Once Upon a Time… at Bennington College, the second season of the writer Lili Anolik’s audio series with C13 Originals, is pungent with pulpy literary gossip.
Mostly set in the ’80s against the backdrop of the Vermont college, whose gradeless classes and campus bacchanalia (sex! Drugs! Ancient Greek!) once held great fascination for those enamored with the cultural elite, Bennington traces the stories of three literary giants who overlapped at the institution: Donna Tartt, who based her novel The Secret History on her time at Bennington and later won a Pulitzer for The Goldfinch; Bret Easton Ellis, the writer-provocateur who achieved stratospheric celebrity for his controversial, violent novels Less Than Zero and American Psycho; and Jonathan Lethem, the MacArthur “genius” who wrote Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, among many other books. Dripping with salacious detail, the season functions as a kind of interweaving intellectual history of these three prominent Gen-X writers.
To be perfectly frank, I’m mixed on this podcast. Its sensationalistic, insidery style — exemplified by Anolik’s Gossip Girl–esque narration, all winks and cascading proper nouns — can leave you cold if you haven’t already bought into the mystique of its principal subjects and the fame they once held. Also troublesome is the fractured nature of its perspectives. Among its central figures, Tartt is noticeably absent as a primary source, having declined to participate in interviews for the series. (She would later issue a request through her lawyer for Apple and Spotify to remove the podcast from their platforms.) Ellis and Lethem are active participants, but Lethem comes across as somewhat reticent, which leaves Ellis, an ever-eager showman considered a troll by many, with the lion’s share of the narrative energy across the season’s 14-episode run.
And yet I can’t deny that Once Upon a Time … at Bennington College casts a strong spell. I might not personally have much feeling for this particular cluster of literary giants, but I do find myself drawn to Anolik’s sketches of an artistic moment, her window into the creative mind, and her obvious talent for extracting good gossip.
One moment in the season’s 12th episode, out tomorrow, captures this duality of the show. The episode contains what might pass as a sensational reveal: In an interview, Ellis, who was once close to Joan Didion and her family, tells a story in which he claims that John Gregory Dunne, Didion’s late husband, was gay. But Ellis has never been the most trustworthy narrator, and when the actual moment transpires in the episode, Anolik is quick to note that no one else has confirmed this. Still, the podcast lets the claim fly, mostly treating it as an aside and a launchpad for Anolik to discuss the context of being gay in the ’80s. In a way, the whole thing is a microcosm of the season: probably dubious, a little oversold, but … interesting all the same.
In any case, the episode seemed as good an occasion as any to check in with Anolik about the season as it enters the home stretch, the line between gossip and fact, and what happened with Tartt’s legal actions against the podcast.
Let’s start here: What was the motivation behind this season?
Lili Anolik: I had written an oral history of Bennington College for Esquire back in 2019, but in a way, I’ve been on this story since 2013. Back then, I was doing a piece on The Canyons, the porno-noir Bret Easton Ellis did with Paul Schrader and Lindsay Lohan, which was the first time I met Bret. I was in his condo in West Hollywood, and there I saw a first edition of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History on the shelf, which I remembered she had dedicated to him. As I got to know Bret socially, I was constantly asking him about that book.
I’m kind of an obsessive person: I’m a Bret obsessive. I’m a Secret History obsessive. I’ve read a ton of Jonathan Lethem’s books. And I wanted to know more, you know? I had written a kind of biography/literary-criticism/social-history book about the writer Eve Babitz before, and that informed my approach to this season. It’s a group portrait of these artists as young undergraduates.
This week’s episode comes at the end of Ellis, Tartt, and Lethem’s undergraduate period. What was happening around this time?
Right. Last week’s episode ended with Bret’s graduation party at the Carlyle, thrown by his fascinating but monstrous father, who would serve as the basis for Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Bret’s already so famous at this point that Andy Warhol is crashing his graduation party. And in this week’s episode, we’re launching into his period in New York, around 1986, when he’s becoming this major literary celebrity.
I was born in 1978, so this was in my living memory, and to me, just the idea that a writer could be that famous is shocking, you know? Bret’s hosting Top of the Pops in England. He’s getting invited to the MTV Awards. He was part of the literary Brat Pack, but they’re hanging out with the real Brat Pack: Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, and so on. They’re hanging out with Duran Duran and [Jean-Michel] Basquiat. This was a time when Gap, which was a hot clothing company at the time, was paying writers to launch their ads. Writers were fetish objects! They were glamorous! That was amazing to me.
And you feel that’s not true today?
My God, no!
What’s so interesting to you about the ’80s and that moment in literary celebrity?
When my oral history for Esquire first came out, I saw a lot of reactions in the Twitter chatter that were like, “Wow, people were having so much fun. They were doing so many drugs. They were having so much sex.” There was, I think, a kind of freedom and a flare back then.
At some level, this podcast feels a little like Mad Men for a younger generation. The past is now where we see license, you know? Let’s say you were gay in the 1950s. You would probably be looking with longing into the future, thinking, If I were in the future, I could openly be who I am. Or if you were a young woman, you would be thinking, I could have sex before marriage! The future was once where I could express all my dark truths, where I could be myself. Nowadays, it feels like the past is the place where that’s more likely to happen.
Of course, there are so many ways in which you’re just so glad the ’80s are in the rearview mirror. But it did feel like you used to be able to have a kind of privacy. I think of how people used to leave their small towns to move to the big city so they could have anonymity, and how they could try on different identities or live different lives without the neighbors judging. It feels, now, like social media has turned the world back into a small town. In the early ’80s, before Twitter or Instagram or camera phones, you had more freedom. For me, it’s appealing to look back at that.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that probably felt true more for certain kinds of people. I’m not so sure, for example, most Asian or Black people would share this feeling.
Oh, absolutely. For those reasons — racially, sexually — 2021 is a better place to be in almost every way.
Even Bret, whom I consider not to be the kind of person who hides, he had the slowest-motion coming out of the closet in history. And there’s a reason for that. The times wouldn’t let him be who he wanted to be. So yes, 2021 is better.
But again, there was a kind of freedom and privacy you did have back then that you don’t have now.
Speaking of privacy: One of the reasons we’re talking about the podcast right now is because this week’s episode was pitched as featuring Ellis making some sort of reveal about Joan Didion’s family. Walk me through that.
Right. Okay. I had done a book on Eve Babitz a few years ago, and Eve and Joan were part of the same Franklin Ave. circle in the late-’60s/early-’70s Los Angeles. They were all over each other for a decade, personally and professionally. So when I was working on this book, it felt like I was writing a shadow book on Joan Didion, covering her early-to-middle L.A. period. Once Upon a Time… at Bennington College feels like the second installment of that shadow book, covering Joan’s late L.A. and early back-to-New York period.
Didion was enormously important to Bret. He taught himself how to write as a high school student by copying her paragraphs and trying to figure out what gave them their special power. I had asked him whether he ever asked for a blurb from her when Less Than Zero was coming out, and he said he didn’t even want her to see the book. He had borrowed so much from her that he was embarrassed. And when Joan did read the book, she liked that about it. She quoted passages to him that were close to her own writing, and she was delighted. So she was this literary influence on him, and he was also taken with her as a cultural figure. They were both celebrity writers, and I think she was a model for him in many ways.
This was covered earlier in the podcast, but while he was at Bennington, he became close with Didion and her daughter, Quintana, who was a freshman when he was a junior. He jokes that he “kidnapped” Quintana the first night at school and fed her drugs and asked her about her mother and even stole her underpants that night, which, you know, is nuts. [Laughs.] He had all these things to say about Quintana’s death, about her possible addiction issues and her relationship to her mother. I’m a Didion watcher. I’ve read all her books. These were things I’d never heard about before.
In this week’s episode, Bret talks about John Gregory Dunne’s possible sexuality — which, again, I’ve never heard before. In Bret’s mind, he thought Dunne was gay. This is interesting for a bunch of reasons. Bret was coming up during a certain time. I spent some time in the series on Bret’s girlfriend Julie Foreman, who would serve as the basis for Blair in Less Than Zero, and Julie’s father was a powerful Hollywood producer, but he was also gay and in the closet. It was part of this social circle in Hollywood where you’d often have a gay man and a wife, and you couldn’t be out at that time. That was something that Bret was very attuned to.
Who knows if he’s right about John Dunne? Bret asked Griffin [John Dunne’s nephew] on his podcast if he thought this was true of John, and Griffin did not. So that was Bret’s perception.
So, I’ve listened to this week’s episode, and how it handled that moment felt pretty weird to me. It’s an almost off-handed comment made by Ellis, which you take as a prompt to go down a narrative alley about the context of being gay in the eighties. But it’s still Ellis maybe outing someone who’s no longer around. And in the larger context, Ellis is also someone who tends to say a lot of shit, a lot of which can’t really be vetted. What was your bar for inclusion with this?
That’s a good question. So, I’ve been on this project since 2013, right? People have said things to my tape recorder over the years that are shocking, scandalous things that I didn’t include in the podcast, because I have standards for what belongs in the podcast and what doesn’t.
With the Dunne stuff, that was Bret’s impression, right? But he’s a first-hand witness. He was on intimate terms with these people. So it seemed okay to me. I was careful to include Griffin Dunne saying he didn’t believe it was true, because it might well not have been true.
In any case, it seemed to say more interesting things about Bret than maybe even what it said about the Didion and Dunne marriage. You wonder if Bret, perceiving John Dunne as gay, felt that maybe he could’ve married Joan Didion. He had admired her to that point. And how Bret handled sexuality in his books and in his public persona… it just seemed to me that the information was germane to me.
Given the amount of gossip and perception in this story, how do you think through what really needs fact-checking and what goes in more as subjectivity?
Well, this project started out as an extended 14,000 word piece for Esquire that went through a rigorous fact-checking process, so I felt I had a good base to go on here. Also, look, I’m a thorough and experienced journalist at this point…
Okay, so, for example: In this week’s episode there’s this blowjob story with Bret’s dad. That was also included in the Esquire piece. Bret’s father, Bob Ellis, had monstrous qualities to him: he was emotionally, psychologically, and sometimes physically violent with the family. But he was also a formidable person: a college football star and a real estate tycoon. He was this figure of ferocious energy and ambition, and as Bret’s father, he made Bret, but then kind of destroyed Bret, and Bret had to remake himself. In some ways, the father is the making of Bret. You have to understand the father to understand the son.
So the story I felt best illustrated this was the blowjob story. Bret’s best friend at Bennington was a woman named Amy Herskovitz, who I interviewed for the Esquire piece, and she told me this story about that how she, Bret, and a few other people were with Bret’s father at Nell’s, the nightclub, and Bret’s father got a blowjob at the table from one of Bret’s friends, a young woman, right in front of Bret, who was gay but not out yet. That was an insane thing to do, right?
And it was insane trying to fact check that. Amy told me this, and of course I called Bret — the recorder was out, it was an official call — and he didn’t remember this event, but said he didn’t think anything was wrong. He trusted Amy’s memory. That was the only way I can fact-check this story. Obviously, Esquire was nervous about this story, but it appears in the Esquire piece.
Later, Bret and I were at a dinner or something, and all of a sudden he turns to me and says, “You know my mom is angry at you” — I’ve never met his mom — ”She’s mad about that story and it didn’t happen.” And I’m like, “I called you. We had an on the record conversation about this.” And he said, “Yeah, but it didn’t happen.”
I deal in nonfiction, but I always think about that Talking Heads lyric: “Facts all come with points of view / Facts don’t do what I want them to.” How do you handle a situation like this? Amy stands by her story, and I had checked with Bret on this.
That’s a sticky situation, but my sense is that’s also kinda what you get with someone like Ellis, who’s centered quite a bit throughout the season. He generally seems to be a very unreliable narrator.
Yeah, but who isn’t?
Sure, but he’s an almost performatively unreliable narrator, you know?
That’s funny. That’s really funny.
I’m just curious about the choice here. It’s a remarkable amount of faith to place in a source who, uh, rarely feels solid. Does that make sense?
Yeah, absolutely. This is what I deal with all my life. We’re talking about stuff that happened forty years ago when there was a ton of ingesting of drugs and drinking and just the passage of time. Jay McInerney said something interesting to me a few years ago. He’s working on a memoir, and he told me how kept a journal and how he couldn’t believe how often his memory was in conflict with it, because he has fictionalized parts of his life. But he was using his journal as a standard of truth. This is all to say how slippery memory is, and I try to do my best to be honest about it.
Let’s switch gears. In October, Page Six reported that Donna Tartt was taking legal action against the podcast. What’s the current situation with that?
So here’s what happened at the most basic level: Early on [in the podcast’s run], her UK publisher had sent a takedown notice to Apple and Spotify. The lawyers on our side disputed them, and the publisher withdrew them. That’s it. There has been no contact from her lawyers since.
Were you surprised to see those notices?
I was and I wasn’t. I said this earlier: I do see this show as a sort of Mad Men but for Generation Podcast, and if you extend the metaphor, she’s the Don Draper in the sense that she’s the central mystery of the podcast. Who is she? Where does she come from? How does she come to be? That’s one of the things I’m trying to do with the podcast: to show the evolution of Donna Tartt to “Donna Tartt, literary and style icon.” It’s a carefully guarded story, and nobody’s gotten the real story until now, even though she’s been around for almost three decades now.
It’s striking to me how she’s the only one of the three principal subjects in the series who doesn’t appear as a primary source. And because the season is about the interlinking histories of these three writers, it does end up feeling like you have a situation where, to some extent, her story is largely mediated by two male peers. So on the one hand, there’s this gender imbalance, but on the other hand, there’s also just a more general narrative imbalance. I’m wondering about your thoughts on that.
Sure. In a perfect world, she absolutely would be participating. She made the choice not to, and I can’t control that. I understand why this would be a touchy subject for her. She’s someone who really believes in the mystique of the novelist, I think, and at some level, the podcast is about demystifying that, at least a little. My sense about Donna is that she was this dreamy, highly imaginative, alienated kid living in a one-horse town in Mississippi. Her background was workaday and unglamorous, and I think she’s somebody who wanted to inhabit an Evelyn Waugh novel.
This is kind of a funny thing, but to me, this podcast is meant to be a high five or a hug. It’s a celebration of these three people who are some of the most important writers of their generation. Donna wrote the American Brideshead Revisited. She’s a triumph. She shows you can come from modest means and become hugely successful because you love what you do so much. I know this is probably not a delightful thing for her. But to me, it’s celebratory. I don’t know what else to say.
I guess I also feel like, in some weird way, I’m performing a kind of service, because it’s almost like we’re living in a post-literary world now. People just don’t seem to read anymore, and yet the need for story is stronger than ever. One of the things I wanted to show with this podcast is that you can be a young writer reading The Secret History and be like, “Oh my god, that world is so wild and thrilling and I could never come up with something like that.” Donna didn’t either. She was living it, and she figured out a way to build a story around it.