if he had not ruled.)
As the Sterling Professor of Latin Language and Literature, he published eight books and a stack of articles and reviews that displayed the full range of his talents and gifts. He had a special devotion to Tacitus and donated his private manuscript collection to Yale in 1932. For 250 years scholars doubted the existence of one of the thirty-two Tacitus manuscripts mentioned by a scholar in 1687. In the interwar period, Mendell discovered it in the archives at the University of Leiden and after intense study demonstrated its authenticity.
Mendell possessed a strong sense of service, righteousness, and loyalty, all inherited from his father. He tried to enlist in the Navy during the First World War, but was turned down because he was a couple of months too old. Instead, he went to Paris to work at the Yale Bureau in the old Royal Palace Hotel on the Rue de Richelieu. After the war, he worked at the Peace Conference preparing maps for the delegates, erasing and redrawing nightly the borders of Europe. Lacking census records, Mendell’s team had to estimate the population of various ethnic groups. He claimed that the most accurate figures they could find were written in Magyar, which no one could read. Guessing the populations of diverse nationalities, they prepared maps with English labels except for one group. In the final hours before the last session of the conference, someone dug up a Magyar dictionary and discovered that the inhabitants of one of their newly drafted countries were “Miscellaneous Others.” They stayed up all night redoing the maps and thus missed the opportunity to become founding fathers, but still they considered themselves the patron saints of the Miscellaneous Others.
While the world was celebrating the end of the war, Mendell received tragic news. After only four years of marriage, his first wife, Katherine Webb, died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic while he was in Paris.
Back in New Haven, he enjoyed a few years of teaching before becoming the Dean of Yale College in 1926. Before assuming the full duties of the office, he took a sabbatical to Greece via Rome. Crossing the Atlantic aboard his boat were two in the long line of intelligent, graceful women who emerged from the “Seven Sisters” consortium of colleges and got to work making our towns, schools, and churches more beautiful and civilized. Elizabeth Bailey Lawrence, an alumna of Bryn Mawr College, was accompanying her sister Marion, a Mount Holyoke graduate and 1925 Fellow of the American Academy, to Rome.
Elizabeth, born the same year Mendell graduated from Yale College, wrote to a friend: “A perfect lamb . . . He’s a real person, the right kind of scholar . . . He’s terribly popular at Yale, and besides acting as if we were equals, he has that beguiling nice manner the Wilbur boys have, sort of protecting and strong and yet never officious or slimy. I almost fell for him but didn’t (luckily—since he's twice my age and doubtless thinks me an infant).”
Mendell caught the eye of both sisters. Marion was an accomplished Greek and Latin scholar with a doctorate from Cornell. The older sister’s letter home has the lightest touch of jealousy: “Tibby [Elizabeth] has gone out for the fifth afternoon running with Dean Mendell of Yale—Can you beat it? She’ll condescend only to college presidents after this, I suppose.”
With their time running out in the Eternal City, Mendell began taking Elizabeth to tea in the afternoons. The teas quickly became shorter and the walks through Rome longer. “Rome at night has a particular mystery and charm,” she writes. “Like a woman it loses several centuries of its age when the sun sets.”
During their final excursion in Rome, they got caught in a rainstorm with no way home except to walk wet and weary back to the American Academy. Elizabeth worried it was a missed opportunity and the end of their love among the ruins. “I so wanted to take our friendship out and look at it and see what he thought of it, and yet it was so little I was afraid to because it mightn’t survive.”
Instead his departure transferred their courtship to a correspondence course; he sent her a copy of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, and they made plans to rendezvous in New York City. In the summer of 1930, they were married in Paris and honeymooned in Switzerland. In 1931, he was named Master of Branford College at Yale, and they moved into the correspondent house. Encouraged by her husband, Elizabeth finished her doctorate in art history, and Yale University Press published her dissertation, “Romanesque Sculpture in Saintonge.”
Together they helped design the college’s heraldic coat of arms. Mendell’s daughter remembers Branford court as a glorious playground with a sandbox tucked away in a corner and flagstone paths for tricycles and scooters. Like the snapdragon outside John Henry Newman’s window in Trinity College, Oxford, the fragrant magnolia and wisteria in the courtyard made an impression on those living inside. His daughter recalls that his personality was reflected in a nickname for Branford College at the time. “While Saybrook was the Ant Hill, bustling with activity, Branford was the Oyster Bed. It provided a quiet place to grow.” Mendell agreed with the sentiment, reminding students that oysters produce pearls. The two colleges share the same Memorial Quadrangle, and Mendell identified the border between them: “Where bedlam ends and scholarship begins.”
In 1936, the British art historian and museum director Kenneth Clark visited Yale to deliver the lecture series on Leonardo that would further propel his rapidly ascending career. In his memoirs, Clark recalls a typical Oxford confrontation. He had requested a trivial exception to a college rule, and he received a classic Oxford reply: “I’m prepared to oppose it.” As Master of Branford, Mendell rejected such pointless posturing. When the Master of Saybrook sent a student over to inquire about the procedure for borrowing chairs. Mendell replied, “You come over and say that you need some chairs, and I say, ‘Fine, how many?’” Mendell and Yale President James R. Angell were good friends, but because of the formality of the time, they never used each other’s first names. On the day President Angell retired, Mendell received a telegram reading, “Dear Clare, it is a lovely day. Yours, Jim.”
He did not support Prohibition and publicly supported the return of old-fashioned beer gardens to the colleges. He enjoyed wine and spent a surprise dividend from one of his books on a case of Château Lafitte, the muse for at least one of his poems:
Long seated o’er a bottle of Lafitte
Aged in cool cellars when the gods were kind,
With friends of mellower tempers to remind
One sorely bruised by manifold defeat . . .
Mendell loved to read P. G. Wodehouse and occasionally encountered Yale’s real-life Jeeves and Wooster. After co-writing a musical with Cole Porter, T. Lawrason Riggs received Holy Orders and became Yale’s first Catholic chaplain. On matters theatrical, Riggs often disagreed with Mendell’s wartime chum, the columnist Franklin Pierce Adams (fpa), whom he judged “morally incompetent.” As dean, the Congregationalist-turned-Episcopalian Mendell was supportive of Fr. Riggs’s plans to build the St. Thomas More Chapel at Yale but warned that older alumni might protest this popish plot. They shared an interest in Jeanne d’Arc. While chaplain, Fr. Riggs kept an Anglican valet named Silk. Unlike the silently effective Jeeves, Silk would annoy Riggs by listening to the radio broadcasts of the infamous Father Coughlin while polishing the silver service. Mendell smiled at the trick Riggs taught his dog. When asked, “What would you rather do than go to Harvard?” the dog rolled over on its back and played dead.
Mendell loved sports and continued to enjoy tennis and squash throughout his life. At Yale, he played on the Phi Beta Kappa football and baseball teams in addition to tennis and track. As a faculty member and chairman of the athletic association, he followed closely the progress of the football team. In the Yale Alumni Weekly he often responded to alumni gripes about the football coach and the team’s chances against archrival Harvard. As director of athletics, he was informed that the former President and erstwhile Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft wished to attend a football game in the Yale Bowl, recalls his daughter. Mindful of the enlarged double-wide seat specially installed for Taft in Yale’s Woolsey Hall before his son’s graduation in 1910, Mendell graciously arranged for game tickets, specifying that, due to Mr. Taft’s substantial size (at least 340 pounds), he should receive two tickets. After the game, Mr. Taft personally thanked Mendell. It had been thoughtful of the dean to arrange for two tickets, he said, but perhaps next time they should be on the same side of the aisle.
His daughter writes that “he preferred amateur sports, but actually condescended to take my husband and me to an exhibition football game in the Yale Bowl between the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Colts and had to admit that he enjoyed it.” He wondered aloud how the Lions’ All-Pro safety Yale Lary got his name. He was impressed by the athletic ability of the Baltimore quarterback, the legendary Johnny Unitas, whom he cheered with the accent on the first syllable—YEW-ni-tas—as if in Latin.
On the afternoon of December 7, 1941, Mendell was in Dwight Chapel with Yale faculty families for a carol service. Elsewhere on campus, radio broadcasts of a Sunday football game were interrupted with the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Students spontaneously massed on Old Campus singing “Over There!” and shouting, “Let’s go to Tokyo!” In a scene difficult to imagine on campus today, they walked up to President Seymour’s house and began to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Seymour emerged and addressed the crowd of students: “Men of Yale, this is not the first time in American history that Yale men have gathered together to express their loyalty to the nation. . . . On all other occasions when America has been thrust into war, Yale men have always played their part. I am happy that you realize the serious nature of the situation and that you are ready to serve where you best may serve.” The boys thundered back approbation with a raucous round of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
“It was two months after Pearl Harbor before the Navy Department fully realized that it could not function without aci,” writes Mendell of his wartime assignment to the new Naval Air Combat Intelligence School in Quonset, Rhode Island. “Not that the Navy Department or anyone else knew just what aci was, but there was an uneasy feeling that something was needed.” They scrambled to design a curriculum and recruit faculty from Yale, Harvard, mit, and Brown as the school quickly mobilized. Important was the mission, but Parris Island it was not. Calisthenics and cocktails were coequal on the schedule.
Classroom organization emerged from chaos. After their ten-week course, students shipped off to fight the Axis. Fresh off an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Henry Fonda graduated from aci and was sent to join an admiral’s staff in the Pacific. After a Japanese kamikaze plane sank near their carrier, he swam down to the wreckage and recovered maps locating the sources of many such attacks, which were promptly targeted by American bombers. He also met with the crew of the Enola Gay just days before the attack on Hiroshima. When Mister Roberts opened at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Mendell and the aci faculty members held a party for him. Fonda told them that he hoped the play would run forever because it was so real to him.
By the sixth cohort of officers, the school had hit its stride, but the Navy simply would not leave them alone to educate efficiently. “According to Presbyterian doctrine,” writes Mendell in the aci newsletter a few days after Ash Wednesday in 1943, “Lent is that very short period of the year during which Episcopalians think it wrong to sin. The Navy obviously has no Episcopalians.” Mentioned among the vices of the vice-admiralty are the Navy command’s frequent transfer and reassignment of their best faculty members, the constant rumors about relocating the school to Pearl Harbor, and a memo urging the program “to teach table etiquette with the aid of pictures on knife and fork technique. Shades of Genghis Khan!” To the Navy’s credit, it did attempt to replenish the faculty with veterans back from the front. Duke Henning, of the famed “Skull-and-Crossbones” squadron credited with 154 enemy planes downed, joined as a visiting lecturer in “Paper Work and Survival.”
Toward the end of the war, recalls his daughter, Mendell was summoned urgently to the Naval War College. He was taken to a subterranean vault, sworn to secrecy, and shown a photograph of a Japanese battleship purportedly unsinkable by any airplane known to man. Suppressing laughter, he informed the experts that he was familiar with the photograph. It had been part of their instructional material at Quonset. The reason that the battleship had not sunk was that she was already grounded.
Correctly predicting V-J Day, Mendell won the aci betting pool. In Quonset’s classrooms, war-time self-sacrifice yielded to peace-time self-interest. The aci faculty began lectures on Chaucer, and Greek tragedy replaced military geography. The “History of Art and Architecture” supplanted “Maps and Photographs” as students sketched Doric columns instead of identifying columns of enemy armor. With apologies to Kipling, Mendell closed out his wartime service with a poem:
We shall find new ways to squander
The wealth of the Treasury till,
With miracle boxes and pasteboards
For telling a ship from a hill.
And not even Cominch will praise us
While everyone hands us the blame
And wide as we scatter the shekels
Some other guy’s sure of the fame.
So each in his separate hangar
For aeon on aeon ignored
We’ll hear the perennial chorus:
“Delighted to have you aboard!”
Upon his return from the war, Mendell was awarded the Legion of Merit and decorated in front of the entire Branford College community. The 514 Yale students who died in the Second World War could scarcely ask for a better memorial than a collection of their service records introduced by Mendell: “We make this record also to speak for them, to remind ourselves that while, in the hour of violent crisis, their shoulders held the sky suspended, the responsibility has passed to us to see that, in the no less threatening crises of what we call peace, we keep faith with them and make sure that earth’s foundations stay.”
When the Fulbright program was launched after the war, Yale asked Mendell to apply for a sabbatical in Italy. He initially refused on the grounds that he was too old and was planning to go to Italy anyway as a 1950 Classical Studies & Archaeology Fellow at the American Academy in Rome. The money should benefit a younger scholar, he thought. Yale, however, wanted to know what the requirements were so that others could profit from his application experience. He stated in his grant application all of the reasons why he should not receive it. He asked Professor George Lincoln Hendrickson for a letter of recommendation and received the following reply: “Dear Clare, I just received a communication from a group of people purporting to be a government agency. They asked me about the character of a certain gentleman, one C. W. Mendell. I replied that I would not discuss his character with strangers. He was my friend.”
“My greatest debt is to George Lincoln Hendrickson,” writes Mendell in his book Latin Poetry: The New Poets and The Augustans, “with whom for more than fifty years I enjoyed the companionship of the Latin poets.” Hendrickson was a “rara avis among classicists who attained preeminence as a Latin scholar with no earned degree beyond the bachelor’s,” writes the Yale-trained classicist John Latimer. As a widower, he lived in Branford College where he continued to lead student discussion groups until he died in his ninety-ninth year. On his seventy-ninth birthday, a group of students shipping out for military service stopped under his window and, fortified by champagne, sang his favorite of Horace’s Odes, “Integer vitae,” in the moonlight.
While the Mendell family was in Italy, father tutored daughter in Latin. “We had a small apartment and my mother sat across the room trying to read and not to listen. When my father questioned a translation, I replied that it was what the footnote had said. His answer was a disgusted ‘You know better than to believe that footnote!’ whereupon my mother snorted with ill-suppressed laughter.” She remembers him as a fabulous walking companion along the old Roman walls. A trip to nearby Orvieto inspired his poem:
Upon the wall ringed hilltop where
The sun rests joyously
The Tuscans wrought a fabric fair
Of molten gold and heaven filched blue
With rainbow shades that glimmer through
For all the world to see.
He continued to climb mountains until he was nearly seventy, scrupulously following his doctor’s orders to stay below ten thousand feet in elevation by finding a few mountains over nine thousand feet tall. His daughter recalls how his stamina surprised younger men:
When a graduate student of his turned up in Rome, we gave him lunch in our apartment on the Janiculum and my father offered to show him around the forum. He accepted eagerly and then, remembering his manners, he added “That is, if you are feeling up to it, sir.” My father, his eyes twinkling, walked the student across Trastevere to the Forum and gave him a tour of everything in sight, probably including the Palatine, fed him a gelato, and put his remains on a bus back to his hotel. My father then proceeded to walk home. He was sixty-seven.
Hendrickson and Mendell both received honorary degrees from Yale in 1953. When Mendell went up to receive his degree, President Whit Griswold covered the microphone and said “I’m still scared of you, but I’ll give it to you anyway.” That same year, Carl Lohmann, the secretary of the university and a co-founder of the Honorable Company of College Printers with Mendell, was retiring and received a surprise honorary degree. During his secretaryship the University was known among his friends as the “Holy Lohmann Empire.” He was known for his forceful use of language. When Theodore Sizer was director of the Yale Art Gallery, he made banners for all of the colleges to be carried in the commencement procession. For Lohmann, he made a banner with a clenched mailed fist with the motto “Deus Dampnet” supplied by Mendell, who explained that it was old Latin for “God damn it.”
Mendell loved poetry and shared the appreciation with Elizabeth. They both enjoyed Housman, especially his “Fragment of a Greek Tragedy.” In addition to his academic work in Latin literature, he published a metrical translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound with an original poem, Prometheus Unbound. Toward the end of his life, he gathered his poems into a collection Lanx Satura: A Hodge-Podge of Verse. His poem for the Etruscan city of Veii has the power to straighten the backs and swell the chests of soldiers and historians alike:
No column marks this peaceful spot,
No high triumphal arch;
Only the ploughing oxen move
In a slow deliberate march.
Yet here I know Camillus fought
With Roman hardihood
And I can fight a better fight
For standing where he stood.
What up-to-date skills does literature give you? For what does reading history prepare you? What can you do with a classical education? Mendell’s life provides a few answers: You drink good wine and read good books. Work done well yields one kind of satisfaction. Yours is the pleasure of pressing pen to paper, of poetry read, written, and shared with friends. Inhaling deeply with both lungs, you fill your free hours with sport and leisure. You hike mountains and laugh with your whole body. You fall in love with a pretty girl in Rome. You live abundantly. Clarence Whittlesey Mendell reflects the lambent light of antiquity in a life well lived. In him, we can “sense that joy which reigned in Eden, we can dimly hear the chorus that rang in Tempe’s Vale.”
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