K. Smith’s latest book, “The Ancient Nine,” draws
on his days when he was “punched” for one of
Harvard’s elite final clubs — traditionally all-male
clubhouses situated in mansions on Harvard Square that
hold secrets and antiquities. (Per Smith, members have
included Matt Damon, T.S. Eliot, Bill Gates, President
John F. Kennedy, President Theodore Roosevelt and
William Randolph Hearst.)
novel, Spenser Collins is a member of the class of
’91, a native of Chicago’s South Side and pre-med
student with some very legacied friends. When he’s not
studying or playing for the Harvard basketball team, he
tries to charm an independent young woman who works on
campus. Then Collins is selected to join the Delphic (aka
The Gas) — a club created by J.P. Morgan Jr. Collins
is set on a path of privilege unseen by many and winds
up trying to solve a centuries-old murder at the
“The Ancient Nine” is fiction, Smith says this —
his 16th book — is the most autobiographical of any of
his works because the main character was based on his
experience of being accepted into Delphic Club.
of the character’s actions, how he gets in the club,
his background is autobiographical,” Smith said. “I
really wanted to keep it as close to my experience as
possible, because I thought my experience was quite
unique. There were maybe three other blacks in my club
at the time, so it was very few of us. Very few of us
got punched to join, and — true to the story — I
don’t know why I got punched, because I was completely
antithetical to what a club person is: I didn’t come
from money, I wasn’t a legacy, my family didn’t
winter in Florida. … (I)t really is autobiographical
in how this character is kind of a fish out of water and
then stumbles upon this mystery as he’s asked to join
exclusionary nature of Harvard’s clubs has garnered
media attention throughout the years — most recently
when three final clubs decided to go co-ed and seek
formal recognition from Harvard rather than face
sanctions imposed by the university. Smith, who started
writing and researching “The Ancient Nine” while a
senior at Harvard, thought now was the time to release
was a senior, I decided I wanted to tell this story one
day. I didn’t know when … so for 25-plus years, I
have been tweaking, researching, adding, and then last
year there was this big controversy on campus about the
university trying to close, disband, open up — somehow
influence these clubs.”
Tribune talked to Smith recently while he was in town;
this interview has been condensed and edited.
book is about secrecy and intrigue; how much of that is
grounded in reality?
A: Let me
say this: These clubs have had members and graduate
members who are the who’s who of America —
presidents, Supreme Court justices, governors and kings.
These clubs have also been known for the treasures
buried in them. Famous paintings, artifacts: these clubs
have them. So when you ask me how much of it is true,
let me answer that by saying that a lot of what the
story talks about as far as valuables and masterpieces
and antiquities, (they) are there in those clubhouses
— these huge, alarmed mansions, and they are typically
only accessible to the members.
Q: In the
book, the Delphic Club houses a replica of the Amber
Room — originally part of the Charlottenburg Palace,
given to Peter the Great and missing since World War II.
True or false?
a great question, but I can’t answer that. These clubs
have been largely exclusive and not open to women and to
minorities, and I felt like it was my duty in this day
and age to try to pull back the curtain. These clubs
started in the 1700s. The makeup of Harvard and this
country was very different then, and now the complexion
has literally and figuratively changed, and so I’m
opening this up to the rest of the world.
Delphic members really get a $1 million graduation gift?
A: Let me
just say it like this: In certain clubs, the graduate
members have been very benevolent to those who have
joined in the ranks as graduate members. There are some
things that I’m willing to share and be open about,
but there are other things that out of respect to the
privacy of other members that I should not speak too
What’s the difference between the clubs?
clubs are more WASP-ish, some clubs have more jocks,
some clubs are more artistic. T.S. Eliot, the great
poet, was a member of one of the clubs, so there are
certain clubs that have certain ilks. Clubs punch you.
If multiple clubs punch you and multiple clubs admit
you, then you have a choice. Otherwise you’re pretty
much stuck with the club that punches you, and, if
you’re lucky to get accepted after the rounds, then
that’s the club. I got punched for two clubs. The
Delphic had more athletes; they seemed more
well-rounded. The other club was a little more cerebral,
a little more laid-back, a little quieter — that was
the Phoenix. For me, I felt like I had a better rapport
with the members of the Delphic.
you expecting a backlash from members about the
publication of the book?
not hiding it. Some members I’ve told, and they’ve
been excited over it actually. This book is not an
expose or a political piece. Some members may have a
problem with it, but I think most people will say it’s
a pretty fun story.