Douglas Fairbanks, Prince Phillip, and Me

In September of 1959, the elegant Queen Elizabeth sailed into Southampton with 30 recent prep school graduates on board as part of the ESU International Schoolboy Fellowship program, myself included. 

Crossing the Atlantic from New York to Southampton was one of the high points of a year filled with high points. My cabin mate was Keith Huffman, who had been at Woodbury Forest in Virginia, and I had been to the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York.  He was my roommate at Yale all four years, met his wife when we were on a blind double-date together in the Virgin Islands, and his eldest daughter is my godchild. Other ESU exchange students who were my Yale roommates were Jim Cohen (Gunnery/Wellingborough) and Toby Hubbard (Taft/Oundle); and close college friends included John Wylie (Hothckiss/Sherborne) and Soren West (Mount Herman/Aldenham). We still get together and reminisce.

Once disembarked in Southampton, we headed to ESU Headquarters in London’s Berkeley Square for lunch, where we were welcomed by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I couldn’t tell you what he said, but his presence was quite wonderful and he looked every bit the English lord, even if he wasn’t.

  After lunch we went to our respective public schools; me to the somewhat Dickensian precincts of Ardingly College, a strongly Church of England school in a village between London and Brighton.

         During the year, the ESU stayed in touch with us and arranged events including a fall gathering in Cambridge, where we were introduced to the delights of the ancient university, the River Cam, and British beer. Our ESU organizers suggested that we might want to form small groups and go to the Continent for the month-long Christmas “hols.” And so we did. Four of us agreed on a basic plan: we’d buy a car, drive across Europe, and go skiing in the Austrian alps. Satisfied that we had a workable plan, we focused on consuming English bitter and ale for the rest of the evening.

          The ESU also arranged a Thanksgiving dinner for perhaps a dozen of us whose schools were within an hour or so of London. We went to the elegant townhouse of a Duke, who had been an ESU exchange student. The table featured candelabra and silver birds while footmen stood behind us during the meal, each with a bottle of wine ready to fill our glasses the moment they were empty. The train trip back to Ardingly was a blur.

        As Christmas was right around the corner, it was time to get our Continental adventure in gear. Happily, a master at Ardingly had a 1939 Hillman for sale, and I bought it for 75 pounds, short money even in those days. When the school term ended, I drove to London, picked up Toby, and found a pub where we celebrated our freedom and stayed the night. The next day, Spencer Hirshberg (Shady Side Academy/Gresham’s School) joined us and we headed to Dover for the channel crossing, which was predictably rough. We were to meet Keith in Vienna and then drive to Seefeld, near Kitzbuhl in the Austrian Alps. And so we made our way across France, where the car acquired a new name — Bébé, probably in homage to Brigitte Bardot — and into Switzerland. Bébé struggled through a snowstorm to the top of the Arlberg Pass, where we spent the night in a tiny village and slept wonderfully well under eiderdown comforters. The next day the snowstorm was over and we drove down into Austria.

        The trip was punctuated by wonderful experiences and the sort of pitfalls that most travelers encounter. We spent Christmas Eve in Wörgl, where, dismayingly, all of the restaurants were closed and, after searching high and low, realized that all we had to eat was a piece of cheese and a bit of bread as well as a few hard candies that a machine at the train station reluctantly dispensed. Oh yes, and a bottle of sherry. But how much sherry can you drink in one sitting? Christmas morning was sunny and bright, breakfast was especially wonderful, and we drove to Vienna, where we met up with Keith and toured the city.

       The next day we drove to Seefeld, where we spent the next two weeks learning how to ski and doing pretty much what students everywhere do these days minus the heavy — or light for that matter — drugs. Seefeld was, and hopefully still is, a picture postcard village with chalets, soaring mountain peaks, and more taverns than one could reasonably expect.

        We may have booked the Pensione Waldruh in advance but am quite confident that none of the other places involved reservations and am astonished by how lucky we were to have always found a room, often in a charming location. Our rooms in Seefeld overlooked the entire valley and the surrounding mountains.

Money, of course, became more and more of an issue and Toby in particular was angsting about calling his parents for more. We were standing at a bar one evening when he decided to flip a coin: heads, he’d call them; tails, he wouldn’t. So he flipped the coin. It flew into the air and, as it came down, Toby missed the catch, and it dropped into the pants cuff of a fellow standing next to us, who then left the bar. Toby didn’t make the call.

       Well, yes, Seefeld was a lot of fun. We more or less learned how to ski, probably visited every tavern in town at least once, and I met a charming German girl from Wiesbaden. We stopped to see her on our way to Amsterdam and in my trip album there is a photo of her, as well as the ticket for the fine we paid for driving through Wiesbaden with Spencer on the running board.

        Amsterdam was pretty much our last stop before heading back to England. As we did in most of the cities we saw, we went to museums and churches and castles. And we had fun in the bars and taverns and pubs, although Amsterdam was a bit unusual. Not surprisingly, we found a charming hotel pretty much at the first place we stopped. The Old Nickel was a typical narrow Dutch building with a restaurant and bar at ground level and a hoist at the roofline for moving furniture. We got something to eat, had a beer, and went out for a stroll along a nearby canal. The lights were on in most of the windows, which made for a very pretty scene. But something seemed odd. In each of the windows was a chair, and in each of the chairs was a woman, who was looking out at us. Good Lord! We were in the Red Light District! We were astonished. We were horrified. We immediately returned to our room. Or did we?

       And so our trip came to an end. We had driven over 2,500 miles through seven countries, ran out of gas once, and had a flat tire. Bébé was somewhat the worse for wear, but a sale was ultimately arranged and we pretty much came out whole.

There were other trips, as well as parties arranged by the ESU, and on the Easter vacation, I hitchhiked in Italy with Spencer, met up with pals in Florence and Rome, stayed in youth hostels — the one in Florence was in a beautiful villa where Mussolini’s mistress had lived — went to Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, and got together with Keith in Paris, where I saw my first opera at the magnificent opera house. That performance of Aida was enough to last me for more than fifty years until 2012, when I married Melissa Clemence, a devoted opera buff and Anglophile.

         So, where does Prince Philip fit in? Some time in the late winter, the ESU held its annual Tiger Party at the Tiger Pub in London, and the guest of honor was Philip. I was one of four or five who were asked to give a talk about their impressions of the year. I decided to talk about the wonderful travel opportunities that the exchange program made possible and figured that the others would be talking about their schools or life among the British, and this proved to be the case. As it happened, I was the only one to draw a mid-speech riposte from Philip. When I started talking about our skiing trip, a royal voice in plummy tones drawled, “Don’t you mean ‘She-ing’? Ho, ho, ho.” I was momentarily floored, then realized that not only was he quite right, but had made the correct German pronunciation of skiing. 

         There’s much more, but I am out of my allotted space. It’s all so close and yet so far away. Inexplicably, the 1959–1960 exchange students are all turning 80 this year.