First Lady Betty Ford and Choreographer Martha Hill Watching Students Dance at Bennington College, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via wikimedia

I’m seventeen when my father first pegs me as a “Bennington girl.” I’ve never heard the college mentioned, but immediately recognize the name from Franny and Zooey. Salinger’s Bennington girl looks “like she’d spent the whole train ride in the john, sculpting or painting or something, or as though she had a leotard under her dress.” If that’s how Dad sees me—as a weird, messy artist—it’s also how I see myself, in Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY circa 1980. Here, culture of any kind, even a movie or bookstore, requires crossing a bridge. I travel for weekly flute and dance classes, but the rest of my free time is spent smoking weed and drawing with cray-pas, smoking weed and reading novels, smoking weed and, after my father’s uncharacteristic decree, fantasizing that I’m not glum Jill on the Green Line bus but a Bennington girl on the New Haven line, en route to the Yale-Harvard game. Luckily, the tiny, progressive Vermont school accepts me. Sans parental oversight, it’s the only place where I’ve applied.

Almost instantly, I discover that there’s a lot more to the B girl profile than Wannabe Artist/Fictional Character. Upon hearing of my college destination, literally any male over thirty coos, “Ahhh” or “Oooh” as if decoding or undressing me. My dentist, my dentist, licks his lips. Well into my fifties, I’ll be greeted by a certain friend’s father as, wink, wink, “the Bennington girl.” As a redhead, I’m used to lewd, specific innuendo. Red in bed. Wild red. Is it true what they say about redheads? Still, the tarnish to my new image disturbs. Have I missed a suggestive subtext to Salinger’s B girl spending “the whole train ride in the bathroom”? Does my father think I’m a slut? It’s bad enough that I’m still having sex with a Vassar boy, even though he’s broken up with me. Then, the discovery: I’m pregnant.

In desperation, I confide in my flute teacher, the first openly gay person I’ve ever met, and thus, I assume, open-minded. Get an abortion ASAP, she advises in the same practical tone in which she’s urged me to get a piccolo… for more options at college. If you need cash, just hawk some jewelry on Canal Street. About the upsetting male commentary and my father’s opinion: It’s time to grow a thicker skin… considering, well, men.

* * *

“Once you begin looking for the Bennington girl, she’s everywhere,” my former classmate, the writer Jonathan Lethem, recently said. I’d just told him about the list I’d, for years, been compiling, whenever I came across Her in print. I hadn’t been looking. She just kept showing up, often a glimpse or cameo, now and then in a starring role. It isn’t until Jonathan’s remark inspires a proper search that I truly begin to grasp Her ubiquity. Since the school’s founding in 1932, the Bennington girl has been referenced in every decade, in literary fiction and non-fiction, memoir, biography, newspapers, magazines, thrillers, romance, satire, mystery, erotica, book reviews, YA, Psychology, Sociology, and Historical texts as well as comedy, film, and TV. This artistic, sexually bold, brilliant or flaky, monied, spooky, (probably communist) free spirit has, arguably, become an archetype—if a shapeshifting one.

* * *

By the time I hit Canal Street on my shady errand, my B girl daydream has been upgraded from Salinger’s nameless chick on a train to Fitzgerald’s “Cecilia” on a jet bound for Hollywood. Cecilia has magically materialized in The Last Tycoon, assigned reading for “Between the Wars,” my final high school English elective. To pay for my abortion, I’ve (unconsciously? subconsciously?) chosen to hock a fourteen-karat gold man on a chain, a gift from my grandma for Hanukkah. I am trying not to feel guilty about this. It’s a hideous necklace. I am trying not to feel anything about anything. And though Cecilia far outclasses an outer borough chick like me, she does seem familiar. Both our dads are self-made businessmen who get the last word.

“My father tries to be a steam-roller around the house,” Cecilia says. “Still, he steam-rollered me into Bennington and I’ve always been grateful for that.” I underline the passage to show to my parents. They love me. Of course, I can tell them I’m in trouble. But unlike Cecilia, I’m not the narrator. Mutely, I listen as Dad launches into tales of visiting the college with his frat bros. Back then, in the ’50s, Bennington girls were “a lot more fun” than the “co-eds” at his school, UVM. Lots of “shenanigans” down there, worth the long drive despite the competition—guys from Williams and the Ivies, older men, teachers…

Here Mom pipes up, no doubt to change the subject. An artist herself, Mom was married and pregnant while still in college at NYU. “Bennington women were the first to wear dungarees!”

Dungarees? Shenanigans? Ivies? My head swims. I have no idea that these details have already been established and not only in books. They’re in Alfred Eisenstaedt photographs, Playboy magazine limericks, the comedy stylings of Woody Allen. Even my accidental pregnancy turns out to be on-brand. The knocked-up B girl character, a natural offshoot of Her predecessor, the Wild Sexpot. Blessedly, I am ignorant of all of this. I haven’t even reached the part in The Last Tycoon where Cecilia will disappoint me, throwing herself at an older man, her father’s business partner.

* * *

Vassar boy is older, but not by much. When he shows up in a borrowed car to escort me to Planned Parenthood, his jaw is wired shut, fractured in a rugby collision. This would happen to a Bennington girl, I say, flashing my new persona. Did he know that Kerouac had a relationship with one? She, Carolyn Cassady, appears in his novels as “Camille” or “Evelyn Pomeray.” Never mind that I only learned these facts at my Bennington interview and twice failed to get through On the Road. What I’m really saying is, I’m smart, see! Never mind that I nearly yell, Stop the car! I want to have her! (This fetus has to be female). The panic passes. And afterward, when we emerge from the clinic to find the borrowed car towed, I’m secretly relieved that I’ll have to travel home solo. I feel sad but… free, impatient to be off, having a lot more fun at Bennington. I already own the leotards and the dungarees. With the graduation check from Grandma, I plan to buy that piccolo and an IUD.

* * *

Before I’ve even left home, Dad starts wearing his Bennington cap around everywhere. It embarrasses and moves me. Parental pride for the school is hardly the norm. Artist Helen Frankenthaler said her mother was “terrified” of what her college choice would do to the family’s social status. “Somebody might think I was sleeping with somebody, or hated my family, or went with communists,” she confided to writer Mary Gabriel. Rosie Schaap’s memoir Drinking with Men details her own dad’s “numerous and voluble” objections. “He was a Cornell man like his father before him, and Bennington—with no grades, few tests, no sports teams save intramural coed soccer and volleyball—didn’t quite strike him as a real college.”

Even Dad’s enthusiasm has its limits. He’d never suggest or approve of the school for his sons. If all goes well, my sister (a subsequent B girl) and I will marry men who support our “hobbies.” Meantime, our brothers can take over the family packaging biz, breadwinners for their own wives. This, after all, is Mom’s set up and she’s happy, isn’t she? In the spare hours between or after every last domestic chore, she squeezes in her weaving, jewelry, calligraphy, and community activism. It’s a luxury, as is Bennington. Mom’s grateful for it. I ought to be grateful, too.

None of this is spoken. Excepting sports and machinery, I’ve been raised to follow every interest, to dream big alongside my Gold Medal Barbie. In the background, Charlie’s Angels are on TV, pretty and kickass, albeit under a man’s supervision. The radio plays “I Am Woman.” Second wave feminism rages. In the foreground, Ronald Reagan has just been elected president. When my older brother volunteers to drive me to school, I imagine Dad gives him a furtive thumbs up. Sure enough, after bro sees me safely to my dorm, he’s off to seduce the delicate blonde manning the welcome desk.

K is my first encounter with the classic B girl of lit, a serious, lovely snob from the world of boarding school and the social register. “She was so respectable,” writes Elia Kazan in The Understudy, “when she went down on me, she held her nose.” Richard Yates calls this type “[t]he girls of the East…marvelously slim and graceful…they spoke intelligently in low, subtle voices…and never giggled.”

“Tell your brother I don’t care if he calls,” K instructs me, a few weeks later. She has the same “quality of speech borrowed from some old Katherine Hepburn movie” with which Phillip Roth describes “Simp” in Goodbye Columbus. (“Simp is her Bennington name.”) All K lacks is a tennis racquet or ski poles to fully occupy the trope, depictions of which reverberate down the decades. “Why did she have to act so fucking cool?” wonders a character in Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction. And perhaps the answer lies here, too. “[She] didn’t have to worry about keeping warm or being fed or bombs or lasers or gunfire.”

In reality, K’s airs are something of an anomaly. The school’s forward-thinking ethos, the backdrop of the Green Mountains, and an aggressively do-it-yourself dress code clash hard with any attempt at posh display. Journalists and memoirists have long observed this. As Janice Van Horne, a student in the ’50s writes, “Good Bennington girl that I was, I was too ashamed to admit that I’d worn white gloves.”

Oh, there’s plenty of snobbery here, but it’s taste, rather than money, that matters. Which new bands are on your mixtape, how is your hair cut, who are your influences? Within forty-eight hours of my arrival, I’ve already failed one such test. My roommate has decided she’d rather live with someone else. Rumor blames this on a threesome she is having with this Someone, and a shaggy, senior cellist. But I know I’m the problem. Whatever I said about her poetry sounded juvenile. I smoke too much weed. A teeny bit of cray-pas might have gotten on her duvet? She’s the real Fitzgerald girl—adventurous and discerning—while I’m barely a Salinger. Other possibilities —old vs. new money? WASP vs. JEW? Suburban vs. urban—aren’t readily apparent. We’re both privileged enough to ignore or hide our privilege. Like everyone else, we both bum cigarettes, shop at the local Salvation Army, steal food from the cafeteria for visiting friends, and sell our clothing to one another outside the Commons. In my four years at the school I will never hear of a single person skiing. A shame, really. We are living in Vermont!

The indelible image of the rich B girl naturally compels writers to portray her opposite for contrast. I will too, when, at 20, I invent “Alex,” a scholarship student from Rockaway. That I myself am a fully paying student makes this, okay, semi-ridiculous. Aside from surface details, all the ways in which I resemble my alter ego are emotional. I feel like a hick beside my new classmates, kids who hail from seemingly sophisticated places—Manhattan, Cairo, LA—from homes where opera or jazz is played and politics is debated. Many are freakishly precocious and driven—qualities that don’t necessarily correlate with wealth. Jonathan Lethem, the lower middle-class son of painters (and himself a visual art student), quickly creates his own film society. Donna Tartt, the daughter of a local political activist who owns a freeway filling station, casually quotes Dante while we fold laundry. Others who may not rise to notoriety are equally, if not more, impressive. Kids of a human rights lawyer, a greeting card maker, a country music scholar and so on and on—they intimidate and school me. They crack my mind open. Into it flies a constant buzz, true or not, that I am attending the most expensive school in the country, and why me? Because…my father had a whim and the money. Because abortion is legal. Because Admissions needed a piccolo.

* * *

Roommate #2 is neither a Salinger B girl, nor one from Fitzgerald or Yates, but a living Shirley Jackson character, fluent in politics and the paranormal. She keeps notes on her arms and legs, and a tarot deck wrapped in a silk scarf under her pillow. With these cards, we divine our love lives, the fate of John Lennon’s assassin, and animal testing legislation. (One day, I return to our room to find a lamb she’s bought on a whim.) #2 is the one who jumps to mind when a Google search unearths various eerie incidents: Fourteen B girls rescued from the SS Havana en route to field work in Vera Cruz (1935). B girl killed with a golf club in Central Park (1975). B girl fired by the Church for claiming to be a witch (1996). Topping this list is the infamous (1946) disappearance of Paula Jean Weldon, for whom we stage a séance in Jennings, the school’s “haunted” music building. Alas, there is no contact, not with Weldon or Lennon or Roommate’s dad who dies that fall, suddenly, on Halloween.

I shouldn’t be stunned when #2 leaves school mid-year. (Memoirs by B girl drop-outs abound.) But I am stunned. She’s a star, everyone’s go-to explainer of R.E.M. lyrics, Kant, and the conflicts in El Salvador. And the college has a reputation for being so…easy. “At Bennington, for screwing around you get Phi Beta Kappa,” says a dude in Castle Freeman’s thriller Go with Me. It’s a common jibe, in lit and in life. As if Bennington would acknowledge anything as conventional as Phi Beta Kappa! No one talks about how the school rejected Grace Kelly for, of all things, her low math scores. It’ll be awhile until Tom Clancy writes his Jack Ryan series, for which he invents his B girl. “E.E.,” a brilliant Poli Sci professor and the wife of the vice president, who “resented the fact that Yale was considered more prestigious by whatever authorities made such judgements.” For now, I’ve begun to see that survival here is in no way guaranteed. Not only will I need to dodge freak tragedy, but also be super organized and self-directed. I dial down the partying…at least somewhat. I get to work.

Coming from a huge, loud, public, city, science high school with metal detectors and byzantine rules, I’m thrilled to be set loose in this rural bubble. Here, art isn’t an underfunded extra-curricular. It’s the main event, a devotional or political act. Though only halfway through my freshman year and already on my third roommate, I desperately want to belong. Being the go-to piccolo isn’t enough. I compose twelve-tone music. I make sculptures out of tree branches. I write heartfelt screeds to congresspeople. Always, I am ready with a sympathetic ear, a bong hit, a funny story from Rockaway. I fill my room with autumn leaves, peg my black jeans. I only wear black jeans.

“Her final paper—as much as I am inclined to encourage and to be tolerant of the experimental—was not a success,” concludes my lit teacher, Joe McGinniss, on the barely legible, hand-written comments we receive in lieu of grades. The normally affable author (who in two years will press my first novel on his agent) is “amazed, and not in a good way” that I’ve illustrated my paper on New Journalism in cray pas. He warns me not to become a B girl cliché.

Maybe Joe’s referring to the “confused girl from Bennington who fancied herself a poet,” in Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer. Maybe he’s seen the posters for my student-produced play, pretentiously titled “Monody,” or glimpsed me among the crowd with homemade signs calling for the school to divest from South Africa. “What did these [Bennington] girls know of Negro rights?” asks the narrator in Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, thus handily sizing up my ilk. Nonetheless, she longs to be “dancing” among us, “just being part of a chain of girls in a field.”

* * *

I am a part of a chain of dancing girls in a field, yes. Wolitzer nails it precisely. The UVM and Ivy men have long vanished from campus. Thanks to the sixties, my father’s quest for “a lot more fun” can now be staged at one’s own school. And though Bennington has been co-ed for over a decade, the guys are few and often gay. “Take a nice picnic to Williams,” my mother suggests on our weekly pay phone calls. “Sit on the lawn. Men can’t resist food.” Dad, who sympathetically admits he never did “personally get lucky” at Bennington, likes to ask if I know any lesbians.

Of course, teachers are always an option. In ‘69, when boys were first admitted, The New York Times reported a split response from the mostly male faculty. Some hoped it would alleviate the “constant problem of students becoming infatuated” with them. Others felt “…somewhat like the father of a family of doting daughters who have suddenly started going out with teenage boys and who have thus forgotten all about daddy.”

“Back then, God help us, it was a badge of dishonor not to have slept with your professor,” Esquire later quotes faculty member Nick Delbanco saying. A joke? A wish? Hyperbole? Nick’s one of the guys Carly Simon sang about in “You’re So Vain.” Your scarf it was apricot. So there’s that. In his own novel, Old Scores, he updates the twelfth-century romance of Heloise and Abelard to describe an affair between a philosophy teacher and his admiring student at a small Vermont college. But Nick’s also the phenomenal, always respectful fiction teacher who publishes my first short story and pays me to babysit his kids. So I wonder. Student-teacher trysts aren’t at all unusual. But rather than brag, we make excuses. It’s the shitty male-to-female ratio. It’s his cute French accent when he reads Anaïs Nin aloud. It’s my daddy issues.

“Learn by doing?” I scrawl in my journal following my own “icky hour” with an older visiting art lecturer. This, a reference to Dewey, on whose philosophy the school was founded, is less a rationale than a pose. My plan to inhabit the sexually free B girl mold was definitely “a big, big mistake.” But I believe my sparkling intellect can still impress my imagined future reader.

* * *

A teacher eyes me while he lectures on Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Beauty is Truth. Truth is Beauty. Can he tell I’m zoning out? I’m thinking when it happens. Instead of saying “sexual enjoyment,” as he evidently intends, I watch his mouth form the phrase, “sexual en-jill-ment.” What? I’m sure I imagined it. But no. In the days and months that follow, certain classmates “en-jill,” abruptly whispering these words in my ear, at a party, say, or in line at the cafeteria. I always laugh. We all do. Reporting the incident doesn’t occur to me until years later, while I am browsing Allan Seager’s biography of Theodore Roethke, The Glass House. One of many Bennington teachers who married students, Roethke is, at least, open-eyed about his transgression, calling himself, in Straw for the Fire, “the bully of the campus, the beast of Bennington, the raping tinker.” In honor of his young dancer, he writes some fine poems, too. “These old bones live to learn her wanton ways: / (I measure time by how a body sways.)”

Howard Fast includes a B girl in both fiction and memoir. In the former, she is the narrator’s daughter. In the latter, his potential extramarital hookup.

In her memoir, Bernard Malamud’s daughter claims her father’s affair with a young student inspired his novel Dubin’s Lives. In Malamud’s house, Phillip Roth spies a student (lover?) and is inspired to start The Ghost Writer, in which the narrator visits a famous writer’s house and spies a student (lover?). Roth’s protagonist imagines that this student (lover?) is really Anne Frank. Coincidentally (?), a real B girl, writer and editor Judith Jones, was the one to rescue Anne Frank’s diary from a publisher’s reject pile.

* * *

“I understood these Bennington girls went for poets,” is Saul Bellow’s view, seen in his roman à clef Humboldt’s Gift. Perhaps he’s describing his own B girl (the second of his five wives) when he writes that she was “very pretty but she’s honey from the icebox if you know what I mean. Cold sweets won’t spread.” Perhaps she, like his character, also locked herself in the bathroom while he, like Humboldt, yelled, “you don’t know what you’re missing. I’m a poet. I have a big cock.” Reading this it’s hard not to think back to Salinger’s B girl, who looked like she spent so much time in the john. How else to avoid all these predatory men.

Back in my journal, I detail my own “three creepy days” before quitting an internship with an avant-garde historian. “I DON’T EVEN CARE IF I DON’T GET CREDIT. I BETTER GET CREDIT!!!” But fast forward only a few pages and I’m striking quite a different note:

“I feel so guilty,” I write repeatedly about rejecting another teacher. “That poor old man.” (In actuality, he’s probably fifty and at the height of his career, publishing regularly in The New Yorker.) In the future, I’ll have three “woke” daughters to school me on power dynamics. That old man’s behavior, and my reaction to it, will seem appalling. But right then, he’s “so sweet.” Because of him, “King Lear is wild.” Because I expressed interest, he’s created a class in playwriting. In his apartment, I regularly sit around with other students and teachers, drinking and discussing ideas. No words or topics are taboo. It’s an education my kids won’t ever experience. To be treated like an adult for the first time (before you really are one) may be inappropriate, but it’s totally exhilarating. Every day, I write and compose music.

* * *

Roommate #3 embodies the more iconoclastic side of the B girl profile. I’m pretty sure she is, in fact, the actual “bald [B] girl with a fashionable ugly dress” that will cause Andy Warhol to wonder in his diaries “if regular nonfashion clothes are out forever.” She claims I’m “the most normal” person at school. I love that. Already an accomplished artist, she teaches herself to play keyboards and, a born righty, to use her left hand. I love her. Our bond is instant, and, from the get-go, way too intense. Fortunately, we don’t torment any teacher’s wives like the pals in Shirley’s Jackson’s Hangsaman. We quell our jealousies without resorting to murder in the way of the B girl pair in Christine Mangan’s Tangerine. In the end, more than trouble, we make lots of Stuff—songs out of jokes, skirts out of T-shirts, endless sketches of one another in cray-pas, charcoal, film, and words. Sadly, such fiery friendships lack the oxygen to survive the outside, post-grad world.

* * *

TAKEN VERBATIM FROM WIKIPEDIA:

TALK: Bennington College

Bennington Girl

Does this section really need to be here? I feel like it’s characteristic of a “yeah we’re small but look how often we pop up” attitude. Maybe I’m wrong though. –Jonmedeiros 00:22, 30 May 2006 (UTC)

I think it trivializes and downplays Bennington’s significance. Would it make more sense
on the Bennington people page? –KikiG 18:27, 30 May 2006 (UTC)

Plus there are a whole hell of a lot of Bennington pop culture things that pop up, not always having anything to do with females. It seems a bit selective to limit it, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t understand, though I remain certain that it really doesn’t belong here or anywhere. –Jonmedeiros 22:48, 30 May 2006 (UTC)

I’m going to be bold and take it out. It’s just silly and will only get worse. –Daly 06:31, 10
June 2006 (UTC)

So, it’s gone. I actually don’t think that a section on the “Bennington Girl” would
necessarily be bad, but it would have to be a relative explanation of the “Bennington Girl” as a perennial pop culture reference and include citations. An ad hoc list is not a good idea. –Daly 06:39, 10 June 2006 (UTC)

* * *

What do radical feminist Andrea Dworkin and former first lady Betty Ford have in common? How about nuclear physicist Joan Hinton (one of the few women to work on the Manhattan Project) and actress Carol Channing? Medal of Honor-winning pilot Elizabeth Pfister, photographer Sally Mann, organizing director of Change.org Elinor Bacon, Vermont poet laureate Mary Ruefle, Elena Ferrante’s translator Ann Goldstein, and philosopher Judith Butler? Of course they’re all Bennington girls. Of course you can’t “always spot ‘em from a mile away,” as one John Gardner character (and so many other males) have maintained. Ever since 1937, when Life magazine presented us to the nation as dare devils “who wear what they please, say what they think, do as they like,” men have puzzled over us, then reduced us to a parody. “Rather bohemian,” is an early Time magazine assessment. “Antisocial, arrogant, all too self-analytical, intellectual snob” says The Saturday Evening Post. Gene William’s 1947 New Yorker short story “Les Enfants Du Thalia” reads like a total anti-B girl rant, from the opening—“I’m always tempted to karate-chop Bennington girls, but never this much”—to the epiphany: “Show me something that dreams, I’ll show you something dangerous.” How much easier it is to control a B girl on the page than one in real life.

Are we then victims or beneficiaries of the patriarchy? Would I myself have had the notion I could write without my father’s means and double standards? Had I been groomed (or even invited) to work for his company, who would I now be? Am I less of an artist because I’ve been made into an object? Am I less of an object because I’m an artist?

Whether from laziness, envy, or internalized misogyny, women authors have also long promoted B girl stereotypes. “I met a Bennington girl… and she was a snob,” writes Marjorie Hill Allee in her popular 1941 novel The Camp at Westlands. Nowadays, the tired lines are still coming. From romance author, Susan Wiggs: “Every single Bennington girl he met came from the same cookie-cutter mold…So you sing and ski?”

This leaves others, often B girls themselves, to grapple with the tropes.

“It was a myth Bennington girls were an easy lay,” says the narrator in Ruth Doan McDougall’s 1973 bestseller The Cheerleader. (“Snowy” worries that her artsy dorm mates will discover how conventional she was in high school.)

“The reputation for raciness was well deserved,” admits poet Kathleen Norris in her memoir, The Virgin of Bennington, “but was of course not the whole picture.”

Charlotte Silver’s satire Bennington Girls Are Easy provides a full-on critique of the well-worn tags. Still, it infuriated many current B girls. In no time, they created a video touting all the better things #Benningtongirlsare:

“In my spare time I actively advocate for the rights of women who are victims of rape.”

“During my senior year there I wrote a book and, surprise, it got published!”

“I’m currently a chaplain in a trauma unit of a hospital,” etc.

As one young woman sums it up, “There is no room for easy on this list.”

It’s as if Wolitzer’s chain of dancers has come to life and multiplied. I’m in awe of every one of them. Yet the accomplished Silver is surely a shiny link on their chain. In the fierce backlash to this novel, I hear the echoes of Yates’s “girls of the East” who “never giggled,” and of my own, overly earnest, student self, pretending my real name is “Jillian.”

* * *

I’m locked in my room, post-writing workshop, sobbing. My “shapeless” short story “about nothing” has been eviscerated. Rolling around in self-pity, my mind keeps replaying the harshest comments, most of which came from a freshman named Bret Ellis. He’s rude and tactless; I hate him. Slowly, it dawns on me that everything he said was true. I wash my face and go find him at lunch. Just like that, we’re friends.

* * *

In July, I attend The Bennington Summer Writing Workshops with Bret and Donna Tartt. Petite Donna dresses in tailored, masculine clothing as if in direct defiance of the sex-crazed B girl fantasy. Come to think of it, she’s neither a Fitzgerald, Roth, Bellow, Yates, nor Salinger girl; I can’t think of a single tag she fits. All I want to do is listen to her tell stories. One night, after a long riff on tornadoes —how they can pick up shopping centers and cows and make your ears bleed—I lie in bed, wired. Mississippi twisters mix with Rockaway waves in my head. I get up and write: “When Timmy was a baby, his ears bled.” This will be the first line of my first novel From Rockaway, but I can’t see that yet. What I do suddenly understand is how art can happen, at the collision of disparate places, images, or people. “Then as now,” writes Susan Cheever, “Bennington was as much a state of mind as it was a place in southern Vermont. There is magic to the place; connections and events happen there that seem to be larger than life.”

The figure of the Bennington girl will always be a comic footnote in literature, but her days in the spotlight have faded. Though the college still receives outsized attention, the focus is more on the school than the girl. Blame or credit the spread of progressive ed, #metoo or the achievements of B boys—Alan Arkin, Michael Pollan, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Lethem, Tom Sachs, Peter Dinklage, and Justin Theroux among them. I know I should cheer this development. But the truth is, I’m a sucker for a B girl sighting. There she is in Thomas Pynchon’s V, hitting our hero in her car going five miles an hour. There again, in Mary Gaitskill’s “Daisy’s Valentine,” impressing him “by her reputation in the art department, by the quality of the LSD she sold and by her rudeness.” Druggy, crazy, bizarre, it makes no difference. Even John Hersey’s whore who only dresses as a B girl to attract professors is, for me, a perverse thrill.

That said, my deepest pleasures come from accounts of and by the original B girls. Those lucky few who, given the chance to create a school in their own image, rose to the occasion. Free to decide on their classes and lifestyles, these pioneers rejected dogma, prohibition, curfews, and dress codes, embraced annual non-resident work terms, and, as a decades-long study by sociologists proved, almost routinely turned their backs on the politics of their conservative daddies. In a letter to Ezra Pound, EE Cummings wrote to express how impressed he was “que les demoiselles—of all dimensions and costumes—sit around each other’s rooms quaffing applejack neat.”

Lee Lescaze, in a 1979 article in The Washington Post: “Some middle-aged men will grin, thinking perhaps of young women in leotards and of Bennington students much as a Princeton graduate did when he wrote a vignette for Holiday magazine in 1967.” He described how “a Bennington girl crashed a party at his Princeton eating club after her date got drunk and passed out. She confused—and somewhat intimidated—the partygoers for a while.” Then “she ran off with a jazz musician from Trenton.” He sums up, presumably from the elevated perspective of a Princetonian: “It was the right thing for her to do. She was a free soul and we weren’t.”

* * *

About a decade ago, right after Mom’s death, I’m with Dad on a plane, deciding which movie to watch together separately. I’d like to say we choose something Bennington related—the retro Baby Boom, scenes of which take place in the school library, reruns of Cheers with Shelly Long as an alumna, or Igby Goes Down, in which a pair of brothers compete for the heart of a B girl drop-out named Sookie Sapperstein. But we pick Juno, a quirky indie about a pregnant teen who decides to have her baby. Dad has heard (where?) that it’s “entertaining,” and we’re looking for distraction from major turbulence. Like old Cecilia we are literally flying into a storm. While the end credits scroll, we turn to one another with our red, wet, grieving faces. “What would you and Mom have done if that were me?” I finally ask, “If I came to you when I was a teenager and told you I was pregnant?”

Dad doesn’t need to think. “Oh, we’d have sent you away to a place,” he says, right off, “somewhere nice.”

Jill Eisenstadt

Jill Eisenstadt is the author of the novels From Rockaway (Knopf, Vintage Contemporaries, Back Bay Books), Kiss Out (Knopf), and Swell (Little, Brown and Company). Shorter work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Vogue, Bomb, Elle, Town and Country, and Lit Hub, among other places.

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11 Comments on “The Bennington Girl

  1. I was there in 1960. Bennington was here with me when I read your article. It resonated so true, so warmly so funny and so revealing considering the years of therapy and retreats I have attended and didn’t remember so much of that. And I didn’t connect how many of my self toll tails are based in the attitudes that were formed there. I don’t remember having a lot of girlfriends but I remember liking everybody. My roommate was my best friend. Her name is Hannah Hewitt and she died a few years ago about six months after I traveled to New York to spend the day with her not knowing that it would be the only reunion in our 50 years since Bennington. Really liking everybodyAnd so proud to be part of it even then. Now when someone asks me where I went to school it always results in a very specific reaction depending on who asks. It’s so much fun.

  2. God forbid anyone ever found out you were a debutante – secrets like that were a hallmark of many a B Girl.

  3. All so well detailed and fun to read. My favorite line “Here, art isn’t an underfunded extra-curricular. It’s the main event, a devotional or political act.” has defined my life. I’m a B girl cliche with a sense of humor about it all. Thanks Jill!

  4. Even only a friend of a Bennington girl will love reading about how place and time are the lasting influences on one’s creative process. Only Jill Eisenstadt can write with such depth and breadth.

  5. As a proud B girl myself from the class of 92’, you nailed it Jill. This article took me right back to Canfield where I first landed freshman year. My daughter’s best friend just got accepted and is going. May the tradition continue. Long live the B girls!!!!

  6. When I went to Bennington, I had no idea that a “B girl” was a thing. But it became clear when I transferred (from U. of WI) that it was different. The other students were so alive, so full of creative and intense involvement in everything they did. They were my teachers, ultimately. I was so lucky.

  7. The first I heard of the school was back when I had no idea where to apply. This was my senior year at an all girls’ Catholic high school—one which happened to be attached to a convent. An older science teacher who used to try to smoke chalk in the classroom (she was a chain-smoker and absent-minded) said that I was “A Bennington Girl if she’d ever seen one” – and she was ancient, so I guessed that she had. Still, our guidance office had no materials for Bennington. Just places like Boston College on one end and Salve Regina on the other. Resorting to other resources, I read the ‘Vanity Fair’ article that came out that year and which quoted from your novel (“more room on the way home”) and Brett’s and which warned parents from sending their kids there.

    I decided not to share the article with my parents because I didn’t fit the demographic cited as being a probable casualty: rich and inclined to drug abuse. I visited campus on the heels of my tour of The Goodman conservatory program at DePaul University in Chicago, where I’d had the best of my college try-outs for incoming actors (I was sick when I’d visited New York, which limited my options considerably). Despite my “good feeling” about my audition (I did get accepted), it was as simple as laying down in a field and looking up at the stars on the Bennington campus with the student host assigned to me by The Barn for me to know where I would wind up. I fit in. For a misfit, that’s a Big Deal.

    I didn’t get enough of an aid package with my late application senior year, but was encouraged to take a year off and reapply early to get more in the way of help with tuition. When I finally got to school, I was cast in a play with my student host’s roommate, Melanie. The director shared your last name. We were peeing in VAPA when I asked her where she was from. She answered “From Rockaway?” and I instinctively sensed that I should act dumb and not reveal that I knew about her famous author sister.

    Thirty years later, I went back to campus for a summer workshop on Plein Air painting (which I was new to) and met Leslie Daly, from your year. The year before, at the same program, I met an earlier alum, Nancy Tompkins. Leslie stayed on campus that summer and her second week overlapped with Nancy’s first. We three hope to go back to Bennington this summer for a week to paint on campus. The alumni house is closed due to COVID, but we are looking at Air B&B’s. Because B girls are a Thing. To each other. Who cares about The Rest of the World?

  8. The girl in the train bathroom on the way to the Harvard/Yale football game @ Yale,
    was “unmistakably a Sarah Lawrence type..”

    There were similarities between the Sadie Lou girls, but drastic differences, one being considered the ” Country cousin” college,. The citation is inaccurate, understandable, but Franny & Zooey has been my favorite novel since I first read it @ age 12, and it is easily findable in the text, as well as in the archival listing @ SLC of all references to Sarah Lawrence in Literature , Film, and Television.

    Salinger wrote the novel in the late 1950’s, published in 1961, when Yale used to send a bus to Sarah Lawrence every weekend to bus the girls there. Classic pairing with a Yalie.No other all male private Ivy college sent free transportation to SLC to their university.Salinger knew that.

    It is my understanding from researching its history before I decided which college to apply for, that Bennington was founded by a group of wealthy parents of daughters who they knew to be leaning toward lesbian, while at the time Salinger wrote this novel, SLC was very straight girl Bohemian Artsy. Girls dressed up, wore high heels even on weekdays, make up, especially eye make-up. Close to NYC. Different aesthetic.On another note, I think the dancer with short hair in your photo is Carol McDowell, with whom I worked with Tim Miller, and collaborated with artistically in the downtown NYC East Village Performance Art scene.We spoke about the similarities & differences in our undergrad experience . She’s been out in California now for decades, still creatively active as a choreographer, performance artist, after having also been an award winning lighting designer & teaching @ Naropa.

  9. Those were the days! After birth control and before AIDS. Bennington was a place to go, not to ‘find yourself’, but establish your identity and hone it. Then rush out into the world like a wrecking ball! This article embraces the depth, breadth , range and wild contradictions of the B woman. I have never been able to define what my B experience was and how it defined me — but Jill captures it.

  10. This exacting, tonally perfect, witty, objectiv, sophisticated and very well organized piece brought tears to my old eyes. Now I am going to buy her novel. Imagine rescuing a cliche by compiling all the cliches! It’s the best piece of writing of any kind I’ve read in a year. This B girl could write anything!

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