Miss Porter’s Finishing School for Young Ladies was founded in 1843 by an educational reformer who could have had no idea of the fame, fortune, scandal and accomplishment her students would achieve.
Sarah Porter was born Aug. 17, 1813, the daughter of a well-to-do Congregationalist minister and his wife in Farmington, Conn. Her education was the best available for young ladies at the time. She was tutored by Yale professors and learned four languages. When she was in her 80s, she taught herself Hebrew.
She started Miss Porter’s with 18 students. The school soon grew into national prominence with nearly 100 students by the 1880s. The curriculum included her included Latin, French, German, spelling, reading, arithmetic, trigonometry, history, geography, chemistry, physiology, botany, geology and astronomy. Some of the school's early alumni include classical scholar Edith Hamilton and her sister Dr. Alice Hamilton, the first woman faculty member of Harvard University Medical School and founder of the field of industrial medicine.
President John F. Kennedy had a penchant for Miss Porter’s graduates. He married one, Jacqueline Bouvier, and had an affair with another, Mimi Alford. Alford later wrote a tell-all book, Once Upon A Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy and its Aftermath.
When Jacqueline Bouvier attended Miss Porter’s, the girls were trained to have exquisite manners. They were taught to speak softly and hold refined conversation. Linen napkins were ironed three times. The girls waited on tables so they would know how to host dinners.
Donald Spoto, in Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: A Life, described the Miss Porter’s creed:
A girl at Miss Porter's was expected to rise to the occasion, to put her best foot forward, to do what was right -- even in times of crisis -- and to display, as the chaplain often said at the nondenominational Sunday services, "guts and gumption."
The school has always been known for academic excellence, though some of the heiresses who attended were more interested in café society than academics.
Here are some of the more interesting alumnae of Miss Porter’s School.
Princess Anastasia of Greece and Denmark was an American heiress born Nonie "Nancy" May Stewart Worthington Leeds in Zanesville, Ohio. Her family soon moved to Cleveland, where she was homeschooled until she was sent to Miss Porter’s. After graduation she was introduced to high society. She married She married Prince Christopher of Greece and Denmark after two failed marriages.
Brenda Diana Duff Frazier was one of the Depression Era’s ‘Poor little rich girls.’ She was born to wealthy alcoholic parents about whom a judge once said "Neither parents appears to have been in the past, nor appears to be now, any paragon of virtue in parenthood.’ She was shunted off to boarding schools, including Miss Porter’s. even as she appeared in café society at 15. She married football star Shipwreck Kelly and had affairs with New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno and Howard Hughes. Married unhappily to a sales executive, she tried suicide more than 30 times.
Edith Bouvier Beale, a first cousin to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, was a debutante who pursued fame without much luck until the documentary film Grey Gardens came along. She ended up living with her mother in her East Hampton estate. They fell into poverty and isolation. When the film came out, Jackie intervened and paid $32,000 to clean the house, install a new furnace and plumbing system and cart away 1,000 bags of garbage. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee bought the house in 1979.
Gloria Vanderbilt is an heiress, socialite, blue jean designer and another victim of a custody battle. Her father died of cirrhosis when she was a toddler, and her carefree mother lost a custody battle to her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whltney. She married movie agent Pat DiCicco in 1941, when she was 17. After graduating from Miss Porter’s, she studied at the Art Student's League. She maintained a romance with photographer Gordon Parks for many years. Other notable lovers included Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes, and Roald Dahl. Truman Capote was said to have modeled the character of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's on her. With her fourth husband, Wyatt Emory Cooper, she had two sons: Carter, who committed suicide at 23 by jumping out of a 14-story building, and Anderson, CNN news anchor.
Dina Merrill is the only child of Post Cereals heiress, Marjorie Merriweather Post, and her second husband, the Wall Street stockbroker, Edward Francis Hutton. Hollywood actress who appeared in 22 films, including Caddyshack.
Cissy Patterson was the granddaughter of Joseph Medill, owner of the Chicago Tribune and mayor of Chicago. She became owner, editor and publisher of the Washington Times-Herald,after making a name for herself in Washington, D.C., society. She was friends with Marguerite Cassini, daughter of the Russian ambassador, and Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice. The press labeled them the ‘Three Graces.’ She married Count Josef Gizycki after a long romance and over her parents’ strenuous objections. They were right. He was a womanizer, gambler and wife beater who kidnapped their daughter for 18 months, demanding $1 million in ransom. Patterson spent 13 years trying to divorce him.
Theodate Pope Riddle graduated with the Class of 1888, having hired faculty members to tutor her privately in architecture. She was the first woman to become a licensed architect in both New York and Connecticut. Riddle designed Hill-Stead, the family estate (now Hill-Stead Museum) in Farmington and designed and founded the famous Avon Old Farms School and Westover School. She reconstructed the birthplace of former President Theodore Roosevelt.
Eliza Osgood Vanderbilt Webb, the granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, attended Miss Porter’s School during the 1870s. She inherited $10 million, and with it she bought and developed Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vt. She designed gardens, decorated the interior and planned meals – including one ofr President William Henry Taft. Her husband, William Seward Webb, missed that dinner, Taft said, because he was drunk.
Sarah Porter died on Feb. 18, 1900.
Photo: New library, 1964, courtesy LOC.