NEW YORK — Some members are on welfare; others are millionaires. Some are humanitarians; others are crooks. Some are poets; others butcher English. Yet they all belong to the same club.
It's Mensa, and the only requirement for membership is to score within the top two percentiles on a standard IQ test.
"Sanity is not a requirement," said Margot Seitelman, who has been executive director for 24 of the organization's 25 years in the United States, ever since she answered an ad in The New York Times classified under "U" for unusual.
Position, looks, manners, breeding, going to the right schools, wealth--all count for naught. So, while it is elitist in one sense--and that often draws ire even from some members--it is also democratic. At a Mensa meeting, a garbage man is comfortable talking to an engineer, a corporate executive to a janitor, a Harvard graduate to a high school dropout.
The name m ensa is Latin for table. The idea is that everyone is equal at this round table of discussion.
Founded in England
Mensa was founded in England by two lawyers 40 years ago, but American Mensa Ltd. now has by the far the most members, about 52,000 of an international membership of about 65,000 in 14 countries.
The two Englishmen had dreams of harnessing the group's brainpower for national emergencies, but Mensans quickly turned it into an unusual club that once in a while dabbles in socially redeeming issues.
(Far more popular in England are the Special Interest Groups, which encompass everything from astrology to philosophy to Scrabble, from paganism, occultism and witchcraft to holistic healing. These have names such as Egyptology, Chess for Blood and Degenerates--the subgroup that bills itself as "a thorn in the side of Mensan pomposity and pretense.")
Some people join Mensa to find others who can play charades as well as they, or just to meet people with equally quick minds. Others join to enhance self-esteem. Many a Mensan marriage has resulted.
"The competition at a Mensa meeting is not who can sound off about the most esoteric subject," says the new chairman, Amy E. Shaughnessy, the first woman to head the organization. "The competition is who has the best new joke.
"It's a place where a person can be very comfortable admitting total ignorance on a subject. Knowing everything is not important. Everybody there already knows you're smart because you're there, so that gives you a great sense of freedom."
Mensa, which has 140 local groups across the country, has a separate arm for research and education projects, Mensa Education and Research Foundation. It manages Mensa scholarship programs and, for purposes of legitimate research, allows access to computerized information about the members.
Mensa members also are interested in the problems of gifted children, and there is a program for Mensans who are in prison.
Peter Sturgeon, a retired technical writer now living in Vienna, called the first U.S. Mensa meeting in his Brooklyn apartment 25 years ago this fall. Four men and two women who had passed the tests showed up. That ratio of men to women still holds true today.
"We decided to form an American chapter, and there were 67 suggestions on how we should go about that and no volunteers to do it," recalls Sturgeon, now 67. "That part of the operation has not changed at all.
"People were very suspicious at first. The Better Business Bureau and the postal authorities wanted to know what we were doing. They thought we were a left-wing organization."
Most testing experts scoff at the idea that IQ tests are legitimate measurements of intelligence, and Mensans themselves don't take the test scores seriously. A member who boasts about his or her score is hooted down.
In the history of American Mensa, a nonprofit organization, only two members have been expelled. They were too obnoxious even for the tolerant standards of Mensa members, who tend to be individualistic non-joiners.
Shaughnessy, 42 and holder of a master's degree in linguistics, joined Mensa in 1973 because she wasn't satisfied with her social life.
At a Mensa meeting she met her husband-to-be, a man she said she would have missed knowing had she not joined the club.
"He was 14 years older than I, had traveled and lived all over the world and had a high school degree," she says. "I had a master's degree, had never traveled and we simply would have never bumped into each other."
Few Famous Names
There are relatively few household names among Mensa members. The exceptions are Isaac Asimov, the late Buckminster Fuller, lawyer F. Lee Bailey and Donald Peterson, chairman of Ford Motor Co.
Many other members' names are recognized in their fields but not known to the general public.
"Henry Kissinger would undoubtedly qualify," said Shaughnessy, "but what does Mensa have to offer him? People who are jet-setters, who have very full professional lives, just don't have the time or the inclination."