The Secret Oral History of Bennington: The 1980s' Most Decadent College
What Café du Dôme was to the Lost Generation, the dining hall at Bennington College was to Generation X—i.e., the Lost Generation Revisited. The Moveable Feast had moved ahead six decades and across the Atlantic, and while, of course, southwestern Vermont wasn’t Paris, somehow, in the early-to-mid eighties, it was, was just as sly, louche, low-down, and darkly perdu. And speaking of sly, louche, low-down, and darkly perdu, check out the habitués. Seated around the table, ready to gorge on the conversation if not the food (cocaine, the Pernod of its era, is a notorious appetite suppressant), berets swapped for sunglasses, were the neo F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Djuna Barnes: Bret Easton Ellis, future writer of American Psycho and charter member of the literary Brat Pack; Jonathan Lethem, future writer of The Fortress of Solitude and MacArthur genius; and Donna Tartt, future writer of The Secret History and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Goldfinch. All three were in the class of 1986. All three were a long way from home—Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and Grenada, Mississippi, respectively. All three were, at various times, infatuated and disappointed with one another, their friendships stimulated and fueled by rivalry. And all three would mythologize Bennington—the baroque wickedness, the malignant glamour, the corruption so profound as to be exactly what is meant by the word decadence—in their fiction that, as it turns out, wasn’t quite, and thereby become myths themselves.
Every prodigy needs his or her very own Gertrude Stein or Sherwood Anderson—i.e., a mentor and model. Bennington had those in profusion, teachers who were also artists: journalist Joe McGinniss; novelists and short-story writers Nicholas Delbanco and Arturo Vivante; and poet, mystic, and self-chronicler Claude Fredericks. And then there were the supporting figures (and fellow students), so fascinating they threatened to eclipse the main: writers Jill Eisenstadt, David Lipsky, Lawrence David, Reginald Shepherd; Brixton Smith Start, lead guitarist of post-punk British band the Fall; and Quintana Roo Dunne, only child of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.
So grab a tray, pull up a chair, and try not to look like you’re eavesdropping.
FALL SEMESTER, 1982
BRIXTON SMITH START, CLASS OF ’85, DROPOUT; MUSICIAN: Bennington looked like something out of a child’s fairy tale. It was so isolated and so beautiful, and it was green and surrounded by mountains. At the center of campus was a building—tall, white, very grand, with columns and a bell clock—called Commons. If you stood in front of Commons, you’d see, if you looked to one side, an old graveyard, and to the other side, a meadow. And then, if you looked straight ahead, a long, lush, rolling lawn lined by lovely, New England-y clapboard houses, creating this visual corridor so that your eye was drawn to the end of it, where the earth suddenly fell away, just—poof—vanished. Not really, of course, but it looked as if it did. We called it “the End of the World.” Mists would roll in there at night, these swirling mists so thick you couldn’t see your hand when you held it up to your face. The rumor was that the campus was the site of an ancient Native American burial ground. Supposedly it was one of the few spots on earth where all four winds met at the same time. And there was something sacred about it, something haunted. When I was at Bennington, I felt like I was in a kind of I don’t know what—a time warp or a different dimension or something. It was like all of us, collectively, were tapping the source. The energy was like nothing I’ve experienced anyplace else. It was amazing.
“Bret was a star before anyone even knew about his writing. . . . The people around him would all wear Wayfarers too.” —Paula Powers
BRET EASTON ELLIS, CLASS OF ’86; WRITER: The shock of arriving on campus in the fall of 1982 was enormous. Growing up in L. A., I had this yearning to get out, to go east, then to finally be there. My strongest memories are of my first two or three days. New England was so different from southern California—the physicality of it, the sentiment. It was a giant shift for me, and it was overpowering. And God, Bennington was small. There were 160 in my freshman class, maybe, if that.
IAN GITTLER, CLASS OF ’84; MUSICIAN/FILMMAKER: Bret came to Bennington a heavily scarred young man. He had a lot of talent. He had a lot of problems. He also had a suitcase full of drugs.
PAULA POWERS, CLASS OF ’86; WRITER/EDITOR: Bret was a star at school before anyone even knew about his writing. I had a crush on him. A lot of women did. The dining hall was this huge social thing, especially weekend brunches. There’d be the Friday-night party, and then on Saturday morning we’d all sit around to see who showed up with who. Bret had a table, and the people around him would all wear Wayfarers too, and listen to him make commentary. It was called “The Bret Ellis Show.” Like, “Are you going to sit over there with ‘The Bret Ellis Show,’ or are you going to sit here?”
DONNA TARTT, CLASS OF ’86; WRITER; INTERVIEWED IN THE BENNINGTON VOICE, OCTOBER 28, 1992: Tell me something, I heard that Bennington requires SAT scores now, is that true? . . . Because I wouldn’t have been there if they had required them when I applied. I think I got in on a short story I sent in. Nobody I know would have been there if they had required SAT scores. That was part of the reason I went to Bennington. . . . [E]verybody there was like the oddly gifted person who made bad grades and hung out in the parking lot.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: We would all joke about the application process. Like, I got in because of my drawings, because of the pictures I drew.
JONATHAN LETHEM, CLASS OF ’86, DROPOUT; WRITER: College was an improbable choice for me. I’d gone to public school in Brooklyn and then to the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan, where I stopped taking math classes. I spent my entire senior year carving marble in the sculpture workshop. My anti-institutional bias was so strong that when my school had its college fair, I didn’t go. It was my girlfriend who brought me a Bennington application. I fell in love with the idea of Bennington because of the way it billed itself. It was the anti--college college—no grades, and they’d admit you without a high school diploma. Essentially, it was self-selecting. Bennington was, for me, almost a perverse ambition. I liked that it was famously expensive. In some oblique way, I was taking revenge on my father. Like, “Okay, you pocketed the tuition up to this point, but I’m going to hit you hard now.” And Bennington came through. They gave me a good scholarship.
BRIXTON SMITH START: Proper heiresses, the Barbara Huttons of my generation, were there—Campbell’s soup and a DuPont and Ariadne Getty. Kids who were literally from the Pilgrims, whose families had traveled over on the Mayflower.
TODD O’NEAL, CLASS OF ’83, DID NOT COMPLETE DEGREE; CLASSICIST/POET: I knew a girl there whose father collected Picassos. He gave her an allowance to collect Picasso’s etchings. That was her hobby.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: You’d be shocked that this Neanderthal-looking dude sunbathing by a keg was actually, one day, going to inherit the Benson & Hedges fortune. Bennington had the highest tuition in the country. Also one of the highest attrition rates. Yeah, a lot of people didn’t make it.
MAURA SPIEGEL, LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE FACULTY, 1984–92: A colleague of mine, Richard Tristman, used to say Bennington was like an organism that accepted foreign bodies or rejected them. You stuck or you just didn’t.
JONATHAN LETHEM: My roommate was Mark Norris. Mark was from the fabulous world of Santa Monica and Crossroads [progressive private school]. That first night, there was a mixer. We were like, “All right, we’re college boys now. Let’s meet some college girls.” We walked to Commons and immediately ran into Lisa Feder and Brixton. They were in a band and wore miniskirts under plaid shirts and had gelled hair and were unbelievably cool and punky and exciting. Mark and I were like, “You’re great. We’re dogs. We’ll follow you anywhere.”
LISA FEDER, CLASS OF ’86; ARTIST/MUSICIAN: Mark was David Bowie–ish. He was quiet, a bit of a pretty boy, a bit of a dandy, great hair. Brixton went after him hard. As soon as she saw him, she was like, “New freshman.” He was dating Brix and Donna at the same time.
JONATHAN LETHEM, FROM THE ESSAY “ZELIG OF NOTORIETY”: Donna was among the first friends I made at college. . . . My roommate Mark and I helped her move an ancient and gigantic trunk from the maintenance building to her room, as if she’d arrived in Vermont on a steamship. She and I spoke across a temporal gap, none of her cultural references newer than J. M. Barrie, none of mine older than Foghorn Leghorn (the only southern accent I knew). I exaggerate. Donna was a transfer student [from the University of Mississippi], had enjoyed the mentorship of [writers] Willie Morris and Barry Hannah. . . . [She] really could converse in perfect wistful epigrams, seemingly pointed at posterity.
MARK NORRIS, CLASS OF ’86, DROPOUT; PHOTOGRAPHER: I could quote T. S. Eliot and so could Donna. I think that’s why we started up. We were a very brief thing. It was finished the first month of school. I wouldn’t even call us boyfriend and girlfriend, because we didn’t sleep together. We fondled around in bed. It was just—it was a little weird.
PAULA POWERS: I met Donna through Jonathan that first week. She told this story about being forced to go to home-economics class at Ole Miss. All the girls had to go around the room and say how many children they wanted. When it got to Donna, she said, “Well, I don’t really want to have a baby.” And there was this long silence, and the teacher looked at her and said, “Now, Donna, every woman wants to have a baby.” Donna’s hair was longer then than it would be later, sort of down to the bottom of her neck. And I’d never seen eyes as green as hers. Once, during freshman year, she invited me to a martini hour in her dorm and she was wearing a black brocade skirt-suit and high heels, and smoking from a long, slender cigarette holder—very feminine, very elegant. She was mysterious.
MATT JACOBSEN, CLASS OF ’83: Do you know “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” [a lush and sinister fable by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a Mississippi boy of modest background who is sent east to boarding school and befriends the son of a fabulously—and frighteningly—rich man]? Donna was like the main character in that story, very conscious of being from the South. She’d name some town in Mississippi, as if we all knew where it was—like, “I’m from East Bumfuck, and it’s just outside What’s-Your-Face”—and we’d all nod, just to be polite, to not engage in deeper conversation. Say, “Oh, ya don’t say? Sure is hot down there.”
"We were a cold group.... There were a lot of references to Get the Guests from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We'd go after people." —Amy Herskovitz
JONATHAN LETHEM: Before she died, my mother gave me a typewriter. I wrote a novel on it when I was fifteen. It wasn’t any good, but just getting to the end was exhilarating. From that point on, I knew I was a writer. My father’s a painter, though, and I’d gotten all my pats on the head for being a little art prodigy. When I got to Bennington, everything was so intimidating that I didn’t want to surrender this suit of armor. But I did manage to talk my way into Stephen Sandy’s poetry class. Donna was there too. We passed notes.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: The only class I wanted to take was the nonfiction workshop taught by Joe McGinniss, but it wasn’t open to freshmen. I gave him all these pieces I’d written in high school—journalism or, I guess, personal essays. One was about my girlfriend who initiated our relationship and whose father was gay. Another was about this guy I was secretly seeing who was aggressively straight and whose father was into religion. They were written in the style of Joan Didion, ambiguous, nothing explained ever. Not like, My feelings for Matt were complicated. Like, Matt invites me over. His parents aren’t home. He wants to go skinny dipping. The Jacuzzi's turned on. We open a bottle. I got a note back from Joe the next day saying, “Let’s meet.” Not only was I in the class—he was sending my pieces to his agent and his editor. I was delighted, but I was freaked out, too.
NANCY DOHERTY, WIDOW OF JOE MCGINNISS: I remember Joe reading Bret’s work and being like, “Holy shit, this is incredible.”
BRET EASTON ELLIS: In October, I turned in a piece called “Walking Across the Lawn.” It starts out at Bennington, and it’s me writing exactly what I see happening—the sex people are having, the drugs people are taking. Then, in an italicized section, I’m meeting my parents at the bar of the Carlyle Hotel. My dad had just sold the U.S. Steel Building for which his commission was something like forty million dollars. He flourished in the Reagan eighties, and suddenly he was spending so lavishly. And he and mom were trying to get back together and it wasn’t working. I write, I down three vodka-grapefruit juices while my father’s checking something in the lobby, blah, blah. Then it’s back at Bennington. There was a party where this guy spiked the punch with MDMA and bit a girl, Brixton, on the neck so badly she had to go to the infirmary. I named names, and the piece caused a shit storm. People were making copies of it and talking about it. I was hated, I was revered.
AMY HERSKOVITZ, CLASS OF ’85; CLINICAL SOCIAL WORKER/PHILANTHROPIST: Bret and I met in Joe McGinniss’s workshop. My mom was bad, his dad was bad, and our childhoods were so wrapped up in money and trauma that we automatically bonded. Bret was incredibly shy then, almost socially phobic. I don’t know why. Well, he wasn’t out yet, probably didn’t want to be out yet. Also, he was a million miles from home and his family was falling apart. He used to scratch my window with the new Stevie Nicks albums.
SARI RUBINSTEIN, CLASS OF ’85; SINGER/ART-PARTY INSTIGATOR: There was a guy named Larry David. Not that Larry David-—another Larry David. And he was sort of pretty and sort of sulky and he did this thing where he’d toss his hair. He and Bret were really good friends, like BFFs.
AMY HERSKOVITZ: In hindsight, we were a cold group of people, though in my head we were just terrified. There were a lot of references to Get the Guests from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We’d go after people.
PAULA POWERS: Whenever you asked Bret how he was doing, he’d say, “Tense.” He was so sweet and vulnerable. He’d have these horrible panic attacks. One night, he called his mother and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I need you.” She got on the red-eye and was at Bennington in ten hours.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Looking back, I realize I was popular. At eighteen, I had a handsomeness, and I was kind of groomed, and I was kind of sexy, and I was inundated with date requests and people wanting to take my picture. But inside I was a wreck. And I was alienated because I was a writer, because I was gay. And then there was my crystal--meth addiction. In retrospect, it’s like, Why were you so fucking depressed? It was awesome! Still, people were throwing themselves at me. I had girlfriends, I had boyfriends. I really got around.
JONATHAN LETHEM: Bret’s roommate, Miles, was the son of a famous gallerist, Richard Bellamy, and had grown up in the counterculture of the New York art world. I identified with Miles, but I was more attracted to Bret. They didn’t get along. The room was divided in half by a line of broken bottles. It was like a Berlin Wall of broken glass.
"Back then, God help us, it was a badge of dishonor not to have slept with your professor."—Nicholas Delbanco
AMY HERSKOVITZ: Two less likely people to live together you can’t imagine. Outside their room was a little hallway, and one of them was always sleeping there, Miles with branches sometimes. God, Miles was such a hippie. There was something transfixing about Bret’s space. He would cut out newspaper stories about plane crashes. They papered his wall along with Interviewmagazine covers. Interview was huge for us. It was our style, what we aspired to.
MILES BELLAMY, CLASS OF 1986, DID NOT COMPLETE DEGREE; WRITER/BOOKSELLER: A month or two went by, and Bret and I realized that it would be best if he didn’t go on my side and I didn’t go on his. Occasionally someone would shed blood on the glass, but not often.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: I think about this a lot because of #MeToo. I was hanging out with a guy named Ciaran—nice-looking guy, didn’t know him that well—at a Fling into Spring party. A lot of the parties were mixed with teachers and students because teachers were fucking students, students were fucking teachers. A friend of mine had a year-long affair with his French teacher.[Editor’s note: The friend insists that this affair was with his German teacher.] It was just something that happened. Stephen Sandy came on to me and Ciaran, saying his wife was away and that we should go back to his place and have a threesome. Ciaran and I were laughing, and Ciaran just said, “Let’s get out of here. There’s another party over there.” I said, “Yeah, maybe we can find some drugs. Let’s go do that.”
NICHOLAS DELBANCO, LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE FACULTY, 1966–85: Back then, God help us, it was a badge of dishonor not to have slept with your professor.
JONATHAN LETHEM: When I got to Bennington, I had a starry-eyed feeling. People were developing in such eccentric ways, and so many professors were encouraging that so strongly—this kind of willful self-formation. It almost felt like a finishing school for people who wanted to forge an identity so that after graduation they could move to New York and knock the world dead in some artistic venue or other. Brixton was a perfect example of this. She came to school Laura Salenger and renamed herself after a Clash song [“The Guns of Brixton”]. Only she didn’t wait to graduate before becoming famous.
MAURA SPIEGEL: The students at Bennington weren’t driven by grades, but there was a weird rigor. You had this feeling that life was performance art, that everybody was living in his or her fantasy. I’m trying to find language to describe the electricity that was there, the decadence, the feeling of mystery and enchantment in this ridiculously pastoral setting. Students were full-blown in this way that was very surprising for such young kids.
JONATHAN LETHEM: There was the sense that people were playing dress-up, faking it until it became real. I saw the classics clique crossing Commons dressed up like they were at Oxford and I thought, Oh, that’s what you’re making yourself into.
MATT JACOBSEN:When city folk are transplanted to the woods of Vermont, they get slaphappy. Only then do three guys in their daddies’ rumpled sport coats appear to be Oxonians. In the fall of 1982, the Greek class consisted of me, Paul McGloin, and Todd O’Neal.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Donna and I were set up on a blind date that fall by our roommates, who hated us and thought we were uptight enough to hang out with each other. So we’d have something to talk about, I put in her mailbox a couple of stories I’d written that Less than Zero would be based on. And she put in mine a story that wasn’t The Secret History but was something in that vein. There was no murder, but it was the world of The Secret History, that milieu, those characters—Claude Fredericks and his classics students.
NICHOLAS DELBANCO: A strange fellow, Claude Fredericks. He dropped out of Harvard because he refused to take the swim test or something like that, but he was a genuinely learned person, an autodidact. Knew Latin, Greek, Japanese. Punctilious in his self--presentation. And he had an avant-garde printing press, quite famous at the time, called Banyan Press. It published people like Gertrude Stein and the poet Jimmy Merrill, who’d been Claude’s lover early on.
MAURA SPIEGEL: Claude was my advisor when I was a student at Bennington. I had an appointment with him, and I was waiting outside his office. The door opened and out stepped this beautiful young man with curly blond hair. And the first thing I heard Claude say was “Not, do only what is necessary. Only do what is necessary.” And I just thought, What is going on?As my advisor, he had to write these little comments to me, and he said I was a very intelligent girl. I remember that the word intelligent somehow had this negative quality coming from it.
MILES BELLAMY: Has anyone described Claude’s office? No? Oh my God. Well, first of all, it was hard to find. It was in Commons, at the top of this sort of secret staircase that was outside the building and led only to his office. So you’d climb this tall flight of stairs, and walk in, and there’d be these exquisite flowers, Japanese flowers—I don’t know how or where he got them—in a vase, and everything was polished, beautiful. You’d sit across from him, and he’d serve you tea, and you really felt like you were in the inner sanctum.
MAURA SPIEGEL: You went to Claude’s office for lunch, and out would come this incredible food, and you didn’t know how he’d prepared it. You didn’t see it, you didn’t smell it, and then there it was—a perfect soup, a perfect quiche. He was a bit magical.
TODD O’NEAL: Claude wrote poetry, plays, but his great work of literature was the journals. Bob Giroux at Farrar, Straus said—and this was in the early sixties—“Just bring me your journals. I’ll publish them.” Then Claude got cold feet because he spoke very candidly about everybody. Years later, he went back, and said, “Okay, now I’d like to publish them,” and Bob said, “The moment’s passed. Now who knows who Carl Van Vechten is?” These journals were gloriously written and the next step beyond Proust.
AVIVA BOWER, CLASS OF ’87; FACULTY DEVELOPER: It’s a kind of crazy thing. Here’s this single, basically closeted gay man who wrote poetry yet hadn’t been recognized the way his [Bennington] colleagues like Bernard Malamud and Stephen Sandy had, and he’s secretive, and he feels things deeply. He created and occupied this very romantic world. And I think he wanted to find students who could live in that world with him.
TODD O’NEAL: When I went to interview with Claude, his first question was “Have you ever had a job?” I said, “No.” And he said, “Good.” And then he said, “Have you ever been to a football game?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Good.”
MAURA SPIEGEL: Claude was closer with his students than his colleagues. Claude certainly had a male following. My understanding was that his classes were about being homosexual, and how to do it with grandeur and history and beauty.
THE BENNINGTON COURSE CATALOG 1982-84:
Course title: Corydon
Instructor: Claude Fredericks
Description: Studies in some of the classical texts of homosexual love… Only incidental consideration will be given to merely neurotic or glandular manifestations, but the relationship of friendship to love and of agape to eros will be one of the underlying concerns. Since it will be one of the several presumptions of the course that love between men is a unique experience and not merely a question of pronouns, some attention will be given to how the fear of societal disapproval has produced a number of mangled and incoherent masterpieces.
PAULA POWERS: All I knew about Claude Fredericks was that he was having an affair with his student, this good-looking older guy, very serious, very passionate about classics.
TODD O’NEAL: Donna was not part of our Greek tutorials. The courses she took with Claude anyone who signed up could take. Claude adored certain women, but he was also homosexual and had a very, let’s say, classical aesthetic or hierarchy, which prizes maleness and male beauty. So Donna only knew him in a limited way. She did, how-ever, know Paul McGloin, because they were lovers. Now, Paul was a bit eccentric, not a bad thing at Bennington—a virtue, in fact. He wasn’t precisely a scholar, but he was drawn to a scholarly way of life. And Claude, I think, embodied for him an image of what college should be—Balliol or All Souls in 1843. Paul often used Victorianisms when he spoke or wrote. I remember when he first mentioned Donna. He said, “Who was that charming southern girl in the Homer class?” And Claude said, “You mean Donna Tartt? She’s the only tart I have with three t’s.”
PAULA POWERS: Speculating on Donna and Paul’s relationship was a Bennington pastime for years. Every Bennington person knows every intimate detail about every other Bennington person, so to be a sexual enigma was an accomplishment unique to her. As Ian Gittler said, “If flaunting your sexuality is cheap, this school is in a constant closing sale.”
MATT JACOBSEN: Donna started wearing those mannish-cut blazers. She looked like a Mini-Me when she was hanging out with us.
TODD O’NEAL: Paul and Donna weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend. They were boyfriend and boy. She had a uniform. Black loafers, khaki pants—boys’ pants, not girls’—J. Press–type button-down, necktie, blue blazer with brass buttons, and hair in this funky little asexual bob. She looked like she came straight out of an English university. She and Paul were like Oxonian homosexuals or something. I once asked him, “What kind of relationship do you have?” And he said, “Well, that’s very funny, because she wants me to call her ‘my lad.’ ”
DONNA TARTT, LETTER TO JONATHAN LETHEM, DATED JANUARY 24, 1983 (DURING WINTER BREAK): I am now in Washington with The Man [Paul McGloin]. We have a nice little apartment in an old townhouse near Capitol Hill and all is well. . . . The raciest thing that’s happened to us was when we overheard a museum guard in the National Gallery mutter, “More faggots” as we walked into the room. (I was wearing a baggy sweater and trousers, no makeup, and my customary shapeless gray tweed coat. Perhaps I did look like a boy. . . .) It pleased Paul no end.
MATT JACOBSEN: What was strange about Donna was that she was a Miss Buttinsky with our group. We all had girlfriends, and the girlfriends were like, “Well, that’s his world, and I’m not going to be part of that.” Normal in most relationships. But she made it clear she wanted in.
TODD O’NEAL: Matt didn’t like Donna. I liked her to the degree that I knew her, but I found her evasive, a bit impenetrable. And, of course, Matt and Paul and I were all seniors. The truth is, I didn’t think too deeply about her until her book came out years later.
JONATHAN LETHEM: My disenchantment with Bennington was fast. All my life, I’d existed in a sort of bohemian bubble. I had the insane idea that I was privileged because I was a New Yorker and went to repertory cinema. That my parents were lower-middle class never registered. And then, all of a sudden, I was at school with the shah of Iran’s daughter. So for me, Bennington, where I needed a work-study job to survive, was this violent confrontation with the realities of money and class. Yet at the same time, Bennington was a playground I was allowed to play in. The experience was bewildering. And I responded to the potential humiliations of not belonging by playing at belonging totally. I ran for student council as a freshman and got on, though I was soon voted off for shirking my duties. I also ran the film society, which I gave all the attention I should have been giving my studies. Tishman Hall became my little fiefdom.
MILES BELLAMY: Jonathan showed great movies. He even brought in Pull My Daisy [1959 short film scripted by Jack Kerouac and featuring writers and artists of the Beat period]. My father was in that one, played The Bishop.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: I got to know Jonathan because my friend Larry David had a crush on him. The first time we met, we were talking about Robert Altman movies. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I discussed the merits of Health, A Perfect Couple, Quintet, whatever, because he’d been so breezily confident of his Robert Altman knowledge and I knew so much more.
JONATHAN LETHEM: It was like an adult talking to a child. I was like, “Oh, Robert Altman’s cool.” What I meant was that I’d seen Nashville. Bret had opinions on Altman’s whole oeuvre—the overrated ones, underrated ones. He gave me a good pocket guide to seventies Altman, and it was just off the top of his head.
WINTER BREAK, 1982-83
LISA FEDER: Bennington had something called NRT, Non-Resident Term. The school couldn’t afford to heat itself during the winter and so it shut down. You went out into the world and got an internship or job. I spent my freshman NRT at the switchboard at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. That’s where all the Bennington punk rockers worked.
BRET EASTON ELLIS, LETTER TO JOE MCGINNISS, JANUARY 1983: If I do not get a job over NRT, I am going to go ahead with an independent work-study project, which will take the form of a novel . . . tentatively titled Less than Zero, a bleak, self-absorbed title if there ever was one.
MARK NORRIS: The only time Bret and I really hung out was in L. A. over that winter break [when Less than Zero is set]. He invited me to a party his high school girlfriend had. It was horrible. It was at a mansion in Beverly Hills, and there were black waiters and kids getting drunk while their parents sipped cocktails by the pool. . . . Brixton and I had broken up before I left Bennington because I was sure she was seeing another guy. That’s when she told me she’d had an abortion. She didn’t even tell me she was pregnant. Just said something like, “I killed your child.”
BRET EASTON ELLIS, FROM LESS THAN ZERO: Daniel also thinks that Vanden, a girl he saw at school . . . is pregnant. . . . [He] got this letter from her a couple of days ago and he tells me that Vanden might not be coming back; that she might be starting a punk-rock group in New York called the Spider’s Web . . . that it might or might not be Daniel’s kid. . . . He says that the letter wasn’t too clear.
BRIXTON SMITH START: I left school in December. There were rumors about me being pregnant, which I was, with Mark Norris’s baby. It could have been one or two others’, but I’m pretty sure it was Mark’s. Anyway, I knew music was my destiny, and I was ready to do it for real.
IAN GITTLER: Brixton asked me to give her bass lessons. A week later, she’d learned her lesson and written eleven songs. Three months later, she’d dropped out of college, married Mark E. Smith [lead singer and songwriter of the Fall], and joined his band. Soon after that, Robert Palmer was writing her up in the Times.
“Everyone realized, ‘Oh, Donna’s the best writer in the workshop.’ Her stories were so polished. It was kind of unfair.” —Bret Easton Ellis
BRET EASTON ELLIS: My dad was an angry, abusive person. It seemed so incongruous, the scary family drama in the midst of this beautiful southern California setting. Then I discovered Joan Didion, and I was getting so many of my cues from her. Less than Zero started out very journalistic, almost like diary entries. It was about experiencing L. A. as an adolescent in the early eighties. There was a pessimism in the city at that time—the aftermath of Watergate, of Vietnam—but it was an exciting pessimism, a thrilling pessimism. You saw it everywhere if you were looking for it, in books, in movies, and definitely in punk bands. This idea of numbness, of looking at things in a flat, neutral, almost banal way, seemed to be the stance people were taking. I didn’t know where it was leading, but it was certainly with me when I was writing that first draft of Less than Zero in the winter of ’83.
SPRING SEMESTER, 1983
JONATHAN LETHEM: In the middle of my freshman year, I started a novel destined to end up in a desk drawer called Apes in the Plan, a Devo lyric. I continued to take art courses, but I was running back to my room to write. I didn’t declare myself to my teachers or even to my classmates, except a few, like Jill [Eisenstadt] and Donna. Probably I was intimidated by Bret and buried it around him. But I was investigating the writing that was going on. I went to the readings and the parties. I sat at Bernard Malamud’s feet when he gave one of his rare talks. I was like a spy.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Nick Delbanco was head of the literature department, so Joe must have said something to him about me and he wanted to know who this kid was. He really took me under his wing. I went to parties at his house. I was the star of his fiction workshop. Nick was a Harvard guy, macho, very much a man of letters. Girls loved him. He used to go out with Carly Simon.
AMY HERSKOVITZ: The rumor was that “You’re So Vain” was about Nick. [Editor’s note: The song mostly wasn’t, was mostly about Warren Beatty, as Simon revealed in a 2015 interview. But it partly was. The “apricot scarf” referenced in the lyrics was a Delbanco accessory.]
NICHOLAS DELBANCO: It was clear from the get-go that Bret was special. Jill was also in that class, and she was very good, very smart, and, briefly, our babysitter.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: That spring I also took a workshop with Arturo Vivante. Arturo was an Italian, in The New Yorker a lot, lovely, a bit out of it, flirted with all the girls. I parodied him in The Rules of Attraction [Ellis’s second novel, about the lives and loves of students at the very Bennington-like Camden College]. Jill was there, and Donna. Donna handed in a story called “Assassins.” That was the moment everyone realized, “Oh, she’s the best writer in the workshop.” Her stories were so polished, so much better than anything else. It was kind of unfair.
LAWRENCE “LARRY” DAVID, CLASS OF ’85; WRITER/EDITOR: There were people in workshop who stood out—Bret and Donna. Jill was also very distinctive. I’m not going to say Bret and Donna weren’t trying to find their way, but they were more formed than many of us were. I wasn’t sure what I should be expressing. Is it okay to write about this? Is it not okay? How minimalist should I be? You know, all the things you fumble around with. They had a confidence, a sense of voice. Arturo adored Donna.
JONATHAN LETHEM, FROM “ZELIG OF NOTORIETY”: With [Donna], as with others . . . I passed through a dazzlingly quick intimacy, to violent disagreement, then silence. What compels me now is that in each of these cases the friend was another like myself, a financial--aid case there, stranded among the heirs to various American fortunes. . . . In friendship Donna had a rarefied talent for secrecy and fantasy, exactly as her books suggest… I relished sharing [her] trancelike aura until the star of our friendship suddenly fell.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Donna seemed like a very private person, and bracketed by etiquette. This wasn’t true of the stories she was writing in workshop, where there was a real elegance yet pushing up against boundaries and facades. Another thing I remember about her workshop stories: Back then you’d type out your story, then Xerox it for the class, and if you couldn’t afford to Xerox, you’d mimeograph. Donna mimeographed.
“Bennington was crawling with self-defined hipsters and artists.In so many ways, it was ideal for me.” —Jonathan Lethem
MATT JACOBSEN: Donna had these what she called “tea parties.” You know, college-girl salons. She left invitations in my box. Never went, though.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: The tea parties weren’t really my style, but I’d go sometimes. She had a cabinet with liquor in it. She was tiny, yet she could drink everyone under the table. I always felt Donna was very contained, very theatrical. It was hard to get a real sense of her.
JONATHAN LETHEM: Bret and Donna and Brixton were obvious examples of people who attracted notice and fascination. But my second semester girlfriend, Madi Horstman, was like that, too. She was a painter and so dynamic and funny and took up so much wonderful space. She was a year ahead of me, and I couldn’t believe it when I got her attention. It was like, “Wow, I’m Madi Horstman’s arm candy.”
MADI HORSTMAN (class of ’85; artist): Donna and this guy Reggie [Reginald Shepherd, class of ’88; poet] were really, really tight. I didn’t know if Donna was interested in Jonathan or what—he was quite romantic—but somehow my bicycle wound up at the bottom of the pond. Somebody threw it there. I was thinking it was Reggie acting on Donna’s behalf. But Donna forgave me everything. I thought she was sweet.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: When Donna presented her story about Elvis going to hell—that was a real moment. It was like, not only can she write well, she’s funny, which isn’t what you think of Donna as being.
JONATHAN LETHEM: Madi had a zine called Madi’s Mail Club. Zines were a very New York downtown art kid thing to do, kind of like the Internet before the Internet. Madi sent out Donna’s “Elvis in Hell” story in a bright red booklet with her drawing on the cover.
MADI HORSTMAN: Yep, I was Donna’s first publisher.
JONATHAN LETHEM: So the story I told in my novel Fortress of Solitude where the protagonist accidentally imprisons a college cleaning lady in the bathroom because she’s afraid to come out because a drug party has started—that is 100 percent documentary. The truth can now be told. Yes, I dealt at Bennington once or twice. Why wouldn’t you deal at Bennington? When you went to New York, you’d come back with drugs. If you were interested in getting high, then you could either be spending money or collecting money. To anyone who wasn’t at the maximum level of trust-fund obliviousness it would seem axiomatic that dealing was the better choice.And besides, there were legends around the school’s ability to protect student dealers.
1983–84 SCHOOL YEAR
JONATHAN LETHEM: Bennington was crawling with self-defined hipsters and artists. In so many ways, it was the ideal setting for me. But I couldn’t see that. I projected onto the school all the unfair privileges of the art world, rich people buying each other careers and all that. Really, it was my father’s grudge that I took on as my own. By the end of my freshman year, I was full of surly-outsider resentment. I decided to take off the fall semester and go back to New York.
DONNA TARTT, LETTER TO WILLIE MORRIS, DATED OCTOBER 14, 1983: My dear Willie. . . . Am currently taking a term from school; partly because I need a rest, partly because I need time to write and to study, and partly because Claude Fredericks, the faculty member who I do most of my work in Literature with, is away on Sabbatical… Don’t imagine that I’m becoming a scholar, though . . . I’m spending most of my time writing. I have begun a novel, and that occupies my days and nights pretty well.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: In the fall of ’83, I was distracted because I was writing Less than Zero and living out The Rules of Attraction. My situation with Phil Holmes was tortured, but not at first. At first it was wonderful. It was one of those things where you meet someone and you go off together and you don’t talk to anybody else for months.
PAULA POWERS: Phil always wore a black leather jacket and black jeans and boots, and he rode a motorcycle. He was a quiet guy, very inward. Everyone noticed that Phil and Bret were constantly together, and speculation ran rampant. Phil did seem and claim to be heterosexual, but for a mere friendship it was so intensive.
AMY HERSKOVITZ: Bret and I were inseparable. He was romantic with me. And he was forever making passes, and I’d do that girl thing where I’d pretend I was passed out. He told everyone we were dating. I don’t think we were ever dating. But I’m like, “I can be whatever you want me to be. I don’t care.”
SARI RUBINSTEIN: I think it’s important to Bret to appear super normal, like he’s a regular guy, and then, of course, we know all these lurid things are going on. He was, I guess you’d call it flexible, in those days. Really, though, he’s a guy person. He and Amy were a couple, but she’s the one who told me, “A gay man is no friend to a woman.”
LAWRENCE “LARRY” DAVID: Saying that Bret is inventive is a kind way of saying that Bret lies. He’d make up something on the spot that had no basis in reality. Once, out of the blue, he said, “Larry has a chicken named Polka Dot.” And I went along with it. I told this long backstory about Polka Dot, how it was Shabbat at my parent’s house, and my parents decided not to kill the chicken for dinner, and then it became my pet. For years people believed this about me. I almost believed it about me. That was Bret lying to be funny, but sometimes he’d lie just because he liked having one over on someone.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Over NRT, when I looked at the hundreds of pages I was going to cull from to put Less than Zero together, I got cold feet. Everything Joe loved about my stuff, I didn’t trust. I was thinking, I’m going to write what most people write. I’m going to be conventional. I did a version of the book that was in the past tense, third person. I presented it to Joe, and he was like, “What is this? What have you done? You’ve made it so generic.” I was hurt a little bit but not enough to make any difference. I put it back in the present tense, first person, and fat just started melting away. What had been a four-hundred-page book became a very concise two-hundred-page book. Joe was extremely relieved and said, “I’m now going to send this to Morgan Entrekin [editor at Simon & Schuster].”
DAVID LIPSKY, CLASS OF ’87, TRANSFERRED TO BROWN SOPHOMORE YEAR; WRITER: Bret came to find me after winter break because I was the second person to get into Nick Delbanco’s workshop as a freshman. The first was him. It was thrilling to meet Bret. He was the only person I knew who was my age and loved books and was trying to figure out how to write them. Bret was cool, magnetic. But I looked at him and thought, I like this person and I am never going to understand this person.
LAWRENCE “LARRY” DAVID: You know what was weird about David? He was so normal. He didn’t belong at Bennington.
JILL EISENSTADT, CLASS OF ’85; WRITER: The first line of one of David’s stories was, “Entering her was like entering Harvard.” We made fun of it, but the fact that it’s stuck in my mind all these years shows that it’s actually good.
DAVID LIPSKY: Bret had me meet Donna. He said to her, “David’s a good reader. You should show him your book.” It was The Secret History, only it was called God of Illusions then. She had about eighty pages written. She was very pale, super shy, clearly cared only about doing this work. I liked her.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: The book was perfectly formed. The writing was perfect. The only note I ever gave Donna was “You have a college-age male protagonist who’s not noticing women or men or anything. That’s unrealistic.” I will never forget her expression. Donna has a stare, okay? She stared at me. Silent, staring daggers.
DAVID LIPSKY: Bret wanted to come off doomed and unfocused in the way of Maria in Play It as It Lays [the Joan Didion novel]. Yet however casual he seemed, he was disciplined as a writer. He read and worked like crazy. He wasn’t a grind about grades, but he was a grind about being an artist. Once we were talking about fiction, and he said a thing that disturbed me. He said, “Look, everything’s been tried already. The domestic comedy that you like has been tried. The stream-of-consciousness novel has been tried. The Pynchon phantasmagoria has been tried. There’s one thing that hasn’t been done yet and that’s sensationalism, and that’s what I’m going to do.” He already understood where the culture was going and what his job was going to be.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Less than Zero was accepted by Simon & Schuster in April. I dedicated it to Joe, and I know Nick was a bit peeved. I was standing near the Barn, where the faculty offices were, talking to Joe, and we saw Nick’s Jaguar, or whatever Nick drove, and Nick spotted me through the windshield and then revved the engine. Teasing, but I could tell he wasn’t.
MORGAN ENTREKIN, EDITOR: What you did at S&S in those days was circulate the manuscript. Herman Gollob was a senior editor, and he wrote on the sheet for Less than Zero, “If there’s a market for callow fragmentary fiction about rich self--indulgent coke-sniffing cock-sucking zombies, then let’s buy it.” Then he said to me, “But if we do, it’s time for me to resign.” He was kidding about resigning. His opinion about the manuscript, though, that was not ironic.
DAVID LIPSKY: Bret showed me the book, and I said, “If you publish this, ten years from now you’ll be embarrassed.” Well, he published it, and I was embarrassed. See, I thought Bret would get viewed not as a writer, but as a commentator on the sorry state of things today. After that, Bret and I stopped being friends. Next year, when I was at Brown, a story of mine was going to run in The New Yorker, the school paper did a piece on me. Bret said all this shitty stuff and I was like, What the fuck?
THE BROWN DAILY HERALD, “Lipsky Sells a Story,” 11/1/85: Ellis sees no randomness in Lipsky’s New Yorker appeal: “His work is perfect for The New Yorker,” he says, because Lipsky specializes in “very safe, New Yorker sorts of stories… They’re extremely conservative… middle-class Connecticut angst.”
DAVID LIPSKY: I guess he was still mad at me.
JONATHAN LETHEM: It’s impossible to talk about my going to Bennington without talking about the fact that I was dropping out as soon as I arrived. I told myself I was leaving to finish my novel, that I’d work in used bookstores, publish in shabby paperbacks like my hero Philip K. Dick, and then get discovered at 50 and be vindicated. So part of my dropping out sophomore year was bravery and arrogance. The other part was ego failure. It was complicated for me that Bret was publishing so early. Yes, he represented the Bennington conflation of privilege and fame that I found so problematic, but he was also so accomplished. Here I was just warming up to this process and he’d blown off the top of the chart. That had me back-peddling from Bennington, too.
MADI HORSTMAN: I stayed on campus that summer because I was behind one credit. Jonathan had dropped out but he hadn’t left for Berkeley yet and he was living with me because why not? Bret and Donna and Jill were also there, and this older guy who wrote science fiction, and they were all in the workshops. Everyone got published, except I’m not sure about the science fiction guy. Jonathan and I decided to shave our heads. This was before Sinead O’Connor did it. Sinead saw us on St. Marks Place and stole the idea.
JONATHAN LETHEM: I seem to recall Bret putting a bald couple in the backdrop of one of his college scenes.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: The summer of ’84 is when I finalized Less Than Zero. That’s the last time I touched it, in my room in Bingham.
1984–85 SCHOOL YEAR
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Joan Didion’s daughter, Quintana, came to Bennington that fall. The student-body president was a good friend of mine and one of the few women I’ve had sex with, just so you know. She was also the campus coke dealer. She was a Didion fanatic like me. We kidnapped Quintana her first night on campus. We offered her drugs, then sat around and talked. Joan Rivers’s daughter was also at Bennington that fall [Melissa Rivers was touring colleges as a prospective student], and a bunch of people came looking for Quintana thinking she was the other Joan’s daughter. My friend and I bombarded her with questions about her mom, and she asked us questions about Bennington. It was all very chatty.
AMY HERSKOVITZ: I heard Bret stole Quintana’s underwear that night.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Amy says I took Quintana’s underwear? Yeah, that sounds vaguely, vaguely familiar.
LAWRENCE “LARRY” DAVID: I don’t remember Bret stealing Quintana’s underwear, but I do remember someone giving Bret someone else’s underwear. There was a guy named Trey that Bret had a crush on. This girl who had a crush on Bret somehow got a pair of Trey’s underwear and gave them to Bret as a gift.
SARI RUBINSTEIN: Bret and I were in a band together, The Parents. The Parents were New Wave-y and pop-y and a little mean-spirited.
MATTHEW WEISS (class of ’87; writer): Bret was our keyboard player. He wrote one great song called “Young and Pretentious,” which is very Bret.
SARI RUBINSTEIN: My one weird Bret memory is the election party he had in his room. We watched as Reagan won again and we were shocked even though we probably shouldn’t have been. Everything immediately started to change. The drinking age went from 18 to 21. And, all of a sudden, the police were everywhere, searching you, even in Vermont. We were just a bunch of rich kids partying, but we knew we were in the soup.
SYDNEY COOPER, CLASS OF ’88; ARTIST: I lived in Franklin, same house as Donna. I don’t think I ever saw her walking around campus. Her movements were always furtive, secretive. But we had these things called Coffee House on Sunday evenings, and she would always be there, dressed impeccably. I think she was already clear about what she was going to do next, with her intelligence, her wit, her gifts. And she knew she was going to marry her boyfriend [Paul McGloin]—or thought she knew she was going to marry him. She was, in a way, positioning herself.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Less than Zero came out at the end of my junior year. There was no money for ads. The first printing was 5,000. It was just going to be this little book that did whatever it did. Then, maybe two weeks before the end of term, The Village Voice ran this giant review by Eliot Fremont-Smith. That was the beginning and the ending of something. It was like, Oh my God, this could happen.
JAY McINERNEY, WRITER: Morgan Entrekin gave me a galley of Less than Zero, and I listened to his spiel about how he was going to promote it as the West Coast version of Bright Lights, Big City.Within six months of Bright Lights’ publication, my life was insane. I went from being a grad student to having paparazzi camping on my doorstep. I realized what was happening to me was going to happen to Bret.
BRAD GOOCH, WRITER: I loved Less Than Zero. It had a feel for the timbre of teenage boys’ voices. It was like Holden Caulfield updated and moved to L.A. And Bret’s writing had a screen-y-ness to it—the sheen and distance, the rapidity of the changes—so that reading it was like watching it on screen. That’s what makes the book seem so modern, still. Movies now are antiquated, but the screen, the screen isn’t.
NICHOLAS DELBANCO: I was serious about attendance for my workshops. You showed up, and if you didn’t, you failed. I remember Bret, at the height of his early fame, being driven up by a limo from the Today show and pouring himself into class with one minute to go. It was quite crazy and quite fun.
AMY HERSKOVITZ: Did Bret tell you he spent all his money on Cristal? He was so young, he had no idea what to do.
JILL EISENSTADT: Donna had an internship at The Atlantic and showed an editor there part of her manuscript, and he said, “This’ll never get published. You should stop right now.” Bret convinced her to show it to Joe. Joe helped so many of us. I’d done all these stories about where I’m from, about Rockaway, and he said, “You can turn these into a novel,” and then he showed me how I might go about connecting them. I wasn’t even at Bennington at that point, I was in grad school. And when Simon & Schuster offered me $5,000 for the book [From Rockaway], he said, “Don’t agree to anything until you get an agent.” Later, Joe’s agent, Mort Janklow, got Knopf to pay $20,000.
DONNA TARTT, LETTER TO JOE MCGINNISS, DATED JULY 3, 1985: Dear Mr. McGinniss: Thank you so much for taking the time to read my novel. . . . I’m very happy you liked it . . . encouragement, I think, is the best of all gifts… I am taking a leave of absence from Bennington next fall. . . . I have seven empty months ahead, and I am going to do nothing but write like a fiend.
1985–86 SCHOOL YEAR, GRADUATION
JONATHAN LETHEM: My Bennington career is just so distended and awkward. Okay, so I was living in California, but I was in love with a girl at Bennington, Susan Goldman, and I ended up coming back and staying with Susan for much of what would have been my senior year. I was writing my novel in her dorm room and sneaking into the dining hall.
SYDNEY COOPER: Jonathan was living in Susan’s room? That’s perfect and it makes sense, because when I’ve heard him talk about Bennington, I’ve thought, No way were you only there for a year or two.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Returning to campus in September was tricky. This book I’d written, which felt highly personal to me, had somehow become a national best-seller and cultural touchstone. The movie rights had sold. My friends were older and they were gone. And it didn’t help that it seemed like every day journalists and photographers were coming to campus to see me. No teacher would let me into a workshop. I was this freak. I realized it didn’t matter if I went to class. I started The Rules of Attraction. It was a very lonely year.
MAURA SPIEGEL: I did a tutorial with Bret his senior year. I said to him—and I think this was about The Rules of Attraction—“Bret, these characters aren’t coming alive for me. Like this scene with this woman character; now, would your friend so-and-so behave like this?” And he said, “That is so-and-so. That is how she behaved.”
JAMES ROBISON, WRITER, TEACHER AT BENNINGTON SUMMER WORKSHOP, 1983-89: A girl came to me crying because Bret had included her dialogue and love life in a story. She said, “Can he just do that? Make him stop!”
PAULA POWERS: I was at Oxford for my junior year, and during that time Bret became famous. When I came back, he always had this crew of young men around him. They were fans, but he kind of liked them, too, you know?
LAWRENCE “LARRY” DAVID: I have to say, Bret was very good at getting straight guys to sleep with him. They all wanted to be writers, and he was very charming. So he could convince them to, like, give it a try.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: MTV invited me and Jay to the Video Music Awards in September. I started spending more time in New York.
LAWRENCE “LARRY” DAVID: It wasn’t easy to stay in contact back then. Bret didn’t have a phone in his dorm room. We’d write letters back and forth every once in a while, and that was it. But he’d visit New York, and he was having parties at Limelight, and being written up, so I’d be keeping up with him by reading about him in newspapers and magazines. That was pretty strange.
AMY HERSKOVITZ: Bret would get a room at the Carlyle. We’d drink, do a shit ton of drugs, go to clubs. We were wild and out of control. We’d be the youngest people in all these places. Bret could get in anywhere.
IAN GITTLER: When Bret’s dad came to New York, he’d always stay at the Carlyle, get an apartment on one of the top floors with a grand piano in it. Bret sold his book and he started having these dinners and parties at the Carlyle. We went there with his dad, and they were like, “Good evening, Mr. Ellis,” and they were talking to Bret. So the tide had really turned as far as who their valued customer was.
AMY HERSKOVITZ: We’d see his dad in the city. His dad was a big guy, very masculine, bloated, but likable in a way. He’d rent a limo and want to get drunk and high, go out. He was violently shaming of Bret. There was this time when a woman—young, our age—gave Bret’s dad head under the table at a club in front of Bret. It was so wrong. It was bad for Bret, bad for Bret’s dad, bad for the girl.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Spring semester, I failed a couple classes, including Claude’s “The Tale of Genji.” There was a lot of “Should Bret graduate?” talk. I did, and with my class. Donna gave the speech.
DONNA TARTT, COMMENCEMENT SPEECH: There is a time in everyone’s youth when character is fixed forever; for me, and I believe for most of us here, our Bennington years were that time.
JONATHAN LETHEM: I was actually at the graduation that would’ve been my graduation because it was Susan’s graduation. I was like Huck Finn at his own funeral.
AMY HERSKOVITZ: Bret’s dad made a pass at me at the ceremony. I was horrified on Bret’s behalf. Imagine Bret having to live with his dad doing this to someone everyone thought was his girlfriend.
SARI RUBINSTEIN: In New York in the eighties, Andy Warhol ruled. If you were at the right party, the party you were supposed to be at, then Andy was there. I rode in the elevator with him to Bret’s graduation party at the Carlyle. Him and Keith [Haring] and an older supermodel—Lauren Hutton. The party was fabulous and amazing. Everybody was trashed.
ANDY WARHOL, FROM THE DIARIES,ENTRY FOR JUNE 16, 1986: I decided to go… to the Carlyle for a party for the Ellis kid who wrote Less than Zero. . . . It was such a cute party. All the kids had the right fashionable hair and the right fashionable clothes.
CHRIS BOSCIA, CLASS OF '87; ACTOR/CHEF: I definitely noticed when Andy walked through the door, but I couldn’t pay too much attention to him because I was scoping out the scene, keeping my eyes on the prize, looking to get laid, which is what he was doing, too, I’m sure. Bret thought I was coming on to his mom that night.
GERRY HOWARD, EDITOR: Now, I’m a nice boy from Brooklyn, and what I encountered at that party I’d never encountered before—just this air of blasé corruption. And you couldn’t get to the bathroom. I was fifteen years older than everybody there, and I felt like one of the less experienced people in the room. There are some experiences I don’t need.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: I was more often in Jay’s crowd than he was in mine. Which makes sense. I was still with a bunch of twenty-one-year-olds who’d just graduated from Bennington. He was in the crowd that everyone wanted to be part of.
AMY HERSKOVITZ: It was Jay, of course, and Gary [Fisketjon, editor at Knopf] and Morgan. Andy Warhol was around, and David Byrne, and the Brat Pack—Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, Molly Ringwald, Robert Downey Jr., Michael J. Fox when he was starring in Bright Lights, Big City.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Jay and I didn’t see things the same way at all, so there was always a bit of tension. He was very much a traditionalist, an establishment figure, a little bit of a bad boy but not really. And my aesthetic was L.A. and numbness and punk and minimalism shrouded in a kind of ambivalent sexuality. All of that was an anathema to Jay. Jay’s very heterosexual.
JAY McINERNEY: Jim [a lawyer, not out professionally] was around for a long time before he was acknowledged as the boyfriend. I finally took Bret to task for it. I said, “Do you think I’m stupid or homophobic? Because I ain’t either.”
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Jay’s always so surprised that I never talked to him about my gayness, even though I had boyfriends and certainly wasn’t pretending to be straight. Then Jim came into the picture and we were living together, and that’s when Jay noticed, and he was like, “Why didn’t you ever tell me?” And I’m like, “What are you talking about, Jay?” It was all there in Less Than Zero. Really, is a straight man ever going to write a book that revolves around male prostitution? And anyway, I don’t even know what coming out is. I never came out. For me, it was neither here nor there, but other people got riled up about it, and Jay was one of them.
AMY HERSKOVITZ: I loved Jim. Jim was a gentleman.
"Donna was this unknown, unpublished writer, and then, all of a sudden, there was this huge bidding war for her book.... Bret started calling her Madonna Tartt."—Ian Gittler
BRET EASTON ELLIS: I got a little of Patrick Bateman from Jim, who was Waspy, very good-looking, totally straight acting, and in the closet. Donna was dating Jim’s best friend, Bill. The four of us spent a lot of time together. This was in the early nineties. American Psycho had just come out, and The Secret History was making the rounds of publishing houses. There was a lot oxf cocaine around, and Donna was into it. This is not like, “She’s a druggie.” We were all doing it. One night I asked her what she thought of American Psycho. She wouldn’t answer. I’ll never forget the expression on her face in the darkness of Jim’s loft. She had this rictus smile that was also a glare. I felt she wanted to say, “Your book is god-awful,” but by force of etiquette—even wasted on coke in the middle of the night—she wouldn’t go there. Soon after, she and Gary [Fisketjon] started hooking up, and she left Bill, and I saw her less.
AMY HERSKOVITZ: Donna had a pug that always came [out] with us.
JAY McINERNEY: We were really debauched, everybody diving in and going completely berserk. Donna was very much a participant in everything, but at the same time, she wasn’t there every night. She would come and go. She was spending a lot of time, as she does now, going away to write, retreating to Vermont or the South.
AMY HERSKOVITZ: Donna’s tolerance was higher than anyone’s I’ve ever seen, ever, ever—for alcohol, for drugs.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: I put Easter egg references to The Secret History in The Rules of Attraction [“That weird Classics group… [is] probably roaming the countryside sacrificing farmers and performing pagan rituals”] because I thought it would be funny, an inside joke. I think Donna dedicated the book to me because I shaved off a couple years of it moving through the system. I got it to Binky [Urban, ICM agent], and Binky got it to Gary [at Knopf], and the whole deal was done in a month, and it changed Donna’s life. Donna was grateful. But she felt indebted to me for something I was happy to do. It was a pleasure reading those pages for a decade.
IAN GITTLER: Donna was this unknown, unpublished writer, and then, all of a sudden, there was this huge bidding war for her book, and the movie rights were sold. Bret started calling her Madonna Tartt.
ARTURO VIVANTE, LETTER TO DONNA TARTT, NOVEMBER 23, 1993: I can’t tell you how impressed I am by your extraordinary book… I remember you coming to my office for the tutorials and how exciting your work was, such a treat, and how I once said to Bret, "Donna ought to be able to publish that," and he agreed.
JONATHAN LETHEM, FROM “ZELIG OF NOTORIETY”: No one had ever seen a first novel hoisted past reviewers into legend by a publicity machine, or if they had, they’d forgotten.
MICHIKO KAKUTANI, REVIEW OF THE SECRET HISTORY, NEW YORK TIMES, 9/4/92: How best to describe Donna Tartt’s enthralling first novel? Imagine the plot of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment crossed with the story of Euripides’ Bacchae… told in the elegant, ruminative voice of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
JONATHAN LETHEM, FROM “ZELIG OF NOTORIETY”: Every person I recalled from our time at Bennington seemed reworked in [Donna’s] pages, except I saw no spot for myself—unless, as I joked to my girlfriend, it was as the murdered Vermont farmer, a character so beneath the regard of the book’s characters that he barely registers as human.
SARI RUBINSTEIN: I cherish The Secret History because it saves that time of my life. I’ll have it forever because of that book.
TODD O’NEAL: The Secret History isn’t so much a work of fiction. It’s a work of thinly veiled reality—a roman à clef. When it came out, Claude and Matt and I got endless calls. Everybody was saying, “Oh, did you know Donna just wrote a book about Claude and you all? And Claude is Julian and Matt is Bunny and you’re Henry.”
MATT JACOBSEN: I called my mother and said, “I’ve been caricatured in a book, and my character gets killed.” And she said, “No, no. No one would ever kill you, not even in print, no.” Then she read the book and said, “That’s you all right.” I wore wire-rimmed glasses like Bunny. I had dyslexia—that’s what they called it in the 70s, anyway—like Bunny. And, like Bunny, I was an extremely affected young man. I’d make broad, questionable statements. One day in the dining hall I was gawking at some girl and said, “Reminds me of the way Diana’s painted on the ceiling of my father’s club,” and that line found its way into Donna’s book. And I’d invite people to lunch and then realize I didn’t have any money, something dear old Bunny does. I was kind of a horrible bounder, though in my case it was never intentional. A funny thing. Bunny was actually what everyone called Margaret, Paul’s first girlfriend—the girlfriend before Donna, a cranberry heiress. Some folks thought it odd that my character’s name should’ve been taken from Paul’s old flame. But I always thought the name came from the critic Edmund Wilson. Bunny was his nickname, too.
TODD O’NEAL: I might well have been capable of tearing a farmer to shreds while running through the woods, naked, screaming Greek. I don’t know. I never did.
MATT JACOBSEN: I was living in California in 1985. And lo and behold, Donna calls me in my little slum apartment. I immediately ask, “How did you get my number?” She says, “Your mother gave it to me.” And then she starts asking me questions. I realized later it was her wanting to know, How would Bunny answer this? I just said, “Donna, I’ve got to go,” and hung up.
TODD O’NEAL: Henry’s apartment was like my apartment. His eye problems, the chip in his tooth. I smoked Lucky Strikes. I wore suspenders and glasses. I’d gone to a Benedictine monastery for high school, where I learned Latin, and I taught myself Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit. I was very deep into the study of Plato and Plotinus, as Henry is described as being. I did go on a trip with Matt, and I did end up having to pay for it because his father didn’t give him much money and he was a bit of a sponge, though he and I always had fun together. And what Henry said about Julian—“I loved him more than anyone in the world”—was true of how I felt about Claude. He was the single greatest influence on my life.
MATT JACOBSEN: The idea of Claude having a big nouveau-riche pile of Montblancs was really too much.
TODD O’NEAL: No, the Montblancs were true. But it was a piece of accidentalia that Donna seized on and used in a pointed way. The only time I heard Claude’s voice in the entire novel was when Julian said, “I hope you’re ready to leave the phenomenal world and enter into the sublime.” That’s something Claude did say. But Donna’s Julian is Claude through a glass darkly. Claude considered it a betrayal—not a personal betrayal so much as a betrayal of his teachings. He wouldn’t talk to Donna for years.
"Bennington was the last preserve of a decadent old culture that fascinated and appalled everyone.... That's why when the Purge came it was such a convulsive thing."—Jonathan Lethem
JAMES KAPLAN, JOURNALIST; FROM “SMART TARTT," VANITY FAIR, 1992: The Secret History’s narrator, Richard Papen, hails from the fictional and deadly Plano, California . . . where his father runs a gas station and his mother is a secretary. Tartt is highly guarded (to say the least) about any relationship between the novel and her own life, but there is surely common ground. . . . Don Tartt was an upwardly mobile small-town operator who . . . own[ed] a freeway service station. . . . [His] wife, Taylor, [was] a secretary for much of the time they were married.
DONNA TARTT, INTERVIEWED IN THE BENNINGTON VOICE, OCTOBER 28, 1992: Richard is actually a very skewed character. . . . His sexuality is kind of weird. He’s so paranoid about where he comes from, and that’s a large part of the paranoia of the book, his fear of being found out.
TODD O’NEAL: The incestuous twins, though, I don’t know where Donna got them.
DONNA TARTT, LETTER TO JONATHAN LETHEM, DATED FEBRUARY 25, 1983: Paul & I were almost kicked out of our lodgings last Tuesday. The charges? Incest. That’s really rather impressive, isn’t it? Fortunately we are not brother and sister, or else we would have been quite guilty. Our landlords are minor and despicable Nazis, and even though we were as pure of incest as babes in arms, by proving ourselves innocent of that we proved ourselves guilty (in their eyes) of Immoral Conduct… [Paul] hit upon the very excellent plan of offering… extra money for rent. Worked like a charm.
TODD O’NEAL: Claude was a seeker more than anything else. That’s where Donna gets it wrong. We weren’t these silly pedants going around translating Greek into Latin, or vice versa, or whatever she has us doing. Claude was, I was, trying to find a way to be a complete person, to live well in order to die well, the same as Socrates and Plato. I think that’s why people are still, to this day, fascinated by Donna’s book. It’s not the potboiler part, the murder mystery, that fascinates them. It’s the part that Claude gave her. Even though nobody knows ancient Greek, and probably wouldn’t spend the time learning it if they were given a free opportunity, they still sense something valid and beautiful there, something that the modern world doesn’t provide.
MATT JACOBSEN: Ten years after Bennington, not long after The Secret History came out, I met Paul at his office in New York. He said that Donna had lived with him while he was at Harvard Law and she was writing, and then dumped him like a hot potato when the book was accepted. He was very wounded talking about her. I long felt that Donna was the Yoko Ono of the Greek class. If she couldn’t be part of our tight group, she would destroy it. And that’s what happened. Our friendships fell apart.
“THE PURGE,” 1994
JONATHAN LETHEM: Bennington was the last preserve of a decadent old culture that fascinated and appalled everyone. Because of its special properties of isolation and eccentricity, it got to be the place that was that way the longest. What had been quietly and carefully distilled out of other atmospheres hadn’t been confronted there. That’s why when the Purge came it was such a convulsive thing.
THE NEW YORK TIMES, FROM “BENNINGTON MEANS BUSINESS,” OCTOBER 23, 1994: This year, Bennington is running a million-dollar deficit. Something had to be done to cut costs. . . . [A] third of the school’s faculty members, many of them tenured, received registered letters informing them, in taut legal language, that their services were no longer called for. . . . [V]irtually one person, the president [Elizabeth Coleman, 1987–2013], has made all the decisions about firing and retention.
DONNA TARTT, Letter to the Editor, New York Times, 11/13/94: Though Elizabeth Coleman seems to feel that Bennington had been plunged into some sort of intellectual dark age before it was graced with her arrival, it was an electric and magical place during my years there… As a novelist, I learned my craft in large part from the literary academics (Richard Tristman, Maura Spiegel, Claude Fredericks) whom she has seen fit to dismiss… [I]t is tragic to witness how Coleman’s ignorant tinkering has destroyed this rare and delicate environment.
TODD O’NEAL: Everything at Bennington changed when Elizabeth Coleman became president. All she said about wanting continuity was a lie. What she wanted was to diminish the faculty and exalt the administration. And Claude, because of the unassailable respect he had, was able to block her. [She] needed a pretext to get rid of Claude, and then a student claimed that Claude had hit on him. A witch hunt started, and Claude was eventually ousted. Donna’s book was Elizabeth Coleman’s unwitting accomplice, because it sowed the seed that there might be something insidious in what he was doing with students. I saw Bennington as a Thoreauvian Plato’s Academy in America. Elizabeth Coleman destroyed that.
SARI RUBINSTEIN: From my point of view, The Purge was horrible. Every other college in America was basically a vocational school for a career. Why on earth would Elizabeth Coleman try to make people go to law school and medical school? That’s not why anyone came to Bennington. Bennington was a really special place for artists. She spit on all that. I remember she took all the antiques out of the dorms, sold them, and bought Ikea.
MATT JACOBSEN: It was never unfriendly between me and Claude, but as I fell more deeply in love with Liz [Glotzer, Jacobsen’s girlfriend and eventual wife], I saw less of Claude. I realized it was kind of ridiculous to hang out with him, cool as he was. And he wasn’t going to get what he wanted from me, so he moved on to greener pastures, started fooling around with another guy who’d been his student. At the end of the day, Claude was driven by a—you know—perverse interest in me. And that was wrong. I’m a geezer now, and I understand how wrong he really was.
JONATHAN LETHEM: How did I feel about the Purge? I felt that something precious and remarkable was being destroyed. And I felt that justice was being meted out to people who’d been manipulating students under the guise of mentoring them for a long time. I was just as mixed up about that as I was about all the rest of Bennington.
BEYOND “THE PURGE,” 1994–
JONATHAN LETHEM: In Fortress of Solitude [published in 2003], I wrote about Bennington in a very direct way, barely fictionalizing, which is unusual for me. It seemed funny that I ended up doing what both Bret and Donna—Jill Eisenstadt, as well—had done so long after they’d done it. Calling Bennington “Camden,” Bret’s name for Bennington, was my way of tipping my hat, saying, “This is your fictional terrain, but I’m going to occupy it momentarily.”
BRET EASTON ELLIS: I became aware of Jonathan as a writer when this galley came to me in the early nineties. I don’t remember what the book was called—it was a noir maybe and I think there were animals in it, talking animals [Gun with Occasional Music]? Anyway, it was like, “Jonathan Lethem is a writer?” I kept up with all his books after that, but I never quite connected with them. Then Fortresscame out. At first I couldn’t get into it. I was reading too fast. So I slowed down, five pages here, ten pages there, and I got swept up in it. I think it’s one of the great books of our generation. What he did was wondrous.
JONATHAN LETHEM: In 2005, I went back to Bennington to give the commencement address. At the time, Bennington was extremely uneasy about its cocaine years past and therefore had to pretend that Bret’s and Donna’s writing didn’t exist. Then I came along. The irony is, I do have that chapter about Bennington in Fortress that should have been appalling to them. But my book doesn’t wear on its sleeve that I went to the most corrupt, decadent college in the country, so I weirdly became the safe one for them to claim. Giving that address—me, the sophomore on leave—was an amazing piece of closure. Here I was on the grounds again and in the president’s embrace. In a funny sense, it was graduation day for me. It’s like I went where I failed to go.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Bennington was built for me. It was exactly what I was looking for. Everything about the campus, the people I met, the setting itself, the freedom I was given—it was a truly blissful period. Yes, there was tension and, yes, there was heartache, but overall I loved it. I absolutely loved it.
JONATHAN LETHEM: Bennington was, for me, as formative and influential as it could possibly be. I’ll never be done with that place.
DONNA TARTT, FROM AN INTERVIEW IN THE GUARDIAN, OCTOBER 26, 2013:
Q: When were you happiest?
A: At Bennington.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.