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NY Post
New York Post
5 Aug 2023

NextImg:Inside the Upper West Side cult that told members to sleep with anyone who asked

Saul Newton wanted to be a good father, so he granted his grown daughter Esther’s wish: When her female friends came to his office for therapy, he promised he would no longer ask those women for oral sex.

He wasn’t thrilled with his concession, though, as Alexander Stille writes in his new “The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). 

“I think you are being very bourgeois,” he told Esther regarding her request, “but if that’s what you want, then okay.” 

That father and daughter would nonchalantly discuss oral sex and therapy happened only because Saul Newton was a co-founder of The Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis, an “urban commune” existing on Manhattan’s Upper West Side from the 1950s through ’90s.

The Sullivanians were a community made up entirely of therapists and their patients, a group that espoused the value of analysis, communal living, and non-monogamy.  

At their original headquarters on West 77th Street, the therapist’s offices were downstairs while both therapists and patients lived — often together — on the floors above.

Sullivanians leader Saul Newton regularly propositioned his patients for sex.
New York Post

The Sullivanians eventually came to own a number of buildings on the Upper West Side, which at the time could be bought on the cheap.

The one at 100th Street and Broadway eventually housed more than a hundred of the group’s 400-500, mostly white, educated, professional members.

Eventually, there were homes in the Hamptons, too, as well as a theater on the Lower East Side and another property in the Catskills. 

“Under [the] direction of their therapists, the Sullivanians were trying to create a utopian world based on principles of free love, collective living, self-actualization, and a commitment to socialism,” Stille writes. 

Saul Newton wasn’t educated in medicine or psychology.

His third wife, Jane Pearce, was an MD who also did psychoanalytic training at New York City’s famed White Institute, credentials which brought legitimacy to the Sullivan Institute she and Saul founded in 1957. (Saul simply rode on his wife’s coattails in establishing the organization but subsequently named himself director.) 

The Sullivan Institute was named for Harry Stack Sullivan, a mentor of Jane Pearce who believed traditional family dynamics had a detrimental effect on people.

At the Sullivan Institute, Saul and Pearce took that belief further, preaching the nuclear family “caused most psychological problems for children . . . And that mothers inevitably squelched their children’s vitality.” 

Dr. Michael Bray (L) & Paul Sprecher (R) are former Sullivanians members who eventually left the fold.
Getty Images

Believing that traditional set-up was “bad for children” and that “parenthood was a kind of death trap from which both parents and child needed to be liberated,” Pearce and Newton’s Sullivanians were encouraged to “violently expel their [families] from their lives.”

Saul egged one patient on to write to her father and say she wished him dead — the next week he was, from a heart attack. 

“I sure got a lot of mileage out of the Sullivanian belief that alcohol was good for anxiety and that having multiple sex partners was a political statement and a healthy lifestyle.”

Judy Collins to author Alexander Stille

Eschewing traditional homes, Sullivanians lived in large, same-sex group apartments and had multiple sexual partners to not get caught up in the web of traditional families.

If they had children, the Sullivanians were encouraged to let them be raised by babysitters or boarding schools to instead focus on their own personal growth.  

That lifestyle sounded good to a lot of people, including the singer Judy Collins.

Starting in the early ’60s, Collins was a Sullivanian for a good 15 years, and she was under no illusions as to why.  

“I sure got a lot of mileage out of the Sullivanian belief that alcohol was good for anxiety and that having multiple sex partners was a political statement and a healthy lifestyle,” she admits to Stille in the book. 

The novelist Richard Price was also a believer.

Barbara Antmann standing outside of a building belonging to the Sullivanians; her sister is a member of this cult.
Getty Images

Having moved to New York as a lonely grad student in the early ’70s, Price found in the Sullivanians a large group of men eager to become friends and a revolving door of women willing to sleep with him. 

“It felt like somebody had opened the gates of heaven,” Price tells Stille.  

Wanting to help their patients unleash the desires repressed in childhood, Sullivanian therapists preached that “anything goes.”

That included both indiscriminate sex and the indiscriminate use of alcohol as a creative lubricant.

Jane Pearce herself was a heavy drinker who imbibed all day long, including in front of her patients during their sessions.  

The painter Jackson Pollock became a Sullivanian, partly because the sect believed he should sleep with women other than his wife.

“Act out your sexual impulses,” therapist Ralph Klein urged him. 

And Pollock liked that no Sullivanians held his fondness for alcohol against him.

In fact, when Jackson told Klein he might be drinking too much, his therapist didn’t care. 

“That’s your problem,” Klein said. Pollock ended up dead not long thereafter, the victim of his own drunken driving.   

If the Sullivan Institute had started out based on Jane Pearce’s sincere psychological beliefs regarding the drawbacks of nuclear families and the benefits of a large social network of “chumship” (what the Sullivanians called adult friendships), over time it became something else.  

“As the years passed, [Saul] Newton created a personality cult around himself and adopted an increasingly autocratic leadership style,” Stille writes.  

Wanting to help their patients unleash the desires repressed in childhood, Sullivanian therapists preached that “anything goes.” That included both indiscriminate sex and the indiscriminate use of alcohol as a creative lubricant.
Courtesy of , Donna Warshaw

When his doctor told Saul to give up his four-pack-a-day smoking routine, for example, Newton did so only after insisting every other Sullivanian smoker kick the habit, too. Every one of them did. 

By the mid-1970s, Saul had divorced Jane Pearce and forced her out of the Institute she helped found and legitimize.

Instead, Newton put the two younger women who would become his fifth and sixth wives into positions of authority at the Institute — under him, of course. 

Sullivanian therapists weren’t just benign sounding boards for their patients, either.

Rather, they doled out specific life advice, which included telling their clients to break with their nuclear families, sleep with anyone who asked, and switch careers to make more money (ie., in order to keep affording Sullivanian therapy.)

While the Sullivanian men relished the easy sex the group promised, many of the young women members were less enthusiastic about sleeping with any Sullivanian male who asked.

Failing to do so got the women labeled as repressed or “bourgeois,” which was the last thing they wanted to hear. The result was a low-key pressure to just go along. 

Meanwhile, when one female Sullivanian had the audacity to complain about the sleep-with-whoever-asked policy, her male therapist wasn’t at all sympathetic.   

“Shut your mouth and open your legs,” he told her. 

A group of Sullivanians attending a Washington protest.
Courtesy of , Donna Warshaw

Jane Pearce hadn’t been much better, as she advised one female patient her insecurities likely resulted because the woman “wasn’t promiscuous enough.” 

Such harshness didn’t occur only with regard to sex.

When a young college grad named Michael Cohen joined the group in the early 70s, his female therapist commented that his family photos were filled with “fat, ugly, stupid Jews.”

To further emphasize Cohen’s uselessness, she insisted Michael couldn’t give up sessions with her or he’d end up “in a mental hospital, dead, or in prison.” Somehow, Cohen believed her. 

“I became dependent on her in a way that’s very hard to describe,” he tells Stille. 

It was a central tenet of the Sullivanian therapists, insisting their patients couldn’t “make it on [their] own without this therapy.” 

No Sullivanian therapist was worse than Saul Newton, who for decades doled out life advice to unwitting patients even though he lacked credentials and qualifications. He was also a sexual predator.

Sullivanians on the train to Amagansett.
Courtesy of , Donna Warshaw

“Saul frequently demanded that his female patients perform oral sex on him during their sessions and then expected them to pay him for his time,” Stille writes.  

That might not have been the worst of it: One young girl claimed Saul sexually assaulted her when she was only 11 years old. 

“He was a serial rapist,” Cohen concedes. 

By the mid-1980s the Sullivanians were on their last legs: Saul was near 80 and suffering the beginnings of dementia, The Village Voice published an exposé on the group, and four of the Institute’s professionally-credentialed therapists were facing numerous charges.

The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune by Alexander Stille

A headline-grabbing news story featuring a Sullivanian mother kidnapping her own child back from the group didn’t help. With Saul’s death in 1991, the Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis was officially dissolved. 

For Michael Cohen, it was time.

He’d come to realize the Sullivan Institute he’d joined in the pursuit of a new way of life was mostly a means for Saul to milk its members for money and use them for sex. 

“I joined a movement that turned into a business that became a racket,” Cohen says. 

Saul Newton wouldn’t have disagreed. Because the Sullivanians included so many creative types, Newton was once asked if he was an artist, too. Saul answered in the affirmative. 

“Yeah, a bulls–t artist,” he admitted.