OF SECRET CODES AND SECRET SOCIETIES
“I GREW UP in a household where riddles and codes were just part of the way we had fun,” said Dan Brown, recalling his childhood. “On Christmas morning where most kids would find their presents under the tree, my siblings and I might find a treasure map with codes that we would follow from room to room and eventually find our presents hidden somewhere else in the house. So for me, codes have always been fun.
“I also grew up in a house of mathematics, music, and language. And codes and ciphers really are the fusion of all of those languages.”
His mother and father set up the first Christmas morning treasure hunt when Dan was ten years old. Instead of waking to a pile of brightly wrapped presents, he found a poem. While he didn’t disclose what the poem said, he did say the poem provided clues that led Dan and his sister, Valerie, who was only six at the time—their younger brother, Gregory, hadn’t been born yet—to another room in the house. There, he spotted an index card with the letter E scrawled on it along with another poem.
This game continued until he had read four more poems and picked up four more index cards with the letters C, O, P, and T written on them. The poem found with the last index card instructed the siblings that the letters would spell out the name of their Christmas gift when arranged in the correct order.
It didn’t take long for Dan and Valerie to figure out that their present was a trip to Epcot Center at Disney World in Florida. The children loved solving the puzzle, and their parents enjoyed the challenge of planning and designing the treasure hunt so much that the Christmas morning treasure hunt continued as a Brown family tradition until the last child, Gregory, left home in 1993.
When asked if there had ever been a holiday when he and his brother and sister were unable to find a clue or a present, he replied, “Gee, I hope not. I have very kind parents. Eventually they would show us.” But then Brown commented that the first thing he would do the next time he was at his parents’ house would be to look in a closet for any presents they might have missed. Though his comment could have just been a bit of lighthearted banter with his interviewer, it could also point to Brown’s natural suspicions that powerful people—in this case, one’s parents—always keep secrets, and that it would be a great, fun challenge to discover the truth.
* * *
“I grew up surrounded by the clandestine clubs of Ivy League universities, the Masonic lodges of our Founding Fathers, and the hidden hallways of early government power,” said Dan Brown. “New England has a long tradition of elite private clubs, fraternities, and secrecy.”
All you need to know about what makes Dan Brown tick can be found in Exeter, New Hampshire, founded in 1638, a town on the seacoast of the Granite State, where he has spent three-quarters of his life. More specifically, you’d have to look in the halls and people of Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite college preparatory boarding school for grades nine through twelve. It has educated members of the Dupont and Getty families and produced political notables including roommates David Eisenhower and Fred Grandy—whose public visibility began on the 1970s TV show The Love Boat—and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Other writers who attended the Academy include Gore Vidal, George Plimpton, Joyce Maynard, Donald Hall, and Booth Tarkington. For centuries, the culture of most New England prep schools has been characterized by a combination of noblesse oblige and elitism so that generations of students at not only Phillips Exeter but also other schools, including Deerfield, Phillips Andover, and Choate Rosemary Hall, graduate with a sense of entitlement and privilege that alone can carry them for the rest of their lives in many cases.
Given his fascination with secret societies and history, and his family’s emphasis on education and love of deciphering codes and puzzles, it’s not at all surprising that Dan Brown chose the subjects for his novels that he has. After all, he not only grew up in Exeter, New Hampshire, but he also was shaped by centuries of the lives of citizens who came before him.
Compare a present-day glance down Water Street—the main drag through town—with scenes of Exeter as shown on postcards from the early twentieth century, and it’s clear that the architecture of the town has changed very little through the years. In fact, many of today’s shopkeepers take pride in the tin ceilings and polished woodwork that hearken back to an earlier, more genteel time.
There are some who would say that the gentility and aggressive pursuit of everything intellectual bred in this refined seacoast town never left. A good part of the reason for this can be attributed to Phillips Exeter Academy, founded a century and a half after the town got its start as a British base for shipping and inland exploration.
But from its earliest days, Exeter forged a “school town” reputation. In fact, the townspeople placed such a high premium on educating their young that the first formal classes for children began in 1640, only two years after the first settlement was carved out of the thickly forested land by the Reverend John Wheelwright in 1638. The town’s emphasis on intellectual pursuits never wavered through the years, and by the early 1800s the town contained a number of schools, ranging from one-room schoolhouses to well-known teaching academies in addition to Phillips Exeter, which by that time had started to admit students from other states.
Like many small towns throughout New England at the time, Exeter had various chapters of fraternal organizations, private clubs, and social groups where businessmen, immigrants, and schoolteachers could network and participate in activities they enjoyed with like-minded citizens. Some of these groups were steeped in history, while others were just informal gatherings; most were segregated by gender. In addition, many of the societies had a public face—often involved in raising money for local charities and the poor—and a private side, replete with special dress, manners of addresses, rituals, and membership initiations that were kept well hidden from the eyes of outsiders.
One of the most popular social organizations in town was the Improved Order of Red Men, a group that had descended from a group called the Sons of Liberty, which dated back to 1765, when it was founded by future Boston Tea Party participants. The national fraternal organization dictated that its members should love and respect the American flag, help others through organized charitable programs, and actively support the democratic way of life while preserving the traditions and history of the United States. Members attended meetings in full Indian costume and headdress; the female counterpart of the group was the Degree of Pocahontas. The Order was popular from Victorian times up through the 1960s; membership hit its peak at a half million in the 1930s, and today is estimated to be around 30,000 nationwide.
Another group in town was known as the Star in the East Lodge, Number 59 of the Free and Accepted Masons Orient, also known as the Freemasons. This lodge was formed in 1857, with the stipulation that meetings be conducted “on Thursday of the week of the full moon.” The Freemasons are still active in Exeter and currently meet on the second floor of the Masonic Hall on Water Street.
Other “secret societies” that have been active in Exeter through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries include the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the St. Albans Royal Arcanum, the Good Templars, and the Knights of Pythias, all groups that Dan Brown has drawn on to some extent in his novels.
An interesting side note: Dan Brown was not the first acclaimed author with the same last name to come from Exeter or to base his characters on people in the town. Alice Brown (1856-1948) was born in nearby Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, and was a renowned author of regional fiction, including the works Tiverton Tales and Meadow Grass. She also wrote nonfiction, including a study of Robert Louis Stevenson and a book of travel essays about England. Her play Children of the Earth won her a $10,000 prize in 1914.
Like Dan Brown, Alice Brown was a teacher. She taught school in Exeter for several years at Robinson Seminary, a renowned school for girls in the second half of the nineteenth century. Also like her latter-day counterpart, she left Exeter when she was in her twenties and headed for Boston, where she was able to write full time.
Unlike Dan Brown, however, she never returned to live permanently in New Hampshire, and later in her life, she wrote less and less as popular taste turned away from the regional fare in which she specialized. She stopped writing completely in 1935. It’s unlikely that the two Browns were related.
The acclaimed author of The World According to Garp, John Irving, was born in Exeter and grew up on Front Street, down the block from Dan Brown’s childhood home.
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Phillips Exeter Academy, founded in 1781, is at once ancient—the oldest building, Nathaniel Gilman House, was built in 1735 and predates the Academy—and modern: Its student body currently hails from twenty-nine different countries, the library is state-of-the-art, and the overriding philosophy of the school is to look to the future. Though many boarding schools maintain a campus that is somewhat removed from the main town or city where it is located, Phillips Exeter is unique in that it is right in the middle of downtown Exeter, allowing students to conveniently walk to shops on Water Street or Front Street, and they consider the central community gathering place in town—the Common—to be an extension of the school.
However, like most private New England boarding schools, Phillips Exeter Academy is a world apart from the bustling everyday activity of townsfolk unassociated with the Academy. Essentially, Phillips Exeter is a secret society all its own, where new students quickly learn that the culture is steeped in an Us versus Them mentality. The students and faculty are insiders and people in the rest of the world become, by definition, outsiders. What goes on within its walls is largely unknown and unnoticed by the outsiders, and the insiders like to keep it that way.
This view is almost essential to the strong bonds and active learning that take place at most elite private schools, but the idea of private school as secret society may have been more firmly entrenched in Brown’s spirit than in his fellow students for one simple reason: He spent his entire childhood at the school.
Not only was he a student at the Academy during grades nine through twelve, but he also basically grew up on the campus, since his father, Richard, joined the faculty two years before Dan was born.
Richard G. Brown arrived at the doors of Phillips Exeter Academy in the fall of 1962 as a new teacher of mathematics. He brought his new wife, the former Constance Gerhard, who had trained as a church organist and student of sacred music, with him.
Though Richard had not previously attended the Academy as a student, as was commonly the case for many of his colleagues on the faculty, he realized that Phillips Exeter would provide a free superior education to any children he and his wife would eventually have. So even though Richard began his career at the Academy as an outsider, his children were viewed as insiders from day one.
Together the newlyweds quickly settled into campus life as dorm parents, since faculty members were required to live on campus for the first few years of employment at the school.
The new Mr. and Mrs. Brown didn’t mind in the least. They were eager to become fully involved in the daily life of the school and spend it with students and faculty who shared their love for intelligent conversation and academic pursuits. The Browns wanted to start a family of their own, and their first son, Daniel Gerhard, was born two years later at Exeter Hospital on June 22, 1964, weighing seven pounds and eight ounces. Valerie was born in 1968 followed by Gregory in 1975.
As it turns out, Dan Brown was not the first best-selling author in his family. Richard Brown was the co-author of a best-selling series of mathematics textbooks that became the recommended text in classrooms throughout the United States. Advanced Mathematics: Precalculus with Discrete Mathematics and Data Analysis is still used as a primary text in advanced mathematics coursework. At some point in his career, his work came to the attention of the National Security Agency, and though the then-secret government division actively recruited him, Richard Brown never worked there. He loved his job at the Academy, and though he was flattered by the NSA’s pursuit, he decided he didn’t want to leave teaching or uproot his family.
The Brown family was active on campus, and Richard and Connie encouraged their children to balance educational pursuits and physical activity every day as best they could. At home, however, the overriding activity was intellectual pursuit.
“When I was ten years old, the wondrous author Madeleine L’Engle introduced me to a world of mysticism and adventure,” Brown said in later years. “Her classic, A Wrinkle in Time, was the first book I ever read more than once—four times, to be exact—and her mesmerizing concept of tesseracts got me thinking of our universe in a multidimensional way. I’m certain that the curiosity sparked by this one book played a substantial role in fueling my later interests. Perhaps it was just a function of the right book at the right moment, but never again has a fantasy grabbed me as powerfully as did A Wrinkle in Time. Oddly now, three decades later, I am starting to recapture some of that childhood excitement as similar themes of magic and mysticism work their way into my own books.”
Since Phillips Exeter faculty were required to live on campus for several years before they could move to a house or apartment in town, Dan was immersed in the culture of the Academy from his earliest years, eating most meals in the dining room with his parents, and living in a dorm parent apartment nestled among student dorm rooms.
Dan attended the Exeter public schools until the ninth grade, when he enrolled in Phillips Exeter Academy. By the time he entered his freshman year in the fall of 1978, he had been thoroughly steeped in the culture of this exclusive, ancient college preparatory school, so he thought he had a real advantage over the new arrivals from across the United States and around the world. Dan may have been a faculty brat and his family may have lacked the money that many of his fellow students took for granted, but he knew the culture of Phillips Exeter inside out.
“It was a really great place to be, because there were people there from all over the world,” said Susan Ordway, who attended the school and was a member of Dan’s 1982 graduating class of 250 students.
By the time Dan became a freshman his parents were living off-campus, so he attended classes as a day student. He soon developed a reputation as “an outgoing kind of goofball,” as Ordway described the teenage Dan Brown. “He was very fun to be with. He was quick with a joke and to point out funny things about other people, and didn’t take anything too seriously, which is why I liked spending time with him,” she said.
While boarding students live, eat, and sleep with other boarders and faculty and typically have little exposure with people outside of the school, the day students at private schools lead lives that resembled those of students in public school. They go home to family at the end of each day of classes and extracurricular activities. The fact that Dan became a day student after growing up on the campus meant he had a foot in both worlds. He was going to school in the insider community while living among the outsiders.
He was active in musical activities at the school, and he told his fellow students and teachers that he planned to move to Los Angeles and become a singer and songwriter after graduating from college. “He had a pretty good voice,” Ordway recalled.
Though news reports of private New England schools throughout the years have been rife with stories about secret fraternities and rituals, according to Ordway, the cult role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons was about as underground as things got at Phillips Exeter, and Dan wasn’t involved. “At the time, Dungeons and Dragons appealed to the social misfits on campus, and Dan was not a misfit or loner by any means,” she said.
The daily schedule at the school precluded much free time for the students to get into trouble, with classes all day, then sports, which were required, followed by homework. Boarding students had to be in the dorms by nine or ten at night, and by that time Dan had been home for hours.
Pranks were a big part of blowing off steam on campus, but they tended to be the harmless variety. Most were conducted in the library, designed by the renowned Philadelphia architect Louis Kahn, because the building had a huge atrium that lent itself to stunts like throwing string across the open space above the main floor to create a spider web or dumping a slew of ping- pong balls over the edge.
Seniors were granted more freedom as graduation approached, and would often hold contests to see how many of the “major eight” rules they could break; the major eight were the eight rules that could cause a student to be expelled from Phillips Exeter, and they included everything from drinking and doing drugs, cheating, and plagiarism, to being on the roof of any building on campus.
Besides being active both physically and intellectually, at Phillips Exeter “they take pride in the fact that, if you can do nothing else, you learn to write,” said Brown.
As a newly minted freshman, Dan Brown arrived in Jack Heath’s English class. A mythical figure on campus, Heath had a reputation as a man of few words. Dan was thrilled he finally had a teacher who could appreciate what the fourteen-year-old Dan modestly thought of as his genius for the written word.
For his first assignment, Dan chose to write an essay about the Grand Canyon. “I described with inexhaustible prolixity the subtle hues and fissures of the limestone,” he said. “Mr. Heath returned the essay doused in red pen. He had deleted 90 percent of my adjectives and given me a C-minus. At the top of the page were three words: Simpler is better.”
When the semester was over, Dan had worked his way up to a C-plus average. As the students filed out on the last day of class, the chastened freshman faculty brat asked the teacher for some words of wisdom.
“Simpler is better,” repeated the teacher.
In Dan’s senior year at the Academy, Heath popped up again in his life as his baseball coach. Compared to those of other coaches at Phillips Exeter and competing teams, the signals that Heath sent to the young athletes were direct and uncomplicated. Instead of an intricate series of hand motions and head twitches to conceal the signals he wanted to send to players, Heath merely nodded toward second base if he wanted the first-base runner to attempt a steal.
At one point, Dan asked the teacher why his technique was so different from the other coaches’. As before, Mr. Heath replied, “Simpler is better.”
Later on, after the success of The Da Vinci Code, Dan would often tell interviewers and aspiring writers the key to the success of his storytelling was the liberal use of the delete key on his computer. Though it took some time, the lessons he learned in high school finally sank in. In fact, Brown directly cited Heath’s influence in helping him to pare down the novel that became Digital Fortress, saying he finally learned to cut back on his use of adjectives in his writing.
Interestingly, there were at least two other significant future novelists on campus when Dan was a senior at Phillips Exeter: Brooks Hansen, author of The Chess Garden, and Chang-Rae Lee, author of the highly acclaimed A Gesture Life, were members of the class of 1983, a year behind Brown. In addition, Henry Blodgett, a Wall Street analyst who was a golden boy during the tech stock boom in the late 1990s, was also a student at Phillips Exeter when Dan was there.
* * *
Another lesson Dan Brown took to heart from Phillips Exeter—and which later became evident in the numerous disciplines he incorporated into his novels—was that the best thing to aim for in life was to become a Renaissance man. After all, one of the unspoken aims of many a private school is to create students who are well-rounded, which is generally accomplished by introducing each student to as many different disciplines and topics as possible across the sciences, arts, literature, and sports. Of course, the idea is to expose students to multiple subjects before college, where they’d eventually settle down and focus on one area.
Perhaps Dan took this to heart more than other students simply because he was immersed in this philosophy from a very early age, and because he witnessed it for his entire childhood. Essentially, he was in his element when he was learning about something he knew absolutely nothing about.
This curiosity about everything and the desire to learn would continue after high school. He tried his hand at the music business as a singer-songwriter after college, but he quickly learned he didn’t have the stomach for such an intense and cutthroat business, and he discovered he didn’t like to perform in front of people. However, more important, music didn’t provide him with the opportunity to incorporate a number of different subjects into one livelihood—or to learn about something he didn’t already know. That’s why he loved teaching later on, because even when he was leading a classroom in a single subject like English, Brown had ample opportunity to introduce other subjects and ideas into a lesson. Throughout his life so far, it’s been extremely difficult for him to focus on one discipline at a time, which is obvious in the diverse subject matter of his books.
One of the reasons he’s so comfortable dealing with multiple disciplines is that two subjects the rest of the world might view as polar opposites—science and religion—coexisted peacefully and, in fact, even thrived in the Brown household. His father made his living by teaching and writing about math while his mother studied sacred music and played the organ, and they meshed seamlessly; neither one was more or less important than the other. Dan Brown was raised as a Christian and he sang in the church choir, attended Sunday school, and spent summers at church camp.
He would later reveal how his childhood had shaped him.
“Since I grew up the son of a mathematician and a church organist, I was lost from day one,” he said. “Where science offered exciting proofs of its claims, whether it was photos, equations, or visible evidence, religion was a lot more demanding, constantly wanting me to accept everything on faith. Faith takes a fair amount of effort, especially for young children and especially in an imperfect world. So as a boy, I gravitated toward the solid foundations of science. But the further I progressed into this solid world of science, the mushier the ground started to get.”
Dan’s father was also an avid singer. One year, while Dan was a student at Phillips Exeter, he dragged a bunch of classmates to see his father play the leading role in The Pirates of Penzance, a production put on by a local theater group. Creativity was strongly encouraged in his family, never discouraged. “I’ve always known I would have to do something creative with my life,” he said.
Susan Ordway remembers that Brown wanted to pursue music after high school, and that he had kept his fellow alumni updated on his pursuits, but she and her other classmates were surprised when he published his first novel, Digital Fortress. Surprisingly, Brown never revealed his fascination with secret societies of all stripes to other students.
“He never said or did anything in high school to indicate that he was into secret societies,” said Ordway. “He had a very open and sunny personality, hung out with his buddies, and basically got along with everyone. He was just a normal, happy guy with a stable home life whose dad worked on campus. We didn’t see any roots of the secret society thing in high school.”
Copyright © 2005, 2013 by Lisa Rogak