Private-School Poppets Welcome Ferrell, Hugh Grant, Reality-Show Cameras

On the morning of Thursday, June 11, the damp and leafy Riverdale campus of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School welcomed

On the morning of Thursday, June 11, the damp and leafy Riverdale campus of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School welcomed a tall, curly-headed visitor to deliver the commencement address before its graduating upper class of boys and girls in blue caps and gowns.

Will Ferrell did not have a child graduating from the school. And he is not among the school’s notable alumni, which include broadcaster Barbara Walters, filmmaker Sofia Coppola and New Yorker film critic David Denby. The actor’s presence, as a few resourceful parents learned and his publicist confirmed, was a personal favor to Today host Meredith Vieira, who had a daughter graduating that day.

“You might wonder why I’m doing this,” Mr. Ferrell, dressed in a nondescript gray suit, told the assembly from a podium in the school’s quad. “Well, I was paid $10 million—so this will be the last graduating class!”

Unfortunately, the comedian’s jokes failed to impress an audience that included at least one descendant of gourmet supermarket chain founder Eli Zabar, also an alumnus, and a li’l Lehman Brother. 

Mr. Ferrell called Dr. John Love, the principal of Upper School, the “Love Doctor.” He informed the audience that by the time he graduated high school, the “Corrupt Non-Culture University School,” he had kissed one girl, one time. He suggested that perhaps a member of the graduating class could go on to be the first black president, except that that had already been done.

“He totally missed the punch line!” said Victoria Goldman, author of the perennially popular Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools, there to support her graduating nephew. “He should have said that someone here will be the first Jewish president! He just fell flat.”

Mr. Ferrell concluded: “Seniors, repeat after me: Dare to dream, dream to dare … love the Kardashians!” And the audience finally surrendered and shook with laughter.



The reference to a reality-show family was perhaps more apt than Mr. Ferrell realized: On June 23, Bravo will premiere NYC Prep, a series about private-school teens featuring, rather incredibly, Blackstone Group chairman Pete Peterson’s grandson. It is the uncomfortable apex of an obsession with the lives of Manhattan kids that has included books (Andrew Trees’ Academy X; Anisha Lakhani’s Schooled), Facebook scandals (Horace Mann) and, of course, Gossip Girl.

But what is the actual reality?

‘It can be an orgy.’—St. Ann’s graduation speaker Kimi Lee, on her high-school experience

This year, graduation week began with St. Ann’s, the moneyed-bohemian, touchy-feely, grade-less crown jewel of Brooklyn Heights. Once dominated by the children of artists and writers—alums include designer Zac Posen, gallerist Vito Schnabel (son of Julian), actress Eva Amurri (daughter of Susan Sarandon) and spawn of Sigourney Weaver and Ellen Barkin—the school has in recent years welcomed the children (and money) of investment bankers looking for a little artistic street cred.

Around 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 9, parents, many in cocktail frocks, filed into St. Ann’s Church on the corner of Montague and Clinton Streets. Their kids wore suits and colorful knee-length dresses instead of caps and gowns. Mini-fans were distributed at the entrance; the old church often gets stuffy.

The St. Ann’s graduating class elects five student speakers, the most memorable of which was a smiley young girl in a floor-length, sleeveless cream gown and weighty diamond earrings named Kimi Lee.

Ms. Lee, whose father teaches print-making at the school, struggled to describe her unique education at St. Ann’s. Maybe it was like a carnival, or maybe …

“It can be an orgy, because, after all, the St. Ann’s ethos has always been uninhibited, experimental, gratifying and incestuous,” she told the audience, before offering that perhaps the best adjective to describe her education was “delicious!”

Another speaker, Sam Sullivan, a student of poetry, said some very romantic things about “enchanted gardens” and “childish frolic” and the importance of “fantasy!”

“Before anyone in the so-called real world has a chance to fool us, the gardeners, the graduates, into believing that our lives are about power or money or anything else equally mind-numbing,” he warned, “let us go out and just be, because only good can come from that. In the real real world, there is nothing, but love.”

Mr. Sullivan then pulled out a guitar and led those gathered in a swaying, earnest rendition of ABBA’s Dancing Queen. 

Later that evening, the students would be headed to a rented after-party in a loft—the secret address was texted to graduates around 11 p.m.—where they would celebrate their commencement with ironic beer like Miller High Life and Busch; sweaty grinding; and privately hired security guards. The after-after-party was at Dumbo Park, where the graduates traditionally watch the sunrise.

At 10 a.m. the next morning, there was a power trifecta of graduations.

At the West End Collegiate Church, mothers with carefully hair-sprayed up-dos and tweed designer suits swooned over their sweet boys with neatly combed hair and gentlemanly loafers, a surprising number of which spoke with British accents. In the audience, The Observer spotted the actor Hugh Grant, wearing a brown blazer and slacks, smirking as the Collegiate boys made their way inside. (Among the graduating class was a James Murray Fitzgerald Grant—presumably a relation.)

Before the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Dr. Glenn Lowry—whose son Nicholas graduated in 2000—delivered the commencement address, a tall, skinny, student-elected speaker named James Englander Underberg got up and referenced some raucous party behavior.

Private-School Poppets Welcome Ferrell, Hugh Grant, Reality-Show Cameras