Fri 14 Apr 2017
“Elia Kazan, the immigrant child of a Greek rug merchant who became one of the most honored and influential directors in Broadway and Hollywood history […]”
So opens the Times’ 2003 obituary of one of Williams’ most distinguished alumni, whose work profoundly influenced generations of Hollywood stars and auteurs.
Kazan attended Williams in the late 20’s, graduating in the class of 1930; Kazan’s experience there, described vividly in his autobiography, is fascinating as a snapshot of a Williams, and an America, of a bygone age.
I have here excerpted and re-assembled, from his autobiography, Williams in Kazan’s words:
Williams College. I’d never heard of the place […] [but] it was far from home and my father’s authority.
I applied for admission […] Williams would be my liberated life, I’d be on the right track at last.
Then the news came. I’d been accepted at Williams, class of 1930.
Williamstown was pleasant enough that summer in 1980, but in the fall of 1926, when I saw it for the first time, it was enchanting. There was a soft, cool breeze that day, and the sky was a deep saturation of blue near purple over low, ever moving, cotton-white clouds. Looking between the buildings – some classic Georgian, others great lumps of gray or reddish stone – the eye found, at the end of each vista, the softly scalloped Berkshire Hills, called “the mountains.” They embraced a broad valley, making it home. The buildings on campus were well spaced, between them lay generous lawns, perfectly green after an untrampled summer’s growth. Upperclassmen were everywhere, reawakening old acquaintance; trim and healthy, they seemed happy to be back. All the young men were dressed in casually pressed trousers, flannel or corduroy, and soft woolen sweaters – the frost comes early in northwestern Massachusetts. Some boys, especially fit and broad shouldered, wore heavy-knit black sweaters with large purple W’s across their chests. These were the lettermen, the athletes of the teams. Everywhere there was an atmosphere of privilege and affluence; in a bay apart from the storm, the elite was gathering.
It was not all Billsville bliss, however. Kazan was profoundly influenced by his adverse experience with — rather, outside of — the fraternity scene. He describes the darker side of Williams of the late ‘20s, in the rigidly stratified social life that dominated it and virtually all other private and wealthy institutions of the time:
Now I must confess my foolishness. I had actually expected to be invited to join a fraternity.
That autumn there was no message for me from the fraternity brothers except the message of silence. How crushing that silence was in ’26. It hurt for four dark, cold years.
Jews and blacks weren’t taken into fraternities at Williams in 1926. From that week in 1926 on, I knew what I was. An outsider. In time I began to see I wasn’t the only one. There were three blacks in the class of ’30. At graduation, one was our valedictorian, another our salutatorian; the third was number four in the class.
I decided to relieve father of my dependency. I got a job waiting tables at the Zeta Psi fraternity. I learned how to clear tables six plates at a time. I walked through snow in sneakers to serve the Zetes their breakfast. Sometimes the wind-driven sleet stung like frozen tears.
My salvation was the college library. I lived in the stacks, like a small animal finding refuge in a mass of brambles. I’d take out books by the bagful, read late at night and between classes in the day. Books were the solution to my life […] by the light of their stories, I understood the drama of my own life.
I went to North Adams, five miles by trolley, and entered the movie theater there […] I felt comfortable in the mill town – no rich boys there, just mutts like me.
It took me many years to quiet this rage against my classmates […] But I notice still that every time I receive a request for money from the Williams Alumni Fund, I have a reflex to chuck it in the wastebasket, and usually do.
Kazan further reflects on Williams’ lasting effects:
Four years at Williams made a certain kind of man of me, not an agreeable man but a self-reliant, tough-skinned, resolute, and determined man.
In my senior year at Williams, I’d had one teacher who did influence me. Mr. Dutton taught English lit, and I wrote a paper for him on “The Waste Land.” […] In class, it was his passion for what he was teaching that impressed me. In some way I don’t quite understand, Dutton made me believe that perhaps, somewhere in the broad range of a life in the arts, there might be a niche for me and that I might well mark time until that niche appeared.
And what a niche it was.
From a 2012 Jack Sawyer interview in the Williams Alumni Review:
After [fraternities] were abolished, we found that alumni who had been estranged from the college began to reconnect. This was particularly true of Jewish alumni. Someone who was not Jewish but who certainly illustrated this was Elia Kazan ’30, the great film director, who began to pay attention to Williams. And it made a financial difference too. People who hadn’t given to the college began to give again.
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