Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button

by Thomas Hoving
Kindle Users: Click here for plain text copy


In the fall of 1941, a mere three weeks after I had "borrowed" Pauline’s ring watch, I was abruptly summoned to Riverhouse and was greeted by a grim Walter Hoving. "You are a thief, a rotten, stupid little thief, possibly a kleptomaniac."

I had no idea what the long word was but I knew it was about the ring. I told him I had borrowed it and always meant to return it.

"At least you're not a liar. How did we find out? A maid saw you rooting around in your stepmother’s closet. Why did you steal it? You don’t know? Do you steal from your mother, sister, friends?"

I was confused and kept saying I’d only borrowed it; I didn't realize that I had stolen it not only because it was gorgeous but because I wanted to get back at the stepmother I hated and feared.

"I’ll show you what thieves get in this family," he said and took me to the "torture chamber" where he unwrapped a cricket bat with large holes drilled out like a Swiss cheese. I was whacked ten times and it hurt badly. At the end of the session my father hugged me tightly for the first time since Lake Forest. I resisted him and never forgave him for the thrashing. I then decided to keep the watch.

When grilled, I said I had buried it in Central Park next to the granite wall near the playground at 79th Street. I was to be taken there a half dozen times by my French governess Mimi Precourt, Nanny’s successor, and occasionally by my distraught mother armed with a small spade to dig around in the parched earth. Eventually my parents concluded that someone must have found it and made off with it. Once I had gotten back to my sanctuary, I would take the ring out of its secret hiding place, buff it up, wind it and watch the tiny second hand sweep by. Maybe it's still there, since before I could retrieve it my mother moved abruptly to a new apartment in Manhattan at 340 East 72nd Street. Years later I found out that she had been thrown out for non-payment of the rent.

For weeks I returned to the "torture chamber" for "little chats," as Pauline called them, with a psychiatrist. I was introduced to the man simply as "the Doctor." He was short and had a gleaming, slightly sweaty baldpate, which I found frightening. He asked me silkily about why I was so fascinated with shiny small objects and why I seemed to have to steal them. I tried to tell him the ring was the only bauble I'd ever taken, for by now I had confessed I had stolen the object. I admitted that I did like tiny things and I tried to tell him about my collection of miniature horseshoe crab skeletons. He wouldn't listen but kept coming back and back to why I was so fascinated with shiny, glittering objects. He would smile beatifically and speak more softly, more silkily. Had I ever stolen anything from my mother? Sister? Nannies? Schoolmates at Buckley?

Never, I pleaded. But it was clear that he -- and my father -- didn't believe me.

There were a dozen or so one-hour meetings. I was scared to death and interpreted them as punishment for the watch. I manifested my unease by clearing my throat repeatedly, which the Doctor soon latched onto as a symptom of really deep troubles. I was then forced by my father to have the roots of my tonsils grouted out. They had been clipped years before but my father had encountered a doctor who ascribed all throat ailments to tonsil roots. After the operation I hurt like hell and I became convinced the pain was part of my punishment.

At the same time I was sent to the Johnson O'Connor Institute where, as I have recounted, I tested phenomenally high in a number of aptitudes, visual acuteness and inductive reasoning.

My mother’s new apartment at 340 East 72nd between First and Second Avenues was definitely smaller than our first flat and had no grand "parade" corridor, no secret vault, a smaller living and dining room and only three bedrooms and one maid's room. Yet, growing up there was more fun than at 993 because of the movie theater downstairs, which specialized in avant-garde and European films. There were also some cozy bars on 72nd Street near Second Avenue where bartenders never asked me for identification when I started drinking, which was around fourteen.

My mother barely tolerated the new digs and lived for her long summers in Edgartown. Although I was away for most of the time, I did catch glimpses of her increasingly sad life in New York City. She had a succession of live-in lovers who drank with her until long after midnight and played bridge when a foursome could be gathered together. I would come home after parties and there the four of them would be half in the bag and looking bedraggled.

In 1941 I was dispatched to a pre-preparatory boarding school, Eaglebrook in Deerfield Massachusetts. Pauline had pushed for a military academy, but the psychiatrist had counseled against it. Eaglebrook specialized in "troubled boys" and so I had all the qualifications for immediate entry, even though the O’Connor Institute concluded I wasn’t in the least troubled. From the fall of 1941 on I was on my own in life.

From the moment I got off the train in Deerfield, and was greeted by a friendly master and his even friendlier wife and was warmly welcomed into my dormitory by a cheery upper-classman, I knew I was going to love "Birdie Ditch" as we kids called Eaglebrook. The school was probably the most important influence on my life and was, in fact, my surrogate parent.

The school lies halfway up a small mountain overlooking the historic town of Deerfield in the Mohawk Valley. I went there from 1941 to 1947, from age ten to sixteen, from the fifth grade through the ninth. I also remained at school for two full summers in 1942 and '43, when a co-ed farm work camp was set up to help the Polish farmers of the valley bring in their crops -- all their young sons having gone to war.

Eaglebrook was a delightful combination of strict discipline and utter freedom. The goal was to nurture group loyalty and individual independence at the same time. There were rigid schedules -- perfect for young, "troubled" lads -- yet we were allowed to venture into the surrounding woods and with a buddy to construct huts with serious tools -- axes, saws, mauls and brush-cutters. We spent the occasional night in the hut and it was where we dashed with a half-eaten burger in hand during the random air raid drills.

There were no grades. You were ranked by your willingness to study. Effort marks were posted weekly. This system generated a sense of egalitarianism -- if slower students worked like hell, they could be just as good as the brighter ones. 

I excelled at English and history and struggled through mathematics and science. My effort marks were universally high. I took every applied arts course available and remember two marvelous art adventures, one in jewelry making and the other in pottery. I took nice thick plastic poker chips and applied leaves and flowers in gold and fashioned them into pins. I remember to this day the joy of carving and manipulating the gold into floral patterns and of course the sales, for I sold them to all the faculty wives. The proceeds went to the school shop.

In pottery I was allowed to walk down the three-mile hill to the train station and every week travel some twenty miles away to the studio of a potter. I was eleven when I started the journeys. On one winter trip it snowed a foot between the time I started off and when the train returned to the Deerfield station. I barely made it up the unplowed hill to school. No one gave a second thought to the youngster out there on his own. It was expected and I loved that.

Every student was encouraged to play some musical instrument. I went for the piccolo and the flute and learned from a deft music teacher. My mother gave me the lovely silver instruments for Christmas in 1943 and I recall my gasp of pleasure as I looked into their soft leather cases and saw the shining objects. I got to be pretty good. In one memorable concert, conducted by the great English conductor Sir Thomas Beacham -- his stepson was in my class -- I was allowed a flute solo, which I didn't mess up. He nodded his white head at me in appreciation. Sir Thomas hummed every note of the score loudly and I wondered if this was how the pros did it.

My English teacher was a portly, balding, pipe-smoking gent whose voice was so perfectly modulated that several of us would sit near his office just to hear him pick up the phone and say, "Mr. Grove speaking." I became fixated by his signature, an evenly inscribed, perfectly rotund and delicately contoured "A. G. Grove," always larger than any other word he wrote. That signature was a work of art.

When I was twelve I wrote a short story for Grove about a soldier living through one day of battle in which the events followed the 23rd Psalm. I tried to capture how a man made peace with his fears -- and with God -- as he walked through a valley under combat conditions. It was all dialogue in the form of the soldier's thoughts, swinging from fear to resignation and then to peace. When I got back my paper I was puzzled that there wasn't an effort mark. There was only a "?". Grove told me testily that he suspected I’d stolen the story. I was thrilled because the idea was all mine. I then spewed out dozens of short stories, mostly detective and science fiction stuff. In one I had my detective leave a dark house as quietly as he could, holding his shoes "on high."  Grove and my fellow students laughingly called me "On High" for days.

I fell in love with Latin from the first time I saw the word "agricola" and became something of a whiz, eventually begging for assignments that far outstripped what the rest of the class was taking.

One singular and welcome thing about Eaglebrook was that religion was never pushed. I remember no daily chapels, no long recitations of scripture. There was only a Sunday walk down the long hill to a non-denominational building for a quick service in an ancient brick church and the long walk back. Since neither my mother nor my father ever took me to church I had no idea that religion was important. That may explain why organized religion does not interest me today.

My hut partner was Charlie Bell, a round, short, dynamic kid with a permanent scowl to go along with his paranoid mind. We shoveled out a trench some eight by five feet, reinforced the walls of the trench with birch logs we'd cut, fashioned a roof out of elm logs and stacked bags filled with earth on top. We sculpted out some seats and had a number of happy times out there.

Charlie was also a New Yorker and we'd meet in the city during vacations. He swore me into the secret society he’d cooked up -- appropriately named (American Secret Society). Being young asses, we bought six-inch-long switchblades and fist-sized 22-short revolvers from a pawnshop on Third Avenue. The proprietor was utterly unconcerned about two kids buying handguns and knives. With our weapons, we skulked around town on missions to protect America from "the Japa-Nazis." We also tailed people for hours, trying to be as "pro" as the guys in the spy movies to which we were addicted. When I left Eaglebrook, I hid the weapons in the woods somewhere.

All my teachers were superior, especially headmaster C. Thurston Chase, a tall, dignified man with eyes that sparkled with good humor. Hilly Chase was an indefatigable mother who had instant cures for homesickness, which I never had. I was "school-sick" when I went home.

I have fond memories of the community work all students were expected to do -- waiting on tables, doing the laundry and, if you were lucky, working in the kitchen. The chef saw to it that I was stoked up at every six-in-the-morning breakfast with six pancakes, a rasher of bacon and a half dozen sausage links. My favorite task was the deep sink and I cleaned out the huge pots and frying pans, up to my arms in filthy hot water, loving every second. I also remember the horrifying screams at night in the workers quarters as a few alcoholic workers suffered through the DTs.

I have especially warm memories of sports. Eaglebrook offered everything except lacrosse and soccer. My favorite game was Capture the Flag, played on the entire real estate of the school, some ten square miles. The goal was to sneak into the enemy’s territory and grab the flag planted at the far end of each team's area. A line in the middle of the property was marked by ribbons tied around trees so that each team, made of half the student body, would have an equal flat and hilly meadow and wooded part to sneak around in. If you got tagged, you were out. I don't remember anyone ever winning, but it was wonderful.

Football was the six-man kind and we competed with schools like Deerfield, Putney and Choate. I was an end because of my height and with my "fast hands" I could snare quick passes. We thought we were pretty good until we played the "Little Giants" of Choate school. They beat us 72 - 0.

My skiing skills were so-so. Despite my early training from Hannes Schneider at Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, where my mother had taken me when I was eight, I never picked up how to make those quick turns needed for slalom runs. I was, however, something of a daredevil in the downhill. In one, I actually caught up with and passed a skier -- hard to do since each racer was sent off a minute apart. As I went by him, I turned back to laugh at him and slammed into a tree. I cracked a few vertebrae in my back and was in the school infirmary for two months in traction. The guy I passed would show up at least once a week to mock me for laughing at him.

At ski jumping, I managed the junior 20-foot jump easily, fudged the 40-foot intermediate jump and utterly botched the fearful senior jump, which was 200 feet long. You couldn't graduate unless you had gone off all three jumps. My performance on the senior jump was "yellow-belly." I was so terrified of the height that I clamped onto the hand rails of the steep ramp, shredded my gloves and "flew" some eight feet down the hill before cart-wheeling the rest of the way.

My specialty was cross-country. I developed a way of breathing under stress -- two lung-filling intakes when the left foot hit the ground, two exhales when the right foot hit, two in again on the left and four out on the right, exhaling very deeply. The technique completely filled and emptied my lungs. I have used it all my life. I used the technique to win a long race and was so far ahead of the rest of the pack that they named the trail after me for a year or two.

I played in the goal at hockey because I have very fast reactions -- even today -- and excelled in baseball. My crowning moment in the latter was a season-end championship game with the Deerfield school Junior Varsity. We were ahead 1-0 in the ninth inning. With two outs Deerfield scored two runs on a triple. My sharp eyes had spotted that the batter hadn't touched second base. So, after he was sitting on the bench and off the base paths, I motioned for the ball and fired it to second base, telling my teammate to touch the bag. The umpire cried out, "Yer out!" And we won.

The best of times for me at Eaglebrook were the summers of 1942 and ‘43 when I participated in the co-ed work camp established to help harvest the crops on local farms. There were a hundred and fifty of us. In my first week it was over a hundred degrees and I’d keep staggering back from where I was weeding away in the mile-long furrow of corn to swig down some more iced tea. I began to get cramps and feel faint. A Polish lady showed me in sign language how to find a small, smooth, flat stone, stick it under my tongue, suck on it and never have to drink the rest of the day.

The pay at twenty-five cents an hour was fabulous. Every Saturday we went to Greenfield on the train to buy the town out, mainly of bubblegum, sweet rolls and hard candies, and bottles of Coke.

In the second season I was elevated to foreman over a crew of five others and, of course, taught each the small stone trick. Once I was in charge of a crew cleaning out ten-foot tall wooden pickle tanks. We all chuckled at the farmer's description of what we might find at the bottom. We came across rats, dried-out crows and the skeleton of a baby fox, but that didn’t stop us from wolfing down those tart, lovely pickles. I found that I was something of a leader and found it thrilling to instruct and watch over my younger and less experienced farmers. 

Halfway through the second summer tragedy struck -- an outbreak of poliomyelitis. Three students were crippled; I contracted a mild case of polio in the muscles of my left eye.

I was known by Thurston Chase and my teachers as a hard working, not-terribly-bright, unambitious, relaxed kid who liked practical jokes and sports and anything to do with art. The staff thought it odd that during my long tenure my parents visited but once. My mother came for a weekend and was remembered as being warm, gregarious and hard drinking. My father, who came for a day, was remembered as grim and stiff, complaining that his son was not being pushed hard enough.

I received no academic honors, but was cured of my "troubles," learned that hard work was always rewarded and gained vital confidence in myself and my abilities that I have never lost since. Years after leaving Eaglebrook I was granted the singular honor of having my name inscribed in gold letters on the mantelpiece of the hearth as a distinguished alumnus.

After Eaglebrook, I decided to go to the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, because you were allowed to smoke with a parent's okay. To me smoking was the ultra in sophistication. With stellar recommendations from Eaglebrook I sailed in to Lower Middle year -- tenth grade -- the class of 1949. Once I was at what was a virtual Junior College I became a noisy show-off and a wise guy.

The only class I liked was Latin. The six foot four teacher, Mr. Gault, recognized that I was several classes ahead of the others, yet he forbade me from reading advanced material. I was so good that I could read the assignments on sight without studying. When called upon to recite, it didn't matter if I had prepared or not, I just rattled it off. This annoyed him, and he made a point of giving me an A or A minus, squared. The square sign meant flagrant neglect. I argued with Gault that it was unfair to dock me if I had natural talent and, besides, if he gave me advanced work, which I begged for, I'd have to study. He stunned me by picking me up by the shirt, lifting me to his eyes and growling, "I am not in the habit of being talked to like that by a student."

Stupidly, I cranked off a shot at his jaw and grazed the side of his head. He dropped me and growled again, "I'll make sure you are soon expelled from here."

Thus, the subject I revered was abruptly closed off to me and I soared to the top of the Exeter endangered-species list. But before I was expelled one good thing happened -- I stumbled into making something of a mark in national sports.

I discovered lacrosse; I became a goalie and helped change the way the position was played. The goalie stick has a basket the size of a bushel to snare the incoming solid rubber balls. In those days the stick’s shaft was five feet long, like a defenseman's. The way you played then was to hold the long stick in your right hand with the basket on the ground between your legs. In the left hand you wore a glove like a hockey goalie's. The problem was that when you raised the stick to make a save the long shaft kept hitting the mesh of the goal. It was also slow and trying to catch balls in the glove was touchy.

I asked the coach if there was anything in the rules to prevent me from cutting the stick down to, say, two feet. That way I could hold it in both hands and whip it fast in any direction I wanted to snag the balls. I showed him how much more effective it was to catch incoming balls using a forward's shorter stick.

He formally inquired at the nationwide lacrosse organization and was told that nothing stood in the way of making the shaft of the goalie's stick any length you wanted. All the Exeter goalies' sticks were cut down and suddenly we were stopping an incredible number of shots. Our opponents wondered why it was so hard to score on Exeter.

One of my teammates remembered my style of goaltending: "He was always hitting the side of the net with his stick -- you know, playing a role, in the best sense -- and shouting, 'On the right! On the right!'" Always playing a role, I was desperate for recognition.

My one triumphant moment at Exeter came in the Junior Varsity final game with archrival Phillips Andover Academy. We played on their field and beat them 25-0. I stayed in the goal the entire game, whipping that stubby goalie's stick around like a Shillelagh and netting every scoring attempt. On the last Andover attack my defensemen had all fallen to their knees laughing, "Hey ‘Loper,’ stop him by yourself!" The attacker let fly a hard one. I jumped straight into the air, spread my legs with the stick between them and, by sheer luck, snared the ball. I celebrated by walking to the bench and lighting up a cigarette. Hell, it was the last game of the year.

That bravado act and slugging a Latin teacher was the kind of "bad attitude" that brought me down. The end came soon thereafter. A buddy, Dick Kennedy, and I began to haunt the park on Swazey Parkway. One of us -- he thinks it was me and I think it was him -- got the bright idea to gather up rolls of toilet paper, string them across the road and raise the paper just before a car passed by. Thinking the paper was a rope, the drivers screeched to a halt. As luck would have it the second car to come through was the cops and we were soon trundled into the office of the dean, who gave us our walking papers. "You are expelled. Out of here! Tomorrow. You, Hoving, to New York, and you, Kennedy, to Philadelphia. Good riddance." To his credit, my lacrosse coach was the only faculty member who said a good word about me.

Later, Kennedy, who became a respected preparatory school teacher and the head of a legendary camp in Maine that specializes in straightening out troubled teens, summed it up: "We were no more than disaffected teenagers just thumbing our noses at authority. We wanted to tweak the teachers and the coppers to stand out. What we did was a perfect metaphor for where we were at that age. They were wrong to oust us. Hell, I remember that cop, the doughnut-eating variety. He hated us -- we were 'gownies' -- two rich kids lying in the gutter with toilet paper, and he was a fat 'townie.'"

I celebrated my freedom by taking the subway to Coney Island with a friend who had just been thrown out of his prep school, downing many drinks and riding the Parachute Jump and killer Roller Coaster until the joint closed down.

My mother wept and forgave me. My father went white with rage. I was called down to Riverhouse and this time had to stand at attention and describe myself over and over: as "willful, irresponsible, insubordinate, immature, thoughtless, selfish, thieving (that watch again)."

"If you can’t talk yourself, Mr. Slick, into what may be your last educational opportunity at the Hotchkiss School, it's New York's public high school system for you."

Was I worried? Scared shitless is more like it.

In June my father and I drove to Lakeville, Connecticut, and to the entrance to Hotchkiss.

He said, "You have a meeting right now with the headmaster, George Van Santvoord."

The round office was some fifty feet down a darkened corridor with double doors flung open. The headmaster, an elderly bald man perhaps in his late sixties, was sitting at a large desk with three bright windows behind him.

"Mr. Hoving, I presume," he said. "I am George Van Santvoord. The headmaster. They call me the 'Duke,' as I suppose you know."

He asked me to briefly review my record at Exeter, which I did, leaving out none of my stupidities, yet not apologizing for any. I talked about my grades -- which weren't all that bad despite the "flagrant neglect" Latin marks.

"Why do you want to enroll at Hotchkiss," the Duke asked.

"Well, I'd like advanced Latin and, if Hotchkiss has Greek, I'd really like to take Greek."

"Who told you to say that?" he asked tartly. "I happen to be the Greek teacher here."

"I'd like very much to take Greek with you."

Once the Duke accepted me, I knew it was going to be rough. No smoking. And no weekends off except for a medical reason. If a student's grades averaged above eighty-five, weekends home were permissible. I made an immediate deal with my mother to sign a blanket permission. At first I faked toothaches in order to get out of the Hotchkiss jail.

The only positive thing about the place was that the august student council (which I never got close to) several times a year gave a full day's holiday, announced at the morning chapel. The Duke would proclaim it and we'd go wild.

Knowing that being caught smoking meant instant expulsion, I worked hard at figuring out how to beat the smoking ban. I happened to look into the maid's suite -- at Hotchkiss then maids actually made up the beds and cleaned the rooms -- and bingo. She had a lounger, a radio and an ashtray in there. I paid her to lend me her key for one of my first "dentist's" weekends in New York where I had several copies made.

From then on once the main light switch was turned off at nine o’clock, I'd retire to the maid's room, turn on the lights and would stuff a couple of towels under the door. I would read and smoke until I almost passed out.

I was pretty much shunned at Hotchkiss. My classmates had all started together in the ninth grade and seemed to come from the same fancy Connecticut towns. They were like some secret society, dedicated to going to Yale University. I cannot remember making a single friend among the "Yalie" clique or anyone who wanted to meet and become friends with such a latecomer as me. I gravitated towards the other few oddballs -- a guy who loved Bebop music or a red-headed chap from a nouveau-riche family who wore suits and vests (lovingly called "the big red disease" by the members of the Hotchkiss clique), and a filthy-mouthed Italian kid whose disdain for school spirit matched mine.

The Duke was pleased with my progress in studies but complained repeatedly to me about my lack of school spirit and said I would be punished somehow for my lousy attitude. How he eventually did it changed my life. Only two teachers stand out in my mind: Richard Miller, the soccer coach and French teacher, and the fine art teacher Thomas Blagden.

Miller was a rugged, alert and acidly witty man. It was he who offered me my first exposure to art history. It came in one of his French conversation lessons and he showed life-sized reproductions of painters from Courbet through the Impressionists and beyond, to Seurat, Cézanne and Picasso. We had to converse with him and classmates about the quality of the art. I liked the drill immensely.

One day he showed a reproduction of a couple who looked vaguely like farmers or a preacher with his young wife in front of a church-like structure. The man held a silver pitchfork. It was Grant Wood's American Gothic. Miller launched into an entertaining -- and slashing -- critique of this "triste" example of American provincial art and the banality of realism. He was trying to teach us new conversational idioms, with grown-up vocabulary like "merde," "cochon," and "imbecile," all of which he attached to the picture. We loved it.

I was thankful, however, that I wasn't called upon, because I was transfixed by the image. I recall how strikingly real the severe-looking man and his companion were to me. I never forgot the painting and would some day write an entire book about it.

Hotchkiss didn't have lacrosse so I tried a sport new to me, soccer, and soon became first-string goalie on the varsity. I bought and wore a black and white striped referee's shirt in order to confound the opposition. Nothing in the rules said I couldn’t do it. We had a successful first year but I was badly injured in the final game when an opposing player, angered by my referee’s shirt, paid me back by kicking my right knee and tearing it to pieces when I was squatting down to pick up his easy shot. I walked with a cane for months. That injury pretty much finished off my serious athletic life from then on.

I played an excessive amount of golf on the course, which surrounded the campus. It was easy to jump out the dorm window with a light bag of clubs and do nine holes. Since the course was hilly and narrow and demanding, I lost lots of balls, which infuriated my father because he kept getting the bills. My relations with my father remained chilly -- I had no idea what he was doing or thinking in those years.

Later I found out that he had brought about a revolution in taste and flair at Lord & Taylor's, setting up what I think was the first restaurant in any retail store in America. At the beginning of the Second World War, he took over the first floor of the store for a day and sold nothing but War Bonds. He advised the bureaucrats in Washington who were thinking about establishing a complex price-freeze system and convinced them not to do it. He started up the nation-wide United Service Organization with his friend Thomas Watson of IBM and enlisted Tom Dewey to be the president. The USO had centers in every important city in the country where servicemen and woman could come and get hot showers and low-cost home-cooked meals, dance a little and, maybe, see a Hollywood celebrity. 

After Lord & Taylor he assembled a group of investors, formed a holding company, Hoving Associates, and bought a controlling stake in the fashionable uptown women's store Bonwit Teller. He then bought a men's chain, John David, and started up a one-price women's fashion shop called Anson Jones.

I had no idea of what my mother was doing other than her continual late-night bridge games and her incessant sucking on an Old Fashioned or gin fizz from the moment she awakened until she passed out. Unknown to me or my sister, mother slowly started getting one, two and then five doctors to prescribe sleeping and wake-up pills -- none of the physicians knew the other was prescribing the same dangerous drugs.

All I wanted to do was to isolate myself from the Hotchkiss "Yalie" clique, hang around with the few other oddballs at the school, write stories, translate the Aeneid into blank verse and after graduation never visit the place again. Near the end of senior year I had a close call. A student proctor, a self-important, gangly, hawk-faced guy by the name of Jonathan Bush, who thought he was the world's gift to buck-and-wing dancing and pop singing, suspected I was smoking.

"I'm going to get you, Hoving," he growled, "I just know you're smoking and your school spirit is lousy."

The pompous fool never laid a hand on me. Not that I hold grudges, but I must admit that, as a registered Republican all my life, I could never bring myself to vote for any of the Bushes because of that busybody intrusion by George H. W.'s younger brother.

At graduation I could barely suppress giggles as the Duke labored through the boring ceremonies. My father came and was stunned when the headmaster announced that I had been elected to the Cum Laude Society.

The 1949 Class Yearbook voted me "The one who took Hotchkiss for the most."

In 1967 on January 30, I received a telegram that caused a wry smile to cross my face, "IN RECOGNITION OF YOUR SUCCESS, A HOLIDAY HAS BEEN GIVEN IN YOUR HONOR."

Which of my three schools had been the best for me? Eaglebrook out-performed the others by far, principally because activities outside the classroom were equal in importance. Plus, the place was truly egalitarian. And the wives of the male teachers, themselves teachers, provided an indispensable balance to what might have been an aggressively competitive male environment. As I look back I realize that the Eaglebrook faculty held a largely liberal, even socialist, view of life, which has played a powerful role in my views on how to live.

Exeter was second-rate. I mean, any serious educational institution where an upper-rank teacher spurns a student's request for advanced work is hardly worth mentioning. I have no idea what has happened to Exeter since -- I was dunned for several years for alumni dues and gifts, but that stopped when I expressed my annoyance for being hassled for money when the institution had dropped me without a second chance.

The fundamental problem with Hotchkiss was headmaster Duke Van Santvoord, who was too old and tired to make changes in the ossified curriculum. Added to that, any sign of independence from the accepted thinking or any opposition to the old-boy social status quo was looked upon by the student in-crowd and the faculty alike as "unproductive." Hotchkiss went co-ed in the 1980s, and when my daughter applied to the first class to accept women and was erroneously turned down, I was not unhappy.

This is chapter 4 of Artful Tom: A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.

THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He can be reached at Send Email