“Have you ever seen the movie Gone With the Wind?” Stanley Bosworth asks, fixing me in his gaze. “ ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’ ” He is referring to the Wall Street Journal’s ranking of the school he founded, Saint Ann’s, as No. 1 in the country. Bosworth is in his lair, his huge headmaster’s office, decorated with the work of his students—life drawings of nudes, a still from a film by Lola Schnabel—and photos of his various children and stepchildren and ex-wives.
Despite his Dixie nonchalance, Bosworth just happens to have that particular issue of the Journal, now a week old, lying open on the table. “I love being No. 1 in anything,” he declares. “But whether it’s exciting in that other sense of I’m in the money now or I’m the best, it doesn’t mean best. What’s best about us, I hope, is that we teach them the ‘forest of symbols,’ to borrow deliberately from a poem called ‘Correspondences,’ by Baudelaire.”
Bosworth has been headmaster at Saint Ann’s since its inception in 1965. Certain aspects of his vision have been revised over the years: Attending class is no longer optional for high-school students, and the student smoking lounge—which used to vote in a king and queen annually, each dubbed with a cigarette—is no more. But it’s still a very unusual place, an artsy Hogwarts in Brooklyn Heights, where many things—special things!—are possible and few are forbidden.
Bosworth is 76 years old and very tall, and he is very, very sure of himself and his school and his role in it. “Hey, baby,” he says, “when I run Saint Ann’s, there’s one person. Do you know any French? I’ll do it for you in English: The French say a single person is missing, and there’s no one in the world.”
When you talk to Saint Ann’s people—faculty, alumni, parents—about Stanley, which is what they all call him, they tend to use the language of awe. (The word his assistant Elena Gershoni uses to describe his reputation is mystic.) But on May 3, Stanley must attend his own farewell party, his “bar mitzvah,” as he’s taken to calling it. After a 39-year reign, he’s being put out to pasture by his board, to be replaced by Dr. Lawrence S. Weiss from Horace Mann, who’s 54 years old. Soon, Saint Ann’s will have to see what it is without its creator. And vice versa.
“It’s absurd, because, shit! I don’t feel one bit the years I know I have,” he says. “It’s not bravado, it’s just the fact that I’m still there—very there. Half the board is younger than I am, but they are crippled! One is so heavy that the fatuous smile she has doesn’t zing anymore!”
“It’s absurd. I don’t feel one bit the years I know I have. Half the board is younger than I am, but they’re crippled. They hate my guts.”
He hits the table with his fist when he says, “They hate my guts, don’t you see? Because everything I’m parodying, everything you believe, young as you are, and everything I believe, old as I am—I believe in the freedom of the individual, I believe in sexual freedom, I believe that the racist thing is unspeakable, that the sexist thing is unspeakable—these things are not just beliefs. They’re lives lived. And they never lived those lives!”
He calms himself down.“I love those kids,” Stanley says. “They’re my family. They’re my extended family, which is why I’m not anxious to run away. I will see those children’s faces like flowers in the dead of night.”
The elite private schools in the Wall Street Journal article are the proverbial club that would have Stanley as a member. He’s outraged, warming to his subject and rattling his paper. “Some of the schools on that list have stigmas of producing the Early American Gothic Wasp Constipation,” he says. “It isn’t just the bowels that don’t move—nothing else does! We’d make believe . . . we, that is, the upper-middle-class American who could afford a private school but could not think for itself—we would expect children to be discreetly nonvirginal, and all the other hypocrisies that we could pile on—while basically looking for the Ivy college which would give the child its imprimatur. That is the pathway that the crippled wealthy take, hobbling as they go.”
Stanley has been vigilant lo these many years, weeding out the philistines and the complacent bourgeoisie and the generally unworthy lest they muddy his sparkling creation with their puritanism and mediocrity. “Teenagers . . . are . . . sexual,” he’ll routinely announce to a group of applicants’ parents, with mad-scientist drama. “Does that . . . shock you?” That is precisely his hope. “To disturb the boogeys,” he says gleefully, “I am an aversive stimulus!”
Stanley’s character traits—his intensity, his insanity, his pomposity, and his brilliance—are all embodied in the school he built. Saint Ann’s is a cult of personality, but it is a cult that works: the ten most selective colleges in the country accepted 41 percent of the class of ’03. Ten children apply for each spot at Saint Ann’s, and that spot goes for $20,500 annually. (Stanley says he makes “around a quarter million a year. Not bad. But it ain’t that kind of money that you have to rape old ladies for.”) Beyond the rankings, the thing that makes certain kinds of parents want to send their kids to Saint Ann’s—the thing that might make you wish you could go there yourself—is the experience of the school.
Freedom reigns. There are no grades. (“How do you give a grade on an oboe’s sweet, beautiful sound? Or how do you give a grade on a painting?” Stanley asked me, sweeping his hand through the air to indicate the children’s work hanging on the walls.) Older students are encouraged to determine their own schedules. Each teacher creates an individual curriculum based on his or her “passions.” And Stanley, for his part, has been allowed to be his own passionate, unbridled self. “He loves women . . . He’s crazy about women. And he lacks self-control,” says a former student. “Call me back after you meet him. I want to know if he makes a pass at you.”