In history, it seems, for every gain there is a corresponding loss, and in this age of egalitarianism, equal opportunity, and diversity, we have consigned to oblivion a slice of our past: the golden era of once aristocratic New England boarding schools– and the aristocratic (or near aristocratic) headmasters who guided them and shaped generations of statesmen, titans of industry, and crack polo players.

     There was Frank Boyden (1879-1972) of Deerfield, the American Dr. Arnold, who was said to never have given up on a boy, and his counterpart at Hotchkiss, George Van Santvoord (1891-1975),  whose distinguished bearing earned him the nickname the Duke. Van Santvoord, and his predecessor who was known as the King, claimed that at Hotchkiss there was only one rule for students to follow: Be a gentleman. Unfortunately, the ingenuity of the adolescent mind made practical application of this dictum difficult, and the Duke established an Excuse Office under the guidance of a subaltern to deal with its interpretation, while he devoted himself to his favorite pastimes,  “re-reading Mr. Gibbon” and painting well-composed watercolors in the attic of his fourteen room house.

     They were a grand group in a grand age–an age of starched white collars and boys who dressed for dinner that was swept away by two world wars and the upheavals of social change.  Of all the elite, one stood out among the rest: Endicott Peabody (1857-1944) of Groton. Fair, athletic, pious, and-- more importantly–a Peabody of Massachusetts, he was descended from a Bay Colony governor and was  the son of an American born banker, S. Endicott Peabody, who became a partner of Junius Morgan in the latter’s London office. In fact, it was a distant relative named Peabody who had made a fortune in dry goods and had actually founded the bank that became the House of Morgan.

Louis at Groton (right)

     As a lad, then an adult, Endicott was called Cotty by his intimates, though never by generations of Groton boys who addressed him as the Rector: often, one imagines, in a trembling tone when summoned to the headmaster’s office for some infraction. According to Geoffrey Ward, a biographer of Franklin Roosevelt, a Groton alumnus, the Rector’s customary greeting in such circumstances was, “Are you looking for trouble, boy? Well, here I am. (Emphasis in original) (Before the Trumpet, Geoffrey C. Ward, Harper & Row, 1985) Years later when the Rector visited his former student at the White House, Roosevelt supposedly turned to an associate after Peabody  had left the Oval Office and said, “You know, I’m still scared  of him.”

     Young Endicott received his preparatory education at Cheltenham, a good English public school,  then went to Cambridge where he read law. At Cambridge, Peabody forsook the simple Unitarianism of his forbears and joined the Anglican Church, attracted by the richness of its liturgy and tradition. In matters of Faith, there was the Word and the Word was the Way. At Groton there would be early morning chapel and evening vespers– and no room for skepticism from inquiring young minds.

      Every great headmaster, it appears, needed a romantic interlude in his life to burnish the legend among his students and admirers.  For Hotchkiss’s great Duke, it was volunteering as an  ambulance driver  in World War I, fresh out of Oxford, then serving as a non-commissioned officer at the front where he was seriously wounded and awarded the Croix de Guerre.

     Endicott Peabody’s sojourn in the world was wonderfully quixotic. After a stint in banking, he entered an Episcopal seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before receiving his Doctor of Divinity  degree, he headed out West in 1882 to Tombstone, in Arizona Territory. According to legend, Peabody bounced into town on the top of a stagecoach.  He arrived just after the famous gunfight  at the O.K. Corral in which the Earp brothers faced down the Clantons, but  became friends with Wyatt Earp during his stay. The townsfolk liked the young missionary who never drank but who boldly took up collections  in the local saloon for the church he built them.

     Peabody returned East to finish his degree, then devoted himself to starting a school, which had become his dream. Thanks to a gift from J. Pierpont Morgan, Junius’s son,  Peabody purchased ninety acres of farmland in the village of Groton, some thirty-five miles from Boston. According to sociologist Christopher Armstrong, late nineteenth and early twentieth century fathers shipped their sons off to New England boarding schools to keep them from overly doting mothers and their feminine influence.  Before the first building was completed, Groton had a waiting list filled with names like Roosevelt and Alsop and other scions of American grandees. In 1885, after the first school year ended,  Peabody married his first cousin, Fanny, a warm and charming lady whose weekly teas were  fondly remembered by legions of Groton boys.

     Under Peabody, life at Groton was otherwise spartan. There were icy morning showers and a vigorous sports program. Boys lived in small cubicles that lined their dormitory and hung their clothes on wooden pegs. The Rector frowned on privacy; it  fostered  some of the vices prevalent in English public schools.   “The curse of American school life is loafing,” Geoffrey Ward quoted the Rector as saying.  “The tone of loafers is always low...The best thing for a boy is to work play hard...that is the healthy and good way for a boy to live.”

     Groton “was everything” to the Rector, Louis Auchincloss later wrote. “The school was sacred...Like Napoleon, he never really delegated. He did everything himself and his staff  from the senior master to the humblest kitchen maid merely helped him in his great task.” That task was to mold  “ perfect Christian gentlemen,” according to  Peabody’s  grandson, Harry Sedgwich.

     It was considered bad form to show off one’s knowledge or appear overly intellectual.  In his autobiography, the late political columnist Joseph Alsop recalled his first day at Groton.  The writer’s mother was a friend of the Peabodys. When she boasted to the Rector of her son’s “bookishness,” Peabody replied with a smile, “That’s all right, Corinne, we’ll soon knock that out of him.” Young Alsop wasn’t sure if the Rector was serious, but was smart enough to hide his budding intellectual curiosity during his time at Groton. (Joseph Alsop with Adam Platt, I’ve Seen the Best of It, W.W. Norton & Company, 1992)

      Old “Grotties” revered or hated the Rector--and sometimes did both. As a student, Franklin Roosevelt had complained to his parents about the Rector’s “tyrannical way,” but in his 1945 Inaugural Address,  the President  recalled  Peabody’s optimistic belief in the future. “The  great fact to remember,” Roosevelt quoted his “old schoolmaster” as saying “is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward....”

     As a matter of  principle  Endicott  Peabody did not favor the sons of the very rich. In fact, in the early 1900s each Groton student was limited to  a twenty-five cent allowance which he was allowed to spend on candy and ice cream on  weekly excursions  to the village.

    E. H. Harriman was one of the great railroad magnates of the turn of the last century, known for his bruising takeover battles. When the family visited the Far East in the summer of 1905,  E.H. wrote to the Rector asking if his son, Averell, could report a week late that fall so he could tour the recent battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War. The Rector cabled Harriman that if Averell could not appear the same day as the other fifth formers,  he need not return to Groton. The future diplomat and New York governor was “furious and heartbroken” but showed up on time. (Rudy Abramson, Spanning the Century: The Life of Averell Harriman, William Morrow and Company, 1992)

     Yet, as Louis Auchincloss later surmised,   the Rector “knew in his heart that half of the Groton family paid only lip service to his ideals” and that it was the lure of “Mammon” and not Christian virtues that “dominated his graduates.”

     Until his reign ended with his retirement in 1940,  the Rector saw many of his former students become Wall Street bankers or,  like Louis Auchincloss, lawyers in “white shoe” firms. Born in New York City in 1918, Auchincloss was the son of a Wall Street lawyer who had gone to Groton where he had held the Rector “in deep reverence.” The family was a distinguished one, but had no fortune attached to it.  “[E]ach generation of Auchincloss men either made or married its own money,” as the author noted in his memoir of Groton and his early career. (A Writer’s Capital, University of Minnesota Press, 1974)     

     Auchincloss began his career as a divorce and probate lawyer at Sullivan & Cormwell, then  practiced at a smaller firm so he could write, an interest he had cultivated after reading Henry James in college and then coming across the elegant opinions of Benjamin Cardozo in law school.

       The writer’s  parents “loved people and were popular.” Early on,  Louis was exposed “to the worlds of politics, arts and letters.” Among his family’s friends was Learned Hand, an erudite federal judge, whom Auchincloss later claimed was a model for Francis Prescott, the rector of the fictitious academy Justin Martyr, though most readers assumed the stern character was based on  Endicott Peabody.  The author’s disclaimer may have been to placate Peabody admirers, like the author’s own father, who objected to any depiction of the Rector as a mere mortal. (Even today, Groton’s Communications Director insists  that Francis Prescott was inspired by Judge Hand and  that “the school was, according to Auchincloss,  a composite of several early boarding schools.”)

        Another visitor to the Auchincloss home was John W. Davis of  Davis Polk where Auchincloss, Sr. was a partner.  It  was Davis who counseled  J.P. Morgan and Company in avoiding prosecution  during the Richard Whitney scandal that rocked Wall Street in the 1930s. A legendary trader and brother of a senior Morgan partner, Whitney was a charming rogue who embezzled money from his yacht club and consorted with bootleggers despite his Groton pedigree. When Whitney’s brother covered up for his crimes, the House of Morgan was brought to the brink of disaster.  Whitney pleaded guilty to avoid a scandalous trial and went to prison where he was dutifully visited by Rector Peabody.

       Auchincloss was to base The Embezzler on this tale of old school and family loyalty. The novel,  which “irritated” some members of his parent’s set,  was a  richly layered  study of old  New York with its snobbishness and aversion to outsiders. It was a world in which even  the Vanderbilts were considered new money.  “One cares who people are,” says a spoiled heiress in the novel, while her father keeps unsuitable suitors away by spiriting her off in the family’s steam yacht.

      At Groton which he entered at the age of twelve, Auchincloss learned the mores of the American aristocracy. In 1929, the school was a closed society. There were no Jewish students and only a few Catholics, though none from ethnic backgrounds. In A Writer’s Capital, the author  wrote of the Rector: “I believe that he thought one was more apt to find a “gentleman” in the best sense of that dangerous word  among upper middle-class Bostonians than any Irish or Italian immigrant, but he would have been unusual in his generation had he not.”

      His first  few months at school,  Auchincloss was exposed to the fierceness of clan loyalty. He and two other students were involved in a schoolboy prank, tossing stones at a passing train. When the engineer complained, the Rector inquired into the misdeed. Auchincloss quickly confessed and innocently implicated his cohorts. He was labeled a “snitch” and ostracized for months for his honesty.

      The  future novelist’s life  brightened  after he fell under the influence of an English teacher named Malcolm Strachan. Strachan was one of those remarkable individuals (like Armstrong of Kent, Torrey of Hotchkiss)  for whom teaching is a great adventure. He would mimeograph a poem but leave off the date and author’s name, so that class discussion of the work would be open and “free of other judgments.”

      Strachan “loved” the Rector and shared his deep faith. After Peabody retired, he continued to live in a house on the Groton campus; the younger man became his confident. Peabody told him that which he told nobody else, Auchincloss later wrote, about a world which had disillusioned him and his disappointment “that he had failed to persuade his boys to receive Christ.”

      After he graduated, Auchincloss kept in touch with his mentor. Over the years, Strachan would sometimes “discuss a novel that he was vaguely planning to write” about the Rector and the subtlety and complexity of his theology. But Strachan was not by nature a writer; he abandoned the idea before his premature death of a heart ailment. Auchincloss had told him that he would do the book himself, and “ultimately, I did, or my idea of it,” the author noted.


      The Rector of Justin is set  in the 1940s.  As the war rages in Europe,  and the old order crumbles, a legendary headmaster named Francis Prescott, suddenly announces his retirement. His accomplishments and failures are seen through the eyes of different characters, including a young  master, Brian Aspinwall, whom the novelist  modeled on Malcolm Strachan. The teacher leaves the school to study for the Episcopal ministry, then rejoins the faculty, as Strachan actually did.

      To effectively dramatize the story, Auchincloss drew the Rector and his disciple as opposites: Prescott was “bullying and rough,” the young teacher reserved and timid. The common denominator that cemented their relationship was their faith. “It would be a solitary lantern on a dark plain of worldly things,” Auchincloss explained in A Writer’s Capital, “but it would still be strong enough to confer a distinction which the plain would never have enjoyed without it.”

       When The Rector of Justin was published in 1964, it received a warm critical reception. Strachan’s admirers, however, were as displeased as those of the Rector’s. They felt the teacher had been portrayed as weaker and less attractive that he was.

       Those were the risks of the novelist’s trade, Auchincloss recalled in the 1970s, but he was “still sure in my heart that Malcolm would have approved.”  As for the great Rector, even today, one can only conjecture what he would have thought of Francis Prescott of Justin Martyr.

       Louis Auchincloss died on January 26, 2010, at 92, in New York City. At the time of his death, he was acknowledged as the dean of American letters; among his many books is a biography of Edith Wharton. Here, in an exclusive interview with American Legends conducted by telephone shortly before his death, Louis Auchincloss recalls the Rector of Groton, and related subjects.

The Duke

AL: How was The Rector of Justin received by Groton alumni?


LA: A lot of them didn’t like it. I was very much criticized. They thought it was a portrait of Endicott Peabody. People who read fiction are fools. They assume writers have no imagination. As I’ve  written elsewhere (A Writer’s Life), I was trying to paint a portrait of a headmaster of a New England boarding school who would be characteristic of the great generation that Peabody was a part of. I read a number of privately printed biographies about them. Thayer of St. Marks. Drury of St. Paul’s. It was dreary reading.



How long did it take you to write the novel?



It was so long ago. But  I’ve  written sixty books in as many years, so it  took  about one year. I write on a typewriter, like the one I have in front of me.


AL: What was your impression of Endicott Peabody?

LA: He was a man of deep faith. But he was summed up by Stewart Alsop whose brother John was in my  form: “The Rector was a great man. He was also a bit of a shit.”



In The Rector of Justin, there is a scene where a boy who is thrown out for cheating, refers to the school as “a dump.” What was your impression of Groton?



My  first two years there I  was miserable. Then, I was all right. In my day, they  were  not interested in making boys happy. Those schools were made for the types of men who would become quite successful. It was brutal. They are not brutal today. They are country clubs today.



The late Joseph Alsop wrote about the ascendency and decline of WASP culture.



There is  more nonsense written about WASPS today.  I am tired of the whole subject. I never heard the term WASP when I was growing up. We just thought of them as people. I find that word  annoying.  I don’t know where it  came from. I prefer the term Protestant if you must use one.   


AL: Alsop believed that Protestants did not control American society, as they had in the past.


Everyone thinks they are weaker today. It  is a lot of crap. Those old families still go on. They have their banks and clubs. They are still running those things they ran. They have everything they had before. What happened to them is that they lost their monopoly. The point is everyone has moved up. There is still plenty to share. Most of my friends today are richer than they were, though not as rich as some other groups.


AL: Today many New England boarding schools supposedly look for diversity in their student bodies. What was Groton like in the 1930s?



It  was solidly supported by New York and Boston families. In my form there were as many students from New York as from Boston and Philadelphia. There were a hell of a lot of poor boys, families that were suddenly busted in the Depression. There was not one Jew, not one. Today of course there are plenty of them. Groton is even more successful today. There is a large waiting list. I sent two sons there.



In The Embezzler, you touch on the anti-Semitism of Wall Street financiers.



When I was a boy, I was very conscious of anti-Semitism. I did not approve of it. They could not get into certain clubs and had one of their own, the Harmonie Club. Our Crowd was written about them. They were wonderful people and much richer than we were. Today, some non-Jews complain the Harmonie Club will not let them in. I tell my Jewish friends they want it both ways: They don’t want to be discriminated against but want to discriminate against others.


AL: Robert McCormack, the newspaper publisher, who attended Groton under the Rector but did not graduate, complained that the course of study was too narrow.



No. I don’t think so. Latin was compulsory. Greek was not. Groton in my day was good for its time. I had close friends there. Among the twenty-seven boys in my form, you could not find a better group. We had diplomats, an assistant Secretary of State, eminent doctors and lawyers, even a Benedictine monk. There was not a failure among them. Not one.


AL: You have written about both Edith Wharton and Henry James. Can you describe their influence on you?


LA: I have first editions of Edith Wharton around me as I write. I gave a hundred of her letters that I collected over the years to Yale. Her prose is as lucid and polished as any in American fiction. I admire James enormously. There is not a word of his I haven’t read. He is the great American writer of all time.


AL: Readers today, especially young people, don’t seem to admire Henry James.


LA: I don’t give a damn what people think.


(Additional background information was obtained from: Ron Chernow, The House of Morgan, Touchstone ed., 1991; Time, “Victorian Headmaster,” Oct. 30, 1944, online archives; Wikipedia, “Endicott Peabody (educator),” retrieved Dec. 2009)


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