It sits in the woods off a country road in New Canaan, Conn. Its buildings are low and rambling, the grounds well kept. A plaque in front reads simply: Silver Hill. It could be an exclusive country club or an expensive day school.
Rarely has appearance been more deceptive. Silver Hill is a hospital for the emotionally wounded—in its quiet way, one of the most famous in the world—which caters to the privileged and the rich. Week after week show business stars, political leaders, corporation executives and headline celebrities withdraw behind its handsome walls to conquer the demons of alcoholism, drug abuse and depression. They are promised superb treatment and unfailing discretion. Dr. Robert Stubblefield, Silver Hill’s courtly medical director, understates, “If you’ve got to be sick, this is a better place than some.”
The 185 employees—more than 100 of whom are medical professionals—are subject to dismissal if they gossip. Patients and their families are under no such constraint. Thus Silver Hill’s reputation has spread over the years as a psychiatric rest stop for troubled celebrities like Judy Garland, columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, Joan Kennedy, Truman Capote, Rita Hay-worth and Gregg Allman. On The Mike Douglas Show last month, Gary Crosby admitted going there in the 1960s to overcome his problems with alcohol.
Dr. Stubblefield has been in charge of Silver Hill for the past three years and he makes very sure no patient is the target of unwanted attention. Before his appointment, photographers in helicopters and with telephoto lenses stalked Senator Kennedy’s wife. “She finally played tennis on the courts by the road so everyone could get a picture and put an end to it,” he says with a hard edge to his voice. The incident still outrages him.
It should be some consolation to the doctor, however, that former patients remember Silver Hill with affection and gratitude. Author Capote spent three weeks there a couple of years ago after an exhausting lecture tour during which he tried too often to revive his energies with vodka and orange juice. “It is not a sad place,” Capote says. “It was like being at some smart resort. I swam and saw a psychiatrist for an hour each day and didn’t drink. So I had to feel better when I left.”
Unlike ordinary sanitariums, there is not even a hint of fence or window bars at Silver Hill (although the more acutely disturbed are carefully supervised). Its residential buildings blend perfectly with the affluent suburban surroundings. They contain private rooms for 77 patients, each with its own bath and some with fireplaces. Miles of hiking trails wind through the hospital’s 65 acres. There are a putting green, a two-lane bowling alley, a gym, sauna and indoor pool, a greenhouse and special rooms for woodworking, sculpting and music.
Overall the atmosphere is genteel and informal. Women are in jeans, men in running clothes. Everyone is on a first-name basis, and it’s usually impossible to distinguish patients from staff. Tea is served each afternoon, and four nights a week a Thai chef prepares a sit-down dinner with silver service (informal buffets the other three nights). The cost of all this luxury comes high: An average stay of 60 days runs about $12,000 (laundry and dry cleaning are extra). Capote recalls an “elegant Louisiana lady who had been there five times. I think she takes her vacations at Silver Hill. It’s peaceful, she has friends and she can play cards.”
Dr. Stubblefield is understandably a little defensive about Silver Hill. “Most people look at it as a plush country club, but it really is an excellent hospital.” The staff includes 10 psychiatrists and three psychologists, social workers, alcohol counselors (including Marty Mann, founder of the National Council on Alcoholism), therapists and 63 nurses.
Dr. Zigmond Lebensohn, a Washington, D.C. psychiatrist, describes Silver Hill patients as “a special and important group—these people are the most creative there are.” He has been sending patients to the hospital for 20 years. “Its track record is tops, and it is very comfortable for people used to that kind of living.” Elite or not, however, about 80 percent of Silver Hill’s patients rely on private or public health insurance to defray the hefty charges.
For all its amenities and lack of regimentation (“You can watch TV as late as you like,” Capote recalls), restoring the emotionally battered at Silver Hill remains a slow, sensitive process. Treatment ranges from drugs to shock therapy to social and cultural conditioning. “I dream and dream,” Dr. Stubblefield says, “that one day we will no longer need to use shock therapy to get patients out of a depression. But the truth is that some people are hypersensitive to the anti-depression drugs.” He adds, “We deal in small increments of success.” Major victories are won through a series of mini-heroics: shopping in town, facing a family again across the dinner table at a nearby restaurant, asserting one’s self by painting or sculpting. “To some,” Stubblefield notes, “just being able to buy cigarettes at the commissary is important.”
Now 58, Stubblefield learned about healing as a boy in Texas: He tagged along with his doctor father on house calls. “Those were the presulfa, prepenicillin days,” he remembers, “the days of laying on of hands, of compassion.” Stubblefield got his M.D. at the University of Texas at Galveston and intended to specialize in pediatrics. But a bout with TB left him with the fear that he might be infectious to children. By the time advances in medicine proved him wrong, he was already well into a career in psychiatry and teaching.
In 1957 he became chairman of psychiatry at the med school in Dallas and later chief of psychiatry at the city’s Parkland Memorial Hospital. In the aftermath of John Kennedy’s assassination, Stubblefield was called upon for a psychiatric evaluation of Jack Ruby, who shot accused presidential killer Lee Harvey Oswald. “Ruby was a loner, tough, irrational, emotional,” Stubblefield found. “He really expected to be treated as a hero—that everyone would be grateful Jackie wouldn’t have to testify at a trial.”
Since then the doctor has become an assassination theory buff (he still “has doubts that it was a one-man operation”). He also reads mysteries and law books for pleasure. He and his wife of 35 years, Alice, a former nurse, live in a wood-beamed house on the Silver Hill grounds. They are the parents of two daughters, both now grown.
His wife thinks Stubblefield works too hard. The explanation, he says, goes back to the months when he suffered from tuberculosis. “Ninety-five out of 100 died,” he recalls. “I figure I was damn lucky. I want to try to help people with whatever skill and talent I have.”