NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Mory's, a legendary Yale eating and drinking club that traces its roots to the Civil War, has a powerful membership that includes two presidents named Bush. Foreign leaders and movie stars such as Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Dan Aykroyd, Tom Hanks and Jodie Foster have patronized the club.
But Mory's has fallen on tough economic times and has temporarily closed and laid off its employees. The club might not reopen after the winter break.
"We're going to try," said Christopher Getman, the newly appointed president of the club's board of governors. "Right now it's going to be a long, uphill struggle."
The club had an endowment of about $2 million a few years ago that was "crushed" in the financial meltdown, Getman said. Mory's already was struggling as Yale students and faculty increasingly turned to the trendy restaurants and bars that have opened in recent years in New Haven.
Former President George H. W. Bush visited Mory's last year to receive the Mory's Cup award. He was known to dine at the club with his granddaughter Barbara, who graduated from Yale in 2004.
Secret Service agents were regulars outside the club, which has drawn royalty from Jordan to Belgium.
"You felt a distinct sense of history as soon as you walked in," said Christopher Buckley, a best-selling novelist and son of William F. Buckley Jr., a founder of the modern conservative movement. He noted that a photo of the first President Bush in his Yale baseball uniform hangs on the wall.
With more than 14,000 members, Mory's calls itself the largest private club in the world. A lifetime membership costs $2,000; until the 1970s it was just $15. Former Presidents Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford and William Howard Taft visited Mory's, as did Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, according to Getman.
Mory's traces its history to 1863 when a group of Yale students returning from crew practice stopped in at a tavern run by Frank Moriarty and his wife. The oarsmen were impressed with the unpretentious alehouse, which quickly gained popularity among the Yale set.
Mrs. Moriarty, known simply as The Widow after her husband died, served Welsh rarebit, eggs on toast, and grilled sardines when she wasn't knitting in a rocking chair. At closing hour, she simply said: "Twelve o'clock, gentlemen."
A later owner encouraged Yale singing groups, leading in 1909 to the famous Whiffenpoofs, whose future members included Cole Porter. The male singing group, whose theme song about Mory's was sung by Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby, sang weekly at the club and has performed at the White House.
When the owner was threatened by increasing real estate values and poor health, Yale students and alumni came to the rescue and converted Mory's into a club in 1912.
Books and memorabilia about Yale and Mory's fill the shelves. Initials and mysterious symbols carved into the tables have been mounted on the walls, and oars pulled by victorious crewmen hang from the ceiling.
The club survived Prohibition, including a visit to Yale by prohibitionist Carry Nation, who was known to smash up bars with her cane and bricks. Her photo shows students drinking and smoking around her; Getman isn't sure how they pulled that off.
"There are things that happen here that aren't going to happen anywhere else," said Robin Soltesz, the club's comptroller. "They have to save it."
Getman said the club was trying to raise $200,000 to $300,000 and develop a business plan to return to profitability. The club has reached out to its lifetime members and asked them to voluntarily start paying annual dues. Getman said he was encouraged by the response.