In January 1936 (which, we need hardly be reminded, was the height of the Great Depression) Fortune, by then the self-appointed mouthpiece of the American moneyed, if not necessarily the upper, class, was casting about for social institutions that might be blamed for the country's economic woes. The magazine hit upon the nation's dozen most prestigious college preparatory schools and chose to attack them in two major articles. "They have produced," the series led off, "from among the privileged youth of the country 67,000 Old Boys---but in all their history only twenty-seven U.S. Senators, one member of the U.S. Supreme Court, and one President of the U.S."
This harsh judgment was based almost entirely on what the magazine saw as the failure of the elite schools to produce graduates who would enter public service, as their equivalent schools had traditionally done in England. American private schools, the articles claimed, had failed to train their students for leadership in a democratic country. Thus the Depression was probably their fault. Fortune's anonymous writer concluded: "The American ruling class may quite possibly be taxed out of existence in the next few decades because the American ruling-class schools have not educated rich men's sons to political superiority---have not presented the country with any logical reasons why the class should not be taxed out of existence."
Fortune's argument, however, was more emotional than logical. Nor was its crystal ball unclouded. In the decades to come, it would be the British ruling class that would be threatened with extinction by taxation, and it would be the British public schools that would be brutally forced to relax their elitist admissions standards during the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Furthermore, the magazine overlooked the fact that American prep schools were designed only to prepare young people for college and, though they offered courses in government, history, and political science, had provided no guarantee of entrée into a ruling class, the way Britain's public schools had virtually done for years.
Finally, the magazine's arithmetic was off. The "one President of the U.S." referred to was probably intended to be Franklin D. Roosevelt, a graduate of Groton, but Fortune had forgotten FDR's relative President Theodore Roosevelt, who was also Groton-educated, as well as the similarly private-school-educated William Howard Taft. Also, though prep schools as such didn't exist at the time, presidents Washington, Jefferson, and both Adamses were all the products of decidedly upper-class private educations. In the years since the Fortune articles appeared, a number of other political leaders have emerged from a prep-school milieu, including John F. Kennedy, a graduate of Choate.
Part of the trouble has been that, in terms of American politics, no one has been quite able to decide whether an upper-class education is an asset or a liability, and so campaign managers have tended to shy away from the whole issue. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, whose popularity was said to be based on his appeal to the common man, was advised to play down his privileged schooling at Groton and Harvard. Indeed, his Groton classmates were grateful that he did, since they considered FDR and his New Deal a blot on the school's escutcheon and threatened to boycott a school reunion if the president were also planning to attend. Adlai E. Stevenson's Choate and Princeton background did not seem to be held against him when he campaigned successfully for the governorship of Illinois. But, in his two campaigns for the U.S. presidency, his advisors recommended soft-pedaling his boarding-school credits, and he lost both times. On the other hand, during William W. Scranton's gubernatorial campaign in Pennsylvania, it was also deemed wisest not to mention Scranton's fine record at Hotchkiss and Yale, and Scranton won.
In American politics, as well as in business life, the feeling seems to have developed that while it is acceptable to have gone to college, to have attained a prep-school diploma in addition is somehow unacceptable, an unnecessary gilding of the lily. Men in particular seem embarrassed by their prep schools, as though there were almost something sissified about the whole thing, something dandified and effeminate. The term "preppie" is used derisively, and the question "Where did you prep?" when asked in a drawing room comedy will inevitably get a laugh from the audience, for the fop who would ask such a question doubtless also has the sexual proclivities of an Oscar Wilde. The good manners and speech and poise that boarding schools tend to instill are something like upper-class values---one has them but doesn't talk about them. One has them, but one doesn't let them show too much. They are private secrets, shared with a private world of one's private-school social peers. Adlai Stevenson's private-school training was visible in his upper-crust manners and audible in his upper-crust speech, and in an interesting lapse of manners, John F. Kennedy once referred to his fellow Democrat and fellow boarding-school alumnus as "that faggot."
Still, in Rhode Island, Senator Claiborne Pell decided to make no bones of the fact that he had been privately educated at St. George's School and Princeton, nor of the fact that he was descended from one of America's oldest and most aristocratic English manorial families, the Pells of Pelham. Yet Pell remains one of the state's most popular figures in Democratic politics. Also in Rhode Island, William H. Vanderbilt---perhaps acting on the theory that, being a Vanderbilt, he would have had to have had a fancy education---decided to neither disown nor flaunt the fact that he had attended the same schools as Claiborne Pell. He won one term as Republican governor of the state in 1939 but lost his bid for a second term. Bitter in his defeat, he pulled up stakes and moved to Massachusetts, where he went into real estate. John D. Rockefeller IV, campaigning for the governorship of West Virginia, affected scuffed sneakers, faded blue jeans, and a down-home Appalachian manner, and apparently got voters to forget that he was a Rockefeller and had any sort of education whatsoever. Others have buried the shameful secret of their prep-school pasts even more cleverly. Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York City chose the tactic of referring to his boarding school as "my high school"---a ploy that amused those who knew the high school was snobbish St. Paul's, in Concord, New Hampshire. And, meanwhile, who ever suspected that Lindsay's tough-talking predecessor, Robert Wagner, Jr., was a graduate of the Taft School? That Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was an alumnus of Hotchkiss was never advertised until it appeared in his obituary.
But the results of confessing to an upper-class upbringing remain unpredictable. In 1938---Depression days again---Mrs. Robert A. Taft made a startling speech to a gathering of Ohio mine workers in which she said, "My husband did not start from humble beginnings... he had a fine education at Yale." Her husband's Republican backers wrung their hands, and it was widely assumed that she had dealt him a political death blow in his senatorial campaign. But she hadn't, and Taft went on to win his Senate seat handily.
Another thing that Fortune's writer seemed to have overlooked is that there are other forms of public service, outside the realms of government and politics, where citizens can prove themselves useful. And at a number of these endeavors the alumni of America's private schools seem to have acquitted themselves rather well. Philanthropy and patronage of the arts come first to mind. New England boarding schools have turned out such art patrons as Seymour H. Knox, whose benefactions to the city of Buffalo have included its Fine Arts Academy, and the late Robert Lehman. When Mr. Lehman's princely collection was turned over to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for the public to enjoy, a whole new wing for the museum was required to house it---a wing donated by Mr. Lehman, of course.
Walter Chrysler's art collection has similarly benefited the city of Detroit, and in the meantime, many prep-school graduates have gone on to careers in the arts. These, in a very random sampling, would include Craig Smith, head of the Department of Fine Arts at New York University; Henry Gardiner, designer of exhibits at New York's Museum of Natural History; Samuel Wagstaff, Jr., curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford; Gray Williams, a curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; William Hutton, curator of the Toledo Museum of Art; artists Tony Vevers, Jerry Pfohl, Denver Lindley, and the New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno; director John Frankenheimer; composer Stephen Sondheim; and novelist Louis Auchincloss.
The list could go on and on, including newspaper editors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, clergymen, and educators. Surely Fortune sadly underrated the contributions of America's upperclass schools when it accused them of creating nothing more than a network of sixty-seven thousand "Old Boys."
But what the system did create was sixty-seven thousand individuals who, though intensely proud of their upper-class education, have been a little shy when it comes to talking about it---except, of course, among themselves.
Meanwhile, it would seem to be a fact that, out of even the most pampered and protected of environments, certain notions of behavior---of propriety, or duty, whether spoken or unspoken---become instinctual, almost automatic responses. This is not to say that a genteel upbringing and schooling will guarantee worthwhile citizens, or even ladies and gentlemen, as an inevitable result. The American upper-class educational system has produced its share of cads and bounders, and one of the most notorious of these was perhaps Richard Whitney, who "betrayed his class" in the 1930s. After being splendidly educated at Groton and Harvard, he went on to become president of the New York Stock Exchange and, in 1938, was sentenced to Sing Sing for defrauding not only the American public and the state of New York but also his business partners and the treasury of his own New York Yacht Club. And yet even the Whitney case offered an example of upperclass values at work. While Whitney served his prison sentence, he received regular visits from the Reverend Endicott Peabody of Groton, his old school headmaster. It simply seemed to the Reverend Peabody the gentlemanly and proper thing to do for a Groton boy who had, alas, become a felon.
Groton is often cited as the most aristocratic of New England's private schools, and though it is by no means the oldest (both Exeter and Andover were founded more than a hundred years earlier), it came into existence in 1884 with excellent credentials, both social and financial. Its founder, the Reverend Peabody, was connected with a variety of old New England families, including the Lawrences and the Parkmans, as well as the Endicotts---an ancestor was Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Endicott---and Peabodys of Salem, where, it was said, even the peeping frogs in ponds on summer nights sang a chorus of "Peabody, Peabody, Peabody." The school's chief financial backer was J. Pierpont Morgan, who at the time ran what amounted to his own federal reserve system before there was such an institution. Both Peabody and Morgan had been educated at select "public" schools in England, where Peabody's father had been a Morgan partner in London, and their intent with Groton was to create a school in America that would follow the English upper-class mode as closely as possible. Their models were such schools as Eton, Harrow, and Cheltenham, and since Peabody was an Episcopal clergyman, their goal was to educate "Christian gentlemen" and to develop "manly Christian character." Religious services were an important part of the school's curriculum. In addition to church on Sunday, compulsory chapel services were held twice daily, in early morning and at vespers. The school's motto, created by the rector, was Cui servire est regnare--- "To serve Him is to rule."
The Rector, as the Reverend Peabody was always called, was a strapping, handsome six-footer with piercing eyes and a long, thin, aristocratic nose. Standing behind his pulpit in his flowing white robes, he was a commanding figure as he delivered one of his impassioned sermons on the subtleties of a Satan who could tempt a boy into the paths of unrighteousness through such a simple technique as permitting him to mouth the prayers and liturgical responses with his lips, rather than in full, strong, manly voice. But there was more to the Rector's emotional appeal than that. His goal was to make his school quite literally a spiritual extension of a well-born boy's own family. A Groton boy was intended to feel as loved and needed while away at boarding school as he would feel at home, and like the fictional Mr. Chips, the Rector referred to all Grotonians as "my boys."
As an affectionate biographer of the Rector wrote, "It was the most natural thing in the world for him to think of his school as being simply a large family .... At the center of the big school family his own family grew and the beautiful home and family life was presided over by Mrs. Peabody, the most gracious and beautiful of wives and mothers." Every night, the Rector and Mrs. Peabody would say individual good nights to each and every boy as he trooped off to bed, and on the foreheads of the younger lads Mrs. Peabody would bestow a kiss, along with a sweet-dreams wish.
From the outset, the Rector adopted the habit of following his boys throughout their careers and lives. He was frequently called upon to marry them (he officiated at the wedding of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt) and, toward the end of his long tenure at Groton, occasionally to bury them. For fifty-six years, until his retirement in 1940 at the age of eighty-four, and continuing until his death four years later, every Groton graduate received a handwritten letter on his birthday from the Rector---even when the list of the school's alumni had swollen to include thousands of names. Writing from the White House in 1936 to thank the Rector for his annual message, Franklin D. Roosevelt told him that he had saved every one of the birthday letters since his graduation.
On the other hand, some of the Reverend Peabody's Brahmin borrowings for Groton from the British public-school system seemed so abject as to be anachronistic. He always used British spellings, for example, of such words as colour, honour, favour, centre, and realise. Bruised knees of Grotties were treated with sticky plasters, not Band-Aids. Cheers for the school's athletic teams were not of the one-two-three-four-siss-boom-bah variety, but were hip-hip-hurrah. Some of the Rector's Briticisms drew snickers from the boys. Criticizing a messily erased theme paper, for instance, the Rector might say, "You need to get yourself a good rubber."
At Cheltenham and Cambridge, where he himself had been educated, the Spartanness of damp and drafty eleventh-century corridors and chambers had been touted as character building, and a certain amount of physical discomfort was considered good for spiritual and moral growth. Thus, at Groton, undergraduates slept in unheated cells without doors, washed up at long communal black sinks with cold water and slabs of yellow kitchen soap, and ate meals that featured such items as cold poached cod and "sure-death hash." Groton boys wore stiff white collars and black patent-leather pumps to dinner, and there were other rules laid down by the Rector. The purpose of these may have seemed mysterious to many of the boys. It was against the rules to walk or stand with one's hands in one's pockets. Close friendships were discouraged, and it was also against the rules to walk or sit about the school in groups of twos. (Male adolescent crushes, the Rector seemed to feel, which might lead to the vice that dare not speak its name, could this way be discouraged.)
Much emphasis was placed on vigorous outdoor exercise, and Grotonians played fives, an Etonian form of handball. "Leadership" was another of the Rector's favorite nouns, and boys were taught that to become a sixth-form prefect was perhaps the most splendid achievement a young man could hope for in his scholastic life. The British custom of "fagging," in which upperclassmen used lower-classmen as their personal servants, was not allowed, but the Rector did believe that senior boys should be allowed to discipline their juniors when they misbehaved or failed to achieve that ineffable quality known as the Groton "tone." (That tone might be defined as an air of perpetual self-assurance, combined with an attitude of distrust toward anyone who was not a fellow Grotonian.) A favorite form of punishment was known as pumping, where an errant youth was taken into the lavatory and literally pumped full of water. Over the years, there were several near-drowning episodes, where artificial respiration had to be applied, from pumpings.
All of this made the Groton School seem, to outsiders, a very peculiar place as the school moved into the twentieth century. But that was perfectly all right with the Rector. "Groton School," wrote William Amory Gardner, one of the School's early trustees, "is perfectly incomprehensible to those who have not belonged to it," and the Rector kept it that way through the force of his personality.
Meanwhile, in such matters as imparting actual knowledge, much less scholarship, the Rector had less interest. More emphasis was placed on godliness and cleanliness (of mind and body) and good sportsmanship. Peabody's biographer summed it up politely, saying, "He never seemed to enter wholeheartedly into the field of theory, as he always fought the idea that teaching can or should be limited to the mind alone. He was primarily a personality, interested in persons, each of whom he saw most importantly as a child of God." Despite such pieties, the Rector turned Groton into the most openly snobbish school in America.
And yet Groton is the only private boarding school in America to have turned out two U.S. presidents, both of them named Roosevelt. This was Endicott Peabody's greatest source of pride. Again and again in his sermons the Rector stressed his belief that Groton's students composed the future leadership of the country. Public service was held up as a noble goal. His boys represented the cream of America's youth, and after Groton---and Harvard---his boys were to go forth and serve their nation with the same dedication and devotion as they gave to their daily prayers. With such dedication and devotion to God and country, Grotonians could only be expected to rise naturally into the highest ranks of government. Hadn't they harkened to the school's proud motto that to serve God was to rule?
His shining example was Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was his flagship Groton student: a man of fine family and distinguished ancestry, an American aristocrat, a bold war hero who had gone on to seek and obtain the highest office in the land and become a fine and upright and beloved president. Over and over, Teddy Roosevelt was offered up to Groton boys as their ultimate ideal. Roosevelt, in turn, had sent his two sons to Groton and made frequent trips to the school to address the students, to regale them with stories of his adventures in the worlds of the military, big-game hunting, and politics, and to provide them with solid, in-the-flesh inspiration.
The Rector once said, "If some Groton boys do not enter political life and do something for our land it won't be because they have not been urged." One person who obviously listened to these exhortations very closely was the young Franklin D. Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt's distant cousin. For despite the egalitarian thrust of the New Deal, his apparent deep concern and sympathy for the poor, the blacks, the laborers, and the unemployed, and what seemed to be his determination to tax the rich out of existence, FDR was an aristocrat to the core. He had merely adopted the tactic of some of his peers by making a secret of it. He had been raised in a world that had been neatly divided between servants and masters, and it was a world he was used to and comfortable within. Writing home to his mother from Groton, and commiserating with her on the loss of a butler (Sara Delano Roosevelt perennially had difficulties keeping servants), he said, "Don't let Papa worry about it, after all there are plenty of good butlers in the world." And when it came time for him to marry, he did not choose a woman he had fallen in love with---as his wife would learn, in time, to her sorrow. He married another Roosevelt, his own kind, because it was the familiar, the traditional thing to do. At the same time, with a relative in the White House, FDR had certainly been given a special impetus to enter politics. He was a frequent White House guest, had attended Cousin Alice's coming-out party, and had been given a firsthand taste of the pomp and privilege and perquisites and glamour that went with being president. The excitement... the power.
But, alas, for the great majority of Groton's graduates, the urgings of the Rector and the leaders of the community whom he imported as lecturers fell on deaf ears. Most Groton boys had come from families who had taught them that politics was dirty and that politicians were not gentlemen. (Franklin Roosevelt's father believed the same thing.) In 1881, Henry Adams had told his Harvard pupil Henry Cabot Lodge, "I have never known a young man to go into politics who was not the worse for it." Oh, there were a handful---a very small handful---of Groton-educated men who became public figures: Senators Bronson Cutting and Frederick Hale, Congressman Jonathan Bingham, Dean Acheson, Francis Biddle, Averell Harriman, and Sumner Welles, in addition to the two Roosevelts. But that is about the end of the list. Most of the other Grotonians went into family businesses, or became lawyers or bankers, or "went down to Wall Street," where the benevolent and paternalistic J. P. Morgan---who always had a special fondness for Groton boys---usually could be depended on to find them places at his bank. After all, politics did sound like hard work---all that campaigning. And, unless one went into politics dishonestly, as most Groton boys would be loath to do, there was very little money in it. Going down to Wall Street was easier. Again, it was the traditional, the familiar, the more expected thing to do.
While the Reverend Peabody at Groton longed, perhaps naively, to have his school produce America's leaders---Christian leaders, it might be added---the way Eton and Harrow had for centuries turned out England's ruling class, George Van Santvoord at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, had a somewhat different goal for the school that he headed from 1926 to 1955. His concern was the development of character, and not so-called Christian character, either. Both the Talmud and the Koran, he often pointed out, as well as Confucius, had something to say about character, if Hotchkiss educated young men who turned out to be leaders, that was fine with him. But, to him, a leader with a flawed character was worse than no leader at all.
At the time of Van Santvoord's appointment by the school's board of trustees, this choice was considered peculiar. For one thing, though the history of the world's religions was a subject that interested him---he even taught a course about it at Hotchkiss---he was not a clergyman. He was, on the other hand, better educated than Peabody, having earned Bachelor's, Master's, and Bachelor of Letters degrees and being a graduate of Yale, a Rhodes scholar, and a winner of the croix de guerre in World War I. Tall, erect, broad-shouldered, and patricianly handsome, with an Old Knickerbocker, Hudson Valley name, he looked every inch the American aristocrat.
At the same time, he believed in common sense. "In fact," he would say with a little sniff, "I've never understood why it's called common sense, because to find anyone using it is quite uncommon." If a distinction can be made between commoner and aristocrat, then Van Santvoord believed in aristocratic sense. When one of his students came to him with a problem, his usual response was, "Well, what do you think?" Or, "How do you think this problem should be handled?" On the subject of morality, he often said, "One way to decide whether an act is moral or immoral is to ask yourself what the world would be like if everybody did it."
The Hotchkiss School first opened its doors in 1892, the gift of Mrs. Maria Bissell Hotchkiss, a former schoolteacher whose late husband, Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss, had made a fortune as a munitions manufacturer. Among Mr. Hotchkiss's inventions had been one that perfected the machine gun, and Mrs. Hotchkiss may have wanted to donate a school for boys to atone for the many young male lives her husband's device had dispatched in wars. Before George Van Santvoord's arrival, Hotchkiss had been a school much like other prep schools in New England of the era: a school for the pampered sons of the rich.
But Van Santvoord decided to change all that, and he was immediately branded---by trustees, alumni, faculty, and students alike---as an iconoclast, a radical, a shatterer of sacred traditions, even a bolshevist. One of the first things he did was to abolish the practice of hazing new boys. Up to then, the lower-classmen had been ruled despotically---often savagely---by members of the senior class. When speaking to seniors, new boys were required to call them Sir, and then were only to speak when spoken to. Among the rules set down by seniors for new boys were:
No loud ties
When walking down corridors new boys are always to keep elbow or finger touching wall furtherest from windows
Keep out of corridors except on business
As much as possible keep out of sight of Seniors
Violations of these rules could lead to brutal corporal punishment. All this was outlawed by Van Santvoord. Also outlawed were the fraternities and secret societies that, in such schools as Groton and St. Paul's, had taken such a firm grip on student life that they were completely beyond administrative control. Prior to Van Santvoord, the school had placed much emphasis on athletics. Students had been selected for brawn as much as brain, and alumni were horrified at George Van Santvoord's announcement that sports were to be downplayed in favor of more intellectual activities. Saturday nights at the school had been traditionally given over to movies. Van Santvoord decided to vary this fare with periodic piano or violin concerts and readings from visiting novelists and poets, including the "controversial" Vachel Lindsay. He discovered that the school had a cache of reasonably good paintings, and art and sculpture exhibitions were displayed in the corridors. Boys were encouraged to decorate their rooms with paintings rather than the customary pennants and pinups.
Under the Van Santvoord regime, the school added its own infirmary and its own full-time physician. The school library more than doubled its number of volumes and included the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung, writers whose thoughts had been considered "dangerous" to well-born American youths. When asked by a worried alumnus whether some of his students might be being exposed to "improper books," Mr. Van Santvoord replied that he was more interested in dealing with improper fractions. His own personal store of knowledge was formidable. He was scholastically equipped to teach---and often did---courses in Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, Italian, English, and history, as well as comparative religions. Though he had never formally studied it, in his spare time he taught himself Russian. He could converse knowledgeably about Confucius and Mencius and Lao-tse, as well as on he great violin makers Guarnieri, Amati, and Stradivarius. Once, when asked by a student if there was an encyclopedia handy to look something up, Van Santvoord replied coolly, "What is it you want to know?"
Though the Sunday services in the school's chapel were basically Church of England, Mr. Van Santvoord had a broader, more ecumenical outlook. He frequently invited rabbis, priests, and clerics from other Protestant denominations, as well as lay speakers, to visit the school and deliver the Sunday homilies. He occasionally took the pulpit himself to talk about whatever was on his mind and encouraged members of his teaching staff to do the same.
In terms of teaching, Van Santvoord once remarked that he cared less about whether a student knew the dates and generals of the War of 1812 than whether the student knew why that war was fought. In teaching English, he felt that it was less important for a boy to know how to parse a sentence than to be able to speak and write the language gracefully and correctly. In other words, he had the revolutionary notion in private-school education that a young man should be taught to think.
In manner and bearing, Van Santvoord was aloof and somewhat distant, though the faint traces of a smile usually hovered tentatively about the corners of his mouth, and when truly pleased, he fairly beamed. Still, he frightened many boys and often offended parents---doting mothers in particular. When they came to him with trivial questions about their sons' progress in school, he gave them short shrift. Their progress in school, he implied, was his business, not theirs. He particularly disliked parents who were divorced or separated, feeling that these couples had abandoned their job---raising a son---before they had finished it. Once, after expelling a boy and learning that neither parent was available to collect their son (a chauffeured car was being sent instead), he announced that such parents didn't deserve to have their son back, and the boy was reinstated in the school. Outspoken, a touch autocratic, regal but usually fair, he quickly earned the nickname that would stick to him throughout his thirty-year Hotchkiss career: the Duke.
His school, the Duke used to say, had only one rule, and that was "Be a gentleman." How he defined what a gentleman was he did not say, but what a gentleman was usually became clear when you discovered what a gentleman wasn't. A gentleman didn't cheat. He didn't lie. A gentleman wasn't petty. A gentleman wasn't intolerant of others' shortcomings. A gentleman wasn't a whiner, wasn't a gossip, wasn't a boor, wasn't inconsiderate of others' feelings. Once, in a discussion of what the most serious of human crimes might be, he said that he felt the worst was deliberate cruelty. But a close second, he added, was boredom.
The Hotchkiss curriculum was both loosened and expanded under the Duke. If, for example, a boy could pass the examination for French I, he was not required to take that course and could move directly on to French II. A teacher was hired to teach art and art history, another to teach music and music appreciation, and still another to teach drama. Though alumni moaned that the school was teaching "sissy courses," the Duke remained unfazed. It was clear that, in his opinion, a gentleman was a man of taste and culture. He offered prizes for the most tastefully decorated dormitory rooms, which, he made clear, did not mean the most expensively decorated.
In the winter of 1945 a young teacher, recently hired by the school, chose to commit suicide in his campus apartment by hanging himself with his bathrobe cord. When his body was discovered long after lights out, the entire school was awakened by the sounds of ambulance and police sirens and the lurid flashing of red and blue bubble lights. The next morning, since the school was agog with what had happened, the Duke felt it necessary to address the situation at the students' daily assembly in the chapel. The expression on his face was one of extreme distaste, and his remarks were very brief. Obviously, some sort of standard had been betrayed. It was clear from his icy look that he disapproved of suicides in general, and also that he found the young teacher's choice of venue unpardonable. That was the worst sin---to commit such an act within the confines of a school for boys whom he had been employed to teach and guide. The Duke, however, said none of this, while conveying it all in his eyes and in his voice: overwhelming disappointment that a man he had counted upon to be a gentleman had turned out not to be one after all. What he said, after making a few routine announcements, was this: "I am sure you have all heard by now that Mr. ------- chose to take his own life last night. I do not know why. He came to me yesterday afternoon with some problems that didn't seem to me terribly important. I suppose one way to think of this is that there are interesting novels, and interesting short stories. Mr. ------- chose to make a short story of his life."
Be a gentleman! Oh, there were other rules, most of them sensible. Drinking and smoking on the campus were grounds for expulsion. So were swimming in the lake at night and accepting rides in automobiles from anyone who was not a faculty or family member. Jackets and ties were required in classrooms and in the dining room, and there were some quaint exceptions to this dress code. On hot days, for example, boys would be permitted to remove their jackets in the classrooms but only provided that they were not wearing suspenders, which the Duke called galluses. But otherwise the only duty was to that unwritten code.
"To be a gentleman, to be a person of character---that is the most important thing we can teach you here," Van Santvoord often told his boys. In his notes and in his office sessions, the Duke kept stressing character; how we must always be on guard that we do and say only those things that are truly worthy of a gentleman---regardless of whether anyone finds out or we get caught. We owe it to others, the Duke wrote, to do what is truly right. And, above all, we owe it to ourselves. For only that way can we truly live with ourselves in peace. A gentleman was defined by his strength of character.
Though he never came right out and said so, George Van Santvoord was emphasizing the true standards of a true aristocracy---standards of cultivation, of intellect, of duty, of generosity of spirit, standards of doing one's best. The fact is that out of schools like Groton and Hotchkiss, out of even the most hothouse-seeming notions of how the children of the American rich should be educated, would emerge people who, when the chips were down, would manage to rise to occasions and do the things that were expected of them. It is as though this instinct had been somehow absorbed by osmosis from the attitudes of parents, or grandparents, or teachers, or a combination of all these influences. It is as though service in a time of need were an almost atavistic response, the way an English gentleman will sit for hours waist-deep in the icy waters of a duck blind on the chance of bringing down a single bird, not because he enjoys it so much but because his family and friends all do it, have always done it, and it is the thing that, if one is an English gentleman, one does.
"Where did it come from, I often wonder?" mused the late Mr. Wilmarth S. Lewis, Yale alumnus ('18), Horace Walpole scholar, and gentleman farmer of Connecticut. The subject of Mr. Lewis's musings was his adored wife, the former Annie Burr Auchincloss, one of the most gently bred, gently spoken, and gently featured of women, whose chief preoccupation and talent had always appeared to be tending her extensive flower gardens, taking cuttings, and creating hybrid roses. And yet, for all her apparent delicacy, she had emerged during World War II as something of a heroine. Mrs. Lewis had had, as her wondering husband explained it, "the most restrictive, blindered sort of childhood," raised in New York by nurses and governesses, privately tutored and schooled, shielded from such realities as poverty and crime and mortality, never permitted to forget that she was a Burr. Her education had ended, in the manner of young women of her day and social class, at a finishing school---in her case, Miss Porter's, at Farmington, Connecticut, a school many girls attended accompanied by private detectives serving as bodyguards, and a school so discreet that the young Gloria Vanderbilt was asked not to return because it was felt that her presence generated "too much publicity."
At Farmington, young ladies were expected, if they did not know how to do so already, to learn to play tennis, to curtsy, to pour tea, to remove the finger bowl with the doily and place these at eleven o'clock before separating the dessert spoon and fork. Girls were not permitted to wear high heels because of Miss Porter's arcane belief that high heels damaged a woman's child-bearing ability. A bit of art, a bit of music, a bit of American history, and a bit of French were taught for good measure. The school also employed a riding mistress and arranged for stables for the saddle horses that some girls might wish to bring along with them. The school's greatest honor was for a girl to be asked to help carry the daisy chain.
And yet, despite this swaddled upbringing and an education that was insular to say the least, no sooner had the first Japanese bombs fallen on Pearl Harbor than Annie Burr Lewis was galvanized into action---volunteering for Red Cross work, driving an ambulance in France, changing tires and spark plugs, caring for the sick and wounded, and winding bandages, much of this activity behind enemy lines.
Where had this extraordinary ability come from, her husband wondered? Surely not from Miss Porter's School. Might he be suggesting, Mr. Lewis was asked, that there were such things as "American aristocratic values" that sprang to the fore in times of crisis---an intuitive, inherited knowledge that when service is needed from one, one must serve, and that when duty and country call, the dutiful and patriotic must respond? Would this account for his wife's volunteer service in the war?
Mr. Lewis looked briefly alarmed at this suggestion. Then, lowering his voice, he murmured, "Oh, yes, of course---of course there are. But one isn't supposed to talk about such things. Once you mention them, then the hackles begin to rise ..........