Sex, Analysis, and 40 Communal Apartments on the Upper West Side

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There were a number of things that might have attracted a person to the Sullivan Institute, the maverick psychoanalytic practice and cult that flourished on the Upper West Side from 1957 until its acrimonious dissolution in 1991: the twin promise of self-actualization and easy sex. Socialism or some more nebulously utopian inclination. There was also the real estate. In addition to controlling virtually every aspect of their patients’ lives, from what they ate to whom they slept with, Sullivanian therapists were de facto landlords and roommates to the people in their care. At the height of the institute’s powers, most of its roughly 250 patients lived in an archipelago of about 40 communal apartments in the neighborhood, including sprawling residences at the Apthorp and Belnord, complete with formal dining rooms and maid quarters.

The Sullivan Institute’s married founders, Saul Newton and Jane Pearce, lived together in a townhouse at 332 West 77th Street, which also served as the group’s first headquarters. While leadership was allowed to live with their spouses and children (albeit while continuing to have multiple sexual partners), patients were taught that the nuclear family was the root of most mental illness and lived in group apartments meant to discourage permanent couples.

The Sullivanians were something of an open secret on the Upper West Side. You could run into them at Fairway. They were high-performing urban professionals — the art critic Clement Greenberg was an early patient, as were Jackson Pollock and the novelist Richard Price — who sent their kids to Dalton and Trinity only to return to polyamorous relationships and weekend bacchanals at their shared homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons. (The group had long spent its summers in a series of house shares in Amagansett, nearby Barnes Landing, where the lead therapists owned a group of houses.) They were also active in the city’s theater scene: In 1976, members of the group took over the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal and later bought a theater on East Fourth after Newton resolved to use performance, in the style of Brecht’s “epic theater,” to spread the mission. To finance this turn to the theater — and the purchase of a rundown hotel in the Catskills to host rehearsals — leadership began charging dues.

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