In the 1970s, well before he became a filmmaker, writer-director Whit Stillman published several pieces in a magazine called The Alternative: An American Spectator—which in 1977 was renamed The American Spectator because “the word ‘alternative,’” according to founding editor R. Emmett Tyrell, Jr., “had come to be associated almost exclusively with radicals and with their way of life.” The American Spectator was and is a conservative magazine, and Stillman—though briefly (starting in 1978) the magazine’s publisher—recently asked a writer for the New York Times Magazine not to mention the periodical, as he now prefers to remain “apolitical.”
That writer, Chip Brown, mentioned it anyway—which of course sent us scurrying to find Stillman’s byline in the magazine’s archives. And by far the most interesting piece we uncovered was not political at all: It was, rather, a long-ish short story that prefigures Stillman’s movies—especially his newest one, Damsels in Distress.
Like that new film, which follows a group of girls who work to prevent suicide at fictional Seven Oaks College by promoting tap dance and good hygiene, “Under the Condor” is about collegiate depression. Published in three parts, the story begins with a macabre epigraph: “Japanese students blow their brains out when they do not get into the college of their choice; Americans some time after they do.” While Damsels was inspired by a group of 1970s Harvard undergraduates, “Under the Condor” actually portrays a set of 1970s Harvard undergraduates; the story is overstuffed with local color: Lowell House, Plympton Street, Lamont Library, Café Pamplona, and so on.
The protagonist is “Jane Repton of Quincy House,” a sophomore. Her father is a senior partner at the amusingly named firm of Solitary, Poor; her mother’s family fortune has dwindled to “a few hundred thousand dollars in worthless Confederate government bonds and an allegiance to the courtly ways of a bygone era.” Jane writes poetry, and has lately become depressed. Her earnest classmate Ben Pasquali is about to found COTTON MATHER’S Magazine for the Arts at Harvard, dedicated to “interestingness.” (“By calling the magazine ‘Cotton Mather’s’ I hope to gain for it the acceptance of the descendants of the Puritans,” Ben says, “who still really run things at Harvard.”)
Reading “Under the Condor” is like watching some lost Stillman movie: It consists mostly of WASP-y young people having sincere but amusing conversations about weighty intellectual matters. Jane is wooed by both Ben and an older fellow named Jim Van Blanck, studying to become a therapist. He tells Jane about a young patient named Ceci, who was assigned Baudelaire in high school “and taught about ‘ennui écrasant.’” Ceci killed herself. “That Ceci is not alive today I hold the designers of the advance placement program in French directly responsible.”
As in his movies, Stillman exquisitely balances the serious and the silly; he also goes in for a touch of the surreal. One day, Jane encounters a giant condor in her room, an obvious symbol, she realizes, of her depression (though it seems entirely real).
There is not much in the way of plot, which comes as no surprise. Jane switches from poetry to prose and begins writing “a descriptive essay on Manhattan” which she plans to call “Gotham: City of Canyons,” or perhaps “New York: City of Canyons.” Ben finds putting together a magazine harder than he anticipated (“the whole notion of an entirely interesting magazine was from the beginning impossible”). Jane goes home for Thanksgiving and learns that her cousin Lisabetta Rockefeller has decided to change her last name to “Sandpiper” (a matter Mr. Repton considers “quite serious”).
Having waited so long for another Whit Stillman movie, I now feel foolish for not having sought out the director’s writing before. In addition to his pieces for The American Spectator, Stillman has published a prose version of the The Last Days of Disco, which received positive (albeit mostly brief) reviews. Before dipping into that, I may turn to Stillman’s undergraduate writings, published in Harvard’s daily paper, The Crimson; unlike his American Spectator contributions, those can be found in full online.