In the hothouse world of New York’s private schools, where students are treated like rare and fragile flowers, the mere scent of a scandal is often enough to send a school into damage-control mode. Meetings are held, mediators are called, rumors are quashed like pesky little bugs.
So it was something of a surprise last week when two scandals burst beyond the carefully guarded walls of Dalton and Spence into the very public realm of New York’s court system.
On Thursday, April 21, lawyers for 16-year-old Christopher Spaide and his parents, Drs. Richard and Chang Spaide, filed suit against the Dalton School for “arbitrarily and capriciously” suspending the high-school sophomore after he wrote a series of controversial “minutes” for a February student-government meeting. The suit alleges that the minutes-which the young Mr. Spaide wrote in his capacity as secretary of the student government-were intended as nothing more than playful “attempts at wit and satire.” And it accuses the school of “irreparably” harming Mr. Spaide, demanding that Dalton expunge any reference to the scandal from his record.
As described in court documents, the young Mr. Spaide is a lifelong Daltonian and A-student with “exceptional intellectual abilities.” But according to sources at the school, Mr. Spaide’s minutes consisted of plenty of homophobic, anti-Semitic and racist commentary and included fabricated accounts of student-teacher affairs.
“It became a really big deal,” said one source of the frenzy that gripped the school after Mr. Spaide’s commentaries hit the Dalton Web site.
“I think we see this thing as a very unfortunate occurrence; nobody wants this thing played out in a courtroom,” said Daniel Kurtz, an attorney with Holland and Knight, who is defending Dalton against the Spaides’ lawsuit. “I think we very much regret that the family chose to pursue this in court, but we are prepared to say our piece in the courtroom and defend the school’s course of action, which I think was absolutely correct here.”
But Mr. Spaide’s lawyer kicked the blame back to Dalton. “We are deeply disappointed in Dalton’s response to a relatively minor incident involving a student publication, particularly when the school had an affirmative duty to monitor the writings before they were published,” said Matthew Delforte. “He is an excellent student; they know he’s not a bully.”
Mr. Delforte and his clients are expected to meet with Dalton’s attorneys in court for the first time on Friday, May 6.
Meanwhile, just two blocks north, on limestone-lined East 91st Street …
The Spence School, which is perhaps best known as the grooming ground of Gwyneth Paltrow, was hit on April 20 with a complaint by its former food-services chef, Jared Lewis. The complaint charges that the school “willfully and wrongfully” breached Mr. Lewis’ employment agreement when it fired him on Dec. 16, 2004, and demands damages and benefits of nearly $42,000.
According to the complaint, Mr. Lewis is “a twenty-seven (27) year old University of Pennsylvania graduate with a background and interest in food service management and catering.” He joined the school in August 2003, and earned rave reviews from faculty, parents and at least one student: In the fall of 2004, he began dating a 19-year-old former Spence girl who, apparently, had taken a keen liking to his chipped beef on rye.
On the evening of Nov. 23, Mr. Lewis joined this student and two of her 19-year-old friends at Sessions 73, an Upper East Side “jazz bar” (we’re pretty sure that’s an oxymoron) on First Avenue and 73rd Street. The underage gal and her two friends chatted and listened to music while Mr. Lewis had a drink, court papers said. A good time was had by all.
Ten days later, however, Spence’s headmistress, Arlene Gibson-who is the wife of Good Morning America co-anchor Charles Gibson-called him into her office and questioned him. According to Mr. Lewis’s complaint, she had heard “an unfounded and vicious rumor” that Mr. Lewis and his underage pals were drinking! Mr. Lewis insisted that he was the only drinker in the crowd, but in mid-December the school fired him.
Mr. Lewis’s attorney, Bruce Menken, refused to comment on the case, and a spokesperson for Spence begged off, saying she was unaware of any lawsuit. But a source close to the story was able to provide this tidbit: Despite his diminished circumstances, Mr. Lewis and his Lolita are still together.
A few former students of Hollywood acting coach Roy London got together for a good cry at the Soho Grand Hotel on Sunday night, after the Tribeca premiere of a documentary film memorializing their former teacher. It was a group-therapy session without the analyst; a good, old-fashioned smooch fest of a party honoring a great man who died too young. At certain moments throughout the night, Elizabeth Berkley wept in a corner. Hank Azaria sniffled at the bar. Arye Gross hung his head and stifled tears.
It was just the sort of evening Roy London would have loved.
According to the film, titled Special Thanks to Roy London after the final credit on The Larry Sanders Show-Mr. Sanders being another grateful student of the late coach-Mr. London was a man constantly in search of genuine emotion.
As Ms. Berkley told us: “He would hold up a mirror to you and say, ‘This is who you are. Don’t ever waver from that. Stand in it. As an artist, find your voice and sing it loud. Because you’ll never exist in a form like yours ever again.’”
In the film, the Showgirls star describes how he would also hold up a mirror to her before every private acting lesson and force her to wipe off the makeup she used to slather on her face as an aspiring starlet. He told her to act natural, to find who she really is, to “bring her soul closer to her skin.”
While talking, Ms. Berkley held The Transom’s forearm. Likewise, other actors and the filmmakers themselves appeared eager for human contact all night, hugging and tapping and warmly petting each other’s heads as they remembered stories about Mr. London. All through the evening, we were surprised to find ourselves part of an A-list snuggle.
“His whole modus operandi was about giving,” said Karen Montgomery, one of the film’s producers, while absent-mindedly rubbing our back. “His gift in life was to empower other people. It was just an incredibly generous state of consciousness to be in on this planet.”
Mr. London, a man with the looks and spirit of a Keebler elf, was Ms. Montgomery’s acting coach until his death at the age of 50. He also taught Sharon Stone, Jeff Goldblum, Brad Pitt, Patrick Swayze and half the rest of the Screen Actors Guild. He used to tell them that all human actions are motivated by one of two things: love and power. He knew he was a celebrity among acting coaches, but he shunned the spotlight, giving only two known tape-recorded interviews about his acting techniques in his life.
Mr. Azaria told us Mr. London is responsible for every one of his successful roles, from Apu on The Simpsons to Agadore in The Birdcage. He remembered “one class very early on. I was looking at him with some reverential look on my face. And he looked at me and said, ‘What are you looking at?’ I was mortified. And he said, ‘Wipe that look off your face.’ It was clear he was there to make you better at acting. He happened to be brilliant while he was doing it, but he never wanted that kind of attention.”
Which is perhaps the one thing Mr. London wouldn’t have liked about his big party-the flash of the klieg lights, the air kisses exchanged by B-listers and the red-carpet parade of at least 10 film, television and theater stars, at least nine of whom actually stayed for the film (tsk tsk, Jeff Goldblum; don’t think we weren’t paying attention … ).
Christopher Monger, the film’s director, said the draw of this and other documentaries is that “real emotion isn’t being shown in movies anymore. It’s almost baroque. If you watch TV shows, people will take their glasses off and say a line. I mean, no one actually does that. But with documentaries, people are seeing real emotion, they’re going, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s what that looks like.”
Mr. Monger said no one pulls out real emotion quite like Mr. London, at least from those who knew the man personally before he succumbed to AIDS in 1993. Then he took a sip of his martini, reached for The Transom’s wrist, and wiped away a tear.
The Blame Game
“Journalism is very much like ninth grade in the locker room on Monday morning,” reflected Kurt Eichenwald, the New York Times reporter and author of Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story. “No one wants to admit that all that happened on Saturday night was nothing.”
Mr. Eichenwald, whose book is the most recent in a long list of Enron autopsies, was on the phone discussing business reporters who heaped praise on the now-bankrupt company in the late 90′s without noticing that it was a house of cards. But he might as well have been describing the petty rivalries between fellow journalists, some of whom have accused Mr. Eichenwald of going easy on Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, Enron’s chairman and president, respectively.
“In Conspiracy of Fools, Lay and Skilling aren’t really aware of what’s going on and [Enron C.F.O.] Andy Fastow is the bad guy,” summarized Peter Elkind, the co-author of The Smartest Guys in the Room, another Enron book, which came out in 2003. The mild-mannered journalist was standing in the dining room of the Hotel Plaza Athénée on April 13 at a reception to celebrate Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the new documentary based on his book (co-written with Bethany McLean), answering questions from a crowd that included Norman Pearlstine, Tina Brown and Harry Evans, Eamonn Bowles, Marcia Gay Harden, Steve Kroft and Terry McDonell. “They’re all scumbags!” shouted one guest.
Several days later, Mr. Elkind described over the phone how some Ken Lay defenders showed up at a recent screening of the movie in Houston to complain about the film’s damning portrayal of the fallen executive, holding up Mr. Eichenwald’s book as an example of someone who had done the story differently. “They were asking, ‘Well, how can you blame these guys? It’s not their fault.’ We said that’s nonsense. It’s not just Lay running the company and making $300 million, but specifically authorizing Fastow to set up these partnerships.” Mr. Elkind added that Conspiracy “ignores the direct role that Ken Lay and Stilling played in a whole lot of events.”
Needless to say, Mr. Eichenwald sees things differently. “Has anyone argued with any of my facts? Not once. No one wants to engage the facts,” he said, explaining that he has not yet seen the documentary, though he is familiar with Mr. Elkind’s book. “Do I present some caricature that these are the most evil people to walk the face of the earth? No, it doesn’t do that …. The reason that Fastow looks so bad is that he was constructing most of the deals. Was he doing this by himself? No, it’s clear that others were involved …. The real question is: Does my book exonerate Ken Lay criminally for the charges he actually faces, not the charges dreamed up by some Congressmen or in the minds of some journalists who don’t understand the rules? No.”