In the fall of 1950 I began the 9th grade at Webb School on Baseline Road in Claremont, California. That year I enjoyed learning English and Algebra, but my favorite class was the one in Ancient History taught by Ramsey Harris, who came originally from Rangoon in Burma and used to regale us with tales of his childhood and youth there.
Besides reading Classic Comics, I enjoyed reading historical novels like The Egyptian by Mica Waltari and Mary Renault’s novels about Alexander the Great and the lives of people in Greece and Rome. I also enjoyed reading Plutarch’s Lives and the Stoic Meditations of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
I have always had a huge appetite for knowledge and usually read several books at a time. I’ve done that all my life. Whereas my father and my grandfather were into accumulating material wealth, early on in my life I was impressed with the biblical teaching which my mother reinforced in me that we shouldn’t be attached to the accumulation of material wealth but rather should seek to store up the wealth of knowledge and greater understanding of ourselves and of others in our world. I found that reading novels inspired me and enabled me to go beyond my personal youthful experience.
My first Virgilian Guide to books of all kinds was Mr. Lloyd Harkema, a clerk at the Pickwick Bookshop on Hollywood Blvd. next door to the famous Hollywood restaurant Musso-Franks. I don’t recall how old I was when Lloyd first took me under his wing and became my guided mentor in the magical world of books. Perhaps 12 or 14. After that, besides my teachers at Webb, the main voice I listened to about books—and whose reading advice I took faithfully for years—was that of Lloyd Harkema. Lloyd continued to guide my reading throughout my high school years, but sadly, before I left for my Freshman year at Duke in the fall of 1954, Lloyd said farewell to me, assuring me that I would soon meet people better equipped than he was to guide me further. He had taken me as far as he could.
At the end of my freshman year at Webb, in June of 1951, when I was 15, I traveled to Europe with my parents for the first time. My mother was already in Europe when my father and I left. We sailed from New York on the Liberté, a luxury liner of the French line. I never had so much food served to me in all my life. Tony had an affair on the ship, as he had done on the train going from LA to New York before we sailed. My father modeled that behavior for me. After I grew up, I, too, became quite a womanizer, and then, later, an unfaithful husband in both of my marriages.
When we arrived at Le Havre my mother was waiting for us with a little English car, a Humber Hawk. We drove through Rouen to Paris. The sky was grey and it rained and rained. The sky reminded me of the skies in some of the authentic French impressionist paintings that hung in our living room at home.
France was more or less as I had imagined it would be. I had mixed feelings about it. I recall the weird smells in our first Paris hotel room, and the strangeness of the old lady who watched us through a veiled glass door as we entered the building where mother had rented a small apt for us. I learned that such women are an institution in France called the conscierge.I recall the smell of French coffee and pain au chocolat. In the mornings I had hot chocolate rich with fresh milk and hot croissants. Like a puppy I explored the unfamiliar sights and smells in the neighborhood. I was fascinated with Notre Dame I and particularly liked the Sainte Chapelle.
My mother had acquired an escort, Gerard, and his attractive wife (or mistress) Paulette. I developed a crush on her right away and proposed dancing with her despite the fact that she smelled strongly of garlic. Her full breasts bulged out of her low cut black chiffon dress. Her musky smell aroused me; so I got an erection while dancing with her. I fantasied all the ways that I might make love to her, but I did not yet know how to seduce a woman, and anyway, she was at least ten years older than me!
I was was wide-eyed with wonder seeing all the naked women I saw at the Follies Bergere to which my parents took me (without being concerned that it might be not be appropriate for a 15 year old innocent adolescent boy). After leaving the follies I wrote to my 14 year old buddy, Pete, back home, that I felt I’d seen “too many nudes” and “I never wanted to see another naked woman again”!
Later, we went on to watch a show in Montmartre in which the proprietor told a shaggy dog story in French that was way over my head. But I was puzzled at the end of his story why he unzipped his trousers and pulled out his penis and waved it around the room, acknowledging the applause he received. (Afterwards I when I asked my father to explain the joke I learned that it wasn’t really his penis he’d pulled out of his trousers, but a condom–which puzzled me even more, as I’d never heard of–or seen–such a strange thing before!)
I recall another amusing incident in Paris when I accompanied my parents to the bar at the Ritz Hotel. I ordered a Coke and Bisquit, anticipating getting a coke and cookies. But that did’t happen; instead the barman served me coke with brandy in it. I felt betrayed and spit out the coke in disgust and made a scene, not realizing that “biscuit” means not only a cookie, but a type of brandy as well.
Eventually, we set out to tour France in our little rented English car. We began by driving south to the Loire Chateau country visiting Tours, Poitiers and Chambord which we explored thoroughly for several days before heading south into Provence. When we got to Provence, I was particularly enchanted with Aix en Provence and with Carcasonne, which conformed to my image of medieval France. I had just completed a basic course in medieval history the previous semester at Webb; so now I felt thrilled to actually be able to see a real medieval town complete with towers and encircled by a high stone wall. At Webb I had learned of Simon de Montforte and the Cathars and the Courts of Love of the Troubadours. These tales fascinated me, and I determined to learn more about medieval France someday. I still love medieval towns and medieval art and medieval historical novels.
In June of 1952, at the end of my sophomore year, right after Webb closed for the summer, my parents took me to visit their beautiful Doodlebug Ranch in Sedona, Arizona. We spent a very happy three weeks together there, as we did every summer. I had lots of fun riding horseback and swimming in Oak Creek. I had just learned to swim recently, having been taught to swim by my adopted older brother, Pierre, who had since been drafted into the army and sent back to Germany to work as a translator, since having been born and raised in Germany, he was, after all, bi-lingual.
Speaking of Germans, my social and political education was advanced by a friend of my parents, Dr. Hans Fehling, an émigré German physician who had been a labor rights lawyer in Germany, but was now an osteopathic physician. Hans pointed out to me various flaws and contradictions he saw in our governmental system. He maintained that there were more than a few similarities between corporate America and Nazi Germany, things that I would probably would have never discovered on my own.
Such a comparative political and social perspective came easily to Hans, for he had witnessed every sort of social deviance in post-war Berlin and suffered police brutality himself both in London and in Berlin. Just in the nick of time, in 1939 before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Hans had escaped the the Gestapo, left his Nazi-sympathizing wife, and emigrated all by himself to the USA with no one here to welcome him or vouch for him. Eventually Hans landed in Hollywood, opening his office on Hollywood Blvd., near my home, where he had successfully launched his alternative medicine practice and begun a new life.
In August 1952 I met my neighbor, Nancy Palmer, who lived up our street only a few blocks away from me. Although she lived nearby, somehow I had never met her before. When we finally did meet, we hit it off at once. I had been interested in getting to know more girls since I was twelve, but never before had any young female been the least bit interested in me. I was overjoyed now that at last I had a girlfriend of my own to boast about and to write to when I returned to Webb that September.
I was surprised to find how easily I got along with boys at school who I had actually hated the year before. I was no longer picked on and I found myself included in parties and activities that I had always been left out of before. When the class elections were held, I was elected Secretary of our Class, a job that required a lot of work—-keeping the class meeting minutes. I worked at it diligently all year long devotedly. I took this very seriously, for this was my first elected office.
I remember the commencement exercises at the end of my junior year in June 1953. Dr. Hayward was the speaker and John Kinzer was the valedictorian. When we sang the Webb farewell song at the close of the ceremony, and sang the words in the line ending with “farewell,” they meant something special to me for the first time. I felt that I had reached a new stage in my life and that I was saying goodbye to my childhood forever. I was a young man now!
We returned to L.A. by driving all night to avoid the desert heat. During that summer before I began my junior year, I made friends with some of the neighborhood kids, because we had a swimming pool in our backyard and they liked to swim in it. I was so busy having fun with them that I had little time to myself. In fact, for the first time, I was barely able to finish our required summer reading much less get through all the interesting books I had gotten from Lloyd Harkema at the Pickwick Bookstore.
That June, when I walked down the aisle at commencement, I received three stars to have stitched on the left top pocket of my Webb School Blazer from Dr. Webb himself. To me, each one symbolized a victory over my limitations in the past. I had always dreamed of receiving a star to wear on my school blazer and now I had won not just one, but three! I got my first star for perfect attendance, a victory over my continual sicknesses. The second star was awarded to me because I had maintained a B average all year and thereby had earned the “room privilege” of studying in my room every night, rather than having to sit with all the other less academically successful boys in the Study Hall. Again this was a great victory for me; before that I had been a C student. My last star was, perhaps, the most important of all to me. It signified my appointment to be the Editor-in-Chief of the Blue and Gold, our school newspaper for the following year. More than that, it showed that now I, too, had finally carved out a place for myself among the leaders of the class of 1954, thereby living up to the motto of Webb School: Principes non Homines(Leaders not just ordinary men)
At the end of the 1953 School Commencement ceremonies, when I joined the other boys in singing our school song, which begins with the words—that still rouse and touch my heart— “Calm o’er the campus twilight is falling,” my heart was not calm. Quite the opposite. I was excited and felt proud of myself, as I triumphantly marched down the aisle belting out our song joyously, feeling a deep sense of victory over my previous weaknesses.
During my senior year, I learned to love Ancient Greek History, Greek Mythology, and Comparative Religion in Gordon Wilson’s classroom. There I first discovered my lifelong vocation–to be a bard like Homer, recounting stories of the achievements and adventures of men and women past and present. There I first read and came to love and admire Homer and the heroes of Ancient Greece, and he divine Plato, which resulted eventually in my becoming a lifelong Platonist.
I particularly enjoyed Mr. Wilson’s classes in Mythology and in Comparative Religion. He had pictures of figures from Greek myth on the walls of his classroom. It was with him that I first developed a real interest in the meaning of myths and symbols. I also was fascinated with the stories told in Bullfinch’s Mythology and particularly the stories of adventures and heroic journeys like Homer’s epics. When I got to Webb I had an ambition to read every book in the school library, and I just about did. (It was a small library).
During the summer of 1953 before my senior year began in the fall, I traveled around the East, especially New York and Massachusetts, with my mother getting to know something about the eastern part of United States and visiting colleges to see where I might want to spend the next four years of my life.
The East meant something exotic to me; it was a place where you could find just about anything you wanted, and it had a high intense energy which Southern California lacked. I felt the difference in energy as soon as I arrived there. I felt a sense of freedom. You could be and do just about anything there. It was also a place where literature was created and published. As an aspiring writer, New York was mecca for me.
I lived in Manhattan for two months with my mother in the summer of 1953 at the Essex House Hotel hoping to learn how to write successful plays and stories.
My heroes were Eugene O’Neil and Tennessee Williams. They put their families right out there before your eyes on the stage and I decided early on that I wanted to do that, too. I went to the theater often that summer in New York though I regret now that I can’t remember any of the titles of the plays that I saw. I just adored the theatre and later studies acting and playwriting. New York was very exciting and I like to write in cafes there very much. Being there in such a lively metropolis was good preparation for my moving to Paris which I did in 1958 after I graduated from Georgetown.
I wish now that I had gone to Columbia University like Thomas Merton did. I would’ve enjoyed studying under great humanities profs like Lionell Trilling, Jacques Barzun ,and Gilbert Highet. I might’ve even met Thomas Merton who was studying there then.
I went to the theater a lot in New York, and to libraries, museums and concerts.
Another writer who was popular at that time was Norman Mailer, who I admired for being an outspoken rebel and rabble-rouser.There were also Bohemians in New York whose center of operations was in Greenwich village. I did not know them; I just heard that something exciting was happening there. I also went to museums like the Metropolitan Museum, the Frick, and other art museums in New York.
Ancient Greece was my first and permanent love and I aspired to become a Classical Scholar. Later, in college, I studied Ancient Greek with the intention of getting closer to Aeschylus and Sophocles and the Greek poets and historians as well as to be able to read Plato and the New Testament in the original, as Nietzsche could do. The earliest example of ancient wisdom for me was Socrates. I learned about him in Gordon Wilson’s class and later, when I went to college at Duke, I learned more about him and his way of teaching through questioning. I was already old when I was a child, an old soul, as they say. I admired old man Socrates and, like Erasmus, I thought of him as a saint; so I put his picture up on the wall of my room and prayed to him in my imagination.
In my senior year through studying Greek history and mythology, I became curious to learn more about Greek philosophy, so I selected and read a book from the school library entitled The Five Great Philosophies of Life. This book was by a Christian minister, Rev. William Hyde, and although he presented “Christianity” as the finest philosophy in the book, he discussed Platonism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism. I found that I was most fascinated by Platonism, and that has remained true all my life.
“The purpose of this book,” Hyde said in the preface, was “to let the masters of these sane and wholesome principles of personality talk using their own words, with just enough interpretation to make clear their points of view, and make us welcome their friendly assistance in the philosophical guidance of life.”
He maintained that “these approaches to life are still so broad, deep, and true that all our modern answers are but varieties these archetypal solutions to the problems of life.” I now recognize this as an over-simplification, but that simplified structure provided me at the time with just the right entry for me into the wondrous world of philosophy and even into the mysteries of the psychology of personality as well.
Well, looking back across the past eighty or so years of my life philosophizing, I wonder what it was, after all, that so appealed to me, as a young adolescent, about Platonic philosophy, as presented by Dr. Hyde? I liked Plato’s theory of Ideas asserting that these Ideas are fundamental truths and essential objective realities–though not visible to the naked eye of the body —anymore than God is—but only to the eyes of the mind, of the spirit, of the soul. This mental or spiritual eye, I’ve always believed is more perceptive and truthful; it is the eye of faith, the eye of what Jacques Maritain called intellectual intuition, and what phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler were to call Wesensschau. Plato’s Theory of Forms was not really just a ‘theory’ at all; it was an immediate intuitive realization. An insight into something absolute and irrefutable.
I first began to take a serious interest in the divine and to feel some relationship to Jesus Christ when I was 17 or 18 years old, during my last year at Webb and my first year in college at Duke. At that time I became seriously interested in mysticism and began to read everything I could about I could lay my hands on.
Webb School’s founder, Thompson Webb, was born in 1887 as the youngest of eight children. His father, William Robert “Sawney” Webb, had established the Webb School in Tennessee in 1870. Thompson graduated from his father’s school in 1907, and continued his education at the University of North Carolina, graduating in 1911. After college, Webb’s health and the suggestions of doctors led him to move west to a warmer climate.
He moved to the California desert near Indio, worked as a farm hand, and eventually bought his own piece of land and started a career as a farmer. He married Vivian Howell, the 20-year-old daughter of a Los Angeles Methodist minister, on June 22, 1915. She joined him in farming. The Webbs farmed together and increased their holdings until 1918, when a diseased onion crop wiped out all their savings. Broke and carrying high debt, Thompson did not have the capital to farm and, because the country was involved in World War I, he was unable to sell his land.
Thompson Webb returned to Tennessee, where his father’s school was experiencing a shortage of male teachers (due to the war) that threatened the school’s existence. Thompson Webb worked as an instructor at the school in Bell Buckle, Tennessee for four years, after which he returned to California to open his own private residential school.
The first suggestion that Thompson start a school in California came from Sherman Day Thacher, founder of the Thacher School in Ojai Valley. Thacher told Webb that his school was turning down dozens of qualified students every year and that an empty school near Claremont was for sale. If Thompson opened a school there, Thacher agreed to refer his applicants. Through a proposal to I.W. Baughman, real estate broker for the Claremont property, Thompson Webb struck a deal that got him his school in 1922.
Initial enrollment at the school was 14 boys. Over the years Webb built the school through the support of many influential business leaders in the greater Los Angeles community, including the Chandlers, Guggenheims, Boeings, Staudes and many others.
As the number of students grew in the ’30s and ’40s, Webb added seven major buildings, five faculty homes, and two smaller structures to the campus. Two of Webb’s landmark buildings were constructed during this time: the Thomas Jackson Library and the Vivian Webb Chapel. How much time I spent in those two buildings!
After the school became a non-profit corporation , Thompson Webb continued as headmaster of the school and Vivian Webb as general housemother until their retirements in 1962. Vivian Webb died in 1971; her husband, Thompson, died four years later in 1975.