Alumni Stories: Beyond The Secret History

By Ellery Schiller '21

 "Claude Fredericks with Mustache," 1951.  Source: WUSTL. 

"Claude Fredericks with Mustache," 1951.  Source: WUSTL. 

I am the child of a Bennington alum. My mother loves to tell stories about her time here, but more importantly, to complain about everything that has changed. This is a place for those stories about old Bennington life and people as told by the alumni.

My mother came up for Parents’ Weekend despite my protests and spent time reminiscing with a few other alumni parents who were up. We went to the comedy night together and a few acts in she pointed to Nick Hennessy “holding himself in kind of a New York manner” and said, “See, right there, he could’ve been a Claude’s Boy.” Then again she pointed one out, a guy far more poised than anyone else on the stage, at a Bennington Works event.

Who were these Claude’s Boys?

“They were, in the ‘80s, often gay,” Shosh Schiller ‘83 started out. “They dressed very precisely, bow ties, nice jackets. It’s an Oscar Wilde-ness. Claude’s Boys were preppies which was the ‘80s version of being a hipster.”

“You had to wear black. You always had to wear a suit jacket, and dark glasses, and be unhappy,” Alice, also class of ‘83 remembers. She took a class with Claude every term but didn’t consider herself a Claude’s Boy. “They were intellectual elitists and they had that intellectual way of speaking that some people are temperamentally born to do and I wasn't born to do that.” Alice thought a little more and added, “And they were heavy drinkers, even by Booth standards.” This was Booth’s pre-possum party days.

Claude Fredericks taught at Bennington from 1961 to 1993. Not only a literature professor, but a playwright and poet, he specialized in Latin and Greek. Claude taught only pieces of literature that he loved and felt highly connected to. Everything was discussion, never lecture. Each person’s opinion was given weight and validity, yet Claude had a gentle guiding hand to get everyone to where he wanted to go. “He wrote long, encouraging, in-depth comments on every paper,” Alice remembers. “Not just about what you did write, but what you could’ve written and all the different paths that piece of writing could take.”

Shosh took only one class with Claude, but it was enough.

“He made you feel… Well, he made you feel.” Shosh paused to stare at her Madison Brewery sandwich, thinking. “The one thing I remember, I think it might have been a class on the Odyssey I took with him. He had the ability to make you acknowledge that what you were reading was really, really old. It wasn’t just 18th century America old, this was OLD and important. Yet Claude also made it very modern.”

Alice looked around the Bingham common room, at the worn couches and dirty mirror. “He taught in the living rooms like this. I took classes in Welling and Franklin. Never in a classroom.” Alice also took an Odyssey class with Claude. “He read us the original Greek so we could understand the poetry. Then we would read a more literal English translation and a more poetic one. But hearing him read, it just felt really special.”

Claude functioned like a mysterious and wise entity. While every other literature and language professor had an office in the barn, his was in a secluded upstairs area of Commons. “The stairs to the floor where his office was, were impossibly hard to find.” Shosh paused, “And… there was a feeling when you went up the stairs. It felt special.” Claude maintained his aloofness up there, all alone.  It added to the “Claude dynamic.” This was certainly something Tartt remembered, in her book, The Secret History, spending paragraphs on Richard’s walk up to Julian Morrow.

“We did lots of writing in his classes,” Alice remembered. “And Claude’s Boys took their writing very seriously. Bret Ellis used to write these thinly veiled stories about people on campus and their worst qualities coming out. Those stories would always circulate around campus too. Someone would always get ahold of them and spread it. But he was a good writer. They were all good writers.”

At the end of our lunch, Shosh complained about how she really wasn’t a good enough storyteller for this, but that I should pursue this story “because, to be honest, I really do think Claude deserves to be written about.”

Maybe she forgot that Donna Tartt wrote a whole book about him?