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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: November 6, 2010

John Wilcock

Celebrate the 50th anniversary
of Mensa in North America!

The Origin of Mensa in North America
by Peter Sturgeon

     The first handful of Mensa members in North America joined between 1951 and 1959. One such American was a reporter named John Wilcock, who attended a Mensa meeting while visiting England. He returned and wrote a column about Mensa for The Village Voice.

     Peter A. Sturgeon, a medical writer in Brooklyn, fortuitously read that article, wrote to the Mensa Selection Agency on Mar. 8, 1960, and became a member as of May 1960. In August 1960, Peter was authorized to start forming a New York City regional group, and the founding meeting took place on Sept. 30, 1960, at the Brooklyn home of Peter and Ines Sturgeon.

     Since that time, Mensa in North America has spread throughout the United States and Canada, and there’s even a growing National Mensa in Mexico! American Mensa alone had more than 59,000 members this year!

{ Here is the original 1959 Village Square column }

In an adventurous mood last month, I applied to join Mensa, a society that is so exclusive that potential members pass an intelligence test before being accepted.  A few days later I received that preliminary test, a Cattell Intelligence Test, and fared as well as I could filling gaps in sentences, matching shapes, eliminating odd words from groups (e.g., page, word, brick, table, musical note), and solving puzzles in reasoning.


(A man bought a horse for $20 and paid for it with a $30 check.  The dealer got it changed by a storekeeper and gave the buyer $10 change.  The check later bounced, so the dealer refunded the storekeeper’s money.  The horse had originally cost the dealer $10.  What was his total loss?)


Last week’s mail brought from Mensa an evaluation of my test. “On this evidence,” wrote secretary Victor Serebriakoff, “your intelligence quotient appears to be 143. Put more simply, your score is higher than that of 96 percent of the population. While these figures are above average, they are unfortunately not up to the very high level we are looking for in our panel.”

With the letter came a printed sheet of information about intelligence tests in general and instructions on converting one’s Cattell I.Q. into the more familiar revised Binet I.Q. (my Binet would be 128.7).  There is also a final note from Mensa explaining that the society’s lowest acceptance figure is I.Q. 155 on the Cattell scale (about 136 on the Binet or Wechsler). This very high rating, by the way, represents only about 1 percent of the population.

[ What follows are more of my Village Voice columns from the 1960s ]

Just finished reading an advance copy of Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image, or What Happened to the American Dream (Atheneum, $5) which is a book that tries to explain what has brought us to our present state where we have abandoned our ideals, exchanged reality for the fantasy that we obviously prefer and come to accept the “pseudo-event” in virtually every phase of our life.

Boorstin, professor of American History at the University of Chicago, is a man clearly worried by the direction in which we are headed. He says, in effect, that almost everything we do and think nowadays is second-hand, and “the awkward monstrosities of our everyday speech betray this. We don’t talk about something anymore; we talk “in terms of” it. We do not study art, music or literature; we study the “appreciation” of it or them.  We do not discuss a problem; we look at it “policy-wise”.

The pseudo-event, in Prof. Boorstin’s definition, is the happening that is created especially to be reported — the politician, for example, who is prodded by some reporter into making a statement; the best seller that people buy because they have been told it’s a best seller and thus fulfills prophecy;  the article that’s printed in a magazine just so Reader’s Digest can ‘reprint’ it.  These are only three examples from a book that touches on everything from advertising slogans to fan magazines, from the American Legion (“the heroes’ union”) to Kleenex, from Muzak to Barnum.  The Image is obviously one of the most perceptive books for many a year. (Feb 3, 1962)

The golden years of a bitter drink known as Moxie were around the 1920s.  Then nearly everybody drank it.  The firm is two years older than Coca-Cola (which will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 1961) and for a long time was just as well known.  Today Moxie survives mainly as an adjective implying “pep” or “spirit,” and also as a gag advertisement in the background of Mad magazine’s strip cartoons.

By 1920 the Moxie Company, which had been founded by a Salem, Mass., doctor named Augustin Thompson, had grown so large that it built a new plant in Roxbury, expanded its operations nationally, and through the years fought and won dozens of court cases against imitators with such as Proxie, Hoxie, Noxie, Noxall, Non-tox, Modox, Rixie, and Toxie.

A letter written to the company as early as August 13, 1917, from a Sarah Shaw, complained that three bottles of imitation Moxie bought at a store in Maine made two members of her party “extremely ill for six hours.”

Added Miss Shaw:  “We have been drinking Moxie all our lives and it has never before made us ill…I do hope you will follow this up, for the vile stuff was bottled in one of your bottles.”

The company did follow up and later declared:  “Moxie is inimitable, for its formula is secret…19 separate ingredients and materials are derived from plants in one form or another, namely roots, berries, and leaves.  The principal ingredient is the gentian root which is imported from southwestern Europe…”

What caused Moxie’s decline?  Partly a changing public taste toward sweeter drinks, but mainly the fact that the new national firm ran into the depression in the late ’20s, and the high royalty charges demanded by the original company kept Moxie’s price up to ten cents a bottle outside New England.

“The results, as you might imagine, were disastrous,” says Orville S. Purdy, vice-president of the Moxie Company, which still exists in Needham Heights, MA., According to Mr. Purdy, Moxie is on the verge of revival.  “We expect 1960 to be our greatest year.  We do not say in New England ‘Moxie is coming back,’ we say ‘Moxie is back!’”
The major factor operating against the firm at present is that distribution is spread over a comparatively small area of the country — New England, upstate New York, part of Pennsylvania, and southern California.  New territories will be signed up later.

A man who sits behind the desk of a real estate office in the Village is apt to meet some pretty funny people. There’ll be the wife who’s planning to leave her husband but wants to get a new home fixed up before she tells him.  ….The Wall Street broker who wants to recapture his youth by renting a studio loft to give cocktail parties…the wide-eyed girls who are spending their first months in New York and haven’t quite got over the excitement.

About the last-mentioned, realtor George Arnold is prepared to go out on a limb. “Most of them are college girls who still like to live dormitory style,” he says. “If four of them take an apartment, I can almost guarantee that within a year two will be married, one either engaged or enceinte, and one still trying.”

Arnold, in his late thirties, has been running the Greenvil Realty Service on Waverly Place for about ten years and is apt to describe himself, lightly, as “a frustrated social-service worker.”

“Residentially the Village is becoming less and less a center for the arts and crafts and more and more infiltrated with upper-middle-class elements, but in some respects, I think the landlords are cutting their own throats. It’s true that the area’s been oversold almost to the point that home hunters expect to find every apartment with a timbered ceiling, fireplace, and garden, but many landlords are destroying what atmosphere there is by remodeling, bricking up fireplaces, and covering wide-plank floors.

“Oversold or not, people are still searching for apartments here.  They come in every day, the ladies turning on all their charm, the men trying to be the tough Hollywood he-men type. No matter how many apartments we rent, there are always more people looking. They holler in through the window on their way to work; they sit here sadly and say their fiancées won’t marry them unless they can find a place. You’ve no idea how many sociological and philosophical discussions we’ve had going on in this office.

“As often as not, somebody will invite me to a party in the apartment I’ve found for them — and then their fellow guests will corner me over the drinks and ask if I can find them an apartment, too.”

To anybody who’s still looking, there’s not much advice Arnold can offer.  “Apartments do become vacant, of course,” he says, “and if you’re lucky you’ll be around at just the right time. The only possible method is to keep trying.

“Most people are very nice about it, but there are a few crackpots who think we’re peddling to the highest bidder. Sometimes they offer me bribes, and I guess they’re rather surprised when I throw them out.”

(John Wilcock, currently in Peru, will be back next week)