This article originally appeared in the January of 2006 issue of Vanity Fair Magazine. All photographs by Jonathan Becker, Vanity Fair’s ‘Photographer at Large,’ with exception of the opening aerial photo by Vincent Laforet.
For the past 150 years St. Paul’s School, the “exclusive” (as it is invariably called) boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire, has been the Eton of America’s upper crust. Or perhaps it is its Hogwarts; as Harry Potter’s fictional academy is called, providing the country with many of its most accomplished wizards-not just at making money, although that is what its graduates have tended to do, but in practically every endeavor. Its main constituency has traditionally been the conservative old Wasp families of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia-the plutocracy that has been running the country for generations. But this is changing. Since the first black student was admitted-in my class, which graduated in 1964- the school’s admissions policy has been progressively more meritocratic. The “natural aristocracy,” based on virtue and talent, to use Thomas Jefferson’s distinction, has been displacing the “artificial aristocracy,” based on wealth and birth. Every year there are fewer “legacies,” fewer fourth- or fifth-generation Paulies, among the 533 students, who now come from 37 states and 21 countries. Despite its reputation for being a breeder of staunch, old-line Republicans, St. Paul’s uas arso turne6 out a msimguls’ne6 roster of liberals, including the cartoonist Garry Trudeau and Senator John Kerry. Kerry was in the class of ’62, two years ahead of me, and even then he seemed to be plotting his run for the presidency. When he finally got his chance, many of us alumni were hoping he would win, not only because we felt . the Bush administration was such a disaster but also because St. Paul’s has yet to produce a president, whereas Groton prepped ED.R., Choate J.EK., and Andover both Bushes. But Kerry was a terrible disappointment. He simply lacked the common touch-which is not something you acquire at St. Paul’s. Last November, while Kerry was underperforming at the polls, a series of crises was rocking our alma mater. Elements of the trouble had been brewing for several years, but what busted the whole thing open was an article in the August 25, 2003, Wall Street Journal which revealed that the rector, as the headmaster of this venerable Episcopalian hall of learning is called, was being paid $524,000 a year in salary, pension, bonuses, and perks that included having his daughters’ tuition at the University of Chicago picked up by the school. Parents, students, and alumni were stunned, and a rumor went around that the amount was more than the president of Harvard is paid. (It’s actually a little less, and some prep-school headmasters get even more.) The rector, as his name implies, is supposed to be a pillar of rectitude, especially if, as Craig Anderson was, he is also a bishop of the Episcopal Church. But “the Bish,” as he was fondly called by students, had been accused of using the rector’s discretionary fund-which is supposed to be reserved for school expenses-to pay for personal ones, including his membership in a yacht club in Maine. (“It was not a fancy yacht club,” Anderson says from Minnesota, where he and his wife now live. “The dues were minimal-$I,OOO to $1,200 a year. In my contract, there were certain provisions for memberships in clubs. One year, this was used for the yacht club, but when this was brought to light and felt to be inappropriate, I repaid it fully.”) On top of this, the trustees who were managing the school’s $364 million endowment were accused of having “cozy relationships” with some of the companies they had it invested in, although an investigation found nothing illegal. All of this prompted an investigation by the New Hampshire attorney general’s office, which put the school’s finances under review through 2008, even though the rector and vice-rector had cut their own salaries by 10 percent. It also prompted an audit by the I.R.S., which has yet to be concluded. Not one but two scathing articles about the school eventually appeared in The New York: Times, the paper of record. Not good for the old image, especially when you are competing for top students against other well-endowed institutions such as New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy, Connecticut’s Choate Rosemary Hall, and Massachusetts’s Groton School, Phillips Academy Andover, and Milton Academy, not to mention the excellent private day schools and public schools that are attracting a growing number of high-performing teenagers. This embarrassing spot on the school tie was still painfully fresh when, a few days into the 2004-5 school year, 15 sixth-form (senior) girls were suspended for hazing some of the new girls. The worst thing that happened was that some of the younger students were forced to simulate fellatio on bananas. Not such a big deal, compared with the 15-year-old girl at Milton Academy who performed oral sex on five members of her school’s hockey team in succession a few months later. (Not such a big deal either, apparently, judging from a recent S.PS. graduate’s response: “The question is: Did they win?”) Or compared with the student at Northfield Mount Hermon School, in Massachusetts, who had the word HOMO carved into his back by two jocks in 1999. Or with the freshman football player at McGill University, in Montreal, who was prodded in the rear with a broomstick during a hazing ceremony last August 27, prompting the school to ‘cancel its entire 2005 football season. But the banana incident violated New Hampshire’s hazing law and had to be reported to the police. Groton’s trustees had gotten into hot water a few years earlier for trying to keep the lid on sexual-abuse allegations. So there was an investigation, and the papers got wind of it, and the school suffered a second public-relations disaster. Then, on November 7, only five weeks after the school’s monumental new, $24 mil-lion gym and fitness center opened, a boy in the fourth form (the 10th grade) drowned in its Olympic-size swimming pool. While this appeared to fall into the category of pure tragedy (although the parents have sued the school), it couldn’t have happened at a worse moment. One couldn’t help thinking that the Lord was not smiling on this devoutly Christian school, where attendance at chapel four times a week is still obligatory. The fourth element of the St. Paul’s calamity had been incubating for years: the allegations that, from the late 1940s through the early 90s, dozens of the school’s masters (as the teachers were known until women joined the faculty, in 1972), including several revered ones, had sexually molested students. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been surprising, given that molestation-or “inappropriate boundary-crossing by a teacher,” as it was more delicately described by Dean of Faculty Candice Dale-is a problem in schools the world over. Some of the alumni of Selwyn House, a private all-boys day school in Montreal that has educated much of the city’s Anoglophone elite, for instance, have filed a class-action suit against the school for abuse they elite, for instance, have filed a class-action suit against the school for abuse they allegedly suffered from a teacher in the 70s and 80s. Both Andover and Exeter have also had sex-abuse incidents in the past 15 years. My heart went out to the school. I had a great time there and learned so much that I entered Harvard as a sophomore. St. Paul’s really gave me a leg up, as it did almost everyone who went there, including the ones who were kicked out or ran away and went on to have stellar careers. So it was distressing to see the treatment it was getting in the press. As one scandal followed another, none of the news articles that my classmates disseminated to one another in hundreds of mass e-mails conveyed what the school was actually like. Many of my media colleagues seemed to be taking relish in tearing down the reputation of one of the sanctums of American elitism. It was such a juicy target, how could you not go for the jugular? But anyone who has gone to St. Paul’s knows what a magical, and surprisingly democratic, place it is. My interest was piqued because I knew many of the players, including one of the most notorious of the accused masters, who is now living in disgrace in another state. At least I thought I knew him. (He had never come on to me.) I knew the new, interim rector, Bill Matthews, who had been an exemplary sixth-form supervisor in the Lower School when I was in the third form. And I knew the new head of the board of trustees, Jim Robbins, because we’d grown up together in Bedford, New York, in the 50s. Both of them had taken office after their predecessors resigned in June. We hadn’t seen one another in years, but I remembered them as good men. I also knew one of the lifetime trustees who had been on the secretive, too powerful Executive Committee and had stepped down, and the investment adviser who had done the report on the school’s governance for the state A.G.’s office. The New England prep-school world of 40 to 50 years ago is a small one. I had also written the history of two other private schools, attended by my five sons over the years-St. George’s School of Montreal, and Rippowam Cisqua School, in Bedford, New York-so I knew that schools are fascinating microcosms. They act out what is happening in the society at large. As the parent of a former student told me, after I started writing about the crises and their repercussions, “Everything that happened at St. Paul’s is symptomatic of what our society has become.” The St. Paul’s campus spreads over more than 2,000 acres of deep woods, spotted with dark ponds, on the outskirts of the state capital. On the largest pond, Turkey, the crews of the rival rowing teams, the ‘Halcyons and the Shattucks (every student belongs to one of these, whether or not he or she goes out for crew), race each spring. When they are good enough, usually every other year, the best oarsmen go to Henleyon-Thames, in England, to compete in the Princess Elizabeth Challenge .Cup against the crews of Eton, Harrow, and other British public schools. The Halcyon jacket is maroon, the Shattuck cerulean blue, and the lapels of both are fringed with white. Straw boaters, white ducks, white oxfords, and white shirts with the Halcyon or Shattuck tie complete the after-the-race outfit. Hogwarts has Quidditch; St. Paul’s has crew, hockey, and squash .. The central part of campus is bisected by a broad, straight road which becomes a cer-emonial way on Anniversary Weekend each June, when the alumni parade..down it, class by class. It is the gratitude and the generosity of its 7,441 living graduates that keep the school going. But, as a classmate of mine who hails front one of the nation’s oldest families told me, “Those who give like the idea of their kids and grandkids going there, but this has been a problem since the late 80s, when the school turned into some kind of a hothouse that only the creme de la creme can get into anymore.” My six-day visit to the school in October coincides with one of those glorious little windows known as Indian summer, a combination of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves.” Each morning the ponds are swathed in mist. I watch students running across the bridge from the Coit Upper dormitory, where they have just had breakfast, to chapel. If they aren’t inside by the time its Westminster chimes toll eight times, their names will be taken and they will get a “bag,” which was called a demerit in my day. Back then, enough demerits put you on a work crew, which was run by a little man who was known to us as “the Toad.” The Toad used to take some of the boys from the best families on a tour of whorehouses in the summer. As far as I know, no one who participated in these outings has ever complained. “The Toad was not a pedophile,” says an alumnus who has .made it his mission to expose abusers among the faculty. “At worst he was a voyeur-facilitator.” By nine o’clock the mist has burned off, to reveal massive white pines, flecked with the flaming oranges and reds of turned hardwoods, leaning out over the ponds. One golden, sun-flooded day follows another. The campus is as idyllic as I remember it. On my first day there, a Friday afternoon, the form directors-who get their classmates to come to reunions, and shake them down for checks-and the trustees have gathered for a “volunteer leadership weekend.” I find everybody in the Schoolhouse, wearing the school tie-black with red and white diagonal stripes. It’s a very bright, high-powered group, like a meeting of the Templars. Marvelous-looking old Wasps, including one who could be the twin of Ben Bradlee, mingle with other distinguished men of less obvious provenance. (Bradlee himself went to St. Mark’s School, in Massachusetts.) There are a few African-Americans and Asian-Americans, and a few women, but it still seems like an old boys’ club. A lot of the people in the room are very pissed off. The class of ‘ 55, which had its 50th reunion in June, deliberately failed to meet its $2 million goal as a protest against the board and administration that allowed all these things to happen. But the treasurer of the class of ‘ 56’s upcoming 50th tells me, “We have a couple of million at least in the bag already. We’ve got a good momentum going.” And after the Bish was sent packing, donations shot up dramatically. It has turned out to be a banner fund-raising year. “Our return is higher than any endowment out there,” reports the new treasurer of the board, Bob Lindsay (’73), who is a nephew of former New York mayor John Lindsay (’40) and is also head of the search committee that will choose the next rector. By all the metrics-the number of applications, the percentage of students accepted, the proportion who get into the Ivies, the amount of money being raised-the school is in vibrant health. Jim Robbins, the new president of the board of trustees, is at the lectern, fielding questions like a White House press secretary during a hurricane. Robbins runs his own media company in Atlanta. “Are you going to tell who did what, when, or is that protected?” asks one form director, and another says, “Let’s cut to the chase. How much did the Bishop rip us off for?” Robbins says coolly that what is released will be what is best for the school, and that Anderson is repaying every penny of his questionable expenses. Robbins would be happy to discuss the exact sum, he says, but he doesn’t want to publicize it lest it trigger another article in The New York Times. I have heard that the dubious expenditures add up to around $300,000. Peanuts by Enron standards, but it’s enough to pay for more than eight full scholarships for a year. (Annual tuition at St. Paul’s is $35,000, plus fees.) Anderson later tells me he is constrained by the I.R.S. audit from saying how much he is paying back. He says the $300,000 figure is wrong but won’t say whether the actual number is more or less. Robbins and I have known each other since we were kids. In the summer of 1963, my father and I took him and another boy to climb a small mountain called Les Diablerets-the Little Devils-near Villars, Switzerland. We ran into trouble, as can happen in the mountains. Robbins was very brave and really pulled his oar in this life-threatening situation, so I have faith that he is capable of “righting the good ship St. Paul’s,” as he puts it. But not everyone is convinced that the housecleaning within the board has been thorough enough. One member of the class of ’69 would later complain in a mass e-mail, “Much is being said lately by the board leadership about clearing the air and restoring trust. That’s a difficult thing to accomplish when many are still on the board who signed ‘unanimous’ declarations of support for Anderson, and managed to heap praise on themselves at the same time. A boatload of trust would return quickly, and much air clear, if those board members would demonstrate their sincerity by resigning. There’s really no other way to ‘clean break’ with the past; those are honoured who fall upon their swords.” Robbins apologizes to the form directors for the way all the trouble has made their jobs harder, and tells them, “The problem was that the board did not do due diligence in checking out Anderson before he was hired. They fell in love with the candidate and suspended disbelief, and that can’t happen again.” He cites other problems: concentrated power in the Executive Committee-the board’s five-member administrative body, which has since been shaken up and expanded-and a lack of communication among the rector, the board, and everyone else. Then he adds, “The school is phenomenal, but this murmur-this noise at the top-we need to establish a disconnect with it. The students’ experience is unencumbered by whatever noise there has been at the top of the organization. But it’s going to take a while to get out of this ditch.” There is a lot of talk about getting new blood on the 23-member board, but it already seems to be somewhat diverse. In addition to classic Wasps such as Robbins and Lindsay, there is an African-American judge who serves as the clerk and a Jewish New York investment banker who heads the audit committee. There are also Sabrina Fung and the Nigerian-born Dr. Olufunmilayo Falusi Olopade, as well as Trinka Taylor of Dallas, originally from Midland and a dear friend of the president’s. And there is Julie Frist, a relative of Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who is under investigation for dumping his stock in HCA Inc., a company his father helped found, a few days before it tanked. Lindsay tells the room that “the view that the trustees were enriching themselves is not true.” This will be confirmed a few days later by Harold Janeway, the investment banker who did the report on the school’s endowment management for the A.G.’s office. “There was nothing that was a chargeable offense or even close to it,” Janeway says. According to the report, one trustee, George Baker, had been managing the endowment for more than 25 years, with very little oversight. He had invested it in more than 50 “instruments,” many of them hedge funds and private venture-capital firms, so the money was very difficult to track. “It wasn’t so much what they were doing, but the way they were doing it,” Janeway says. Reached at his investment firm in New York, Baker confirms that he ran the en-dowment committee almost single-handedly from the late 70s to 2005 and had “pretty much carte blanche” because “few trustees were trained in the business.” He adds, “Those were simpler times.” During this period, Baker says, he grew the endowment sixfold and shielded it from the dot-com bust that clobbered many other schools. It is a relief to know that the alleged financial improprieties seem to have been lim-ited to Anderson. Even he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong-just getting what he was entitled to in his contract. “The current climate, with Sarbanes-Oxley [the federal regulations imposed on corporations in the wake of Enron’s collapse, in 2001] migrating to the nonprofit sector, has brought schools like S.P.S. under a lot of scrutiny, which is probably good,” he says. “But to judge the past in terms of the new government regulations, to suggest that people acted inappropriately, is insensitive. There is just a new way of operating.” Wondering how the whole thing got started, I began to piece together the bizarre and rather sordid chain of events that ended with Anderson’s resignation and vice-rector Sharon Hennessy’s indefinite sabbatical. Hennessy, whose salary also nearly doubled in the eight years she was there and whose perks included a membership at the Canyon Ranch spa-which reportedly cost between $20,000 and $30,000-and an annual trip to a pedagogical conference in Cannes, was not charged with any wrongdoing, but after she left, the position of vice rector was abolished. The chain begins in the fall of 1974, when a revered teacher named Lawrence Katzenbach (whose uncle Nicholas had been deputy attorney general under President Kennedy) allegedly dropped his trousers’ and exposed his erect penis to a senior girl who was babysitting his newborn baby. “His wife was in the hospital,” says the victim, who asked not to be named. “He said, ‘Come on, touch it,’ and I ran out of the house and just kept-running until I stopped somewhere in the woods, shaking.” Deeply traumatized for years, the woman was unable to tell anyone what had happened until her 25th reunion, in 2000, when she decided to finally get it off her chest. Ursula Holloman (’75), now a screenwriter in L.A., describes the scene to me: “I was sitting on the lawn with [the victim] and a couple of other women in my class when she started to tell us what Mr. Katzenbach did to her. I was stunned. I took Modern Novel with Mr. Katzenbach, and he was one of the best teachers I had at S.PS. So we started talking and we remembered that another teacher had a bad reputation as an abuser, and there he was on prominent display right there at Anniversary.” The teacher in question, who has never been charged with any crime, had worked at the school for decades. By 2000, he was retired but still involved with the school, and was one of its best-regarded masters. “We decided, Something has to be done about this, so, using the e-mail chain for our 25th, in the fall of 2000 we started our pro tempore task force on student molestations.” Alexis Johnson (’76), a native-rights lawyer in Flagstaff, Arizona, who says he had been propositioned by this teacher, joined the task force, which collected eight reports on the retired master and nine on Katzenbach. The former was accused of forcibly holding hands and of physical assault, but not of any sex acts or fondling of private parts. “His victims ranged from some who felt slimed to others who felt completely destroyed,” Holloman says. Eventually the group gathered allegations of abuse by 29 masters over a 50-year peri-od, including 5 who were active in the early 60s, when I was there. “Many who are abused have had their boundaries violated already,” Holloman adds. “Predators can smell a victim.” In the fall of 2000, a delegation from the task force, consisting of some of the alumni who had been abused and some who had not, presented the rector and the board with numerous signed, firsthand accounts of abuse-“just to give them an idea of what had been going on,” Holloman says. “They said, ‘This is ancient history. It could never happen now.’ They were concerned with, basically, covering their butts. They asked if any of the teachers were still at the school, and we said, ‘Yes.’ And it all became about [the unnamed teacher]. The dead and long-departed teachers they didn’t care about. They never asked for the list. They were not interested. He was the only one they had to protect themselves from.” Anderson disputes this, saying, “I complimented the work of the task force …. I never said the incidents were ancient history. I said, ‘We want to do everything in our power to ensure that this never happens again…. We were not interested in just [the one teacher].” (The school declined to answer a number of questions for this article.) Even when the teacher cut his remaining ties with St. Paul’s, no reason was given. The school’s policy in such situations appeared to be absolute confidentiality, which deprived the victims of the closure they sought in all the other cases. “It was pretty similar to the Catholic Church,” Holloman says. “All we got was lip service: ‘We’re formulating a new policy on this. It’s under control.’ We were accused by one trustee of plotting to sue the school, but we were just trying to bring this out into the light so people could talk, because we discovered a culture of secrecy among teachers and students that kept these things hidden and enabled the abusers to keep abusing-a whole repeating pattern.” Katzenbach’s victim adds, “The thing that became really appalling is that the administration knew it had been happening over. a very long time.” As its 25th-reunion gift, the class of 1975 gave a sizable amount of money for bound-ary training for the faculty and other measures to enhance the security of the students. These have been implemented, according to Dean Dale. But boarding schools attract sexually conflicted adults. Over the years, at least one statT member suspected to be preying on students at St. Paul’s was dismissed, but the administration didn’t implement a zero-tolerance policy until the early 90s. Frustrated by what he saw as stonewalling, Johnson says, “I started to wonder: If there is a lack of candor on the crucial issue of the children’s safety, what else aren’t they being candid about? So I started to look into the financial operation.” At the same time, Eleanor Shannon, a wealthy parent from Hanover, New Hampshire, who co-chaired the Parents’ Committee with her husband, David Salem, was also looking into it. The couple had been on the verge of giving a six-figure gift to the school when a fellow parent familiar with fund-raising efforts told Shannon at a squash match that she had better take a look at the school’s finances, starting with the rector’s salary. Shannon’s husband is the founding C.E.O. of a big investment fund for nonprofit organizations, and she believed that, as head of the Parents’ Committee, she could be legally liable under New Hampshire law if there were any financial impropriety. Using the Internet, she pulled up St. Paul’s statements, as well as those of Andover and Exeter and Deerfield Academy, in Massachusetts, and noticed some unusual expenses in St. Paul’s $30-million-plus annual budget that Shannon says were not in those of the other schools-such as $932,118 for legal fees and $3,909,861 for “other.” The school explained that there had been an error in filling out the forms but that the problem had been subsequently addressed. According to an alum familiar with the situation, “Shannon asked for more detailed stuff than what was on the 990 [the statement the school, as a nonprofit institution, was obligated to file], which she was entitled to do.” A 30-page exchange detailing her frustrated attempt to get answers to her questions was posted on an alumni Web site, and she soon resigned from the Parents’ Committee. Then she really started digging. Another alumnus started an online chat forum that detailed all sorts of damaging revelations and allegations, which sped around the alumni and ultimately reached the media. At that point, the momentum leading to the downfall of Anderson and Hennessy and the Executive Committee was unstoppable. As myoid blue-blooded classmate reflected, “A school administration used to be able to handle the news. But now there are blogs and cell phones that spread rumors, and the school has to react. The ability to keep information private is gone, -and that is really hard for the administration of a school. Something happened at St. Paul’s one night at II o’clock, I don’t remember what it was, but there was an accurate account of it in the Andover student newspaper the next morning. God, I’d hate to be a headmaster and have to wake up every morning wondering, What have the little fuckers done now?” The faculty was also at odds with the rector and the board. Partly it was because the teachers were liberals, and the trustees were for the most part stodgy conservatives “who have not crossed the postmodern line into the world with the rest of us,” as one faculty member put it. And partly it was a class issue: the trustees acted as if the teachers were underlings, when- in fact it is the teachers who – dedicate their lives and careers to fulfilling the school’s mission. The questions about the school’s financial operations were brought to the attention of The Wall Street Journal, possibly by an ex-teacher; and a three-inch-thick dossier entitled “St. Paul’s School: Legally Actionable Acts of Commission and Omission” was sent to the New Hampshire attorney general’s office. Some of the claims cited in the dossier have the whiff of shadiness, but few Paulies seem eager to go into it. As another classmate told me, “There’s probably more bad stuff to be uncovered, but nothing really salacious.” People would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie-as long as they don’t become rabid again. Hoping to gain some insight into how these events fit into the flow of the school’s history, and that of the country at large, I spent every minute I could at the fabulous Ohrstrom Library, sampling its enormous collection of books. Designed by Robert A. M. Stern and finished in 1991, the library is one of the masterpieces of late-2Oth century educational architecture. I didn’t have the slightest interest in the school’s history when I was a student there, but, as I now discovered, it is quite fascinating. The school was founded in 1856 by a Boston doctor named George Shattuck, who hoped to implement the beliefs of an early19th-century Swiss pioneer in progressive education named Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Pestalozzi espoused the Rousseauian idea that society was irredeemably compromised but that children were a fount of natural goodness. The only hope for reforming society, therefore, was to begin with children and give them a “natural” education. This meant removing the sons of the Gilded Age’s ruling class from their corrupting environs and building a school for them in some pristine place where they could experience the sublime directly through their senses. Green fields and trees, streams and ponds, beautiful scenery, flowers and minerals, are “educators,” Shattuck wrote. Nature was character-forming, and so was what Groton’s legendary headmaster Endicott Peabody called “corrective salutary deprivation.” So the boys had to take cold showers and live in spartan alcoves and were completely cut off from the outside world and the opposite sex. In 1911, Dr. Samuel Drury became the fourth rector and ushered in the school’s golden age-the days most people would like to bring back-which lasted until his death 27 years later. Dr. Drury was a feared and revered, larger-than-life headmaster in the mold of Peabody. When Gary W. Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, visited his son at the school and lit up a Lucky Strike, Dr. Drury struck it out of his hand. Dr. Drury had been a missionary and had seen the misery that most of the world lives in; the main thing he tried to instill in his privileged charges was the notion of service. He was always reminding them, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” But already the campus was becoming quite grand. The chapel and the Gothic Upper Dining Room, with its high, vaulted ceiling, were positively Hogwartsian. Money was corrupting the mission, despite Dr. Drury’s best efforts. “[The school] must not become a place of fashion, an exclusive retreat, where like-minded sons of like-minded parents disport themselves,” he expostulated. “Our function is not to conform to the rich and prosperous world which surrounds us but, rather, through its children, to convert it.” Nevertheless, St. Paul’s was beginning to resemble the St. Midas’s School”the most expensive and the most exclusive boys’ preparatory in the world” -of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story “The Diamond As Big as the Ritz.” Nelson W. Aldrich. Jr. (’53), in his book, Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America, describes his time at the school as “the St. Midas Ordeal.” One observer said of the recent scandals, “St. Paul’s has always been a melange of church and money, and money won out, because the church is dying.” In the 60s, the complexion of the school began to change. More scholarships were awarded, and the first minority students were admitted. A revolt of 162 sixth-formers along with a teacher named Gerry Studds, who later became a congressman, led to a relaxation of the dress code and the admission of girls in the early 70s. The new, secular rector, William Oates, espoused the prevailing educational and developmental thinking of the day, that schools should not be repressive and that adolescents should be free to experiment and try out different identities. In the 80s an impressive performing arts center was built, and the school became more artsy. Thanks to Manchester Airport and the improved interstate highway system, the school was no longer so remote and tucked away. And now that greed was good, some felt the notion of service barely received lip service. The school had an enormous ability to raise money and to scour the country and find the best and brightest kids. To keep up with rival prep schools, monumental building projects were undertaken, architecture that will one day be seen as late-imperial, climax-of-the-consumer-culture. By the mid-80s, however, the board was getting alarmed that the students were out of control and the faculty had too much leeway, so they brought in David Hicks, the headmaster of a day school in Dallas called St. Mark’s, to tighten things up. Hicks, who now lives in Montana, recalls, “One of the mandates I was given was to improve the quality of the school academically. Nobody had gone to Harvard in five years, except for legacies. I was also mandated to get control of student behavior. The students were polled and 80 percent of them said they were using drugs. It was very obvious to anyone who walked around the school on Saturday night that many of them were under the influence of something …. On my watch, some prospective parents from Philadelphia walked into the student center and found a boy and a girl having intercourse on a couch. I expelled them, which was not popular. “The original parents of the Gilded Age, who knew what it was like out there, wanted their children to be hardened and not spoiled, but by the time I got there, silly faddistic ideas encouraged them to think they were something special, that the rules didn’t apply to them, and that was not good. The kids would have been better off in a more meritocratic environment.” Hicks alienated the faculty by firing some of its most prominent members as part of a program to streamline the curriculum, and was so disliked by the students that the Christmas tree in front of the Rectory was torched and a steaming turd was left on the doorstep. When the faculty voted in favor of a no-confidence motion, Hicks left in the middle of the’ year. In 1996, he published an article in The American Scholar called “The Strange Fate of the American Boarding School.” It includes a thought-provoking passage: “Although the old-monied families still exert a considerable influence and control over their alma maters, they often do so in ways that reflect their own social and financial insecurities ….To some extent, the selfishness born of mounting social and financial anxiety among this class has caused the boarding school to do what it has often been accused of doing, but now with more reason—namely, to serve private rather than public interests. This may seem to increase its appeal, but it also undermines its integrity and contributes to its destruction.” Hicks was suggesting that the moral slippage at the school was related to the deca-dence of the old Wasp establishment. One can certainly draw a parallel with what was happening to the country as it entered the era of Enron, but it wasn’t just the old money that was greedy, and the extent to which the old Wasp establishment is actually declining is also questionable. The man who replaced Hicks couldn’t have been more different. Bishop Anderson was ready to deal-with the parents and the board. Physically, he was the rector from central casting-san exceedingly handsome, square-jawed guy with a great smile who knew how to wear the miter and had a closetful of the most splendid vestments in the church. And he had a way with words. Even after he came under fire, he couldn’t resist closing a sharply worded letter to Eleanor Shannon with a grand ecclesiastical flourish: “In the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, I wish you a blessed Eastertide.” “He was the most narcissistic man who ever came to the school,” a teacher told me. The nurses in the infirmary, which is right next to the Rectory, used to watch him primping in the upstairs bathroom for a half-hour before morning chapel. (“Yes, I did shower and shave every morning, but I hope this could be seen as good hygiene,” Anderson says. “And when we realized [the nurses could see us], we pulled the shade.”) A parent of a former student found the Bish “very glossy, like a used-car salesman.” Anderson, 63, had started out in marketing at Procter & Gamble, and he had been an infantry officer in the army before entering the ministry. He had risen to be the bishop of South Dakota and then became the head of the General Theological Seminary, in New York City. There, he had performed expensive renovations on his residence, and that was one of the first things he did at St. Paul’s after the school hired him away. “The Rectory was built in 1872,” Anderson explains, and the renovation “was almost all structural, not cosmetic …. That’s part of running an institution.” But Anderson’s arrival coincided with the tanking of the dot-com boom, and money became harder to raise. In an effort to cut costs, the board let go longtime staff and adjusted benefits to the children of faculty. No one seemed to realize that implementing such measures when the rector and the vice-rector were still getting whopping salaries was bound to create resentment. When the stories about the school’s financial irregularities surfaced in the national press, the board rallied behind the Bishop. “I find it incredible that people who have affection for this school would go to these kinds of levels … to tear down its leadership,” Jim Robbins, who was by then on the Executive Committee, protested to The Wall Street Journal. But two years later, with the A.G.’s investigation concluded and the I.R.S. audit in progress, the board felt compelled to demonstrate that it was taking steps to rectify the situation, and just two weeks before graduation and Anniversary, it announced that the Bishop had resigned. A man who was there for the alumni procession that weekend recalls, “We all thought, How ghastly and embarrassing, and surely he’d be gone by the time we got there. But we show up and there’s a cocktail party in the afternoon and there is Craig An-derson front and center, representing the institution. I’ve been married to a Wasp family for 25 years, and I’ve seen the power of politeness and repression, but for stiff upper lip this really took the cake. A lot of kids were wearing a T-shirt that said, ‘I heart the Bish.’ So the general sense I got was that, whatever Anderson’s peccadilloes were, the kids real-ly loved him and were in a rebellious mood that he had been shown the door.” Dr. Shattuck’s ideal of keeping out the outside world has long since been abandoned. The Internet, cell phones, and the rules allowing DVD players in the dorms made sure of that. But Jim Robbins’s wish to shield the students from the “noise at the top” is coming true. One night I went to the school’s $2 million observatory to look at a few stars and get some perspective on the antics of us foolish mortals. The observatory has six telescopes in four domes. One of the school’s two astronomy teachers, Dr. Tom McCarthy, took me into the Lowell Dome. Untold Lowells have gone to St. Paul’s over the decades. I asked McCarthy if the dome was named for Percival Lowell, the eccentric 19th-century as-tronomer who moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, and from his observatory there claimed to have seen water-filled canals on Mars. McCarthy said it was named for Lowell Swift Reeve (’69), who had died tragically in his youth. McCarthy is clearly passionate about the sky, the kind of teacher who is so enthusi-astic that he can change a student’s life. “With these telescopes we can find supernovas and extraterrestrial planets. We can spot near-earth asteroids, the ones we fear could slam into us one day,” he said. Two students arrived. McCarthy was taking one of them down to Harvard in the morning to receive some kind of award. McCarthy trained the telescope on Alpha Andromedae, the brightest star in its constellation. It looked like a dazzling rhinestone. The instrument, I noticed, was called the St. Paul’s Alumni Telescope. “Just what we could use,” I said to him, and he laughed. I asked him what he thought about all the re-cent goings-on, and he said, “That’s administration. The school is rock-solid as far as its mission goes.” I sat in on a Greek class for second-year students. You don’t find Greek being taught at too many high schools anymore. The students, who included one African American boy and two Asian-American girls, were extremely bright, as were all the students I talked to. And so polite and welcoming. When I asked how they liked the school, they invariably said it was awesome. And who wouldn’t feel the same way? How many high schools have a harpsichord and a corps de ballet? I jammed with a “frelk,’ a new category of student since my time who might be de-scribed as a latter-day hippie or freak. Frelks (the word is derived from “frolic”) are really into the Grateful Dead. This frelk had a head on his shoulders. He was an excellent musician and had already recorded a CD. His plan was to move to New York and get into the music business. I had lunch with Ike Perkins, the son of some filmmaking friends of mine and the great-nephew of Maxwell Perkins, the fabled editor of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott . Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. Scads of Perkinses have gone to St. Paul’s. Since arriving at the school, Ike had met eight cousins with other surnames whom he never even knew he had, and he was having the time of his life, A fifth-generation Paulie who graduated last year told me .that “there is a lot of fucking, but it’s all safe.” Apparently, most students are wise enough to choose condoms over diseases and unwanted pregnancies. There are still “preps,” like the one in my Class who used to turn over your tie and snicker if the label wasn’t Brooks Brothers. Most of the preps live in Simpson House. “The preppiest ones are not the old-line kids, many of whom are not preppy at all,” a student told me, “but the wannabes who have new money.” Chapel; which I attended twice, had become a totally different experience. It had become fun, an opportunity for the kids to express themselves rather than have the word of God stuffed down their throats. Both times, a conga line of girls started bumping and grinding in the center aisle. Dr. Drury would have rolled over in his grave if he had witnessed this sacrilege. But the old hymns whose words I knew by heart, though I hadn’t sung them in years, were being sung, as was the school anthem, an overt paean to capitalism taken from Psalm 122: O pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and plenteousness within thy palaces. I found myself whispering the wonderfully consoling words of the closing blessing as they were delivered by the new, interim rector, Bill Matthews: “0 Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.” After chapel, Matthews met me at his office in the Old Schoolhouse. I had not laid eyes on him in 44 years, since his days of supervising my form-mates and me, but he was just as I had imagined he would be: a sweet and unassuming 62-year-old with a grizzled crew cut, dressed in a tweed jacket and a tie that he must have worn a thousand times before. This is the standard uniform of the New England prepschool teacher, like that of the masters in my day, and in sharp contrast to the Bish’s spiffy attire. Matthews went to Bowdoin, where he majored in Latin, and returned to St. Paul’s in 1966. Except for a sabbatical year in Paris, he has been there ever since. He taught Latin and Greek, coached hockey and baseball, and served as the director of college placement, the director of admissions, the vice-rector of students, the executive director of the alumni association, and, for the last five years, the director of development (in which capacity he staved off Eleanor Shannon’s request for clarification on the school’s finances with a letter saying: “It would be simpler if you just trusted us; we’re not perfect, but I do think that we are a place of integrity, and that does have a fair amount to do with Craig Anderson and our Board as its leaders”). Two of Matthews’s children attended St. Paul’s. He is of the schoo!’ He understands the values, the joy, and the tremendous responsibility of nurturing vibrant young minds. He is not a guy who is out for himself. Nevertheless, the school has enlisted Wickenden Associates, an executive-search company that has installed headmasters at more than 200 independent schools, to find a permanent rector to replace Matthews next fall. In October, the firm circulated an admirably frank 12-page job announcement that includes a section titled “Opportunities and Challenges Awaiting the Next Rector,” warning prospective candidates that whoever gets hired will have to: 1. Lead the school with absolute integrity, humility, and transparency. 2. Make a concerted effort to rebuild bridges with disaffected alumni…. 3. Support the Board’s continuing efforts to strengthen its own governance and communication practices…. 4. Counter the effects of negative publicity and restore the school’s external reputation through a carefully considered communications and public relations plan. In the meantime, Matthews’s motto for the 2005-6 school year is “Do the right thing.” “This is a school that has a soul,” he told me, “and it always has.” I went for a walk in the woods, where I had spent so much time four decades ago. There hadn’t been a course to teach me the names of the trees and birds back then, but there is one now. Some of the animals are even wired so that their movements can be radio-tracked. Sitting down, I soon attracted a half-dozen curious, nervously chirping chickadees. I felt glad that the school had weathered its storm and that the kids had come through pretty much unscathed, although there are still plenty of issues that need to be addressed. The unifying thread among the various constituencies that are always doing a Darwinian dance in any school—the teachers, the students, the alumni, the trustees, the administration, the parents—is that all of them obviously care deeply about the place. And, in the words of John Buckston, a former vice-rector at St. Paul’s, “Everybody is the hero of his own novel.” A number of alumni have characterized Anderson’s regrettable tenure as a case of “hubris” –the tragic flaw of overreaching that has brought down mythical kings such as Oedipus and money kings of today. It seems to be the big word of the moment. The other day, a commentator on CNN was expounding on the “hubris” of the Republican Party. Hubris seems to have affected not just the Bish but the board too. “They’re an arro-gant, snotty bunch, and not very smart,” one teacher told me. Their fatal error was to blow off donors, alumni, and teachers who care about the school and were trying to raise important questions about its direction. Some stodgy old Paulies think the school itself has a case of hubris. In their view, it was the extravagance of the new gym that brought about the drowning of a student in the swimming pool. The school had survived for almost 150 years without a pool. Now money is being raised for a multi-million-dollar boathouse. Where is it going to end? Instead of building a new boathouse, why not use the money to make an inventory of all the products the school uses, and get the kids involved? It could even be a course. Maybe they would think twice before ripping off three feet of toilet paper once they found out that a million acres of old-growth boreal forest in northern Alberta are being ground up every year to make the stuff. Why not have the kids follow the money trail-find out how the money coming into the school was made, and in exactly what sort of “instruments” the endowment is invested? Have them look into how much of the oblivious hyper-consumption taking place not just here but across America is made possible by the backbreaking labor of millions of Third World peasants. How many ecosystems are being degraded and destroyed by our way of life? Get the kids to print their homework on both sides of the page, case their dorms for energy leaks, and take quick showers-and be grateful that the water’s hot. A course like that would produce some responsible citizens, and it would save the school a lot of money. St. George’s, the quirky little progressive school in Montreal that my three youngest sons attend, got the whole student body involved in a consumption-and-waste inventory of its physical plant, and has saved a bundle as a result. Once the St. Paul’s inventory is done, the kids can go forth and get the whole country to do it. If the school could get that going, and implement a little “corrective salutary deprivation,” then it would be a complete Utopia, and Drs. Shattuck and Drury would be proud of it once more. The chickadees cheered.
I had said, in a sentence that didn’t make the cut, “I hope the Search Committee will take a very long time before they choose the next Rector,” because they couldn’t do any better than Bill Matthews, and that is who they ended up going with. Made of the sparse old Yankee stuff that is the backbone of America’s erstwhile greatness, he will be a welcome antidote to the hyperconsumption and moral obliviousness that are eroding our society.
I was amazed by the hundred of e-mails that this piece elicited. It must have touched a nerve. Why were so many people so fascinated by the scandals this exclusive boarding school? It wasn’t just that it’s the sort of place that the nouveaux-riches are doing everything they can to get their kids into. My rant in the last paragraph especially seems to have hit home with a lot of readers. Americans are being to realize that each of us has to reduce his personal ecological footprint, as our consumption is responsible for a quarter of the global warming problem that may be irreversible at this point and is already clearly wreaking havoc with the biosphere, while Bush, like Nero with the flames of Rome leaping around and engulfing him, fiddles as the world burns. The 20-somethings, recently called “the Greenest Generation” in the New York Times, are particularly concerned, because this is the world they are going to inherit and will have to do something about as the shit continues to hit the fan. Students are Williams College have been having a contest to see who can use the least amount of energy by cracking their books during daylight hours, etc.
As if to ram this message home, in May, St. Paul’s, the breeder of so many of the ruthless and selfish Republican fat cats who are destroying this country and the planet, was slammed by a “biblical flood,” the likes of which it had never seen in its 150 years– another of the extreme weather events that are happening around the world with increased frequency and violence due to the increased amount of electric energy into the atmosphere from our emissions (as explained in Dispatch #5, “What Have We Done to the Weather?“). Or due to greedy capitalism, if you want to look at it politically, or if you’re a Christian (or a Muslim or a Jew) you might be tempted to think, maybe the Lord, or Allah, or Jehovah, is trying to tell us something here. I prefer to think that nature is sending a very strong message to the very heart of the society that is the main problem, the outlaw state that has no respect for its laws or even its own. The lines in my piece about the Lord not smiling on this venerable institution and the hybris of its monumental late-empire climax-of the-consumer culture building spree now seem to have a prophetic resonance. Maybe the voice I somehow had the temerity to speak in was not mine. Maybe I was John the Baptist sent in the guise of a journalist alumnus to give the school and the society a reality check.