I Survived Swiss Boarding Schools: All That Glitters Is Not Gold (Second Edition 2018)
Richard René Silvin was born into a wealthy Franco-American family. They lived on Long Island and in the South of France. His father had inherited several patents, including those for aluminum foil and cellophane, as well as all mineral rights to what was then-called French Equatorial Africa. The patents were sold to Reynolds Aluminum and E.I. du Pont. The African mineral rights were returned to the French government. Freed from responsibilities, René’s father embarked on a hedonistic life focused on travel and hunting.
For most of his first 6 years, René was placed in the care of a loving nanny on Long Island and lived in her modest home. In 1955, he was taken to Cannes, France, to live with a French governess until he could go to a Swiss boarding school the following year.
1955 – 1958
The infamous Ann Woodward is cleared of murdering her socialite husband in New York (the story of Dominick Dunne’s The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.) René’s father decides his sons should receive a formal European education by placing them in Swiss boarding schools. This frees up René’s father to travel with Ann. René is too young to attend a reputable school, is separated from his brother, and is dropped off at La Clairière. It is a sinister looking school for very young children in picturesque Villars, Switzerland. René’s parents have not vetted the 30-student school, which turns out to be rife with cruelty, including physical and sexual abuse.
Other than occasional parental outings, notably to Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco’s wedding, René endures his Oliver Twist-like existence, including sexual abuse by a farmhand. In his third year at the school, the police are called to investigate why a well-meaning maid stabs the headmaster’s wife. Upon learning of the incident, René’s loving French Aunt sends her chauffeur to bring René to Lyon, France. Act I ends with René’s father belittling René, the incident and sending René to join his older brother, John Jacques, at Le Rosey, known as “the school for princes and kings.”
1958 – 1962
Le Rosey is a boarding school for 120 boys, aged 10 to 18, and has two full campuses. Spring and fall trimesters are spent in Rolle, Switzerland, a charming lakeside town between Geneva and Lausanne. The winter term is spent in Gstaad, Switzerland, one of the world’s most exclusive ski resorts. Colonel Louis Johannot, the headmaster, is one of the highest-ranking officers in the Swiss army and runs his school like a luxurious military academy. Antoinette Stickel, a competent and fair teacher, supervises the younger students along with her gentle husband, Charlie.
René meets sons of European royalty, and the world’s wealthiest industrialists and famous actors. Gstaad becomes known as “Hollywood East.” He settles into the new school’s routine but, given the lack of education at La Clairière, is last in his class. Upon learning René may be expelled for poor grades, René’s father strikes a deal with Monsieur Johannot to send René to a summer cram school. René re-takes his exams and is allowed to stay at Le Rosey when he passes all tests in the fall. René’s life becomes as pleasant as possible for a young boy at boarding school. He delights in spending time with his friends whose famous parents live near Le Rosey’s two campuses.
But René has a problem. He is forced by an older boy, “Ron Agurev” to perform sexual favors. Eventually, René reveals the abuse to his older, defacto-step brother Jimmy, Anne Woodward’s son. Jimmy beats up Ron, and in a bizarre act of revenge, Ron writes derogatory remarks about René all over the campus. A scandal erupts, and René is branded as a “homo.” Ron is expelled, and René’s father is informed. His reaction is outrage and disgraced at the possibility of having a son who is a “fairy.” A second deal is made with Monsieur Johannot: a catholic priest on Eastern Long Island will cure René of any homosexual tendencies that summer.
1962 – 1966
In the fall, René returns to Le Rosey with his father, who assures Monsieur Johannot that René has been restored to mental health. René sets out to overcome having been branded a “homo” by becoming a jock and he picks the school’s once popular sport of rowing to accomplish this. René convinces Monsieur Johannot to let him solicit funds from some students’ famous parents to upgrade the school’s deteriorated rowing equipment.
New boats and equipment are purchased and le Rosey wins all the inter-scholar races. In addition to being the captain of his team, René coaches all of the younger teams. René eventually persuades Monsieur Johannot to let him qualify the school as a Swiss rowing club and compete in the Swiss national rowing tournament. Several setbacks are overcome, and René’s team wins the coveted prize in the charming Swiss capital of Bern.
The now-famous Rosey rowing team continues to the European championships in Zürich. René’s father comes to watch the race, offering to host a party if René’s team places in the top 3, but his team is outclassed and comes in fourth. True to his promise, René’s father cancels the party and leaves.
René’s final ambition is to be elected “Meilleur Roséen” (the Best Rosey Boy) the school’s highest honor. The award is bestowed at graduation in front of the many famous parents René has come to know. As the big moment approaches at commencement, a highly ethical teacher, secretly tells René that Monsieur Johannot rigged the election results. René will have to share the award with another boy.
Instead of anger, René develops a sense of empathy and compassion for Louis Johannot. This epiphany is René’s ultimate accomplishment. He leaves Le Rosey happy and never wears the award’s coveted gold cufflinks.