From Vassar (to Hanover) to Hollywood: Meryl Streep’s college years
By Mark Bubriski
Published on Friday, May 19, 2000
Many actors wait tables, before they get their big break, to supplement the often meager earnings of the theater. But how many movie stars can say they waited tables at the Hanover Inn?
Just one: the phenomenal Meryl Streep. Streep, who spent a term at Dartmouth through the 12-college exchange while a student at Vassar College, sat down with The Dartmouth to reminisce about college life.
As one of the first women ever to attend Dartmouth while the school was still all male, Streep and around 60 other coeds came to campus for what would surely be an interesting adventure.
The two-time Academy Award-winning actress came to Dartmouth during the fall of her senior year at Vassar after hearing about the reputation of the College's drama department.
"I heard of [former drama professor and department chair] Rod Alexander," she said. "I met some kids from Dartmouth who came to Vassar, and they seemed pretty cool."
But the prospect of good academics and fun people was not all that drew the drama major to theCollege.
"Part of the lure of Dartmouth was that I could take a full course of study and have three and a half weeks vacations," she said, referring to the D-plan's variance from a normal semester college system.
She found herself enjoying Hanover in the fall. "I enjoyed it a lot," she said, with brief but noticeable hesitation.
She attributes the higher grades she got at Dartmouth to a general sense that everyone was going on to law school or business school and needed the boost.
"Dartmouth was the only time in my life when I got all As," she said. "I think the faculty at Vassar wanted you to know the meaning of a B+."
Streep herself was heading for drama school, eventually, and did not seem bothered by numerical grades. She spent much of her time honing her theater skills.
At Dartmouth, she took a playwrighting class with legendary drama professor Errol Hill, was the only woman in her dance class, and compiled a "thesis project of drawings" for her costume design class.
She recalled sitting on the floor of Cohen dormitory in the Choates, which was linoleum at the time, drawing for hours.
"Every week we studied a different period of drama history and designed countless numbers of costumes for each one," she said. "It was one of my favorite courses."
But Streep did not spend all of her time with her schoolbooks. Her observations of the social life at the College during the tumultous Vietnam War era -- "an exciting time" -- made an impact on her.
"Everybody had hair to their shoulders," she said. "It looked like Vassar from behind."
She recalled a visibly polarized campus in which the "fraternity people tended to be one sort and the counter-culture announced who they were by the way they looked and, like any category, that didn't begin to explain who they were."
Streep's compassion for the marginalized was apparent in her conversation with The Dartmouth. She herself preferred to go to Rollins Chapel to sing because no one was ever there.
She said she enjoyed spending time on the shores of the Connecticut River reading.
"I was sustained just by the beauty of Dartmouth," Streep said.
"It was very interesting to feel something proprietary about the school. I felt like a Dartmouth student," she said, though male students often did not agree with her.
"The social life was ridiculous," she said, noting the stranglehold of the fraternities on the nightlife was not much different than it is today.
Streep was not nostalgic about the fraternity system.
"I went over to that row once in a while," she laughed about her experiences with fraternities on Webster Avenue. "It was interesting to me to see the [other] girls bust into houses like cattle to the slaughter."
Streep said, "I wish I went to Dartmouth now ... or maybe five years from now," alluding to the Trustees' Student Life Initiative which has a preliminary implementation timeline of five years.
On the SLI, she said, "I'm one who is very much in favor of all of the changes."
She said she likes the idea of a series of "home bases" or clusters that provide people with a sense of continuity.
Streep remembers a very different Dartmouth. The ratio of men to women was over 50 to 1 in the fall of 1970. She said she remembers an overtone of animosity toward the female students.
"They really didn't want us here," she said of the male students. "There was an us and them feel to campus."
In one instance, Streep and a female friend were studying in the reserve corridor of Baker Library when they needed to use the restroom.
"We were at one end and the bathroom was at the other," she said. "We waited until we just couldn't hold it anymore."
As the two young women crossed the reserves, the "studious" young men they passed began to tap their feet to the beat of women's footsteps.
"Then they started pounding their hands -- it was completely hostile," Streep said. "But it made me the woman I am today, baby!"
Streep had a "thank-god-I-don't-have-to-do-that-again" air to her voice when she talked about Dartmouth, although she said she recognizes what the school did for her confidence, among other things.
When asked about the plays she was in, she said she did not remember being in one while she was at the College.
When reminded that she, in fact, performed in two plays at Dartmouth, she said, with a laugh, "I have very little memory of it --Â like none."
However, she said, "I remember the one I didn't get!"
Streep auditioned for the lone female role in the mainstage production that fall but lost out to a friend of hers.
Later, she would garner roles in two student-written Frost Playwrighting competition plays, but they were less than memorable.
One quality she did take away from Dartmouth was an outgoing attitude that she learned from the aggressive boys at the College.
"I remembered thinking, at Vassar, people would sit quietly and answer questions with judicial, thoughtful, ruminative answers," she said.
But, at Dartmouth, it was different. "Before the professor finished the question, there were five people standing up, words coming out of their mouths but they had no idea what the answer was," she said.
"It was very inspiring; it was something I didn't have in me," she said. "The climate and the expectation were playing to the proactive."
When she returned to Vassar to finish her senior year, Streep took with her a new confidence of sorts.
"My teachers would start questions and I would get up before they were done and say, 'I don't even think that question is valid!' even though I really had no idea what the question was," Streep laughed.
Compared to other Vassar girls, "I was a little bit of a pain in the ass," she said.
After graduating from Vassar in the spring of 1971, Streep returned to the Upper Valley to be with her boyfriend at the time, who was starting at the Dartmouth Medical School.
She lived in Norwich, Vt. for the next year, acting with the Green Mountain Guild in Quechee, Vt. She waited tables at the Hanover Inn to augment the low pay of the theater business.
The following summer, while continuing to act and wait tables, she applied to the Yale University School of Drama. She received a scholarship to attend and enrolled that fall.
After Yale, the rest is history. Streep went on to perform in several plays with the Phoenix Theatre Company and the New York Public Theatre at Lincoln Center. Soon, she got her break --Â she was cast in 1977's "Julia" with Jane Fonda, Jason Robards and Vanessa Redgrave.
She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her next film performance alongside Robert DeNiro in 1978's "The Deer Hunter."
In 1980, she won her first Oscar, a best supporting nod for "Kramer vs. Kramer" with Dustin Hoffman. This accomplishment thrust her into the mainstream; the mainstream press lauded her acting abilities. She soon became known for her uncanny ability to speak in foreign accents flawlessly.
Winning a Best Actress Oscar in 1983 for playing the title character in "Sophie's Choice" sealed the deal. In a heart-wrenching portrayal, she played an inmate at a Nazi concentration camp who is forced to choose which one of her two children would die.
Streep was nominated a total of 12 times so far, 10 times for Best Actress and twice for Supporting Actress. Most recently she was nominated for the role of Roberta Guaspari in "Music of the Heart," a part for which she learned to play the violin by practicing six hours a day for eight weeks.
Among a multitude of other commendations, Entertainment Weekly named her the Best Modern Actress in 1999.
Streep now lives in Connecticut with her husband and their four children.