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Ranch School not for Vidal

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Obituary: Author called the school ‘awful’

By Arin McKenna

The Associated Press is reporting that the lights on Broadway will be dimmed for one minute at 8 p.m. Friday night to honor the memory of Gore Vidal. Vidal died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles.

A revival of his prize-winning 1960 play, “The Best Man,” is currently enjoying a successful run at New York’s Schoenfeld Theatre.

Vidal had a prolific career, with 24 novels, five plays, many screenplays and more than 200 essays to his credit. The Boston Globe called him “our greatest living man of letters.”

Vidal received acclaim for his historical novels, including “Burr” (1973) and “Lincoln” (1984). He won the 1993 National Book Award for “United States (Essays 1952-92)” the first in a multi-volume fictional “chronicle” of American history.

But Vidal’s writing accumen covered a broad spectrum, earning him acclaim for work ranging from the satirical “Myra Breckenridge” to the script for “Suddenly, Last Summer.”

Vidal spent one of his 86 years — from 1939 to1940–at the Los Alamos Ranch School.

“It was not a very good year of his life,” said Los Alamos Historical Society Executive Director Heather McClenahan. “He hated it and did not return. That was pretty common. Some students thrived and loved it and did will, and others left within a year.”

According to John D. Wirth and Linda Harvey Aldrich in “Los Alamos: the Ranch School years 1917-1943,” Headmaster Lawrence Hitchcock considered Vidal a nonconformist genius.

The authors quote a 1973 article in the Albuquerque Journal North by Joseph Dispenza, in which Vidal called the school “awful.” “For a sensitive lad like me, roughing it at the ranch school was, well, too much,” Vidal told Dispenza.

“Roughing it” held a significant place in founder Ashley Pond’s philosophy. He wanted to help weak, frail boys grow into strong men.

The daily routine included calisthenics, horseback riding, a wide range of sports and labor on school projects. Boys were “toughened up” by sleeping on outdoor porches and wearing short pants year round.

The boys rose at 6 a.m., downed two glasses of water, and then performed outdoor calisthenics in all types of weather. Mornings were devoted to classwork, while the afternoons alternated between horseback riding, hiking and community projects. The boys also spent all day Saturday on horseback.

Students worked in the gardens and repaired buildings, trails and fences. The reports to their parents included grades for their work on these projects, as well as reports on their physical progress.

It is not hard to imagine why such a life would not appeal to a budding writer. Vidal’s first novel, “Williwaw,” was published just six years later, in 1946.

The isolation may also have been difficult for Vidal. Students were given little free time. Director A.J. Connell would take a select few to concerts or movies in Santa Fe, but those privileges were withheld for minor infractions.

That may have been hard on someone who would become a celebrity author, appearing frequently on talk shows and other public venues. Vidal also ran twice for political office.

In spite of Vidal’s lack of love for the ranch school, the Los Alamos Historical Museum includes him in its book of famous alumni, claiming one of America’s greatest writers as one of Los Alamos’ own.