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.
After Newton divorced Pearce in 1969, the institute’s portfolio expanded: He set up a new headquarters with his fifth and sixth wives in a large building at 314 West 91st Street, which housed about 30 people between several therapists, their families, and a collection of full-time babysitters, since leadership encouraged patients to send their children to boarding schools or entrust their care to other adults in the community. “The Sullivanians told my parents that the worst thing a person can do is raise their own children,” said Lauren Olitski, the daughter of painter and patient Jules Olitski.
The group purchased an entire building at 2643 Broadway, where some 90 members lived. In 1986, longtime patient and resident of 2643 Marice Pappo kidnapped her own child in front of the building after her therapist had denied her access to her infant daughter for six months, setting off a series of legal battles. It was the beginning of the end of the Sullivanians’ New York.
After Newton’s death in 1991, a Jewish day school bought the building on 91st Street. Neighbors were relieved, the New York Times reported at the time. Then came the announcement about renovation plans. “We all thought the school was a perfectly fine alternative,” a neighbor on Riverside Drive said of the end of the cult’s time on the block. “But now they want to build a monstrosity on top of one of the buildings that makes the block special.”