From Stephen Parks, “Old Yale: Origins of the ‘Lizzie’”
Yale Alumni Magazine, December 1986.
The Founder: Alexander Smith Cochran
The Club’s founder was a man of considerable interest. Alexander Smith Cochran’s family had been in the carpet manufacturing business in Yonkers, New York, for several generations. On leaving Yale, Cochran entered the carpet works as a hand and moved rapidly up to become president five years later. After the death of his uncle, he installed another man as president and turned full-time to his three leisure devotions—yachting, books, and philanthropy.
In 1910, Cochran launched his renowned schooner, the Westward, and sailed from America to England in fourteen days. Throughout that summer he raced the Westward in European waters, from Cowes to Kiel. His record against such famous craft as the Shamrock, the Kaiser’s Meteor and the Germania was perfect. In 1914 Cochran built the sloop Vanitie as a trial yacht for the America’s Cup races that year. He took the lead in organizing the crew and managing the boat in preliminary races, but the outbreak of war in August interrupted those plans. In January, 1917, Cochran turned his steam yacht Warrior over to the British Navy to be converted into an armed cruiser, and accepted the commission of Commander in the British Royal Naval Reserve to remain in charge of it. At the war’s end, he was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
In the heyday of the gossip column, Cochran was widely known as America’s richest bachelor, with a net worth of more than $50 million. His marriage in 1920 to Ganna Walska, the Polish soprano, made society headlines; the stormy divorce less than two years later made for spicier newspaper reading.
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.
More information on the history of The Elizabethan Club and Alexander Smith Cochran.