The educational reformer who founded Miss Porter’s School in 1843 could not have imagined 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. She had the best education available for young ladies at the time. Yale professors tutored her and she learned four languages. When she reached her 80s, she taught herself a fifth: Hebrew.
Sarah Porter started Miss Porter’s with 18 students. By the 1880s, Miss Porter’s grew into national prominence with nearly 100 students. The curriculum included Latin, French, German, spelling, reading, arithmetic, trigonometry, history, geography, chemistry, physiology, botany, geology and astronomy.
Miss Porter’s Alumnae
Classical scholar Edith Hamilton graduated from Miss Porter’s. So did her sister Dr. Alice Hamilton, the first woman faculty member of Harvard University Medical School and founder of the field of industrial medicine.
Graduates would include the mother, daughter, wife, sister-in-law and mistress of presidents.
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.
Jacqueline Bouvier’s sister Lee — later Princess Lee Radziwell — also studied at Miss Porter’s.
When Jacqueline Bouvier attended Miss Porter’s, the girls were trained to have exquisite manners, to speak softly and to hold refined conversation. Housekeepers ironed linen napkins three times, but 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.”
Miss Porter’s has always enjoyed a reputation for academic excellence, though some of the heiresses who attended were more interested in café society than calculus.
Below is a brief list of some of Miss Porter’s famous graduates.
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 and sent her to Miss Porter’s. After graduation she entered high society and married Prince Christopher of Greece and Denmark after two failed marriages. Because of the prince’s finances, the U.S. press called her the ‘Tin Plate Heiress,’ the ‘Dollar Princess’ and the ‘Million Dollar Princess.’
Brenda Diana Duff Frazier was one of the Depression Era’s ‘Poor little rich girls.’ Neither of her parents were paragons of virtue in parenthood, according to a judge. They shunted her 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, pursued fame without much luck. Then the documentary film Grey Gardens came along. The film showed her living with her mother, poor and isolated on an East Hampton estate. 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 — heiress, socialite, blue jean designer — also fell victim to a custody battle. Her father died of cirrhosis when she was a toddler, and her carefree mother lost a sensational custody case to her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whltney. She married movie agent Pat DiCicco at the age of 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. As a Hollywood actress she appeared in 22 films, including Caddyshack.
Hostages and Hostesses
Cissy Patterson was the granddaughter of Joseph Medill, owner of the Chicago Tribune and mayor of Chicago. She made a name for herself in Washington society, then bought and published the Washington Times-Herald. She befriended Marguerite Cassini, daughter of the Russian ambassador, and Alice Roosevelt. The press labeled them the ‘Three Graces.’ She then married Count Josef Gizycki over her parents’ strenuous objections. Patterson should have listened to them. He beat her, cheated on her, gambled and kidnapped her for 18 months, demanding $1 million in ransom. Patterson spent 13 years trying to divorce him.
Theodate Pope Riddle graduated from Miss Porter’s with the Class of 1888. She hired faculty members to tutor her privately in architecture. After surviving the sinking of the Lusitania, she got her license as an architect in New York and Connecticut, the first woman to do so. Riddle designed Hill-Stead, the family estate (now Hill-Stead Museum) in Farmington, and she designed and founded the famous Avon Old Farms School and Westover School. She also 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 for President William Henry Taft. Her husband, William Seward Webb, missed that dinner, Taft said, because he’d gotten drunk.
This story was updated in 2021.