In May 2019, Esquire magazine published “Bennington’s Secret Oral History: 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 the ultraliberal Vermont school and its most famous students of the MTV era – Bret Easton Ellis, whose novel ” Less Than Zero “would be released his junior year; novelist Donna Tartt, future author of “The Secret History”, https: //www.nwaonline.com/news/2021/nov/23/podcast-explores-novelists-tartt-ellis-80s/ “The Little Friend” and Jonathan Lethem, 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner, and future author of “Fortress of Solitude” and winner of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” scholarship, Jonathan Lethem, the whole class of ’86 (although Lethem never had graduated).
This trio are surrounded by equally fascinating supporting characters who include, among others, Brix Smith, who would drop out of her freshman year and become the 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.
Today, Anolik, editor at Vanity Fair, expanded on her oral history in a 14-episode podcast, “Once Upon a Time … at Bennington College”, from C13 Originals. New episodes, around an hour long each, debut every Wednesday since September 29 and include a lot more detail than the magazine article, as Anolik’s main focus is on Tartt and Ellis.
It’s a captivating listen for those drawn to this very specific time and place of American literature and pop culture – the 80s Bennington Campus portrayed as Cafe Du Dome in the 1920s, The Lost Generation Meets Generation X. Anolik not only delves 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 at Bennington.
Unsurprisingly, Ellis volunteered to participate in the article and podcast, speaking openly not only about himself and others, but also about specific scenes and characters from “Less Than Zero” and their influences.
Tartt, on the other hand, rarely gives interviews, does not use social media, and declined to participate in the story and podcast.
According to a report from Page Six, Tartt’s agent last month asked Apple to withdraw it (Apple did not comply) and his lawyer sent two letters to producers warning against using any “” false, misleading or otherwise inaccurate statement “about Tartt which may be made by guests” and against “the use of any of Tartt’s published works without permission, or any of his private school records “.
Tartt has also long refused to give up any real connection in his work. A recent New Yorker essay on Fredericks, Bennington’s instructor, esthete, poet and autochthonist, prompted a response to a fact-check inquiry from Tartt in which she denied he was the inspiration for Julian Morrow , the professor of classical letters 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.nwaonline.com/news/2021/nov/23/podcast-explores -novelists-tartt-ellis -80s / “Southern Dog,” https://www.nwaonline.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 looks at the background of Ellis, a Los Angeles-born movie fanatic, Joan Didion fan and indifferent prep student whose high school girlfriend was the daughter of Hollywood producer John Foreman; and Tartt, an early misfit who grew up devouring books in Grenada, Mississippi.
Ellis moved from LA to 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. Budding novelists quickly gained attention on campus, and Anolik explores how they developed in Bennington’s creative, competitive, and shady atmosphere.
We learn that Ellis, who became a campus rock star when “Less Than Zero” was released, is grappling with his sexuality and his complex relationship with his father; how he outwardly portrayed a cold, stoned West Coast indifference, but all the while assailed with anxiety and feverish work on “Less Than Zero”. When the book was released 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-smoker little Tartt, with her impeccable manners and quick wit, was hosting well-watered teas in her dormitory. She was cautious about her past and made a habit of hanging out with four male classics students who studied with Fredericks and all dressed up as something “Brideshead Revisited”. She dated one of them, Paul McGloin, and adopted an androgynous look that included boys’ suits and cut her hair into a bob. Ellis compares her to Oscar Wilde. She also refused to follow the trend of ’80s minimalism in literary fiction, a style Ellis used with startling effect to tell the disturbing and fragmentary story of bored, coked, over-sexed and very wealthy LA teens in “Less Than Zero”.
Tartt and Ellis became friends in Bennington. He read early drafts of what would become “The Secret History” and was a strong supporter of his work, eventually connecting Tartt to his agent, Amanda “Binky” Urban, who also represented heavyweights like Toni Morrison, Raymond Carver. , among others. She dedicated the 1992 novel – a gripping and elegant thriller about a murder at a small college in Vermont 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” featured underage porn actress Traci Lords, is a talented writer and her reporting seems complete. Its sources are innumerable and often convincing. She finds Matt Jacobson, who may be the real inspiration for Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, the obnoxious freeloader murdered by his friends in “The Secret History”; she also reunites with an old beau from Tartt d’Ole Miss.
She argues for “Less Than Zero” as a work of the imagination rather than the mildly fictional reportage that some rushed critics have assumed it to be and tracing its lineage through Didion, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein.
Her tone is too familiar and flat, as if she was courting in a corner at a cocktail party; nor is she opposed to occasional moments of self-reference or irrelevant meanders.
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I am a fan of Tartt’s. I reread her novels every few years, and I have a reputation of wasting entire evenings searching for old interviews with her on Google and searching for new information among the pixels.
I still own the 1986 paperback “Less Than Zero” that I bought when I was 17 and I remember how amazed I felt when I first read it, and it was written by a guy who was only a few years older than me. I have come back to it often 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 one that truly presented him as a enfant terrible of American letters or a one-note self-parody.
So this podcast – kind of like Oral History of 2019, the tab of which has been open on either of my devices pretty much since its release – has captivated me. I have 11 episodes and just can’t look away.
If I’m being honest I’m drawn, with just a twinge of envy, mostly to the stories of these curious people before they got famous and how it reminds me of an era and certain fashions and, yes, of the youth. I can see how Anolik has become obsessed with it all, even though his pursuit and enthusiasm makes me a little nauseous at times.
And I imagine Donna Tartt, well dressed in her office in New York, or in a tastefully landscaped farmhouse somewhere, a pug at her feet, working on her next novel and ignoring all the noise.