NEW YORKERS DISAPPEAR all the time. A handful leap into the public eye and remain there, like 6-year-old Etan Patz. An even smaller number miraculously return after decades, like Carlina White, stolen as a baby from a Harlem hospital in 1987 and found more than 20 years later when she discovered her real identity. But most are forgotten, lost to history through apathy or outright indifference.
What makes the case of Peter Winston so baffling is that at one time he was fairly well-known. The cover of the December 19, 1964, edition of The Saturday Evening Post bears the words “BOY GENIUS,” and inside, not far removed from a short story by Thomas Pynchon, is Gilbert Millstein’s account of a very special 6-year-old child attending one of the earliest of the schools for gifted children that popped up around the New York City area, Sands Point Elementary in Long Island.
Peter was, Millstein wrote, “a wiry, intense-looking youngster with dark-blond hair and hazel eyes, big ears, a wide vulnerable mouth and a somewhat oracular manner of address that is in peculiar contrast to both the shape of his mouth and his childish treble.” At 18 months, he learned the alphabet by studying the spines of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and he was reading the volumes mere months after that. He mastered fractions by 3. He could tell people—as he did Sands Point’s headmaster—what day of the week their birthday would fall on in any given year using the “calendar in his head.” At age 5, Peter stood up in class and gave a detailed precis of the assassination of President Kennedy, cobbled together from newspaper and TV accounts. He even argued about the existence of God with a classmate, Richard Brody, now a writer for The New Yorker, fascinating the teacher who overheard a snatch of the conversation.
Mr. Brody and other Sands Point classmates remembered Peter as the smartest person they ever knew, and a total eccentric. While the other kids ate cafeteria food, Peter brought the same brown-bag lunch—“salami wrapped in tinfoil, a container of milk and a banana,” Mr. Brody said—every day. He wore hunter boots where others wore penny loafers, and at baseball games he would generally broadcast the action to himself.
His gait was awkward, arms and legs flailing, except when he ran outdoors, which he did with joyful abandon. Peter questioned authority with a biting wit—provoking his sixth-grade science teacher to threaten to “put a rock in his skull.” (The teacher was later fired.)
He burned with such intensity and charisma, Mr. Brody recalled, that if he desired to be a leader, “he would have been followed eagerly and without hesitation.” But as late as age 6, Peter was still sleeping in a crib in his parents’ bedroom, baffling his classmates.