We were in bare legs and shirt sleeves, drinking white wine on the patio at Lucques in West Hollywood — in February. But nearly everyone I spoke to was waxing nostalgic for snowy New England.
The occasion was the alumni reception last week for St. Paul’s School in rural Concord, N.H., one of America’s most prestigious boarding schools and a bastion of WASP values.
I’d been hearing a lot about California kids going back East for boarding school. For many Californians, who grew up going to public school, it’s a weird idea. Why would anybody want to leave their family? Or forsake our great city for the hidebound East Coast?
At the reception, Majandra Delfino, an actress, said some of her Hollywood friends are “kind of horrified” at the idea of sending their kids away before college.
“They think it’s a punishment,” said Delfino, whose husband, David Walton, was in the St. Paul’s class of ’97. “They think it was because he was bad or something. It’s a culture clash.”
I was equally horrified when my daughter, age 14, asked if she could go to boarding school.
At $50,000 a year to send her away, there was no point in even discussing this for one second. I didn’t even ask her why, I just said no.
I was a little angry she didn’t want to be with me through her high school years. Were mean girls picking on her at her Catholic school five miles from my home? Had I done something wrong that she wanted to flee?
Years later, long after the idea passed out of her head, I found out part of the real reason — Hogwarts.
She had a romantic vision of walking the ancient hallways infused with knowledge with Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron. There could be great adventure in those hushed classrooms. What mysteries lay in the dusty libraries of boarding school?
L.A. and Immaculate Heart High just didn’t cut it.
In fact, Robert A. Barr, St. Paul’s director of gift planning, who was at the reception, told me the Harry Potter books come up all the time. St. Paul’s main dining hall, with its vaulting barrel ceilings and high-backed wooden chairs, looks like Dumbledore might walk in any minute.
“I take kids in there and tell them, ‘There’s where we keep our sorting hats, and they’re like, ‘Wow,’ ” Barr said.
Standing in Lucques as the crowd of St. Paul’s alumni sampled mushroom canapes and bacon-wrapped dates, I realized there were several forces at play. Even in a world city like L.A., kids naturally yearn for something grander than the punk clothing stores of Hollywood & Highland Center or the orange sodium glow on Sunset.
Their parents want to give their kids all the trappings of the upper crust. St. Paul’s has sent generations of blue-bloods including Secretary of State John Kerry and William Randolph Hearst to Ivy League universities. It’s affiliated with the Episcopal faith, once the unofficial religion of the American ruling class.
L.A. historically has been defensive about its lack of tradition, and hungry for the East Coast Establishment’s imprimatur. It turns out that California sends the third-largest contingent of any state to St. Paul’s, behind New York and Massachusetts.
Most of the parents I talked to at the reception, however, were not from California. Rather, they were East Coasters who came out West seeking the energy and freedom.
I was struck by how many, despite their impeccable East Coast credentials, had found their way to L.A. to work in creative endeavors.
Tina Pickering, the alumni relations director, stood near the patio entrance straightening rows of plastic-covered badges imprinted with the St. Paul’s shield (a nesting bird and crossed swords over a closed book). She said many L.A. “Paulies,” who include Judd Nelson of “The Breakfast Club,” are in Hollywood.
“Mostly writers,” she said. “We have a strong writing program.”
David Walton plays Sam in the sitcom “New Girl.” He grew up in Boston, where boarding school was “just what you did from 14 to 18. I didn’t even think about staying home.”
But he and Delfino most definitely want to see their 8-month-old daughter at St. Paul’s someday.
“Today she was wearing a little St. Paul’s onesie,” said Delfino, known for her role in the TV show “Roswell.”
Morgan Pietz went to St. Paul’s from Dayton, Ohio. His wife went to Harvard-Westlake here. He was a TV producer for years, before attending law school at USC.
Pietz, whose office is in Manhattan Beach, is not sure where they would send their kids if they had any: “That’s a battle my wife and me would have to have,” he said.
Throughout the reception, the parents extolled the quality of the education, the people they met, the beauty of living in the 2,000 wooded acres of the campus.
It’s “a fantastic education in the most beautiful, magical setting,” Walton said.
As it turns out, in this magical setting, Californians are prized for their diversity — ethnic, racial and geographic.
Hilary Doubleday, a design consultant in Santa Barbara, has a daughter who’s a sophomore at St. Paul’s. She said she’s never been so popular, and that’s because she brought her California culture with her, “Legally Blonde"-style.
“Her friends appreciate her ability to have fun, and her creativity,” Doubleday said.
I don’t know if my daughter could have gotten into St. Paul’s, which accepts only 18% of applicants. She found her adventure another way. Today she is in Amsterdam, studying humanities.
And I don’t know where she’ll end up. But I’m heartened that so many who might have had a place with the East Coast elites found their way here.
Was it the weather? The freedom from tradition? The chaotic mix of people and cultures? The endless malls and fast food?
All of the above.