“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.”
“The whole school is about freedom and the intellectual adventure and always has been. And that comes from Stanley,” says Gabe Howard, the head of Saint Ann’s lower school, who has taught there since 1973. On an early spring morning, Howard gives me a tour of the new building, which houses grades one through three. “I put the library right here,” she says as we enter, “to make a statement about our values. It’s the first thing you see when you come in.” She runs her hand over the undulating curves of the wall opposite the library. “That and the wiggly wall, because we also value wiggle.”
Upstairs, the children, the “funny, woolly creatures,” as Stanley calls them, are running around a table covered with dreamy, puffy crêpe-paper trees with pipe-cleaner trunks. On the wall, there are “Poems and Paintings Inspired by Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ by Chandra and Anne’s Class” (third grade). It is Stanley’s fantasy made real: little people unleashed to engage their mini-minds and fledgling bodies in the unlimited quest for creativity and wisdom.
“My 4-year-old was in the preschool opera two weeks ago,” says Laura Walker, the president and CEO of WNYC radio, who also has a son in the seventh grade at Saint Ann’s (he’s been studying Japanese since he was 11 and is cultivating a serious interest in anime with the art department). “They did this great opera-rap about eyeballs. It was a very well-conceived production.” Now her 4-year-old is starring as Hera in a film her class is making as part of a unit on ancient Greece.
Mary Watson, a former Saint Ann’s teacher (and student, and now a board member and the mother of a kindergartner), puts it like this: “There’s no grades, there’s no discipline, so the challenge as a teacher is that you have to make it fun for them. My parents were what Stanley would call the bourgeoisie. They were terrified of Saint Ann’s. My father was going to take me out. He said, ‘You seem too happy to be learning anything.’ Then I fell in love with Latin and my father became a total convert.”
According to Watson, the board’s reasons for pushing Stanley to step down were a bit less sinister than he likes to imagine. “He’s 76 years old,” she says. “We’d all like to believe—well, I’d like to believe—he could be here forever and ever. But it was time for us to do this. You just don’t want to wake up one morning and find he’s not there. We want him involved with the transition, we wanted to do it while he’s around. He built the school! In terms of his outrageousness, talk to anyone who’s known him for 25 years: That’s unchanged.”
Stanley is not convinced. “One of them called me a fiscal disaster,” he says with a contemptuous snort. “I give a shit? If they said I was a physical disaster, I would have been hurt. They have me bent over. I’m still a very virile man.”
In the sixties, the vestry of Saint Ann’s Episcopal Church sought to establish a nonsectarian school in the hopes of attracting parishioners. Stanley was a “proselytizer” who’d taught at NYU and at the Walden School on 88th Street. “He was flat-out the best teacher I’ve ever had,” says Marc Landy, one of Bosworth’s early Walden students, now a professor of political science at Boston College. “He didn’t teach subjects as if they were just subjects, he taught it like, These ideas are really important, so you better come to grips with them, you’d better bring intellectual courage. I liked his show of toughness. It made it so I could think about the life of the mind as something I could do, something manly enough. He didn’t treat us like teenagers, he taught us like we were important people.”
Bosworth somehow accomplished the unlikely feat of selling his nontraditional educational approach to the church. “I was saying to them, quoting Nietzsche, ‘Thou must harbor chaos to give birth to a dancing star,’ ” Stanley says. “And the chaos, of course, is in fact: Children are chaotic. And the dancing star is the child itself! And I seemed to get enough of them to apply to the school.”
According to the Saint Ann’s Website, “As for the 60-plus children who came to the Clinton Street undercroft in September 1965, they thought of Saint Ann’s as a kind of amusement park (these words are from a graduation speech by one of them)—and, indeed, some of that early creative chaos has survived.” Saint Ann’s has remained its own kind of academy of magic, with wiggly walls and preschool operas in lieu of Quidditch and the dark arts; a place where the dangers and rewards confronted by students are of a different caliber than the detention-and-gold-stars routine experienced by regular children. To gain admittance, you don’t have to be a little wizard like Harry Potter, descended from parents with legendary powers, but the selection process is similar in that a child’s lineage and gifts are central criteria. “I always say to the parents when I meet them, ‘If you’re an artist—an artist artist—I’ll take your child,’ ” Stanley says. “Parents are not necessarily the people I would love them to be—I’ve got one who gets me crazy at the New York Review of Books. But when his kids came here, I took ’em like a shot. No exam. I don’t have to give an exam to a kid whose father is that brilliant!”
Stanley used to tell people that he planned to turn out 10 percent of the nation’s poets at his school. And certainly, many a bright-eyed youth has passed through the halls of Saint Ann’s and come out the other end an artiste of one sort or another (Zac Posen, Jennifer Connelly, Paz de la Huerta, et al.). Many, many more have come out with artistic ambitions. “I’m 33 and I’m in the knitting industry, and it still hasn’t occurred to me that I’m not going to win an Academy Award,” says Adina Klein, class of ’88. “That’s thanks to Stanley Bosworth.”
Stanley says he first started thinking about starting a school while stationed in Germany after World War II. “I was having a grand old time, really, because my girlfriend was quite intelligent. She was an older woman—I was 21, she was 26—and she read Goethe. I was sent to the building which was for code-breaking, cryptanalysis, because you had to have a certain IQ. I was there locked and closeted with maybe 100 people, all cleared for top-secret. Frightened my old man to death! ‘What do you do? What do you do?’ In cryptanalysis, one of the things you do is find anything that is reproduced … You look for a frequency count. We had maids, cleaning women, everything but dancing girls … and plenty of those, too! We had girlfriends who would go back and forth. But I couldn’t wait to get out because I couldn’t bear all the chickenshit, all the trouble, the nuisance, the epiphenomenal fact of having to do something that has no meaning at all.”
If you were to look for words and themes that come up in Stanley’s conversation, “Jewish” would get a lot of hits, and so would “Sartre”; but the frequency count would fall overwhelmingly on terms pertaining to sex. In fact, it sometimes seems like every topic with him is destined to go careering loinward. I ask him where he went to school, and he replies, “I learned French being in France and sleeping with Lucy. I learned German being in Germany and sleeping with Ana Lisa Schmidt!” Then he pauses. “Ah, how many women I have squired across the English Channel.”
A conversation about Proust derails like so: “Proust says of a love affair, it is as if having heard a tune, that you knew somewhere in the middle of it that you could whistle the rest. Mind you, all he wanted was a man’s penis to suck, but I happen not to be Marcel. About a third of my staff are gay, another third are androgynous, and the third third are still trying to figure out where to put it.”
As for the students’ sexuality, Stanley’s paramount concerns are, as usual, passion and personal freedom. “We had some idiot half-dyke, you’ll forgive me, some health counselor who said, We’re going to talk about condoms, blah, blah, blah. And I said, ‘Why don’t you talk about clits?’ I get worries from parents if they sleep together. If they’re affectionate, they’re affectionate! We don’t require anything, but what I’m saying is they’re not inhibited by the desperate borders which sexism incurs. I came from the working class, for which I have no respect at all … They would say, in my childhood, if they were talking about women, Look at that broad. Sartre once said the obscene is subject as object. When you reduce the human being to whatever word they used, you are saying it’s a thing. We’re not things! We’re humans. I have no tolerance, least of all for sexism. I’ve had so many daughters.”
I ask him how many daughters, and he shrugs.
“I’ve been around. A long time. And why not? And why not, and why not. We live. We live! We fall in love, we fall out of love. We marry, we don’t marry. We do what we do, and our kids do what they do. And I think, that is, I hope, I don’t hope, I know, that my daughters have self-respect and believe that they are as sacred as any other human being. Therefore, that world of ass-pinchers, I regard them as something to be destroyed. To this day, I would probably knock one down. I’m strong for an old man.”
When Stanley steps into the sunlight on Pierrepont Street, he looks almost boyish with his confident stride and his jacket slung over his shoulder. Outside the school, even his conversational style seems to change.
“So what’s your name? Ariel Levy? That’s like being called Fred Yiddish,” he says.
Stanley is Jewish himself, raised in Washington Heights, by parents he calls “the greatest bumblers in the world.” The name of his Russian ancestors was Pesahovich, which he says was changed to Boscovitz at Ellis Island. “And then it came to pass ye verily the next generation changed it to Bosworth. They didn’t even know that historical names meant something! I’ve had the name all along. I was accused of hiding behind it when I became the head of an Anglican school—which it would have been had I not made it immediately nonsectarian!”
A former student, now in her forties, says, “He’s a self-invented guy; he’s sui generis. When people found out he was a Jew, they were shocked because he was always wearing clothes cut to fit within an inch of his life and he spoke in this pseudo-British lockjaw and was married to this British librarian”—wife two, as Stanley calls her. “He was inappropriate with me as a student,” she continues. “He didn’t make a pass at me, but he talked about things you shouldn’t talk about. The understanding was that a number of the teachers were having sex with students—and for all I know, this was an act of the imaginations of teenagers—but Stanley was condoning it by making fun of it. He told me, ‘I don’t know why any [teacher] would want to have sex with a virgin: It’s like having a mummy!’ Stuff would come spilling out of him. I think he has a belief system about personal liberation that includes sexual freedom, and I’m sure there are French critical theorists who are the brand names of his style of thinking: no boundaries.”
Stanley has one brother, who is alive and well and also living in Brooklyn and is a kind of therapist. They rarely speak. “He’s a psychopath,” Stanley says. “He looks like a homeless person.”
“If you saw the two of us together, we look very much alike,” says Bob Bosworth, 80. “We are both, I suppose, libertarians, whatever that is. He’s done it in the school, and I do it with my patients.” Both men are charismatic, nontraditional thinkers who have cultlike followings, and both are contemplating retirement. “I’m looking for a successor to continue my work,” Bob says excitedly. “It would be a great burden off me.” Bob did not graduate from high school, and offers his own unique course of treatment. “My method is my own,” he says. “The problems with patients are partly to do with puritanism and repressionÂ—sexual repression being the most deadly. I work with the conscious and the unconscious, and I work with the physical. I work with their chests, which are almost always constricted, and I work with their rigid pelvises.”
Stanley’s two living ex-wives both work at Saint Ann’s. Annie Bosworth is the librarian. “Did you see her? Shuffling around her books? She’s been shuffling since she was 19!” Stanley says. “You forget, I’m 5,000 years old. When Annie and I were married, we were very close to the Van Dorens and the hoi polloi of the intellectual set. I didn’t know anything about the upper class, I did because I met Mark Van Doren, and he liked us more than he liked his son, whom I also knew … a huge scandal.” The Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Mark Van Doren’s son Charles, a Columbia professor, knocked the wind out of American quiz-show fans in the late fifties when they found out his remarkable winning streak had been fixed. “I went to Charles—Charlie, as I called him—I said, you know, your only sin is not that you perjured yourself, it’s that you didn’t laugh at the stupid fuckers.”
Beth Bosworth, wife three, “my last duchess hanging on the wall,” Stanley says, is an English teacher and a former Saint Ann’s student herself. (Both Mrs. Bosworths declined to be interviewed for this article.) “Annie was a very giving person,” says Stanley. “Like The Giving Tree, you must remember that book. The other one, Beth, is more scintillating. And the husband she’s with now is a poet. I guess I still love her.”
Stanley became involved with Beth when she was in her mid-twenties and he was in his mid-fifties, just after she’d gotten back from a stay in Paris that rendered her pregnant and heartsick. “The father wasn’t going to take responsibility,” Stanley says. “She came here. She had been at this school. It was alumni night, and I said, ‘Let’s go to my house,’ and we did. I knew I was connecting with a woman who’d been a student here and that she was brilliant. I find brilliance sexy,” he says. “I always have. So we exchanged writing. I do philosophical writing about Sartre and whatever whatever. She writes fiction.”
Beth Bosworth’s first book was a collection of linked stories called A Burden of Earth, which she dedicated “For Stanley, my first reader.” In it, she writes, “Anselm, Headmaster. Once I fought with my boyfriend—who had mumps at the time—and staggered in tears through the streets of Brooklyn until Anselm took me into his office and talked to me about Sartre and existentialism and weaker vessels. Then he handed me a tissue and sent me gently, quietly, out into the world.”
She comes back to him for comfort later on in the book (after some stories set in Paris), and he offers it again. “I’ll marry you. We’ll have children, he said. I’m a jealous, bad-tempered man but I have one virtue. I’m strong as an ox.” He stays strong and virile and vocal throughout the book, but he grows angrier, more menacing, and starts saying things like “it doesn’t occur to these animals that someone in this city might have something better to do than wait for some kike doctor in the goddamn basement.”
When we arrive at Stanley’s favorite Italian restaurant, he says, “They wonder why I’m in here every day with a different woman! I drink if you do.” He orders single-malt scotch, a double, and something “vegetabley … I want to live forever!”
As the alcohol washes away some of his pretensions (and what few inhibitions he harbors), Stanley starts to resort to the syntax of his youth and sounds a little more like Fred Yiddish himself: “Some of my best friends you shouldn’t know from!” he says. “If you seduce me verbally with your language, I don’t care. I mean, I care about you a lot. But I don’t care what you tell that fussy little magazine. Tell them that before I masturbate in the morning, I say a prayer for Valhalla!” Stanley is no ass-pincher. His moves are of a different vintage than the skirt-chasing he so disdained in Washington Heights. After he’s finished his scotch and several glasses of wine, Stanley says, “I’m half in love with you, and you know it. If I invented you, you’d be the same you; you’d have the same bust, the same figure, the same nose, same eyes, and all that shit. Not that I was looking, I never do.
“Ariel, as unlikely as that name is, I’d treat you to anything. I’d buy you a house in the country … you’d have to be able to carry logs and shovel snow. But I don’t trivialize. There is nothing more serious than wanting,” he almost yells. “And anyway you’re also, God help you, Jewish!”
Then he mentions, apropos, somehow, of the change of seasons, “I’m deadly. You should know that. I mean I always conceive when I am not taking all the necessary precautions. I don’t ever impose or plot or destroy. It’s just that you’re everything I ever wanted. That doesn’t mean I have to conceive in you. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t.”
I ask Stanley about his plans for spring vacation.
“I go to Georgia with my little girl, my 15-year-old daughter, on Wednesday and come back Monday evening. I’d gladly buy you a flight. Of course, I have nothing but adventures, except when I’m with my little girl … and she would be perfectly cool if we were in my suite.”
I tell him I find this plan problematic for a number of reasons, the least of which is that it would entail the loss of my job.
His eyes brighten. “You could work at Saint Ann’s!”
To finish up his meal, stanley orders a Vsop cognac and an espresso. “Freud said, stupid asshole kike bastard, he said … well, knowing Freud is very helpful in my job, because I know exactly which teacher’s going gay for which woman and I know exactly how to control her. And she doesn’t know anything yet about what she’s become!”
He downs the last of his liquor. “When you’re little and 7 years old, you want to fuck the life out of it, but you don’t know where to begin and where to end. When you’re 70 years old, you know exactly where to begin and where to end and you want to start. That’s just the way life is.”
We leave the restaurant, and before I get on the subway, I ask Stanley if there is anything satisfying about getting older, about having accumulated so much knowledge and experience and having had so many adventures.
He offers a devilish grin and starts jumping up and down. “I have the satisfaction of seeing people I hate die!”
The question, to some extent, isn’t why Stanley Bosworth is leaving; it’s how he has stayed for so long. “I think probably people have told him to tone it down,” says Sharon Lamazor, the head of the theater department, who has been at Saint Ann’s for 25 years. “I never have, because I felt we were very like-minded in the sense that it’s all about the students, and in that art should live. I’ve always trusted his vision for the school. He created it! That is the bottom line.”
“You’re getting a lot more of the raging-into-the-night rhetoric. My experience of him doesn’t leave me with that,” says Barbara O’Rourke, who worked at Saint Ann’s for 26 years. (Her husband, Paul, was head of the classics department. Two of their children are graduates, and the third is currently a junior.) She left her job as Stanley’s “second in command” in 2002 to become the head of the Pierrepont School in Westport, Connecticut, named after the street in Brooklyn Heights on which Saint Ann’s is located. “It is a tribute of sorts,” she says. “I spent almost my whole professional life at Saint Ann’s—my whole family, we’re connected. I know Stanley very well, well enough, I think, to see that the beauty of the school is a reflection of what he brought to it. He is who he is. Half of what he says is true, and half of it isn’t. Yes, he is a crazy person and all that, but you have to know that the kids have had really pure experiences with the teachers and the school regardless of his impurities. For 40 years, he got out there and fought the fight every day against the more traditional bourgeois ideals—the happy medium—allowing people’s talents to escape the bounds of tradition.”
The lawyer Barry Scheck, who has a daughter at Saint Ann’s and a son who already graduated, says, “The kids all talk about the scandalous stories and how he slept with everyone. But look, we all appreciate the institution he built, and I guess you need an iconoclast to pull that off. There’s an irreverence about Stanley that filters down, and that’s what makes the place work.”
At the high-school dance recital in late April, the audience is shrieking and the dancing is unreal. Forty kids at once pounce and throw their limbs in the air to the beat of African drums in mind-boggling synchronicity. But what is really most startling is seeing a troupe of teenagers—some beautiful and muscular, but most gawky and still humbled by cowlicks and acne—wearing outré, form-fitting leopard-print costumes and polka-dotted hoods and flying across the stage with total abandon, with absolutely no discernible shame. The looks on their faces are so intent, so proud, so utterly unconflicted, you can’t resist wishing you’d ever felt that way for even one moment of your adolescence. You can’t resist wishing you could feel that way for a moment now.
There are four women who work in Stanley’s office, three of them alums, and the day after he returns from his spring vacation, I sit with them for several hours, waiting for his arrival. Diane Gnagnarelli has been here for twenty years as a lower-school teacher and a theater instructor and an administrative assistant, and I ask her what her job is now. “Stanley says that everything is ontological, that it’s about being,” she explains. “Job titles work, but pretty much I’m known as Diane.”
I ask Diane if Stanley has been outrageous for as long as she can remember. “Some days more and some days less outrageous,” she says. “He’ll surprise you when you least expect it. It’s a little bit like the purloined letter: The message is right there for you and it’s so obvious, so he sometimes clouds it a little bit. But if you’re meant to hear it, then you’ll hear it.”
When he finally arrives, he is tan and hungry and crazy as ever. He’s not going gently. He calls one of his secretaries “a fat Jewess cow,” and deems a top administrator a “penis snipper,” and “don’t think I profoundly respect, revere, and worship the pusillanimous sycophants that are teachers,” he says. “Have I shocked you? Because there are two reasons for my saying that, and one is to find out if you know what a sycophant is.”
“I’m a very good fake,” says Stanley Bosworth, “but I’m also very real. I really am the person I’ve pretended to be.”
Then he wants to go back to the Italian restaurant. Once he’s had his single malt and a little wine, he grows quiet, almost whispering, as he talks about his legacy. “I don’t think I’d like to be loved by humanity,” he decides. “Although the kids love me. There’s a moment in Camus’s The Stranger when he’s about to be marched off to be hung. And he says to the executioner, about the mob—what I say to the mob every day!—Â‘May they greet me with cries of hate.’ ”
He gives a little laugh. “I’m a very good fake,” he continues, “but I’m also very real. I really am the person who I’ve pretended to be. And furthermore, I haven’t invented anything.”
“You invented that school,” I say.
“You’re goddamn right I did,” he hollers, “but it doesn’t know how it got invented! And those little bourgeois animals that I have working there! Those androgynous creatures who are trying to figure out which way is in, no less up!” He takes a sip of wine, a toast to himself. “Nonetheless, I have to go.”