Inside the succession drama at Scholastic, where ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Clifford’ are at stake


The dark grind of the pandemic had exhausted Dick Robinson, like everyone else. He had worked long days in the nearly empty SoHo headquarters of Scholastic, the $1.2 billion company he ran, which his father founded more than 100 years ago. He was trying to keep the business going as schools closed across the country, taking with them Scholastic’s legendary in-person book fairs. He began spending weekends and holidays at Martha’s Vineyard, where he and his ex-wife Helen Benham had bought a house in the 1990s. The bucolic Chilmark home still served as a retreat for Benham and their adult sons. , Ben and Reece. On a Friday last June, the exes spoke late into the night about their plans for the family’s future together as well as the business. The next day, while hiking the island’s Peaked Hill trails with Helen, Reece and the family dog, Darla, Robinson collapsed from a stroke.

His sudden death was shocking, but came another seismic surprise: Robinson had handed over control of the shares of the family business to a Canadian executive named Iole Lucchese, director of corporate strategy and director of Scholastic Entertainment – and now, following his death, chairman of the board. With Peter Warwick as new CEO, Lucchese would oversee a children’s media empire filled with beloved (and lucrative) franchises like Clifford the big red dog, Harry Potter, Captain Underpants, Animorphs, and The Magic School Bus at a time when Hollywood is eagerly devouring literary properties to feed the streamers who flock. A the wall street journal The story aired a lot of dirty laundry about Scholastic’s “messy estate” and the ancestry of Robinson’s “former girlfriend” Lucchese, who had also inherited all of Robinson’s personal assets. Robinson’s two sons began considering contesting the will.

AMONG THE LITERATORS Dick Robinson and Iole Lucchese attending a black tie gala for the PEN Foundation in 2019.BEOWULF SHEEHAN/PEN AMERICA.

As Scholastic publicly closed ranks around Lucchese, a protective force field for the company, current and veteran employees privately exchanged bewildered gossip. Executive suites had once been gladiators, people said, with shifting alliances and behind-the-scenes betrayals more suited to game of thrones than a healthy children’s media company. Now they were arguing over whether Lucchese was suitable for the job, whether she could save the place from being cut up or sold. And they reflected on the shadow that Robinson’s personal life had cast on the innovative and far-reaching business he had built around his deeply felt mission to get children reading books.

“It’s worse than a normal death because of the sense of betrayal everyone feels,” says a longtime former employee. “Big mistake is what it was.”

“He was really the heart of the business,” says Kathy Walsh, former longtime marketing manager at Scholastic. “And you know, when the heart dies, I think the business will go the same way.”

Maurice Richard Robinson Jr. grew up watching his father, Maurice “Robbie” Robinson, build Scholastic into a respected brand. But the son is a Harvard graduate planning to go his own way. “I was going to be a teacher and a writer—joining Scholastic was never on the cards, and my dad knew it,” he once told a reporter. An admirer of the Beat poets, Robinson performed in blue-collar gigs as a bricklayer and railway switchman before going to graduate school in Cambridge. After a stint as a teacher in Illinois, he returned to New York in the early 1960s, hoping to enter the literary world.

The family business sucked him in: he took a job as associate editor at literary cavalcade, a business publication, then stayed, creating a magazine called Scope, designed to engage disgruntled students with vivid coverage of current affairs, global politics and pop culture. “I’ll never forget the image of Dick walking with Robbie down the hall at Scholastic,” says Benham, who worked at the company for 30 years, including a full decade before marrying Robinson in 1986. was remarkable to observe how connected they were.” Children’s book author and former Scholastic employee James Preller says he remembers the crackle of excitement when he arrived there in the 1980s, thinking, “This place is pretty awesome; there are many talented and caring people walking the halls.

Although Scholastic has thousands of employees around the world, Robinson has developed a knack for remembering everyone’s name and what they were doing. He had small chats with junior employees in the hallways and had no qualms about being seen in sweatpants and a ragged t-shirt on his regular trips to the company gym in the basement. of Scholastic’s SoHo headquarters, spread across two valued company-owned buildings. The building at 555 Broadway is an original cast-iron structure dating to 1899. The adjoining 557 Broadway was designed by Aldo Rossi and built at the turn of the 21st century, and housed the Scholastic store until 2015. The pair is likely worth 100 million dollars today.

Inside the office, there was an aura of accessibility around Robinson. “He felt that everyone who joined the company [was] part of his extended family,” recalls Anne Kenney, who worked as publisher of Scholastic magazine and director of multicultural marketing over the years. “If you had a problem or talked about something, he would remember it, like you were part of the family.”

It has also made inroads into the adult world. An accomplished New Yorker, Robinson financed Keith McNally’s Balthazar, the brasserie that helped make SoHo more chic, and who could often be found there early in the morning, having lunch with regulars. Robinson spent 32 years on the board of directors of the Association of American Publishers, endowed a position at Teachers College, and counted among his friends the late CEO of Penguin Books, Peter Mayer (the two visited the Mayo Clinic together to exams) and his neighbor actor Alec Baldwin. , who considered Robinson “an old-school gentleman”. But most importantly, say several sources close to him, he spent his rare downtime with a close-knit circle of Scholastic executives.

Beneath the image of a man devoted to his father’s business and determined to run the growing business as if it were one large extended family, there was someone far more opaque. than it appeared to the outside world. Within Scholastic itself, it had been common knowledge for many years that Lucchese was his girlfriend. “Did people know Dick fucked? It was the best kept secret No space!” a former employee said wryly, adding, “He only dated within the company…and we were all aware of that.”

When the New York Times posted a profile of Lucchese last fall, the comments became a war zone as readers fought over the story. Some felt it was mean or misogynistic to suggest that the executive had not earned its place at the top of the scholastic empire. She had served the company for decades. Why would it matter whether she dated the boss or not? Others reveled in the insinuation.

Having spent my career writing about women who have been undermined at work, mocked or silenced for trying to break into the citadels of white male power, I was thrilled to see a female executive earn the keys to a cultural colossus. The suggestion that a successful woman might have benefited from dating the boss seemed very antiquated to my contemporary feminist sensibilities. For many months, I’ve requested an interview with Lucchese and his team, eager to hear his plans for keeping Scholastic relevant and afloat in a turbulent pandemic moment.

Instead of trumpeting their forward plans for the century-old public company, Lucchese and CEO Warwick declined to be interviewed by vanity lounge, as have many current Scholastic employees, although they did show me around the archives. The company further declined to make any statement regarding a number of matters. vanity lounge asked about Lucchese’s history with the company, various employee relationships, and the company’s perspective on Benham and the sons, among other questions. The nervousness, the fortress mentality, the code of silence sometimes felt like trying to penetrate the defenses of a government security agency rather than a children’s media company. But I was able to speak to nearly two dozen former and current employees, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, and together they painted a picture of a visionary company led by and entangled in instincts complicated from its late leader.

For a large part of its existence, Scholastic was best known for its magazines – the first founded in 1920 – and then its school book clubs, an arena it entered in 1948. Many readers will surely remember the buzz that echoed in the classroom each time the Scholastic book club catalogs were distributed. . Teachers were happy to encourage purchases – not only did this get kids excited about reading, but classrooms could earn bonus books as a commission.

Many of the titles in these early book club catalogs were licensed from other publishers; by Norman Bridwell Clifford the big red dog, first released in 1963, was one of the company’s few classics. But Robinson had an ambitious vision, and when he took over from his father, he began to create an ecosystem. In the 1980s, the company bought out a group of small regional book fair businesses. Scholastic has established a direct relationship with millions of students, encouraging them to browse book fairs and make their own choices, something children rarely have the opportunity to do. It also gave the company enormous power within the children’s book industry: publishers who wanted to get their books into the hands of students often had to license the paperback rights to Scholastic. For the authors, this was a tempting proposition; even little-known writers could sell billions of copies.

Between book clubs and book fairs, Scholastic — which went public in 1992 (NASDAQ: CMHC) — suddenly had a virtual monopoly in the elementary school market, turning the seemingly lackluster arena of children’s books into a milk cow. Robinson kept an eye on the future, developing educational software, computer magazines, interactive projects, a television production wing and a pioneering foray online, launching the Scholastic Network on AOL in 1993. In the mid-1990s, Robinson had created such a dynamic brand that Ted Turner approached him about partnering with a 24-hour Scholastic cable network for kids. He declined, according to a former employee familiar with the deal, because Robinson feared sharing control with another entity, which could dilute the Scholastic name.

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