A Chromatic History of Victory Club
by Jack Jolis ’67
Alpha Delta Phi’s legendary “Victory Club” formal soirée reaches back in time over 80 years to the First World War, when fraternity members organized a gambling club to raise money for a victory loan drive in 1918. Entrance to the club was by the purchase of one or more Victory Bonds. Driven underground by Prohibition in 1918, Victory Club flourished as a speakeasy and developed its subsequent extravagant character during the “Roaring ’20s.” For the next 50 years, Victory Club varied in size, frequency, and exclusivity, but finally reemerged in the late 1970s with a legal gambling license.
Philanthropy, gambling, champagne, black tie, and serious fun: these fundamentals have subsequently remained constant and contribute to the enduring reputation of the Victory Club Charity Ball as quite possibly “the best party in the Ivy League.”
However, the following recounting of an additional Victory Club antecedent was originally composed in 1987 at the request of Ian McMillan ’89 (then Victory Club chairman and subsequently House president and a life member financial contributor to the alumni corporation). It was written by the itinerant Jack Jolis ’67 but, perhaps because of concerns about possible “political correctness” ramifications at our alma mater, never appeared in print. The board of the Adelphic Cornell Educational Fund, which has as part of its mission to support and enhance the archival function of the Cornell Chapter of Alpha Delta Phi, has decided to rectify this omission. Editing has been minimal; however, full names and class years have been added to properly indict the guilty for posterity.
Thom Chirurg ’64, Trustee
Adelphic Cornell Educational Fund
Whenever during my global peregrinations The Cornell Alpha Delt catches up with me, I never fail to read it with interest. Indeed, in recent years I’ve been struck by the prominence given to one particular event in your social program—the Victory Club—and it occurred to me that the brotherhood might be interested to learn of its antecedence and name. As the founder of the original Victory Club, I can say with all modesty that what follows is the “straight skinny,” and everyone who thinks otherwise may, as Billy Martin once had it, “kiss my petunia.”
When I joined the Phi back in 1964, what you today call the Victory Club was then known as “Club 777.” Now, in those days (as, I suspect, still today), the House enjoyed a bit of a social schism that pitted a self-styled “smooth” faction against a faction that didn’t style itself anything at all, really, but which was known by the “smooths” as “those tit ’n’ beer animals.” To some degree the latter faction exerted its influence on the social calendar, but one of the big exceptions was Club 777, which was “maximum smooth” (or, as Rafael Villegas-Attolini ’67 repeatedly and endearingly used to put it, “ees ereal esmood, baby, you know”). In fact, Club 777 was so smooth, what with a lot of Lester Lanoline music, champagne and wine that came from somewhere other than the Finger Lakes, and not only black tie de rigeur but socks as well, that it was one of the few gigs we put on that was deemed fit for faculty and parental consumption. Then, as now, it was a semi-expensive affair, with the net proceeds going to charity.
The trouble with Club 777 was that it was as soporific as it was classy. Indeed, about the only exciting or even amusing thing I can ever remember happening at a Club 777 was the occasion when our esteemed faculty adviser, Dean Paine (ADPhi Northwestern ’32), upon leaving, drove his car off the driveway and down the hill, narrowly missing that white house below us whose name escapes me just now. The Painemobile remained planted there, looking a bit like a Soviet Whiskey Class submarine “on the rocks,” until the following Monday, but the dean was a pretty good old boy and managed to laugh it off.
By the time I was grooming myself to accede to the presidency (as the French say) of the House, many would have been quite happy to let Club 777 die a dignified and merciful death. As I recall, Bob Engle ’65 and a few other alums put up a spirited defense in its behalf, but if they weren’t alone in this endeavor, they were damn near it.
Cut now, if you will, to London in the summer of ’66, where at one point I found myself in a gambling club which was not in fact called the Mayfair Rouge et Noir Club but something very similar to that. There I played a goodish bit of roulette, and although by 3:00 a.m. I was undeniably “quids out,” the evening had been so convivial, what with all the fancy ladies and their filthy rich Levantine escorts, the waitresses resembling half-dressed chambermaids dispensing free drinks and sandwiches of cucumber and watercress, the thrill of the games, etc., that the next morning while nursing a hangover and wondering vaguely how I was going to negotiate the fare back to Paris, I pondered this roulette wheel and concluded that if one were the house rather than the player, one might get the best of both sides, i.e., the enjoyment plus the profits.
Back at the Phi that fall I put my scheme into motion. First, buy a roulette wheel. What I’d originally had in mind was a semi-serious wooden job, but a thorough search of Ithaca’s more upscale stores yielded not only no roulette wheels, but even some gratuitous suggestions as to where I ought to be looking for one. I eventually had to settle for a Milton Bradley toy “casino” set from Woolworth’s, which, along with dice and dominoes and other useless stuff, contained a dinky plastic roulette wheel about the size of a dog food dish. I like to think that I was then, as now, a man of some principle, and I must confess that this sorry excuse for a roulette wheel almost caused me to chuck the whole project. But I persevered, driven by visions of the Mayfair Rouge et Noir Club as well as the cautiously optimistic discovery that the wheel, although small and squeaky, did in fact seem to rotate well enough.
I somehow browbeat the then-House administration into allowing me to set up shop in the solarium on Wednesday evenings, after dinner. I chose Wednesdays because that was the one night in the week when dates were invited, and I figured craftily that brothers might be expected to punt more recklessly in the presence of their various bimbos than at other times. As the social chairman at the time, it wasn’t difficult for me to organize a paying bar. I then figured that if I were going to be the “bank,” busy selling chips, raking in the dough, and also watching out for “number counters,” not to mention the cops, it would behoove me to take on a croupier. I chose for this role the admirable Daniel Dudek ’69, a pledge of unaristocratic background but of pleasant disposition who somehow managed to combine the physical attributes of Howdy Doody and Dennis Potvin. It didn’t take an unreasonably long time to teach him a reasonable facsimile of “Mesdames et messieurs, faites vos jeux; rien ne vas plus!” Finally, after Vicente Aragon ’65 had passed muster on our slightly jerry-rigged “white tie and tails,” Dudek and I were ready to sally forth.
All that was still needed was to give this fandango a name. Back in 1966, Cornell, like every other campus, was awash in a lot of ill-informed acrimony concerning our efforts in the now-ex Republic of Vietnam. There were, however, a few countervailing voices, including an ebullient if somewhat anarchic outfit on campus called VIVA (“Victory in Vietnam Association”). Unfortunately for the free world, VIVA was not a hugely successful or even active outfit: it consisted largely of yours truly, along with stalwart brothers like Sam Glasser ’67, Dave “Fuzzy” Ryan ’67, Rick Burt ’69, Gordy Evans ’68, the immortal Clayton Davis Wrigley ’68 (Where the hell, by the way, is Wrigley?), and a couple of other knuckle-dragging kindred spirits from such houses as Chi Psi and Phi Gam. I’m sorry to say that our activities were largely confined to terrorizing the hapless peaceniks at the Watermargin cooperative dorm by stomping on their yellow daffodils and buying beers for the terminally lonely Marine recruiter, Staff Sergeant Stan Popalowski (true name, I swear) down at the Alpine Tap Room.
Anyway, when it came time to name my casino, I decided on the “Victory Club,” partly as a subliminal reminder that there was at least a theoretical chance of somebody winning something, as well as a kind of vicarious tie-in with our then-strenuous national exertions against Jane Fonda’s friends in North Vietnam.
The Victory Club’s first Wednesday was a smashing success. Steve “Mad Doctor” Irwin ’67 was the star. He left off juggling his balls (the three yellow foam rubber balls he used to carry around in his coat pocket—I mean he actually was a juggler) and desisted from shooting off SAE’s chimney from up in the tower with his Army .45 long enough to emerge as the evening’s biggest loser. But most everyone else lost a decent amount as well, and, after paying Dudek his cut, I found I’d recuperated all I’d lost that summer at the Mayfair Rouge et Noir.
Things proceeded more or less “According to Aspinall’s” for a couple of weeks. I was making enough of the spare folding so that for once I could feed gas to the Old Armadillo in increments larger than 50 cents at a time, and the worthy Dudek actually went and bought himself what I believe was his first tie that didn’t come pre-tied. But then disaster struck. Not all at once, of course, but much in the fashion of a greased snowball. The problem was with the number 17; specifically, the number 17 began turning up with increasing frequency. There must have been some sort of tiny crack or depression or something in Milton Bradley’s lousy plastic around number 17, because, as un-intellectual as some of us were in those days, it was not very long before the pile of chips being bet on the wretched number 17 was taking on the aspect of a Lego skyscraper. The loyal Dudek and I blanched, sweated, and quivered to our roots, but there was nothing to be done. I actually considered painting out the number 17 on the wheel and replacing it with a triple zero, but not only was this not cricket, I discovered that all the paint in the House had recently been used in the painting of Chi Psi’s Saint Bernard dog.
Parlous situations such as these have a way of attaining critical mass quite on their own, and (as they are fond of saying in wire dispatches) events deteriorated rapidly. An uncharacteristically nimble mental calculation on my part told me that by the time the offending pill landed yet again on the foul number 17, my accrued indebtedness to the brothers and their censorious dates would be fast approaching, if not actually exceeding, New York City’s welfare budget, so I decided to pull up stakes. Literally.
Now, I don’t know how other casinos go out of business, if they ever do—the literature on the subject is skimpy. I, however, rather instinctively felt that if it were to be done at all, it had best be done in a damn slippery manner. So, having whispered to the appalled Dudek to prepare himself for a bit of sport, I waited (not very long, I’m afraid) for the cursed ball to fall into number 17 one final time, whereupon I grabbed up the wheel, mat, chips, etc., and called out something like, “Right! That’s it! Good night! Game’s over! Till sometime next century! Don’t call me, I’ll call you! Maybe. Thanks ever so much for your loyal patronage! Have a nice day!”
The reaction from the brotherhood was not as fraternal as I, in my innocence, had hoped for. There was general astonishment, not to mention outrage, and, I’m sorry to say, dark mutterings containing allusions to incipient violence. And though I could scarcely credit my ears, I distinctly remember my great pal Irwin mentioning a good and novel use for his .45 as he descended the stairs two at a time. Aragon kept tut-tutting “Bad show, Jolis, this is very tacky; in fact my great-Aunt Cecilia would have had you shot by now,” and one silly cow of a date went so far as to mention the campus police.
Most distressing, of course. But Dudek and I did not dither. Fleeing through the living room, we erupted in a somewhat Chaplinesque fashion out onto the driveway, down which Dudek made good his escape, shedding bits and pieces of Aragon’s splendid white tie déguisement as he went. (He was to remain incognito for about eight days, at the end of which I am forced to admit that our fraternal reunion was slightly chilled by his amazed and, I felt, needlessly repeated inquiries as to why I was not languishing in somebody’s slammer.)
Me, I ditched the offending so-called roulette wheel into the nearest dumpster and de-assed the area in favor of the Fall Creek House (figuring that you had to be a pretty damned rabid avenging sort of angel to go into a place like the Fall Creek House after someone—even someone like me), there to lose myself amongst its toothless denizens. By about 2:00 in the morning, having consumed enough Carling Black Label, Slim Jims, and beer nuts to keep the male population of Pittsburgh happy for about a year, and having worn a hole in “A Double Shot of My Baby’s Love,” which the Fall Creek House rather incredibly had in its jukebox, I was still pondering my Next Step in Life. (I was also wondering how to escape the entreaties of the large Polish gentleman who I had mistaken for a drunken Ithaca Gun Company worker but who, to my horror, had turned out to be the owner of the Fall Creek House, which he kept, with damnable persistence, trying to sell to me.)
However, I was to be saved once again—In this case by Glasser and Ryan, who came in to tell me that most, if not all, was more or less forgiven, if not quite forgotten, and that, in their considered judgement, it “would probably be cool” if I wanted to come back up to the House.
So this, children, is the true story of Victory Club and how it got its name. You can check it with Wrigley if you don’t believe me. That is, if you can find him. Which, if anybody ever does, I authorize the finder to buy him a beer on my behalf. He was a great man, Wrigley. Amongst his many skills was his amazing ability to recite, in reverse alphabetical order, the 50 states plus their capitals in less than 60 seconds. He won us a lot of pitchers of beer in the Chapter House with this stunt.
Anyway, cheers, X-ray, and remember, the next time you’re gaming, go for number 17.