Famous Failures

Forty-five years ago, an ambitious young man from the West Coast arrived on Old Campus as many freshman do: homesick, underconfident and missing his high school sweetheart (Lynne). Fewer than two years later, the freshman football player, a future vice president of the United States, decided he’d had about enough of Yale. And so Dick Cheney (not quite ’63), dropped out, twice.

“A Yale degree is worth a lot, as I often remind [Cheney],” President George W. Bush ’68 said at Commencement in 2001. “So now we know — if you graduate from Yale, you become president. If you drop out, you get to be vice president.”

At Yale, the ranks of the almost-graduated are about as distinguished as those of the actually-graduated, including, in addition to Cheney, Mark Rothko (nearly ’25); Oliver Stone (almost ’68); Paul Newman (just missed DRA ’54). And this is just the short list. The dropouts range from James Fenimore Cooper and Joyce Maynard to David Duchovney and Jennifer Garner.

So, you still think a Yale diploma is your ticket to fame and fortune? Consider the accomplishments of those who never quite made it through the shortest, gladdest years of their lives, and you might reconsider. Turns out, the best thing an ambitious student can do at Yale is get out of here before graduation. Now’s the time to read and learn, for seniors especially — after all, May is just eight months away.



DICK CHENEY ’63

What is it about Yale and the White House?

“People ask, ‘Is it in the water up there? What’s going on?'” said Jeff Brenzel ’75, executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni.

Whatever was in the taps clearly left a bad taste in Vice President Dick Cheney’s mouth. Cheney spent two years as an undergraduate at Yale before transferring to the University of Wyoming in his home state. His official White House biography notes only that he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wyoming — no mention of Yale.

Cheney, who had been an All-State football player and class president at his high school in Casper, Wyo., arrived at Yale with the same record of overachievement as the rest of his new classmates. In the fall of his freshman year, Cheney joined the freshman football team, which would end the season undefeated, and in the spring played for the freshman baseball team that earned a 14-1 record. But still, friends remembered Cheney — who hailed from a town of 46,000 — as overwhelmed and homesick for his high school sweetheart, Lynne.

Cheney took his sophomore spring off, but returned the following spring to resume his studies. But he never returned after that semester and moved back home to Wyoming, where he graduated from college in 1965 with a degree in political science.

Cheney pursued a life of public service, becoming a Yale almost-alum in two administrations led by true Yale alumni–former president George H. W. Bush ’48 and President George W. Bush ’68.



MARK ROTHKO ’25

Rest assured — a Yale degree is not necessary for the painting of rectangles, and, thereby, the shaping of an entire artistic movement.

Mark Rothko was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of 10, without knowing a word of English. Still, Rothko managed to win a scholarship to Yale, and entered in the fall of 1921. Beyond his original intention to become an attorney or engineer — he excelled at math — not much is known about his time at Yale. (Admit it — you had no idea he even went here, did you?)

“I didn’t know he went to Yale,” art history professor David Joselit said. “I don’t think it’s a well-known fact about him.”

Rothko struggled through his sophomore year when his scholarship was not renewed and departed Yale at the end of the year. The future artist found his way to New York, where he met the artists who would join him in shaping the art world later in the century. Rothko would become a master of Abstract Expressionism.



OLIVER STONE ’68

Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone began his novel, “A Child’s Night Dream” — a bawdy, thinly fictionalized version of his year at Yale and his life after he dropped out — while an undergraduate.

In real life, Stone failed all his second-semester classes, choosing instead to work on his book. And what came of his sacrifice? The text was rejected by publishers, languished for years (inside a shoebox, supposedly), and was then finally reworked and published in 1998. It was not well-received.

“These adolescent thrashings-about did not deserve resurrection,” one reviewer wrote in The New York Times Book Review.

Stone — apparently no happier with Yale than his protagonist — left school after a year, moved to Vietnam and became an English teacher. He later enlisted in the Army and fought in Vietnam, earning two Purple Hearts and finding the inspiration for much of his later war-soaked film work.



PAUL NEWMAN DRA ’54

It was a football-career-ending injury at Kenyon College that steered this leading man toward acting and the Yale Drama School. Newman spent two years on the Yale stage, but the call of Broadway proved to be too strong and he left the Elm City for New York. Newman would charm audiences on stage and on screen, compiling an impressive filmography and list of award nominations.

Most students on campus, too young to remember the glory days of this blue-eyed boy’s career (though who hasn’t thought about trying to emulate his hard-boiled egg-eating prowess from “Cool Hand Luke”?), know him as the maker of tasty salad dressings and popcorn.

Newman, who was named a Calhoun College Fellow, gave a Calhoun College Master’s Tea in 1996, speaking passionately about his service work. Calhoun College Master William Sledge, who said he enjoys Newman’s food products, said he thought it would be great if Newman could give Yale Dining Services lessons or get his products served in the dining hall. Forget money for campus renovations; let’s milk this illustrious alumnus for Fig Newmans and Newman-Os.



CLAIRE DANES ’03

With “My So-Called Life” under her belt and a blossoming film career, Danes was accepted to Yale in May 1997, while her Juliet played opposite Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo on movie screens across the country. Danes deferred for a year to shoot a few other films but finally made it to the Elm City in 1998 and settled into her (then un-renovated) room in Vanderbilt Hall.

Despite her life of glitz, the star seemed to be content to leave her film career out of her so-called college life, some of her classmates said.

“She seemed very down to earth,” remembered Claiborne Childs ’02, who took a freshman English seminar with the actress. “You think people in Hollywood tend to be overly glamorized. We thought, ‘She’s young, she’s been in Hollywood, she wouldn’t have anything to say.’ But she was bright. We were surprised.”

Of course, Danes — who won People’s 50 Most Beautiful People honors the same year she was accepted to Yale — could hardly hope to escape the notice of a student body that has to content itself with Rumpus’ annual ink-stained, newsprint, hardly-pin-up-worthy version of the same honors.

One male classmate who lived across the courtyard from Danes in Vanderbilt Hall remembers taking dance lessons in an effort to impress the young starlet, who was apparently quite a good dancer.

But toward the end of her sophomore year, Danes began to fade from view.

“Second semester we stopped noticing her around and we eventually just stopped seeing her altogether,” Childs said. “One day we realized no one had seen her in a long time.”

Danes eventually left school, winning more prominent movie roles, including one in the Oscar-winning “The Hours” with Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep. While the University’s keeping quiet about her status and future academic plans, she hinted in Time magazine over the summer that she would not be coming back.



HUMPHREY BOGART

Film legend Humphrey Bogart took the “prep school” label seriously. Rather than preparing for the Yale Medical School education his parents had planned for him, Bogart was preparing for his infamous film persona. He was accepted to Yale in but never quite made it here, expelled from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., for bad behavior shortly before graduation. Apparently that was all the rehearsal he would need for the characters he’d make his career on — street thugs, gangsters, criminals and just all-around tough guys.

Maybe Yale would’ve prepared him for that, but it’s hard to imagine Bogart without the signature snarl and lisp (caused by an injury he got after deciding to became a Navy man instead of a Yale one), or shedding his signature trenchcoat for a Yale letter sweater.

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