Hotchkiss in the Fifties: Myths and Realities


Mr. Lemisch, Hotchkiss '54; Yale BA '57, PhD '63, is Professor of History Emeritus, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

This article was adapted from a presentation at the fiftieth reunion of the Hotchkiss Class of 1954, which was held at the Hotchkiss School, Lakeville, CT, on October 30, 2004.

After I left here a half century ago, and went on to Yale, I became a professional historian, as well as a left activist. Although I am known (correctly) as a New Left historian, I am in some ways a historian of the old school, very much at odds with fashionable postmodern ideas. You can't do history without some notion of validity and truth, and postmodernism sees truth as merely relative and subjective. Instead, I believe that the task of historians is -- in the classic 19th century phrase of Leopold von Ranke - to write history "wie es eigentlich gewesen" -- as it actually was. In light of this goal, part of my role as historian is to try to separate myth from reality, so I will be telling some truths about Hotchkiss in the 1950's that may make some of us uncomfortable. But I think we will all agree that if truth is our goal and we want to make things better, we must first scrutinize the reigning myths.

I was generally happy at Hotchkiss, came through fairly successfully in its terms, and -- to my later embarrassment -- with only one censure. (I do recall that when visiting Duncan Aswell and Paul Dunn in West when I was a freshman at Yale, I brought them a carton of cigarettes). But I was a good boy. None of what I have to say arises from feelings of personal injury. I have none. Dismissing critical accounts on such grounds is an often-used easy way out.

The fact is that, for me, in many ways, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive." Among my memories:

Marching through Lakeville in the Hotchkiss band on Memorial Day, privileged to beat my drum together with more talented musicians -- actually, not exactly together. Ice-sailing across the Lake on skates. Holidays. Many good friends, some now gone. Monahan soccer, as goalie, protected by two South American fullbacks. And earning my "H" in my chosen sport, as a red-card artist (medical excuse from athletics) of great skill.

And the masters:

Charley Garside with his green ink and outlandishly high numerical grades; a semester on red cards gave me the time for full immersion in Hamlet. A 5000-word paper on the romantic poets kept me, for a whole Christmas vacation, at the New York Public Library, where I later came to do my own research. Garside conveyed such excitement in teaching American literature that he was a crucial influence on my undergraduate and graduate studies at Yale and my subsequent career in American History.

Russ Edwards and the Aeneid, in a thrilling class together with, among others, Henry Pillsbury, Ned Bradley and Duncan Aswell, poring over the various translations, comparing them with the original; a half century later, I still try to keep up with the new translations. Who would believe today that reading Latin could be so exciting?

Al Sly's magnificent organ music, with the toccatas at the end of the service (recessionals), seeming to puncture the balloon of pomposity around the be-robed Duke (George Van Santvoord, Headmaster 1926-55) as he sauntered, a little pink-faced, down the aisle. Sly's extraordinary music has sent me from cathedral to cathedral listening to great organs.

And even George Milmine, the essence of old-school tight-belted bow-tied stiffness, but with a kind of warmth that the Duke lacked -- in the pictures in my head, Milmine is smiling, but the Duke is not. Milmine taught about the medieval barony, instilling excitement about the possibility of reconstructing the lives of ordinary people five hundred and more years before: this was to influence my later choice to write history from the bottom up.

Having the chance to learn some Sanskrit with Malcolm Willis, and Russian with Clint Ely (which served me well in trips to Moscow in 1978 and 1991.

And Butch Stearns. Huh? Butch Stearns? What is he doing on this list? In reality, he just doesn't fit. A marine sergeant who coached varsity football and taught ancient history, Stearns is a rock on which any argument that Hotchkiss was educationally superior must founder. He was coarse and barely literate. What was it with coaches as teachers? Perhaps it was part of that Rhodes scholar complex -- the Duke had been one -- that pays so much attention to athletics and keeps the wonderful Hotchkiss library closed on Saturday afternoons: perish the thought that Hotchkiss might nurture a nerd or an intellectual. Mention of Stearns brings us to the dark side of Hotchkiss. My job as historian is to open the door to greater accuracy by looking critically at the dominant hagiography and apologetics, and the strange figure of Butch Stearns offers a bridge to that critical consideration.

As historian, part of my task is to review the literature in the field, in particular Ernest Kolowrat, H'52, Hotchkiss: A Chronicle of an American School (New York: New Amsterdam, 1992). You were given a copy of this book as part of your registration packet, and thus you should be suspicious of it as authorized and official history, full of the apologetics typical of the genre. When the old apologetics would no longer do, a new, updated apologetics had to be articulated. The book nonetheless offers abundant anecdotal material that may lead readers to conclusions at odds with Kolowrat's. In this way I am much indebted to this work and will mention and credit it where relevant. Citations to this book appear in the text in this form: (K 267).

Now, turning to the problematic side of Hotchkiss in the 'fifties: historians know that it is inadequate and, finally, inaccurate to evaluate an institution only on the basis of those who succeeded in it. Such partial scrutiny provides a sample that is unnaturally and artificially skewed towards the positive. The picture looks different, and is more accurate, when we include in our analysis those who, in the institution's terms, failed, or just dropped out. We must measure Hotchkiss in part by those who did not make it through, and ask, why? I will pay attention in particular to two who arrived with us as preps (first year) but didn't graduate: Chris Light and David Maidman. (I solicited information from them on June 16, 2004, but received no reply.) Consideration of them will then lead us to the various kinds of bigotry, directed at Jews, the physically different, Catholics, homosexuals, females and the people of Lakeville as well as the lower classes elsewhere. If time allows, I'll sketch some ideas for a better future for Hotchkiss.

Disability Chris Light was stigmatized and physically beaten here. He was a sweet kid from Kalamazoo whose only offense was to have had surgery which left one leg a little longer than the other, producing a slightly uneven and bow-legged gait. In the brutal and mean ways of the boy culture of the time (which Hotchkiss did nothing to stop), he was stigmatized as a cripple, and this brought down on him many physical attacks, beatings, including one that I tried to stop. He left Hotchkiss, finished up elsewhere, and went on to a career in the arts. The culture of the place was pretty mean, and I will be suggesting below that in some ways the tone was set from the top down. Classmate Al Ferguson recalls, "young Hotchkiss students, like the young people in Lord of the Flies, could be, and were, extraordinarily cruel, to me as well as others" (Reunion Yearbook, Mischianza II, 2004). Apparently unwilling to speak out in public, one on one several members of our class described to me the meanness that they had encountered, or spoke of bad experiences that their children had at Hotchkiss, or told of urging their children not to go to Hotchkiss for this reason. (Many people are reluctant to report bad experiences, fearing that in a culture of winning such reports label them as losers; thus it's easier for the historian to elicit praise of the institution, harder to get critical data.)

(A lesser instance of this meanness, involving me: I recall approaching Main building for dinner on crutches after a skiing accident, with hostile voices coming out of the dark, ridiculing me as a cripple. Speaking of attitudes towards physical differences: faculty member Bob Esmond was called "Moonface" because of his pockmarks, and John Chandler -- now called Rusty -- was known as "Peaballs.")

Jews David Maidman, from Great Neck, Long Island, if I recall correctly, seems to have been a direct victim of anti-semitism. As far as I can tell, he was one of only four Jews who arrived here as preps -- assuming that we can count "Luigi" Levin as a Jew. (To many WASPS, Jews were as alien as Italians and therefore blended into one.) Only six years before we arrived, Kolowrat reports that the whole school had applauded the first newsreel film of the victims of the Holocaust: some said "We don't like Hitler but at least he's killed the Jews"(K 265). I think I was admitted to Hotchkiss with a function: to bring to the school one acceptable New York Jew, cleansed by prior private schooling, assimilated and secular -- and therefore, as the school saw it, capable of rising above Stuyvesant or Bronx High School of Science -- two New York City public high schools which were and are in some ways superior to Hotchkiss.

I recall my mother and I visiting Hotchkiss while looking at schools, being sent pointedly to Sunday morning chapel. (Kolowrat 267's comment on the school's beginnings was still applicable in the fifties: "compulsory attendance at daily and Sunday chapel... alone was probably enough to discourage some potential applicants.") My mother, a confirmed atheist, almost put the kibosh on the whole project when she lowered her head in the visible side pew in which we were placed and loudly and comically stage-whispered Hebrew prayers: "monishtanou chalilah chesay." This is a sweet memory for me of a moment of defiance. Later, I rose to the chairmanship of the Hotchkiss Record (school newspaper) partly by taking on the onerous task of writing up the Sunday sermons, including the one in which the visiting minister attributed the biblical mis-translation about the camel and the eye of the needle to "some little Jewish scribe." Now and then, I heard classmates using "Jew" as a verb. And I noticed that the otherwise polylingual Duke couldn't bring himself to pronounce Jewish names -- which gave us people like Philip "Luh-Vine" (Levine) and Jay "Lear" (Lehr). While I was here, the Duke had absolutely nothing to do with me: I recall only one conversation, right after he hit me -- more on this in a moment. The Duke could get a student into an Ivy with an unenthusiastic three-sentence recommendation concluding "But take him" (K 494). Why, then, was it that Alan Greenberg was good enough to get into Princeton but not into Yale? Recall the picture accompanying his bio in the original Misch (yearbook) -- a Yale banner in a garbage can. One classmate with an obviously Jewish name was told by the Duke that he had been rejected by Yale because there were too many people there with his name. Two or three of our Jewish classmates were rejected by Yale despite ranking higher in their Hotchkiss class than non-Jews who were accepted. (On the other hand, classmate Sam Marcus got into Yale and reports no memory whatsoever of anti-semitism at Hotchkiss.)

In his apologia for Hotchkiss, Kolowrat acknowledges cagily and without specificity that boys were baited for having "stereotypically ethnic characteristics" (333). (K seems to justify baiting, or at least to blame it in part on the victims, when he suggests that the boys who were baited were those who failed to "'bond' and become fully one of the group, one of the boys": 541). As for anti-semitism at Hotchkiss in general, he offers us the classic bad-apple-in-every-barrel dodge: "To be sure, in a group of people as large as that at Hotchkiss, there were bound to be some out-and-out bigots" (268). But anti-semitism was deep in the culture and ehistory of the place, as it still was at Yale, where it is well documented in books by Dan Oren and Geoffrey Kabaservice. Hotchkiss, in many ways designed to mimic Yale (e.g., both school songs are to the tune of "Wacht am Rhein" -- the song sung by Germans in a dramatic scene in the film Casablanca), clearly did nothing to resist Yale's anti-semitism.

Catholics A recent report in the New Republic of John Kerry's experiences as a Catholic at St. Paul's noted that:

"At. St. Paul's, it wasn't easy for Kerry to keep his faith. On Sunday mornings, he would take a taxi into Concord [ New Hampshire] for Mass -- and then have to return to attend two mandatory Episcopal services at school. In other words, every week, he was forced to remind his classmates of his religious affiliation. And, given his classmates' attitudes toward Catholicism, Kerry would probably have preferred to keep his faith to himself. When Bobby Kennedy attended St. Paul's in 1939, his mother, Rose, pulled him from the school after only a month because she couldn't stomach its anti-Catholic ethos. While that attitude atrophied somewhat, it hadn't entirely disappeared by the late '50s. One Kerry friend from St. Paul's later said 'There were jokes about Catholics. I had more than one classmate tell me that 'those people' had their own clubs and societies, and they weren't part of our society."

This reminded me of the small corps of Hotchkiss Catholics, including John Elliott, who made the weekly trek to town for 9 am Sunday mass and were, I think, stigmatized. To this day, Elliott thinks that Hotchkiss isolated Catholic students. Something awful lurks beneath the fact that they were then required to attend chapel at Hotchkiss at 11 and Vespers later on. Why? What does this say? Think about it.

(K 270 says the first Catholic to head the Hotchkiss board was selected in 1970 -- ten years after John F. Kennedy's election as U.S. president. Certainly, for me, Hotchkiss was good preparation for Yale's anti-Catholicism, teaching one New York Jew that Christians were hardly, as many Jews believed, an undifferentiated mass, and that Protestant hostility to Catholics was not just past history.)

Race We will all recall that, until Gus Winston's solitary arrival in our lower-mid (second) year (1951-52), the only blacks that we saw were some staff people and visiting entertainers, in particular gospel singers. Kolowrat presents a narrative of this procession of black performers, never seeing it in the context of the dominant complex of racism/noblesse oblige. (One classmate, a singer, tells me that Negro Spirituals are just good music, and there is no reason to see racism in their presence in the Hotchkiss repertoire at a time when blacks were otherwise excluded from the student body. I disagree.)

Class Consider the condescension towards those, many of them workers at the school, who we called "townies," and who appear in Kolowrat's pages as cute comic relief, mere foils for jolly pranks by Hotchkiss boys. Kolowrat describes a long tradition before us of ridiculing and tricking townspeople who were given what we now see to be nicknames right out of the culture of George W. Bush, like Black Harry Ablahadian, the Armenian driver (K 166), or the watchman named "Cascarettes," after a liver pill that worked while you sleep (K 168). (Kolowrat records these things, but fails to see the class condescension involved.) In our time, local people who worked at the school were treated as if they were some kind of Jukes's, and one day student in our class found himself to be a target of the kind of condescension discussed here. On vacation in the area a few years ago, I spent some time in the sun on the beautiful Lakeville town beach: what an epiphany to look at Hotchkiss from the town, rather than looking at the town from Hotchkiss. I recommend this as a way to shake yourself loose from ancient prejudices and then begin to move towards a more real point of view.

Looking at the treatment of townspeople brings us to the larger question of the enormous class condescension built into almost every statement of Hotchkiss's mission as involving the preparation of students for leadership. Consider, as one of many such statements, former headmaster Arthur White: "If there are solutions to be found to the world's overcrowding, hunger, pollution, or whatever, I do believe these solutions will come from students who are now at the Hotchkiss School or schools like Hotchkiss" (K 464). It never occurs to White that Hotchkiss graduates might be more part of the problem than part of the solution, which would more likely come from below, from movements of opposition to organizations like Porter Goss's CIA, or Clinton Brooks's National Security Agency (both Hotchkiss '56). Brooks, former Assistant Deputy Director of NSA, where he developed the "Clipper Chip" to provide the spy agency with back-door access to encrypted communications, was called back to NSA on 9/12/01. As Alumni Keynote speaker at Hotchkiss during the same weekend as the '54 reunion. Brooks presented a somewhat Strangelovian off-the-shelf 55 minute Powerpoint rant in support of the "War on Terrorism," leaving barely five minutes for questions. When one question was slightly critical of Brooks's portrayal of Islamic rage, the audience shouted down the speaker, and Brooks ignored the question. (So much for civility.)

Hotchkiss may be more extreme than some other prep schools in the tenacity of traditional attitudes. We will shortly look at one measure, Hotchkiss's resistance to co-education long after the other elite schools had changed. As for the kind of people who have gone to Hotchkiss, sociologist Kip Armstrong '63 summarizes his studies of the various New England prep schools (K 474):

"Hotchkiss historically didn't have the same clientele as the schools which had attracted the old money and the landed gentry...

The old upper crust historically went to Groton and St. Paul's and on to Harvard... from the beginning [Hotchkiss] catered more to industrialists, Wall Street executives, and a variety of newly rich go-getters"(K 474).

As they came in, so did they go out, with their career choices apparently unchanged by their fine Hotchkiss education. Just look through the occupational listings in the Alumni Directory, with column after column of people in business, so many of them that the categories have to be broken down into sub-categories: accounting, advertising/public relations, banking, brokerage/ securities/ investments, administrative/management, entrepreneur/owner, estate planning/trusts/taxation, finance/venture capital, insurance, manufacturing, merchandising/sales/marketing, real estate. The editor of Harper's, Lew Lapham '52, has put it nicely: "Hotchkiss, like Yale, like Harvard, is about setting wealth to music" (K 546). Basically and in reality, it seems to me that Hotchkiss greases the wheels of capitalism. As far as I know, Henry Pillsbury, Duncan Aswell, Bill Silvert and I are the only members of our class who have been left activists.

And speaking of Hotchkiss-business ties, it took years after I left Hotchkiss before I learned that it was built on an arms fortune, a company that was rumored to have sold arms to both sides during the Civil War, at great profit and producing thousands dead (K 4). Later, the company manufactured one of the many atrocious instruments of modern warfare, the Hotchkiss Gun, an early machine gun, leading the school to be called "Son of a Gun" (K 44). This sounds like something out of Doctorow's Ragtime. No Marxist of any sophistication would dare to invent such a story of vulgar economic determinism, with base determining superstructure.

Returning to the school's various bigotries, let's look now at sex and sexual preference. Writing in 1992 -- by which time he should have known better -- Kolowrat deals with homosexuality at Hotchkiss mainly by reassuring his readers that there was very little (K 388-392), ignoring the question of homophobia and its impact. Consider our dead classmate Duncan Aswell. In my part of the new Misch bio of him -- and good for editor Paul Hicks for being so open -- I've asked whether Duncan, who would later come out, was gay when he was at Hotchkiss, and if so, whether he knew it. Clearly there was something inside him yearning to get out; he delighted in playing Queen Elizabeth in "Richard III," and performed his favorite lines for us over and over, "Ah, Cut my lace asunder, That my pent heart have some scope to beat. Or else I swoon..." How would his life have been different, possibly longer, had Hotchkiss been more open, instead of playing a role in delaying his coming out until there was a nascent movement to support him in the sixties? It's hard not to think that the dramatic quality of his coming out and total identity change -- in 1971 he simply disappeared from his academic job at Haverford College and resurfaced in Atlanta as Bill Cutler -- was in some way connected to the years of repression at Hotchkiss.

Homophobia was widespread in America -- with notable exceptions -- but, as I'm sure you'll remember, it was a special obsession at Hotchkiss. Just think of it: masters given names like "Pansy" Parsons, or "the Hairy Fairy," Malcolm Willis. Willis's night Sanskrit classes on the ground floor of the library were punctuated by falsetto cries of this name from students careening through the outer darkness. I had grown up in part in open Greenwich Village: for me in these classes, these attacks had the threatening flavor of the Klan dancing around outside. (I worried lest the same thing happen while Willis was playing, wonder of wonders, the sitar.) And how did this atmosphere contribute to screaming gay Charley Garside's poignant prolonged closeting? (A year or so after we both left Hotchkiss, but with Garside perhaps thinking of returning, he told me with apparent disdain of having spent a summer in Santa Monica where, as he said, "muscular homosexuals were parading around the beach!") And what of the humiliations visited on students who were thought to be gay?

Homophobia was one component of the weird sexual atmosphere of the school, with sexual deprivation, masturbation and talk of catching people doing it, relentless fantasies about the few women around, particularly masters' wives. Co-education was still a quarter of a century away when we arrived, and the Duke would be among its most vocal opponents, along with Richard Gurney and Robert Hawkins (K 379-380). Jean Olsen (feminist wife of a headmaster) suspects that Hotchkiss was "by far the most male-oriented, chauvinistic school in the country." It's a measure of the general backwardness of Hotchkiss and its traditions that girls would arrive here only after they had come to Andover, Exeter, St. Paul's, Taft, Kent, and Choate. Far from simply reflecting the larger culture, in this and other areas Hotchkiss lagged truculently behind the culture. And when Hotchkiss finally gave in, like Yale, it only yielded because, in its increasing relative backwardness, it could not compete in admissions. (K suggests this 393.)

Let me underline this point about Hotchkiss lagging behind the larger culture, in this area as well as others. Apologetic classmates seek to explain Hotchkiss's backwardness with reference to the general state of the culture at the time. But we have already seen that Hotchkiss did not select a Catholic to head its board until ten years after the U.S. general population elected a Catholic president, and this pattern is followed again with the resistance to coeducation. Wouldn't it be more logically coherent simply to think of Hotchkiss as especially traditionalist and conservative?

The Duke I can't do much of an evaluation of his intellect. Responding to my request, the Hotchkiss Archives has found no evidence of the fabled article that he is supposed to have written for the Encyclopedia Britannica, though it may yet turn up. (The oft repeated story was that some boys decided to outsmart the supposedly omniscient Duke by boning up on an arcane topic covered in the Britannica, only to discover, upon presenting their knowledge to him, that the Duke was the author.) His major work was on Uncle Remus. I haven't been able to look at it; it might well be valuable. He was, as I will show, immensely authoritarian. The lack of mature non-deferential feedback can weaken the mind, and I think this affected his role as intellectual. He terrified generations of boys who had to sit at his table in the school dining room with his questions about whether Mickey Mouse needed a driver's license and so on. Forty years of teaching has convinced me that this stuff -- the form of thinking, with none of the content -- was pointless and of no value beyond the Duke's establishing a terrifying persona.

Various testimonies indicate that beneath it all the Duke was a shy man. His Hotchkiss classmates voted him the "meekest" (K 199); John Hersey spoke of his "deep, deep shyness" (K 299). I don't want to psychoanalyse him, but perhaps there is some connection between this and his career-long association with deferential teens, over whom he could easily exercise authority. And the exercise of that authority over students and faculty was by abundant testimony heartless. Carle Parsons later characterized the Duke's first faculty meeting as headmaster as an "inquisition" (K 206); Jodie Stone found him "a frightening man" (K 275); in the Summer 2004 Hotchkiss Magazine Nurse Margaret Morgan recalls, "He could make those poor boys shudder. He'd come most every night and pick on someone"; even Kolowrat, who is full of admiration, nonetheless speaks of his own experience of an "inquisition" by the Duke (K 32), with the Duke "at the point of obsession, almost irrational" (K 35).

The Duke's attack on me was physical, and, to use Kolowrat's term, irrational: when I was doing dining hall work as a scholarship boy one morning in winter, I came over from Coy Hall with just a warm coat, without the required jacket underneath. I was putting my coat on after clean-up, and the Duke ran up behind me and hit me, almost knocking me down. It was somewhere between a punch and a slap, not too painful, but as you see I have remembered it for more than fifty years. Given who the Duke was, and his punitive words, it was a terrifying episode. This is the only instance I know of physical violence by the Duke, but Kolowrat offers plenty of evidence of extreme cruelty. One boy was admitted to Yale despite the Duke's opposition, whereupon the Duke drove to New Haven "in a fury," wrote a letter to Yale admissions, and had the boy's admission rescinded. (K 187-189; for inexplicable reasons, K calls the Duke "magnanimous" in his advice concerning this boy.)

As I've said, the Duke set the tone for the faculty and made cruelty not only acceptable but part of the Hotchkiss mystique. Terrorizing children was seen as something positive, and still is, in some people's mythology. Consider the masters, some of whom were warm and humane, but not others. Kolowrat describes George Stone as having "a face-reddening temper which would sometimes get the better of him" (K 427). As a prep on Stone's corridor in Coy, I was struck by his warning to us in the first corridor meeting to watch out when we saw the veins standing up on his neck. Although I had only happy experiences with Russ Edwards, Fay Vincent '56 speaks of an incident in which Edwards was "ruthless" with him (K 510). This mean culture was so pervasive that when girls came to Hotchkiss, a teacher from Ethel Walker (girls' prep school) who was hired as a model for other woman teachers (K 400) seemed to groove on and partake of the pre-existing abusiveness (K 412), venting explosive wrath at students.

And consider "The Hawk," Robert Hawkins, remembered by a member of the class of '64 as "one of the most sadistic people I've known in my life" (K 324). When I was chair of the Record, Hawkins as faculty advisor reduced me to tears as he berated me for some utterly unobjectionable piece I had allowed to be published, which he feared would displease alumni. (Another Record editor reports similar furious censorship by Hawkins.)

In conclusion: What does all this say about Hotchkiss today? Is it different? I assume so, in most literal senses. But it won't do to respond to these questions with the boilerplate defense that comes from such diverse institutions as Consolidated Edison, Porter Goss's CIA, the FBI, New York Police Department, the Department of Defense -- you know the script: "Oh, that was long ago: we're not like that anymore. There's a few bad apples in every barrel." This answer always dodges the systemic problems, and the hardy endurance of old ways under new and cleaned up names. I think the things I've found are deeply rooted in Hotchkiss's culture. If these things haven't continued in literally the same way, much of the old package -- certainly including class condescension -- is nonetheless still there. It's hard to struggle free of such a history. (A discussion at the school during reunion weekend indicated that traditional notions of gender roles continue to prosper in Hotchkiss student culture with manifestations in such areas as election of class officers.)

Can Hotchkiss struggle free of its history? As a starting point for the consideration of new directions, here is some of Gus Winston's moving account of his daughter's time at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, which, to his credit, Kolowrat quotes at length (K 508-509):

Stuyvesant and its sister school, Bronx Science [where my wife went, on her way to Wellesley and Harvard - JL], consider themselves to be the best science and math high schools in the world... Enrollment at both is now about 40 percent Asian. Each class at each school comprises seven hundred students. Admission is solely by exam in a system of a million pupils. When my daughter took it, fifteen thousand kids competed for three hundred places.

I don't know what goes on inside the school. It's an ancient, four-story building on East 15th Street [later moved perilously close to the World Trade Center - JL], with sparse indoor athletic space; no pool, no fields, and decrepit labs, etc. In some spaces it gives a distinct feeling of being ramshackle, as rickety as old Main. But the couple of times I was there the place throbbed with almost flaunted high energy...

I don't think I've had many experiences as moving as her graduation ceremony in Avery Fisher Hall. There they were, seven hundred of them, in boisterous high energy ..., in virtually every size, shape, shade, and class of American human being imaginable. A young lady named Christine Hinkley was valedictorian and won the biology and English prizes. A young man named Sanjoy Dasgupta won the physics prize and the second mathematics prize. The language prize for Hebrew went to a tiny Vietnamese girl named Celia Ng, and the Japanese prize to a splay-footed, six-foot-six fellow named Goldhammer. Michael Hutchings won the math prize and was noted for having won a couple of computer science competititions. He was officially handed his Air Force Academy appointment by the commencement speaker, Col. Ron Grabe, Stuyvesant '62, who had just commanded the first shuttle flight (his third) following the Challenger accident. The school principal whimsically had looked for currently 'newsworthy' eminence and came up with Robert Moses, S'52, the SNCC philosopher-saint of the civil rights movement of the sixties, and Eric Lander, S'74, who'd been first in his class at Stuyvesant, then at Princeton, and is now a Harvard mathematician and geneticist, a MacArthur Fellow.

I have my reservations about Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, but just compare them to Hotchkiss for intensity, diversity, brilliance, and the roles of their graduates in so many areas of society.

The American elite today is in catastrophically bad shape -- greedy, bellicose, barbaric, engaged in class war from above, tearing apart American society and destroying fundamental values, and prepared to commit a Guernica in Falluja. That elite is a poor advertisement for the institutions that feed into it, like St. Paul's, Andover and Hotchkiss. If you dare to imagine a democratic Hotchkiss, it might look something like what Gus Winston describes. I suspect that a democratic Hotchkiss is unimaginable, but I hope we can try to imagine it.


In discussion after my presentation, nobody attempted to imagine a democratic Hotchkiss.


Thanks for help of various kinds: Henry Pillsbury, Renny Clark, Paul Hicks, Joanne Landy, Naomi Weisstein, and, at the school, Kate Persons -- none of whom are responsible for my interpretations. In addition, I am indebted to Ernest Kolowrat, Hotchkiss: A Chronicle of an American School (New York: New Amsterdam, 1992).

Copyright Jesse Lemisch 2004

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Ernest Kolowrat - 1/26/2005

Dear Jesse:

I hope you don’t mind this informal way of addressing you, since we overlapped at Hotchkiss for two years, and I vaguely recall that in my Senior year, you as a Lower Mid may have been on my dining hall clean-up crew. If so, I do hope that in that period of callow youth I wielded my authority with discretion.

As author of Hotchkiss: A Chronicle of an American School, I am at a loss to understand how a professional historian who claims to have no axe to grind or agenda to fulfill beyond searching for the truth could resort to such a gross misrepresentation of this centennial history. While I am not challenging your overall negative assessment of Hotchkiss in the mid-1950s, I vehemently object to your selective use -- and at times erroneous misuse -- of material culled from the book in an attempt to support a perspective that ultimately is your own.

How impartial or scholarly is it for you to be exhorting your readers/listeners to be suspicious of the book even before they open it “as authorized and official history, full of apologetics typical of the genre?” Having presumably read it carefully yourself, you should have questioned whether this was indeed the case in view of the wealth of negative information you were able to cherry-pick from the 500-plus page tome to buttress your critical views. If you were truly familiar with this genre from “reviewing the literature in the field,” surely you should have noted that no other commissioned school history -- and no other Hotchkiss publication -- had previously taken such an open, unsparing approach. If you had contacted me through the school’s website -- considering how much of your case was to be built on information published under my name -- I could have pointed you to evidence in the school’s archives that would have disabused you of any idea that this work could be considered an “apologia,” or as you imply elsewhere, a “hagiography.”

My own experience at Hotchkiss was obviously a highly positive one, despite having arrived on campus in 1948 as a refugee from Communist Czechoslovakia, an undersized scholarship boy with patched pants and a foreign accent. In vying for the honor of compiling the story of the school’s first hundred years, I nevertheless made it clear to the Centennial History Committee that I would accept the assignment only if given a free hand to portray the school warts and all. Ironically, this approach is very much in line with your stated goal of presenting history "wie es eigentlich gewesen," as it actually was. Knowing the school as I did, it was my conviction that despite its multitude of shortcomings, missed opportunities and perpetrated injustices, Hotchkiss on balance would emerge in a positive light as a noble endeavor of well-meaning if partly unwitting human beings. Rather than engaging in retrospective editorializing, the book seeks to provide a wide range of opinions and perspectives, trusting the reader to draw his or her own subjective conclusions. The moving account by Gus Winston about his daughter’s graduation ceremonies at Stuyvesant High School in New York, which you “credit” me for quoting at length as if it were a unique exception, is merely typical of the unfettered, multifaceted approach throughout the book. Of course, if providing readers with the prevailing "zeitgeist" or climate of opinion as context for making their judgments is in your view being apologetic, then I plead guilty as charged.

In overseeing the progress of writing the book, the Centennial History Committee (composed of distinguished members of the Hotchkiss community including authors Stephen Birmingham, C.D.B. Bryan and John Hersey) not only subscribed to the foregoing open approach but defended staunchly this position when various faculty members, powerful alumni, and other individuals from the broader Hotchkiss community caught wind of the book’s direction. If you had read the detailed Acknowledgments section, you would have been alerted to this “fray” (p. 562) as a result of the book’s “unfettered approach to the school’s past.” The controversy became so heated that another distinguished alumnus (Zeph Stewart, at that time director of the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., and brother of the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart H ’33) was drafted to mediate as a sort of an ombudsman. While final editorial decisions were left to the author, the input from the various factions resulted in the clarification, elaboration, and fine-tuning of some sensitive points – making it in parts a more nuanced, fuller, gentler book. Should you consider this sort of collegial interaction as censorship, then again I plead guilty as charged. May I however suggest that if in preparing your piece you’d had the benefit of the kind of input I received, you might have avoided linking the names of present members of the Hotchkiss community to long-forgotten, painful slurs – and thus unnecessarily compounding the hurt inflicted on them as students at the school.

In setting your own criteria for evaluating “the problematic side of Hotchkiss in the ‘fifties,” you state that the school should be evaluated not only on the basis of those who succeeded in it but also on “those who, in the institution’s terms, failed, or just dropped out.” Well, didn’t you notice that one of the three lead articles by the book’s guest authors was from your classmate C.D.B. “Courty” Bryan, who had been unceremoniously kicked out and in fact titled his piece, Kicked Out? And he is not the only one with a detailed say-so in the book who didn’t make it through. Unlike Courty, however, some of these other non-graduates have remained bitter to this day about their Hotchkiss experience, and they express it in words not likely to be seen in any apologia.

Now to more detailed matters: In taking me to task for glossing over the ingrained anti-semitism during our era at the school, you state that “Kolowrat acknowledges cagily and without specificity that boys were baited for having ‘stereotypically ethnic characteristics.’” If such glossing over were to be the case, what do you make of John Loeb’s detailed accounts (pp. 264-266 and 270-271) of the anti-semitism that had been directed against him at the school in the late 1940s? For the record, the quotation you attribute to me earlier about the school applauding the holocaust is actually a part of John Loeb’s narrative. And there are other first-person narratives by individuals detailing their experiences as Jewish students. In fact, the entire section (pp. 264-272) is dedicated precisely to elaborating on your charge that “anti-semitism was deep in the culture and history of the place,” going back to a 1906 letter from the Hotchkiss headmaster discouraging a Jewish student from applying.

Your summary of the book’s treatment of class and race during that era is comparably slipshod and unfair. You ignore the fact that Gus Winston, the school’s first black student, has a half-dozen pages to tell his story; your criticism that I fail “to see the class condescension involved” in assigning nicknames to members of the service staff overlooks the fact that the centennial book had been dedicated for that very reason to the Hotchkiss School service staff -- “far too often unheralded in the past;” and although your summary of the book’s treatment of homosexuality is no less slipshod, I do agree with your reproach that I should have also covered the question of homophobia, which certainly was in evidence during our era.

Let me next voice strong objection to the way you cherry-pick the centennial history for information to help impugn, indeed assassinate, the character of several faculty members, such as George Stone and Bob Hawkins. While the negative quotations you attribute to me about those two individuals are indeed correct – and debunk your earlier “hagiographic” implication – the quotations are taken out of an incomparably larger context of information fleshing out the multi-dimensional personalities of these masters. For starters, why don’t you re-read what Courty Bryan has to say in his essay about the influence of George Stone and Bob Hawkins on his life?

You wield your hatchet most irresponsibly with respect to the school’s legendary headmaster, George Van Santvoord, whom you admittedly disliked intensely. Not only have you culled your supporting material for the highly evident character flaws of this patriarchal figure -- nicknamed the Duke as much for his sense of noblesse oblige as for his autocratic ways -- from more than a hundred pages of anecdotal evidence of the Duke’s intriguing, common-sense intellect and a quarter of a century of student recollections of his invaluable life-forming influence, but you seem to be so blinded by your personal resentment that two of your seven quotations taken from the book are wholly misleading. In characterizing the Duke’s exercise of “authority over students and faculty” as “heartless,” you quote Carle Parsons’s depiction of the Duke’s first faculty meeting as headmaster as an “’inquisition.’” Yet what Carle Parsons makes abundantly clear is that this was an inquisition directed against the new headmaster by entrenched faculty old-timers. No less misleading is your example from the book of the boy “admitted to Yale despite the Duke’s opposition, whereupon the Duke drove to New Haven ‘in a fury,’ wrote a letter to Yale admissions, and had the boy’s admission rescinded.” Yet the book clearly identifies that account as an example of the many spurious “Duke stories,” this one formulated as a life-long cover by a student of famous Hotchkiss parentage to explain his failure to be accepted at Yale. Please re-read pages 187 to 189, where you will find not only the documentary evidence instructing the director of admissions at Yale to “feel free to deal with this boy’s application in any way you see fit without feeling it will cause us any embarrassment,” but also why I characterized the Duke as “magnanimous” in his advice concerning this boy.

Earlier in your critique, you mention that I am “full of admiration” for the Duke. Since this is the only remotely positive statement you make about our old headmaster, any reasonable individual exposed to your selection of quotations about the Duke from the centennial book would have to conclude that the author must be some sort of a sadist to admire such a monster. No wonder that your negatively skewed cherry-picking from the “abundant anecdotal material” in the book as a whole may lead your readers to “conclusions at odds with Kolowrat’s.” May I suggest, however, that it would be an altogether different matter if these readers were to turn to the centennial history itself. After doing just that, several alumni disaffected from Hotchkiss since leaving the school were inspired to make their first ever financial contribution to the alumni fund.

I applaud your implicit purpose in offering your critique of the school: “to make things better.” Yet if you continued to read the second part of the school’s centennial history, you should have realized that from the Duke’s retirement a year after your graduation to this day, the book’s governing theme has been the struggle to make the school a kinder, gentler, more inclusive place. Virtually all of the negatives that you focus on in your piece – negatives that are almost all interspersed in the incomparably lengthier centennial history – have gradually come to be addressed, though certainly not entirely eliminated. In an admittedly conservative community such as Hotchkiss, this evolution towards and beyond the national norm has not been without detours and considerable turmoil. The career of at least one headmaster, Timothy Callard (1981 – 1983), was abbreviated partly because he was trying to do away with some of the school’s ingrained traditions faster than the Hotchkiss community was willing to accept. Yet substantial progress has been made, perhaps reflected symbolically in that instilling “compassion” in students is now one of the school’s stated goals -- though keep in mind that even the much harsher Hotchkiss you so roundly condemn remains for legions of other former students the source of their most cherished memories.

Despite the long list of movers and shakers that have over the years graduated from Hotchkiss, you may remember the Duke lecturing us on the concept of service to others, no matter in how humble or modest a capacity. He often said that he much preferred for a boy to become a responsible, caring citizen in a small community than some sort of a national bigwig. For the predominantly privileged boys at the school, the Duke’s mantra was that the only way they should think of themselves as special was in their special responsibility towards those who were economically less fortunate. That concept of responsibility has since been embraced to the extent that today virtually every student at Hotchkiss is involved in some sort of community service activity. And while the school’s statement of goals undoubtedly remains an ideal, it is pursued with an intensity of purpose that makes its conclusion worth noting: “We hope that our graduates will leave Hotchkiss with a commitment to service to others and to environmental stewardship, and with greater understanding of themselves and of their responsibilities in a global society.”

Maybe you are right, Jesse, that a democratic Hotchkiss in the mold of Stuyvesant High School is unimaginable; but then maybe there are other criteria by which Hotchkiss should also be judged – criteria including perhaps those that prompted your parents more than half-a-century ago to send you there.

Copyright © 2005 by Ernest Kolowrat.

Andrew Looker - 12/7/2004

to Dr. Lemisch

I am Hotchkiss '60. From an assimilated Jewish backround. I didn't see anti-semitism until I got to Hotchkiss (coming from "exclusive" NYC boy's school, St. Bernard's, where religious backround was not an issue- ever)-Prejudice didn't hit me directly, but did trouble some other kids. "Baiting" on a massive scale ( huge rallies against certain kids) occurred and were tolerated by the powers that be. In selecting candidates for submission to American Field Service exchange program my name was submitted (and eventually accepted by the AFS) A friend of mine, good grades, class officer, future Harvard classmate of mine, was not selected for submission- Because he was Jewish? Because they didn't want to submit more than one Jewish person? I don't know.

Educationally, Hotchkiss was superb for me. I was allowed to take science courses instead of History and my senior year, took German and Clint Ely's first official Russian course, again instead of American History. Sorry- History's not my thing- I became a child psychiatrist- now continuing on my own with language study-including Sanskrit. Hotchkiss taught Sanskrit??!! It's almost worth putting up with all the bigotry..

Andrew Looker, M.D.

Andrew Looker - 12/7/2004


james tyler patterson - 12/1/2004

Dear Jesse Lemisch--like you, I am a Hotchkiss grad (1952, classmate of Kolowrat), and a retired academic historian. Your piece evokes a few questions and comments. First, questions: a) I am now writing a book re USA 1970s-2001, in which one of my arguments is that the good old days were, as you indicate, bad old days. Would you agree that American society has come a LONG way since the 1950s, re race, religion, sexual preference? (I dont know about Hotchkiss).
b)let me know some time how your piece is received
c) Dont answer this if it is intrusive, but do you think your new left political views stemmed from being marginalized at Hotchkiss, or that you arrived there feeling left-of-center?
For your info, i spent three years there, and they were not happy years.It sounds as if you were happier THEN, than I was. It was a cold place, with the tone definitely set by the Duke. Some of the masters (Stone, for instance) could seem brutal. (Tho he was a good math teacher in many ways). I will say, however, that the place had many fine teachers, among them Berry, Bacon, Hoey. Garside was good, but also very emotional. I remember writing a satire of Lorna Doone (assigned reading, as part of what even then was an old fashioned english curriculum). When he read it, he went ballistic, flunked me, and read me out in class. Later, he calmed down.
I had two pretty good friends who were Jewish. We never talked about religion, and i am afraid i do not know how burned they may have been by anti-Semitism. Judging from your account, they must have been hurt in ways that I just didnt recognize.
Looking back (as a then-undersized, non-athletic boy from eastern, rural Connecticut--by no means part of the Fairfield county/Westchester social set that was so much a main feature of the place), i recall the place less as a hotbed of anti-Semitism or racism or homophobia than as a place where boys from already entitled families were confirmed in their social snobbishness. Hotchkiss, I believe, was like virtually all other boarding schools in that respect: as you know, that was really why they were created in the first place. Your mother must have had a good idea of this when she sent you there. (By the way, you might wish to read John Blum's recently published autoboiograp[hy, which includes interesting recollcations of another Jewish boy sent away to prep school.)
All the best, Jim Patterson