The curious case of Patrick J. Witt has taken another turn, bringing the Yale football star back into the news. It began, of course, last fall, when Witt faced a decision that Bloomberg News went so far as to call “Hamlet-like”: Should Witt fly to Atlanta to be interviewed by the Rhodes Scholarship committee, or, as the Bulldogs’ star quarterback, use that afternoon to lead his team against Harvard in The Game?
When he decided to pass up a chance at Oxford for a shot at gridiron glory, he became a folk hero. But then he suffered two setbacks. First, despite his efforts on the field, The Game was settled decisively in Harvard’s favor, 45-7.
Then, in late January, The New York Times reported that Witt had been accused by a female student of sexual assault and that his Rhodes application had been suspended before the scheduled interview. Witt’s agent, however, later told the newspaper that contact between the quarterback and the student had been consensual, and that Witt had decided to pass on the scholarship before the Rhodes committee knew of the allegation. Whatever the truth in this case, a basic question remains: What’s the worth of the world’s most prestigious scholarship?
It is on this question that I consulted Leslie Epstein, the Boston author and professor who in his Yale days (Class of 1960) was as controversial as Witt—if in a different way—when he applied for the Rhodes Scholarship. As he likes to say, he was kicked out of every school he attended.
Epstein got into Yale just barely, originally wait-listed because, he says, the quota of Jewish students had been filled. (That system was dropped several years later.) He liked Yale, finding “a general atmosphere of respect for learning, learning for learning’s sake,” he told me. Yet even there Epstein became the living example of the Latin persona non grata.
In one incident he recalls from that period, he and a friend were walking downtown one day when they spotted Mayor Richard C. Lee going in and out of various shops. When his friend asked why, Epstein replied, “It’s three o’clock on Thursday—time to collect.”
The mayor heard the remark and its implication—that he was a crook. The next morning in the dean’s office, Epstein’s file was dragged out. He’d been guilty, as a freshman, of complaining about the food, and later of talking back to a professor who’d mocked a fellow student’s paper. This collection of campus misdemeanors resulted in the dean’s invitation to Epstein to pack his bags.
Though the school eventually readmitted him, it never forgot his reputation. As a senior, Epstein applied for the Rhodes—a move not supported by Yale authorities. As Epstein recalls, “President Griswold, while skating on the hockey rink, literally fell on his ass when the list of winners was read out. ‘What?’ he said, while picking himself up off the ice. ‘That rude young man?’” Epstein tells the stories of his formative years with a kind of self-deprecation. “I was a jerk,” he says. But not too much of a jerk, apparently. Even then he showed the shrewdness that literary critics would later applaud.
He has detailed his interview with Oxford authorities on a blog that’s called How Rhodes Scholars Think. When he was asked: “Imagine there is a strike in London and all the movies and theaters and museums are closed—how would you spend a free afternoon?,” he says he replied, “I don’t know—I’d already be on the ferry to Paris.”
His portrait of Oxford itself is not flattering either. He got out of town whenever possible, spending as much time traveling through Spain, Italy and other countries where “people were smiling and whistling a little” as in the institution that held its first class in 1096.
From the blog interview: “In lectures I was learning Anglo-Saxon poems about how to get your cow out of a bog and how to persuade bees to make honey. I was bored out of my mind. I thought Oxford was fundamentally an unserious place.”
He elaborated for me: “You were not allowed to discuss politics or history at mealtime. It was all about sports and girls.” In this atmosphere, he says, “I was an idiot. But there were bigger idiots—Americans were serving tea and speaking with a British accent.”
Epstein selected a curriculum that led him to the class of the renowned Isaiah Berlin, who, apparently, was much more capable as a social and political theorist than as a lecturer. Among many other accomplishments, Berlin translated Turgenev from the Russian into English. But in class, Epstein recalls, Berlin needed his own translator. “You spent your time trying to figure out what he was saying—you could not understand a word.”
At the end of a year at Oxford, Epstein didn’t need a dean to kick him out. He did it himself, and continued his travels. But then he discovered that, without enrollment on a campus, he’d be considered draft-eligible by the U.S. Army. He went back to Oxford and finished his education there while focusing on anthropology, which he found a fruitful pursuit.
He also found himself well taken care of. While traveling he’d eaten something that weeks later gave him terrible chills, and then the diagnosis of jaundice. “I was two weeks in intensive care, with wonderful nurses running out to get my Rice Krispies. When I walked out, I didn’t pay a penny”—thanks to socialized medicine. The stint at Oxford also yielded other benefits leading directly to professional success.
At his home, Epstein has an old book held together by rubber bands: The Final Solution: The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews of Europe, 1939-45, by Gerald Reitlinger. He’d found it while a student at Oxford, where he dog-eared a page about the Lodz ghetto.
“That’s where I got the idea—at Oxford you have lots of time to read—for King of the Jews.” That’s the novel Epstein wrote in 1979—a dark yet humorous tale of a Jewish man put in charge of the ghetto by the Nazis. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “the best book written about the Holocaust.” It’s since been translated into 11 languages.
Epstein is also a playwright, the result of a post-Oxford professional path that brought him for a second time to New Haven, where he enrolled in the Yale Drama School.
For more than 30 years now he has been head of Boston University’s creative writing program. But for all his accomplishments, he is not the most famous figure in his family. His son Theo, another Yale grad, was general manager of the Red Sox during two championship seasons and now is with the Chicago Cubs. Other family notables: his late father and uncle, Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein, Oscar winners for the script for Casablanca.
Even so, Leslie Epstein is sought out. He met recently with another kind of Oxford committee—“two old men, trying to raise money. I said, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy—I kicked myself out of Oxford.’” Still, they persisted and Epstein wrote a check.
As for the Witt mess, Epstein says, “I don’t think anybody came out of this with any particular honor—the quarterback, the school or the coach. [Tom Williams was fired after falsely representing to Witt that as a student he had once been in the same position.] The needle everywhere is swinging toward cynicism. It’s a shame, but it’s the truth.”
The Game has become an event in which no one wins.