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The Choirboy


John Hardwicke at home in Whitehall, Maryland. (Photo Credit: Corinne May Botz)  

Lessig had been a bright light at the school since his first year there. With a perfect-pitch soprano voice, he’d been a soloist next in line behind Bobby Byrens (“My idol,” Lessig says). And with a sharp and probing mind already in evidence, he soon emerged as an academic star and student leader, a striver, intensely driven. Now, in his ninth-grade year, Lessig was named head boy, which made him “in charge of taking care of the kids,” he says. “There was no proctor when I was head boy; I was discipline. And there were kids who were real shits—it was a Lord of the Flies–like experience.”

Being head boy also signified something else: He was Hanson’s favorite. And accordingly he was assigned a room next door to the music director’s, at the far end of a hallway on the third floor. By midway through the year, the two of them were essentially living together. “We put up a door in front of our rooms, blocking off the hallway, blocking out the rest of the world. We created a suite. And there was a classroom right next to it. So every day the teacher comes up, watches me come out of that door—which is also Hanson’s door—and walk into class. There’s no way anybody doesn’t know what the hell is going on. But nobody says anything.”

Lessig may have been head boy, but he wasn’t Hanson’s only prey. All along, Lessig says, he knew that Hanson was sleeping with “at least ten” other boys. “The weird thing about the sexuality was that there was no jealousy attached to it at all,” he explains. “It was totally recreational. It was just like playing squash. He’s playing squash with me, he’s playing squash with him. Who cares? What does it matter?

Among the boys, Hanson’s promiscuity was well known, Lessig says. He would call students out of class to satisfy his cravings. The private voice and piano lessons he administered were especially notorious: “It was five or ten minutes of music, then it would turn into other things,” Hardwicke recalls. And while none of this was ever spoken of explicitly among the boys, there was ribbing, teasing, nodding, winking—constant signals of in-the-knowness. As for the teachers, Lessig says, “Hanson was the boss. What was going to be said?”

Sometimes on trips home, Lessig felt faint stirrings of unease. But it never occurred to him to tell his parents. His relationship to Hanson, unlike Hardwicke’s, was tender, sustaining; his parents would never understand. “Like all pedophiles, Hanson was really good at connecting with kids,” Lessig says. “You just felt you were together; there was no ambiguity about it. He was a friend. A deep, close friend. We talked about everything. He told me about music. He told me about the world . . . For a kid cut off from everyone else in this weird universe, to have the most important person in the world give you love and approval is the greatest thing you can imagine. What else is there?”

On some level, Lessig realized that the relationship was “fucked up and shouldn’t happen,” he says. But he also had a precocious 14-year-old’s exaggerated sense of his own maturity. “I felt that I could handle it,” he says. “That everything was under control.”

There were moments, however, when reality came crashing through. In Lessig’s final year, he found himself gripped by “an insane depression,” he says, over “the insanity of what was happening.” In his closet he’d found a hatch in the ceiling that led to a crawl space above. He climbed up there and crouched alone for hours in the dark.

One evening near the end of Lessig’s final year at the school, he went with Hanson for a walk around the grounds. As darkness descended on Albemarle, Lessig finally, tentatively, gave voice to his gathering misgivings about Hanson’s behavior.

“Is this really right? Should you really be doing this?” Lessig asked.

“You have to understand,” Hanson replied, “this is essential to producing a great boychoir.” By sexualizing the students, he explained, he was transforming them from innocents into more complicated creatures, enabling them to render choral music in all its sublime passion. “It’s what all great boychoirs do,” Hanson said.

After Lessig moved back to Williamsport for high school, he brooded on what had happened in Princeton. Two years later, he contacted the boychoir’s headmaster, Stephen Howard, and persuaded Howard to appoint him as the alumni representative to the board of directors. Then Lessig went and told Don Hanson that what he was doing was wrong—wrong for the kids, wrong for the school, even wrong for Hanson.

“It’s harmful, it’s destructive, you’ll get caught, you’ll get hanged,” Lessig said. “It’s really got to stop.”

Hanson didn’t argue. Instead, he told Lessig that he had a boyfriend now, a former student who’d left the school with whom he was carrying on. All of his needs were being met.

Lessig wasn’t satisfied. “You should recognize that I’m now on the board,” he said. “If it doesn’t stop, I’m going to out you.”

“You’re right,” Hanson said. “Absolutely, I promise, it will never happen again.”

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