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Did a Podcast About Donna Tartt Go Too Far?

“Once Upon a Time … at Bennington College” digs into the college years of novelists Donna Tartt, Jonathan Lethem, and Bret Easton Ellis. Do its revelations have any literary value?

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
The author Donna Tartt

In the mid-1980s, life at America’s most expensive undergraduate institution simply ruled. This was my key takeaway from Once Upon a Time … at Bennington College, Lili Anolik’s new podcast about the college years of Donna Tartt, Jonathan Lethem, and Bret Easton Ellis—all members of Bennington’s class of ’86. On an idyllic campus in rural Vermont, Bennington was a place with no grades, a charismatic faculty, and a small student body obsessed with outdoing each other at being cool and arty. As Ellis puts it on the show, “In retrospect, it’s like—why were you so fucking miserable? It was awesome.”

The show, which is seven episodes deep so far, continues Anolik’s 2019 piece for Esquire,The Secret Oral History of Bennington: The 1980s’ Most Decadent College.” In that article, she mingled picturesque details of her subjects’ lives—Ellis bringing a suitcase of drugs to college—with an argument for these writers’ significance in American literary history, comparing them to the Lost Generation but with “berets swapped for sunglasses.” Lethem, Ellis, and Tartt are certainly each prominent Gen X authors, as far as that term has any utility: That they went to college together, painted psychological portraits of their own generation in their early novels, and were, to varying degrees, all friends, does seem important for the literary historians of the future to know.

The story became spicier last week, when Page Six picked up the news that Tartt’s literary agents had written to Apple to request the podcast’s removal, and her lawyer had cautioned the podcast’s creators against airing any “false, misleading, or otherwise inaccurate statements” on the show or using, as Page Six put it, “any of Tartt’s published works without permission, or any of her private school records.” (At the time of writing, the podcast is still up on iTunes.) The show uses clips from the audiobook of Tartt’s novel The Secret History, but more provocatively includes some innuendo about her sex life as an undergraduate that is both difficult to interpret and vaguely titillating. “All I know is that Donna gave a polite decline when asked to participate in the podcast,” Anolik told Page Six. “Then my producer started hearing from her lawyer and from her publisher’s lawyers.”

As a literary news story, this one is befuddling, combining a pretty original analysis of an important author’s work with speculations that tread the boundary between biographical research and intrusion. Complicating matters is the fact that Tartt’s massively successful debut novel, The Secret History, itself contained portraits of contemporaries at Bennington that the people she drew inspiration from found affronting.

The experience of unexpectedly seeing one’s life served up as entertainment is frequently a disturbing one: Alexis Nowicki wrote in July of the disorienting realization that Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story “Cat Person” drew on details of a romantic relationship she had in college; Bob Kolker last week asked “Who is the Bad Art Friend?” when one writer uses another’s kidney donation as a prompt. Amid an inflamed debate over ethical conflicts between fiction writers and the people who pop up in their works, Once Upon a Time … at Bennington College appears to address a curiously relevant set of unresolved questions over who owns what, when a group of people share the same memories, and who has the right to profit by them. 

What was in the water at Bennington in this period? Anolik’s Esquire piece uses excerpts from various novels and essays, as well as original interviews she conducted with former students and faculty, to pursue that question. Much of the podcast is made out of the same stuff, only, of course, using the real audio. “I’ve written criticism and biography in print-journalism form for Vanity Fair, Harper’s, etc., and in book form for Scribner. To me, this podcast is that same combination in audio form,” Anolik wrote in a statement to The New Republic. “I felt the voices of the Bennington people were so smart, so singular, so bursting with vitality that they should be presented in as pure a way as possible.”

The podcast includes interviews with Ellis and Lethem themselves, as well as such luminaries as Morgan Entrekin (who published Ellis’s debut novel, Less Than Zero), and ex-The Fall guitarist Brix Smith, who describes a sense of specialness on campus that came from how cut off it was from the outside world and how eagerly its student body were in search of their identities.

Many of the show’s most charming anecdotes, like writer and editor Paula Powers’s story about Tartt receiving her at “a martini hour in her dorm,” “wearing a black brocade skirt-suit and high heels and smoking from a long, slender cigarette holder,” have been knocking around since the Esquire piece came out. Others, however, are fresh. Last week’s show, titled “Mississippi Chippy” for a slightly mean nickname one source gave Tartt, told the following story.

Several old college peers recall Tartt dating a slightly older student named Paul McGloin, one of the many Bennington denizens of this era who affected a faux-Oxonian style. “All of a sudden Donna became a small version of Paul,” dressing in “a blue blazer, a club tie, khakis … hair in this funky asexual bob,” another friend, Todd O’Neal, recalls, describing a style that remains Tartt’s signature. A source identified as Student X then weighs in to say that “people were saying these weird things about her … she somehow liked to have sex like a young boy, I don’t know what that means.” She wrote in her diary at the time that Tartt was a “girl who looks like a little boy, whose sexuality seems to be that she wants to be treated like a homosexual man.”

Page Six found these details scandalous enough to describe “an allegedly gender-bending relationship with her male muse,” but it’s hard to know what to make of these comments. There is no such thing as having sex “like a young boy,” nor is it clear what Student X means by “treated like a gay man.” It’s their very vagueness that makes these claims sound suspiciously like speculation by some person who didn’t get whatever was going on. But Anolik pursues the trail, describing a letter to Jonathan Lethem from Tartt, dated January 24, 1983, in which, she says, Tartt recalls a museum guard at a gallery muttering “More faggots” as she and Paul walked into the room. She was “dressed in pants and a loose sweater,” Anolik notes, and the interlude “pleased Paul no end.” Anolik interprets the Tartt-McGloin romance as a “fantasy, mutual, or so it would seem … that they are two boys in a romantic and sexual relationship,” suggesting that they were a “straight couple that perhaps gets a little jolt out of masquerading as a gay couple.”

At the time at Bennington, there was a notable association between avant-gardism, gay men, and particular styles of dressing that had a lot to do with the success of the television series of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited, which aired on PBS in 1982 and also explains a lot of the particular cultural motifs that flow through The Secret History. In the Brideshead series, as in the novel, Anolik explains, protagonist Charles Ryder is captivated by the aristocratic Flyte family, whose son, Lord Sebastian Flyte, he befriends and ultimately falls in love with at Oxford. Struck by this vision of campus life, men all over the Bennington campus—but a group of students, particularly students of Greek, McGloin included—began dressing in an approximation of Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in the series, with long scarves and flannel trousers. “We always wanted to establish our identities,” Todd O’Neal recalls, “not as Greek students, but that we were there in search of a certain education, or a certain type of experience we wanted,” and it required a certain type of trousers. 

Anolik sees the influence of Evelyn Waugh as unlocking some hitherto unarticulated aspect of Donna Tartt’s art. “Costuming is a romantic way of giving shape to something previously inchoate inside you,” Anolik says, quoting Mary Gaitskill. Anolik told Page Six that her intention in the podcast was to show that “Donna Tartt wrote the American version of Brideshead Revisited, i.e., The Secret History, because she was living the American version of Brideshead Revisited.” In Tartt’s novel, a young man named Richard Papen goes off to college and falls under the spell of a glamorous group of Greek students, all more sophisticated than he—a tight group he joins before it ultimately dissolves amid acts of violence. Although the plot is very different  from Brideshead’s, both novels are narrated much later by the older, jaded version of the naïve young man at the heart of its story. Both novels engage with the ways that ostensibly academic conversations, like the riverside chats that stud Brideshead or the Greek classes with Julian in The Secret History, can hold erotic subtexts whose meaning might elude the unenlightened eavesdropper.

The gay Classics teacher in Tartt’s own life, we learn on Once Upon a Time … at Bennington College, was Claude Fredericks, an immensely charismatic teacher who, like Julian, fostered a small group of favorite students in their study of ancient Greek. College friend Todd O’Neal, who describes himself as the model for the character of Henry in the book (“Henry’s apartment was like my apartment. His eye problems, the chip in his tooth. I smoked Lucky Strikes. I wore suspenders and glasses”), said in the Esquire piece that “Claude considered [The Secret History] a betrayal—not a personal betrayal so much as a betrayal of his teachings. He wouldn’t talk to Donna for years.” O’Neal sees the novel as “a work of thinly veiled reality—a roman à clef.”

What does it mean to observe that an author drew upon this or that aspect of their real life in order to create a fictional work? The Secret History is an absolute tissue of references, to an extent that indicates identity crisis and helps provide the sense of hollowness, as in an unusually resonant knock on the wall, at the heart of the narrator, Richard Papen. Brideshead is just one of the literary works that flow through The Secret History, along with a range of ancient Greek dramas, Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Why so pale and wan fond lover?” by Sir John Suckling, and several nineteenth-century novels, including Vanity Fair and Our Mutual Friend. Richard, the narrator, is a man in search of a self, at many points in the story, and his compulsive allusiveness suggests that he has a problem with his relationships with both people and reality long before the story does.

A work of fiction and a work of reporting are two very different things. Tartt’s novels may have drawn inspiration from real people and experiences, but The Secret History is a work of fiction about characters that Tartt has imagined. Once Upon a Time … at Bennington College makes a different set of claims: The podcast reports on real people and discusses intimate details of their lives, including people who, like Tartt, chose not to talk.

Tartt has closely guarded her privacy over the years, eschewing lectures, interviews, festival appearances. In a rare interview Tartt gave to the Irish Independent in 2013, she said that publicity activities are for her “just distracting. It’s better for me to be at home and getting on with my work than standing up and talking about a book.… I’d go mad if I had to go on a book tour every two years. I’d go completely berserk. I can just about handle it once every decade.” The podcast’s forays into the romantic and sexual history of such a publicity-shy author can feel like an intrusion, an exploration of a part of her life that she has not offered for public consumption. Paul McGloin, meanwhile, has no reputation for being reclusive since he is not a famous author and has not sought to live his life in public. 

In this case, the intrusion may have plenty of curiosity value, but what does it really reveal about Donna Tartt’s writing? In The Secret History, Tartt gives us everything we need, in terms of character dimensionality, plot development, and literary allusion, to understand how queerness and identity crises and gender themes and echoes of Evelyn Waugh are being woven into the story. To insist that reality has something to say on this issue is to suggest that the novel is incomplete, and spackles a layer of historical fact over its ambiguities.

Once Upon a Time … at Bennington College has changed the way I’ll read the novel forever, but only to the extent that I will now be unable to remove Bret Easton Ellis from my mental picture of Hampden’s campus, a person whose loud, self-regarding voice Tartt only allowed into the book on her own very specific terms. “​​For Bret Easton Ellis,” The Secret History’s dedication page reads, “whose generosity will never cease to warm my heart; and for Paul Edward McGloin, muse and Maecenas, who is the dearest friend I will ever have in this world.” Ultimately, the podcast narrows, rather than opens up, the possibilities for interpreting those words’ relation to the novel that follows them.