April Fools’ day may have come and gone, but in the spirit of keeping the laughter going, let’s look back almost 70 years to a student prank involving the school’s portrait collection. As the story goes, two 3L students wanted to pull off a prank before graduation so they commissioned a young art student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts to paint a semi-nude female judge. The portrait, now fondly referred to as “Lady Ellesmere” was painted by Mrs. Vera Chvany Hussey, now Vera Chvany Hussey-Forbes. She was referred to the two HLS students by a friend with strong Harvard connections; Sally Mallinckrodt, the granddaughter of Edward Mallinckrodt. Early in the morning of March 24, 1948, the students made arrangements with janitorial staff to hang the portrait, an oil painting on heavy craft paper, in the Langdell South Middle classroom in the frame normally reserved for the portrait of Sir Thomas Egerton, Baron Ellesmere, who had supposedly been removed for cleaning. Dean Griswold’s 10:00am class experienced the portrait in situ, which is memorialized in the photograph below. The prank received front page coverage in the Law School’s student paper the following week. Sadly, by the time the article went to press no one knew of the painting’s whereabouts.
The portrait of Baron Ellesmere is currently in storage but we know that it was eventually returned to its frame and remained on display in the Langdell South Middle classroom until at least the 1950s, thanks to this photograph. You can see the left side of the painting on the far right of the photograph. For those wondering what he looked like, we have other images of Egerton in the collection, including the engraving below.
Mrs. Hussey-Forbes believes that Griswold confiscated the portrait and hopeful that it might have made it into our collection she has contacted the Law School and other Harvard sources for more than 60 years trying to get more information. Sadly, we have not found it but it seems the incident did make an impression on Griswold, who memorialized it in a scrapbook of clippings, pamphlets, and photographs now in our collection. Griswold wasn’t the only one interested in the prank; the story spread from coast to coast and reached newspapers in California, Colorado, Nebraska, and Indiana just to name a few places. Mrs. Hussey-Forbes has written a memoir that includes the story of the painting and more recently published a blog post on the incident. She was kind enough to speak with me and shared a few more details that didn’t make it into the original news coverage. Vera’s relationship with HLS started long before the prank; she grew up on Everett Street and has memories of running through Langdell Hall as a kid. After the prank, Look magazine contacted her about doing a story, which they hoped would include Griswold giving the painting back to her. But when Vera contacted Dean Griswold to see if this was a possibility his response was that he would only give the painting back if she gave him the names of the pranksters. Vera refused and that was the end of the Look piece.
It is important to note that this prank was pulled off two years before Harvard Law School admitted its first class of women. Thankfully times have changed and multiple portraits of actual female judges adorn the walls of the school and their presence is neither a joke, nor an anomaly like Lady Ellesmere’s brief appearance in 1948.
Correction: April 25, 2016
This post incorrectly stated that Mrs. Hussey-Forbes first contacted Historical & Special Collections eight years ago. In fact she had been contacting numerous Harvard sources for the last 68 years with no success. Thanks to Mrs. Hussey-Forbes’ persistence in bring the story to light and recent digitization efforts, I was able to locate the article published in the Law School student paper, which served as the starting point for further research.