Donna Tartt - BenningtonAt Bennington she met other apprentice authors: Jonathen Lethem, Jill Eisenstadt, Bret Easton Ellis. She blind-dated the latter after the pair swapped manuscripts: a chunk of The Secret History from her, the first chapter of Less then Zero from him. This outlandish clique adhered to a charismatic Greek tutor, Claude Fredericks — a more harmless form of the devotion to the scholarly Svengali, Julian Morrow, that leads to hysteria and homicide in the novel.
It wasn't really surprising that people drew the conclusion that much of The Secret History echoed some truth: it is set at Hampden college, a small, elite, artsy place in Vermont - Tartt went to Bennington, a small, elite, artsy place in Vermont. She had a tutor who, like Julian Morrow in The Secret History, was eccentric and elitist. She was a member of a high-minded, Greek-quoting clique. Her classmate was novelist Bret Easton Ellis, who wrote in The Rules Of Attraction about "that weird Classics group... probably roaming the countryside sacrificing farmers and performing pagan rituals," precisely echoing (or, more likely, parodying) Tartt's first novel. There doesn't have to be a murder in real life for the novel to say something about the author; novels are not just feats of technicality, like mending a car, they are works of art, which come from the mind and soul and energy of their authors. Why wouldn't they be influenced by the author's experiences? That is not the same as saying they are the whole truth or the full story.
"She was sort of a star early on - she was a big influence on me," says the novelist Jill Eisenstadt. "There was a lot of awful writing at Bennington, but Donna's stories were very sophisticated, very mysterious, very structurally sound. She was the only person I knew who'd studied Greek and Latin, who'd read all of Proust."
Then, as now, the story centered on a small group of over refined classic students; only then no one had any doubts about the book's sources. Early on at Bennington, Tartt had fallen in with a small clique of literature students that clustered around Claude Fredericks, a brilliant but odd teacher who admitted few people to his classes. "I wanted to take Greek from him, but he turned me down," Jill Eisenstadt says, raising an eerie echo of The Secret History. "I always thought if you wanted to take Greek, why should anyone turn you down? I don't think he liked women."
Like Fredericks, the group was exceeding well-tailored - a startling eccentricity at Bennington, where even the children of the super-rich wore the rattiest jeans and T-shirts. Tartt was the only female in the group. Soon her friends noticed she'd exchanged skirts and dresses for trousers, and begun getting her hair cut boy-style. She also developed an intense friendship with Paul McGloin - a tall, thin, pale upperclassman with a dry, sarcastic wit, a dazzling facility for languages, and a partiality for dark suits, who reminded one classmate of a quieter William S. Burroughs.
The group kept very much to themselves. An encyclopedia entry about Bennington notes, "A close relationship between students and faculty is encouraged." Some would say this understates the case. The school has always had a hothouse atmosphere, and tutorials are the rule. "Cliques grow up around certain teachers, and the mentor relationships get very intense," an alumnus says. "Very intense. There was definitely an air of Svengali about Fredericks - it seemed to go beyond even what was normal for Bennington."
No one is suggesting human sacrifices took place. But friends noticed the changes in Tartt - who was a wonderful storyteller, but famously closemouthed when it came to her own life - and wondered whether the novel was somehow a key.
"And you couldn't say anything about Claude Fredericks in front of her," Ellis adds. "It'd be the end of the evening."
Ellis, who took one course with Fredericks and failed, paid an esoteric tribute both to the strange coterie and Tartt's nascent novel in The Rules of Attraction, referring en passant, to "that weird group of Classics majors stand[ing] by [at a party], looking like undertakers," and "that weird Classics group . . . probably roaming the countryside sacrificing farmers and performing pagan rituals." How far was his tongue in cheek? It's always hard to tell with Ellis.
As for Tartt's relationship with McGloin, "I never did get a handle on it - it didn't seem right to ask," says a friend. "They were very, very private people. The kind of people who would invite you into the drawing room, but never upstairs."
The Secret History is co-dedicated to Bret Ellis and to Paul McGloin, "muse and Maecenas . . . the dearest friend I can ever hope to have in this world." Some say that Tartt and McGloin shared lodgings, in Boston and New York, after her graduation from Bennington, and that he supported her while she finished her book. "After I graduated from college, I lived with a friend who didn't make me pay rent" is all she will say. "My mother was helpful. I was in Boston, then I was in New York. I worked at a bookstore called the Avenue Victor Hugo for three months, in Boston. Then in New York I worked as an assistant to a painting teacher at Parson. I was the monitor, and I helped him in his classes."
Was the accommodating friend McGloin, who went to Harvard Law School after graduating from Bennington, and who is now a member of a Manhattan law firm? She won't tell. The one thing she allows is "Paul was very good on sloughs of despond." Of which there appear to have been several. Even though Tartt's preternaturally graceful writing style seems to have been with her almost from the beginning, there were times when the structural challenges - not to mention the demands on her energy - of constructing such a huge novel almost defeated her. "There were nights I thought, I've just wasted my life," she says.