In the last fifteen years of his life Cochran suffered from tuberculosis and divided his time between cruising on the Restless and vacationing on an estate he had acquired in Colorado. Nevertheless, he continued to take an interest in various philanthropies. Clarence Day wrote of his charity: “Cochran doesn’t enjoy just giving money to carry out other people’s ideas. What he likes is working on one of his own… Of course everybody who sees him, nearly, very soon thinks of some excellent use for his money. The thought of all those millions of his excites them, and they find it impossible not to make suggestions.”
It was characteristic of Cochran to dream up the notion of the Elizabethan Club after spending a few months in California for his health. As an undergraduate at Yale, he had attended the first course—Elizabethan Drama—taught by the legendary Billy Phelps. Phelps remembered Cochran as “shy and reticent,” and wrote, “I had no means of knowing whether or not the course had made any impression upon him. Nor did I know anything about him personally, or that he was a millionaire in his own right.”
In 1909 or 1910, Cochran wrote to Phelps from England. From interests aroused by studying the Elizabethan drama as an undergraduate, he had begun to collect original editions of plays and poems published during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Aware that Phelps might be interested, he sent him a list of the books he had acquired.
“When the list reached me,” Phelps wrote, “I nearly fell out of my chair. He had an astounding collection, every item a rarity, and the whole worth several hundred thousand dollars—Shakespeare quartos, a copy of the first edition of the Sonnets,or Bacon’s Essays, and so on.”
In a year, Cochran’s plan was fully elaborated. He wished to found at Yale an Elizabethan Club, because the one thing he had most missed as a Yale undergraduate was good conversation. He thought that if there were an undergraduate club at Yale, with a remarkable library as a nucleus, students who loved literature and the arts would be glad to meet there and discuss them informally and naturally, both with their contemporaries and with members of the faculty. He proposed to give his collection, not to the University Library, but to the undergraduates of Yale College who were members of his club… .
Through Phelps, Cochran offered Yale much more than his collection of books. He gave $75,000 to buy and refurbish an early nineteenth-century house on College Street and offered $100,000 for the initial endowment.