In May 2019, Esquire magazine published “The Secret Oral History of Bennington: The Most Decadent College of the 1980s” by Lili Anolik.
It was a delightfully chatty, sex, drug and literary dive into the cloistered, creative world of Vermont’s ultra-liberal school and its most famous MTV-era students – Bret Easton Ellis, whose novel “Less Than Zero” would be released its first year; novelist Donna Tartt, future author of “The Secret History,”https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/nov/23/podcast-explores-novelists-tartt-ellis-80s/”The Little Friend” and the Jonathan Lethem, 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner “The Goldfinch” and future author of “Fortress of Solitude” and winner of a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, all of the class of 1986 (although Lethem never graduated).
This trio is surrounded by equally fascinating supporting characters that include, among others, Brix Smith, who would drop out of her freshman year and become lead guitarist for British postpunk champions The Fall (she also married Fall founder Mark E. Smith). ); writer David Lipsky; Jay McInerney, author of “Bright Lights, Big City”; “From Rockaway” author Jill Eisenstadt and professors Joe McGinnis, Nicholas Delbanco, Arturo Vivante and Claude Fredericks.
Now, Vanity Fair editor Anolik has expanded her oral history in a 14-episode podcast, “Once Upon a Time…at Bennington College,” from C13 Originals. New episodes, each about an hour long, debut every Wednesday since September 29 and include far more detail than the magazine article, as Anolik focuses primarily on Tartt and Ellis.
It’s a captivating listen for those drawn to this very specific time and place in American literature and pop culture – the Bennington campus of the 80s interpreted as Cafe Du Dome in the 20s, the lost generation meets Generation X. Anolik doesn’t just delve into the real-life inspirations that may have found their way into Tartt and Ellis’ fiction, but also the authors’ first steps in transforming their own identity in Bennington.
Unsurprisingly, Ellis was a willing participant in the article and podcast, speaking openly not only about himself and others, but also about specific “Less Than Zero” scenes and characters and their influences.
Tartt, on the other hand, rarely grants interviews, does not use social media, and has refused to participate in the story and the podcast.
According to a report from Page Six, Tartt’s agent asked Apple last month to remove him (Apple didn’t comply) and his attorney sent two letters to producers warning them against using any “false, misleading, or otherwise inaccurate statement” about Tartt that may be made by guests” and against “use of any of Tartt’s published works without permission, or any of his school records private”.
Tartt has also long refused to relinquish any connection to real life in his work. A recent New Yorker essay on Fredericks, Bennington’s instructor, aesthete, poet and self-chronicler, prompted a response to a fact-checking investigation by Tartt in which she denied he was Julian’s inspiration. Morrow, the classics teacher and figure of Svengali. to a small group of mysterious, anachronistic and ultimately murderous students in “The Secret History”.
Tartt’s public reluctance is reminiscent of one of his heroes, Arkansas native Charles Portis, author of “True Grit”, https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/nov/23/podcast-explores -novelists-tartt-ellis-80s/”Dog of the South”, https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/nov/23/podcast-explores-novelists-tartt-ellis-80s/”Masters of Atlantis and others, who generally avoided interviews (in 2004 she wrote an afterword to a new edition of “True Grit”).
Anolik delves into the backgrounds of Ellis, a Los Angeles-born movie fanatic, Joan Didion fan, and indifferent prep school student whose high school sweetheart was the daughter of Hollywood producer John Foreman; and Tartt, a precocious misfit who grew up devouring books in Granada, Miss.
Ellis left Los Angeles for Bennington right out of high school; Tartt transferred after a year to Ole Miss, where she studied with Willie Morris and Barry Hannah.
Tartt and Ellis came to Bennington as literary prodigies in their own right. Aspiring novelists quickly caught the eye on campus, and Anolik explores how they thrived in the creative, competitive, and sleazy atmosphere of Bennington.
We learn that Ellis, who became a campus rock star when “Less Than Zero” was released, grapples with his sexuality and complex relationship with his father; how he outwardly exhibited a cold, stoned West Coast indifference, but the whole time was beset with anxiety and feverishly working on “Less Than Zero.” When the book was published in the spring of 1985 and became a phenomenon, the partying rock star status of Ellis was sealed, becoming tabloid fodder while still a student.
The chain-smoking little Tartt, with her impeccable manners and quick wit, hosted boozy teas in her dorm. She was guarded by her past and took to hanging out with four male classical students who studied with Fredericks and all dressed like something out of “Brideshead Revisited”. She dated one of them, Paul McGloin, and adopted an androgynous look that included boyish suits and bob haircuts. Ellis compares her to Oscar Wilde. She also refused to follow the trend of ’80s minimalism in literary fiction, a style that Ellis used to startling effect to tell the unsettling, fragmentary story of bored, coked-out, hypersexual and ultra -rich in “Less Than Zero”.
Tartt and Ellis became friends at Bennington. He read early drafts of what would become “The Secret History” and was a strong advocate for his work, eventually connecting Tartt with his agent, Amanda “Binky” Urban, who also represented heavy hitters like Toni Morrison, Raymond Carver , among others. She dedicated the 1992 novel – a compelling and stylish thriller about a murder at a small Vermont college that attracted casual readers and literary snobs and became a major bestseller – to Ellis and McGloin.
Anolik, whose 2020 podcast “Once Upon a Time…In the Valley” was about underage porn actress Traci Lords, is a gifted writer and her reporting seems in-depth. His sources are numerous and often convincing. She finds Matt Jacobson, who may be the real-life inspiration for Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, the heinous profiteer murdered by his friends in “The Secret History”; she also stalks an old beau from Tartt from Ole Miss.
She argues for “Less Than Zero” as a work of the imagination rather than the slightly fictionalized report some bead-addicted critics assumed it was and tracing her lineage through Didion, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.
Her tone is too familiar and flat, as if she were holding court in a corner at a cocktail party; nor is she averse to occasional moments of self-reference or off-topic meanderings.
■ ■ ■
I’m a fan of Tartt. I reread her novels every few years and have been known to waste entire evenings googling old interviews with her and searching for new information among the pixels.
I still have the 1986 “Less Than Zero” paperback that I bought when I was 17 and I remember how stunned I was when I read it for the first time, and it was written by a guy who was only a few years older than me. I often came back to it and its nihilism. Probably too often when I was young.
I was born out of my infatuation with Ellis, however, after “American Psycho,” his hyperviolent third novel and the one that really cast him as either an enfant terrible of American letters or a self-parody of a footnote.
So this podcast — much like the 2019 Oral History, which has been tabbed open on either of my devices pretty much since it came out — has me hooked. I’m at 11 episodes and I just can’t look away.
If I’m being honest, I’m drawn, with just a twinge of envy, especially to the stories of these curious people before they were famous and how it reminds me of an era and certain fashions and, yes, youth. I can see how Anolik has become obsessed with it all, even if her pursuit and enthusiasm makes me feel a little queasy at times.
And I picture Donna Tartt, nicely dressed at her office in New York, or some tastefully appointed farmhouse somewhere, a pug at her feet, working on her next novel and ignoring all the noise.