Avec Roubichou, le Déluge
The French had their revolution. Now, Manhattan’s multicultural, Francocentric private school, the Lycée Français de New York, may be about to have its own. And the question being asked at the barricades is whether the school’s controversial president, Gérard Roubichou, is destined for the guillotine.
After a year in which a number of the school’s 16 directors resigned (three new members have since been appointed) and the French Ambassador to the United States called for the ouster of Mr. Roubichou, the current atmosphere at the 63-year-old Lycée is particularly volatile. According to one board member who requested anonymity: “We’re deadlocked on everything.”
If the board has to turn to the state’s Board of Regents to resolve its problems-a last-ditch measure-the move could mar the Lycée’s reputation, which is already said to have suffered from lagging enrollment and a dearth of graduates being accepted by Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities.
Mr. Roubichou left a message for The Transom that he was not available to comment on this story, but he is said to have his own faithful faction, including Guy Wildenstein, brother of art dealer and current tabloid fodder Alec Wildenstein, and the chairman of the Lycée’s finance committee, Frédéric Romano.
Another, newer member of the board, attorney Alfred Ross, whose wife Jane Ross has taught at the school for 24 years, offered a more optimistic take on the Lycée’s fortunes: “The school’s going through a transition period.” He explained that the resignations from the board are “normal when either a school or a corporation goes through transition.” Mr. Ross then added that he and other trustees, “have come together to stabilize the situation and move the board forward. We’re making progress.”
One of the issues currently under discussion is the future of Mr. Roubichou, who has been president of the Lycée since 1989. Although Mr. Ross said that Mr. Roubichou has “made a lot of contributions” to the Lycée, he acknowledged that “the current president has had, how shall we say, a difficult time in this transition.”
The controversy over Mr. Roubichou only deepened in July when François Bujon de l’Estang, the French Ambassador, wrote a three-page letter to Lycée board members. In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Transom, Mr. de l’Estang concluded that Mr. Roubichou-who once worked in the French Consulate in New York-was “incapable of properly carrying out his duties as president of the Lycée Français de New York.… If nothing is done to change the current management, the Lycée will undoubtedly slide into a public crisis that may well destroy it.”
Although the French Government has “no legal authority over the direction of the school,” according to Mr. Ross, it does certify the Lycée, which offers both a high school degree and the French baccalaureate, a degree that’s necessary for French students who wish to enroll at universities on their home turf. Mr. Ross added that the French “also provide important educational infrastructure.” A member of an anti-Roubichou parents group, the Association des Parents d’Élèves du Lycée Français de New York, said that the Government also sends between $600,000 and $1 million in scholarship money.
Shortly after the letter’s arrival, a number of board members resigned, including New York Public Library president Paul LeClerc (“Anyone who has anything to do with France,” said the source from the parents group). But Mr. Ross cautioned, “I wouldn’t say they [the board members] resigned because of it.”
Still, he said that Mr. Roubichou’s “future role is being evaluated by the board.” The Lycée president’s contract runs until June 1999.
Ashak Rawji, goateed, bifocaled and wearing a Prada suit with a Turnbull & Asser tie, was looking clubbable at the nightspot Life on Dec. 13. Not long before financier Ronald Perelman and his ex-wife Claudia Cohen emerged from a neighboring V.I.P. lounge at the club, Mr. Rawji, the paparazzo and book publisher, in his own V.I.P. lounge, was reading from a list of “good guys” in the gossip world: George Rush, Liz Smith, Michael Musto, Liz Tilberis, Neal Travis, Katie Ford, Patrick McMullan and Beth Landman Keil.
Mr. Rawji had a list of bad guys, too, and this evening, a gathering organized by his party-promoter friend Baird Jones was meant to celebrate the photographer’s vindication against one of them. On Dec. 9, Mr. Rawji learned that while he had not extracted the $25,000 in damages he wanted from Hamptons magazine, he was entitled to a retraction from the magazine.
Cradling an Amstel in one hand, Mr. Rawji read from his list of “losers”: George Wayne, Joan Jedell and the New York Post’s Page Six, the last of whom he said he is planning to hit with a $15 million lawsuit for libel. Mr. Rawji’s complaint against that column? That on June 26, it called him “New York’s reigning uninvited guest” and “a veritable Zelig amidst the canapés.”
On Aug. 2, after the Post item ran, Mr. Rawji said he found himself in the V.I.P. tent at the Bridgehampton Polo Club, the site of a benefit the shutterbug said he’d paid $50 to attend. As he and a friend, Debra Scott, were sipping champagne, Mr. Rawji said they were approached by Randy Schindler, the publisher and editor in chief of Hamptons magazine, which sponsored the event. According to Mr. Rawji, Mr. Schindler said, “What a romantic couple, I want your picture.” The two obliged, and the next week [the week of Aug. 8], a smiley image ran above a two-word caption: “Party Crashers,” which left Mr. Rawji feeling “disgusted” and “misled.”
“Debra used to be [an editor at Hamptons], and it was all perfectly innocent,” Mr. Schindler said. “I did not know and I’m against these kind of things. Hamptons magazine does not make fun of people. That’s not our take. Hamptons is like a refreshing take on life.”
Mr. Schindler said he was “absolutely, a hundred percent not involved with the caption”-which, he said, was written by editor Kristina Stewart, who is named in Mr. Rawji’s lawsuit and is now editor in chief of Quest magazine. Ms. Stewart declined to comment to The Transom, but a source familiar with the caption said the two were “equally involved.”
The second week in August, Mr. Rawji said he again paid to return to the scene and buttonholed Mr. Schindler. “I went up to Randy and said ‘Why did you do this? I paid.’ And he said ‘I don’t give a shit!'”
Mr. Schindler did not recall the exchange. “I don’t speak to people that way,” he said.
Mr. Rawji told The Observer that he assumed the “libel” was going to be repeated ad infinitum. So on Aug. 12, Mr. Rawji filed a defamation, libel and slander suit in Civil Court in Manhattan against the magazine, Mr. Schindler and Ms. Stewart. In his complaint, he called Hamptons “a cheap yellow rag,” asked for $25,000 in damages, and alleged that Mr. Schindler was, among other things, “a small-time chiseler,” “tax cheat” and a “bogus marriage perpetrator.” Mr. Rawji told The Transom that he based these descriptions on a July 3, 1996, item about Mr. Schindler in the Daily News’ Rush & Molloy column that laid out all of the above charges, except for the “small-time chiseler” one. As of Dec. 23, neither the Daily News nor Mr. Rawji had been sued by Mr. Schindler. “When you blow air into unfortunate situations, they just grow larger,” Mr. Schindler said.
Over the last four months, three judges have presided over four hearings regarding Mr. Rawji’s suit. Mr. Schindler, who didn’t attend any of the hearings, was represented by counsel at the last hearing on Dec. 9, when Civil Court Judge Jose Padilla decided that if the two parties didn’t resolve the dispute once and for all, there would be a trial.
At that point, both sides agreed that the magazine would print an apology to Mr. Rawji, when Hamptons resumes publishing. (It’s currently on winter hiatus.) “I guess [Mr. Rawji’s] a proud man,” Mr. Schindler said.
“The suit had no substance,” said Stephen Grossman, Mr. Schindler’s attorney. “In other words, [Mr. Rawji] was not damaged.” But he added that the Hamptons photo “was a mistake and it’s going to be rectified and there will be a retraction printed. But it’s a waste of everybody’s time and effort.”
If Mr. Schindler believes that Mr. Rawji’s suit is baseless, why is he willing to print a retraction?
A source said that the publisher is preparing to make an initial public offering of Hamptons Media Inc. (the company that owns Hamptons and Palm Beach Magazine). Could it be that Mr. Schindler doesn’t want the magazine embroiled in a suit with Mr. Rawji when he makes the I.P.O.? “Nothing is connected at all,” Mr. Schindler said. “The Rawji thing is what it is. People sue you-right?-in this country for things. You just deal with it, it’s not a biggie … it was an unfortunate error in the magazine and we regret any harm.” As for the I.P.O., he said it’s “just talk.… We’re expanding our magazine group.”
Judge Padillo scheduled a hearing on Dec. 29, by which time he wants both parties to have come up with a resolution to their dispute. Mr. Rawji said he wants four consecutive retractions; Mr. Grossman said Hamptons “will print a retraction in accordance with arrangements made with the court.” Both parties seem headed toward a settlement.
Mr. Rawji said he will move ahead with his $15 million complaint against the New York Post-the same amount, he noted, that former security guard Richard Jewell is suing the publication for. (A Post spokesman said the paper does not comment on impending suits.) Mr. Rawji insists that he has never crashed a party. He explained that he is legitimate because he pays, he’s invited and he is a working photographer. His pictures have appeared in Hamptons’ rival Country magazine, in the Daily News and in overseas publications.
He added, “I think in some part it’s resentment because I’m invited to a lot of parties, and also I walk off with the most beautiful women.”
The Transom Also Hears
… Mistletoe was not needed at the annual Christmas party that restaurateur-production executive Phil Suarez and his wife Lucy threw at their Gramercy Park apartment on Dec. 17. Mr. Suarez is a partner at chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new four-star restaurant, Jean-Georges. With staff from that establishment, along with the staffs of Mr. Suarez’s other restaurants-Vong, Jo Jo, Gigino and Patría-handling the evening’s menu, the soirée became a lovefest of the city’s culinary elite. Mr. Vongerichten and Mr. Suarez, resplendent in a velvet John Bartlett jacket, mingled with Balthazar’s Keith McNally, Le Cirque 2000’s Sirio Maccioni, Da Silvano’s Silvano Marchetto and Tavern on the Green’s Warner LeRoy, who was wearing his own velvet creation: a Mao jacket. But The Transom’s favorite image was of architect Adam Tihany, in a red sportscoat, holding a group that included Mr. LeRoy and Robin Leach spellbound as he told a story while brandishing a cigar the length and breadth of a sex toy.
… Amy Ephron recently commissioned White House decorator Kaki Hockersmith to freshen up the “interim” home that Ms. Ephron is renting in the Pacific Palisades, Calif. And now she may want to juice up Ms. Hockersmith’s budget. Ms. Ephron, sister of Nora, has just signed a six-figure deal with William Morrow to write a novel called White Rose (Una Rosa Blanca), set in Cuba, Manhattan and Washington, D.C., in 1897. Like her last novel, A Cup of Tea, which was based on a short story by Katherine Mansfield, White Rose will take its inspiration from the José Martí poem.