Friday, September 7, 2012

Memoir Fragment: Exeter 1966 and 1967

Twenty-five years ago, I started a company, Memoirs Unlimited, whose sole purpose was to help private individuals write and publish their life stories. Since then many have asked me when I was going to write my own memoir. Well, the time has come.

Here and from time to time in this blog, I will post bits and pieces of what I am writing. Your reactions, thumbs-up or -down, are welcome.

There was a striking moment during my first year at boarding school, which like many such moments, I clean forgot. I only remembered it—and still barely do remember it—after discovering a news clipping from the student newspaper of the Phillips Exeter Academy, known, characteristically for that proud old prep school, by a grand abstraction-like moniker, The Exonian.

I had arrived barely shaving in the final days of August 1966, an early recruit of the varsity football team thanks to my stellar record as starting quarterback on the first team at Greenwich Country Day School. I was thrown into a dorm, Dunbar, that would not be my own permanent dorm, Cilley, for just one week, and I had my meals with and got my ass handed to me on the gridiron by older, bigger, tougher boys. I made the team, as third-string quarterback behind two “ringers” (postgraduate students), both with heavy five o’clock shadows at nine in the morning and both, if memory serves, from Pennsylvania coal towns. If I haven’t made this clear already, I was from Greenwich, Connecticut.

Though I ate dirt every afternoon from two-thirty to four, I cleaned myself up well enough to try my hand at the very opposite sort of competition: Dramat. That was our word for the extracurricular theater program at Exeter. The production that fall was Hamlet, directed by Messrs. Hinkle and Marriott, both English teachers. At the audition, I had to say the line “Welcome to Wadi Halfa” with as many attitudes and accents as I could muster. I did not know that Wadi Halfa is a city in The Sudan, but apparently I was a good enough greeter at its gates to earn a bit part. As the sentinel Marcellus, in a much-condensed Hamlet, I chewed for four weeks of rehearsal over a single line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Parallel to that moment of theatrical greatness was my one appearance in a varsity football game that fall, a win at Andover in which I, an apparently light-in-the-loafers clipboard-carrying third-string quarterback, was inserted at monster linebacker by the most sadistic football coach in my memory or nightmares, Jeffrey Fleischman, and only after the Andover game was well in hand. I think I played one defensive series, or about seventeen seconds of high-intensity prep school football at its best. I did not return the following fall, nor was I invited back.

But I did try out for the winter play in lower year (what we called 10th grade): Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. And I got a plum role: Willy Loman’s son Happy. Andy Kesler, son of the dreaded “Dean Bob,” played the other son, Biff, while Mark Teeter starred as the salesman and eventual suicide, Willy. A headline in The Exonian read, “Cast Revealed for Winter Production; Leading Role to Be Taken by Teeter.” The article featured a police-lineup-style photograph of the five principal male actors. To Teeter’s left I slouched against a wall, in casual three-quarter pose, a shock of hair over my forehead, hands in pockets, a puss on my face, the very image of 15-year-old nervous cool.

Despite that odd and now embarrassing photograph, I am told that I projected quite an image in lower year. The only lower on V football, I was one of two in Salesman (Paul Stanzler played Stanley). That my inflated on-campus image had its accompanying shadow was clear from the review of the play, also published in The Exonian.

Student reviewer Dan Gordon liked the production, calling it a clear if qualified success. Its excellence, he wrote, was “mitigated only by a few shoddy exceptions, and a perceptible lack of focus to the whole play, not the fault of the production but rather the essential limitation of presenting a play about old age and death in a prep school.” Well, yeah, there was that.

“Most of the acting was faultless,” Gordon went on. As Willy, Teeter was “very, very good.” Kesler depicted Biff’s “hopeless lashing out” at his father “vividly.” Then there was Webster Bull’s Happy, “another sort of character altogether.” Let’s go to the transcript—

Happy is the villain of the play: he is attempting to continue Willy’s illusions, the megalomanic dreams, but he is without Willy’s kindness. He comes out as a vacuous and destructive bum. Bull portrays him well: much of this may be Bull himself coming through, but much is also the result of careful coaching, as can be seen throughout the play. The casual phoniness with which he goes through his relationships, casting off his father at the restaurant, lying to his mother when he returns home, is played in a precise and calculated manner by Bull, who comes through all too well as the audiences begin to detest Bull rather than Happy.

I remember playing Happy but not Gordon’s review or the profound embarrassment it must have caused. And not for me alone: Letters to the editor in the following issued featured an entire subsection titled “On Webster Bull . . . ” First Tom Wood, an admissions officer, chided Gordon, the paper’s editorial chairman, for misusing the word mitigate and inventing the word realisticity. Then Wood added, “What is truly offensive is the gratuitous slur on the off-stage character of the actor whose portrayal of Happy was, to me, impressive. . . . ”

Following this was a second indignant letter calling the review “inappropriate, tasteless and [lacking in] judgment.” It was signed by five leading members of my class, including the class president and the one classmate most associated with Dramat then and afterward, John Gilpin, who would craft a successful acting career with the stage and screen name Jack Gilpin.

Finally came a clarification or retraction by the paper itself: “The point that the reviewer intended to bring out in this paragraph is . . . ” and so on.

Like everything else that happens on this earth below, the whole incident—review, embarrassment, aftermath—was much less important than it seemed at the time. I went on to compile a successful prep acting record and leveraged that into major castings in two summer theaters in 1969 and 1970. And then I wasn’t much of an actor anymore.

But at the time? The attitudinal publicity shot, the evidently ambivalent opinion of certain schoolmates to me, the desire to mask my own character in fictional characters on stage—it all leaves me with a question: Who the heck was I? What was I becoming, and how was Exeter contributing to that evolution, or that fall?


  1. Nice piece, Web! I remember you as very good in Salesman. I'm confused about your tenure at Exeter; this seems to say that you were only there as a lower in 66-67 but I thought you were with us for at least two years.

  2. Thanks, Chris. I was class of 1969 and attended three years, 9/66-6/69.

  3. Nice post and accurate memories....
    Heck, we were so, so misbehaved, cynical, cruel -- Exeter in those days (our days) was a climb to the top of the Misanthropy Olympics...
    chalk it up to insecure wise-ass preppies.... I hope and hear the culture their now is very different, thank goodness.


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