The real Scholastic scandal

Iole Lucchese was hardly a star in the publishing world. She had worked for thirty years at Scholastic Corporation, an educational publisher best known for pitching directly to kids through the schools. She had no profile outside the company. Her name would occasionally show up near the bottom of press releases announcing that one of Scholastic’s franchises, say “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” was about to make a movie, but otherwise, CEO Dick Robinson, whose father founded the company, took all the headlines. At least, he did until he dropped dead on a walk on Martha’s Vineyard last June 4 at age 84. His will was read in the days following and Ms. Lucchese finally came into her own, although probably not on terms she would have chosen.

On August 1, The Wall Street Journal reported that Robinson left control of the $1.2 billion company, which owns rights not only to Clifford but to “The Hunger Games” series and “Harry Potter,” not to his siblings or his ex-wife or his two sons but to Lucchese, 54, whom he described in the will as “my partner and closest friend.” The Journal described Lucchese and Robinson as “longtime romantic partners.”

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In addition to gaining control of Scholastic, Lucchese was named co-executor of Robinson’s estate (with the firm’s legal counsel). She also inherits his personal possessions to manage as she sees fit.

Lucchese’s “sudden emergence” as Scholastic’s heir ruffled feathers in the Robinson family, the Journal continued. Robinson’s youngest son, Maurice, who goes by Reece, considered himself “an advisor” to his father. He called it “unexpected and shocking.” His older brother, John Benham Robinson, who goes by Ben, asserts that his perspective was valued by his father “in all matters, particularly regarding the trajectory of the company,” and who had been lobbying for a seat on Scholastic’s board, said the news “served as salt in an open wound.” The boys are considering their legal options.

Robinson’s siblings, too, were distressed at the news, concerned that control of Scholastic had slipped outside the family’s bloodlines.

The former Mrs. Robinson, Helen Benham, mother of Reece and Ben, was also “shocked.” She had met Dick when she worked in Scholastic’s art department and married him in 1986. “I lived and breathed Scholastic while also raising our two children,” she said. “Dick told me on more than one occasion, ‘You care more about Scholastic than I do.’” Benham claims that her ex-husband “was coming back to his family,” spending weekends with her in Martha’s Vineyard and weeknights in Manhattan. She wouldn’t be drawn into a discussion of Lucchese’s inheritance.

While the family drama played out, Scholastic announced that Lucchese, who had been executive vice-president and head of strategy at the firm, will keep those titles and add to them the position of chairman of the board.

The Journal reports that her romantic relationship with her boss began decades ago, and was an open secret at Scholastic. It was not viewed as inappropriate by employees, although there was talk of clashes in meetings that sometimes sounded personal. Other employees referred to them as “the Bickersons.”

Last weekend, my friend Isabel Vincent of the New York Post wrote a deeper account of the Lucchese-Robinson relationship.

Dick was a “serial philanderer,” says Vincent. He slept with an array of female employees. His first wife, Katherine Prentis Woodroofe, was a Scholastic editor. They married in 1968. Dick was still married to Woodroofe when he began carrying on with Benham. When that proved unsustainable, he divorced the former and married the latter.

Robinson met Lucchese, a “lithe brunette,” at a Canadian booksellers’ conference in 1992, six years after the start of his second marriage. She was one of “several young women in similar roles” at Scholastic, all vying for the attention “of the married New York boss.” Dick apparently liked Lucchese’s smile. “I remember the way he looked at her,” says a former colleague. “I thought, ‘oh, shit, he’s got his eye on Iole.”

“She was extremely attractive and she knew she was attractive, and she used that as best she could,” says a former colleague.

Thus began Lucchese’s “meteoric rise” at the company, and the end of Robinson’s marriage to Benham (they divorced in 2003).

“He was clearly besotted with Iole, but the relationship was never acknowledged and never spoken about,” said a Robinson business associate. “At first they tried to keep it under wraps, but soon everyone pretty much knew.”

Lucchese, a Torontonian, was herself married. She and her husband, Quentin Kong, a marketing executive, lived in what the Post describes as “a $4 million Tudor-inspired gated home in a posh neighborhood. When their marriage broke up sometime after 2006, she got the house. She commuted between Toronto and New York while running Scholastic’s Canadian operations.

“She was never really into her husband, and was often dismissive of him,” an acquaintance told the Post. “Her work always came first.”

There is an abundance of catty commentary about Lucchese in both the Journal and the Post articles: “She’s like a chameleon,” said a Toronto colleague. “I saw her put on that smile that could win you over, and then she abruptly turned around and walked away.”

She gets occasional credit for her work at Scholastic, including developing the entertainment arm of the company, turning “Clifford” and “The Magic School Bus” into Hollywood commodities.

Still, the suggestion of the articles, reflecting the suggestions of individuals who spoke to reporters, is that Lucchese slept her way to an inheritance. “Iole must have been the love of his life,” said the former employee. “That would really explain why he left her everything.”

But, it doesn’t, really. While I have no special insight into the Robinson family dynamics, Dick’s siblings don’t appear to have been involved with Scholastic (none were on the board, at least not in recent years). The contributions of Mrs. Benham (above) ended a quarter-century ago, and while she suggests that she and Dick were engaged in some manner reconciling, nobody suggests she was back in the picture at the company. No one mentions her as a presence around the office. She wasn’t on the board, either.

The sons, whose noses seem furthest out of joint about Lucchese’s new role, do not appear heir-worthy.

Reece (right), aged 25, describes himself as a documentary filmmaker specializing in “character-driven” storytelling. He’s done some low-level work with National Geographic and he helped to shoot a Grubhub ad for a Brooklyn Filipino restaurant.

Ben (left), nine years older, appears to be taking the scenic route to adulthood. According to the WSJ, he describes himself as a “writer,” or “the poet laureate who hasn’t told his story yet.” He lives off the land in Martha’s Vineyard: “I fish the fish and cull the deer.”

Unlike his younger brother, who never worked at Scholastic, Ben once worked at a scholastic store as a teenager and “dressed up as ‘Clifford’ the dog for a parade.” Of late, he’s been quite visible on social media, cheering on the Bronx socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal.

All due respect to the Robinsons, Dick did not have the option of handing off to a safe pair of familial hands.

But surely there was someone at Scholastic, apart from his girlfriend, who could have been trusted with the enterprise?

Scholastic’s board of directors is reasonably impressive. It includes Peter Warwick, a former executive at Thomson Reuters, and David J. Young, former chair and CEO of Hachette USA. (Margaret Williams, best remembered as the woman accused by secret service agents of removing files from Vince Foster’s office on the night of his death, back during all the Clinton scandals, is also on the board). However, none of the directors appears to have been so close to the business or to Robinson as to warrant an inheritance.

Turning to the executive ranks, there were four key employees at the time of Dick’s death. Two had just joined the company, so neither was likely to inherit it. The CFO, Kenneth Cleary, is a run-of-the-mill beancounter with no operating experience; he wasn’t taking over.

And then there was Iole Lucchese, thirty-year employee, executive vice-president, chief strategy officer, and president of the fast-growing Scholastic Entertainment division. She’s been a recognized member of the senior executive group for at least a decade, and for the last two years, she’s been Scholastic’s highest-paid employee apart from Dick (just over a million a year). If you knew nothing about the personal dynamics at the firm and looked only at the company’s SEC filings, you’d identify Lucchese as the heir apparent. It isn’t fair of the Journal to call her emergence “sudden.” It should not even be controversial, at least from a business perspective.

Lucchese was born to Italian immigrant parents in 1966, and was the first in her family to attend university. She was in her twenties when she joined Scholastic, and was president of its Canadian operations by her late thirties. Her responsibilities at the company steadily increased. Despite all the things said about her, no one calls her incompetent. Quite the contrary. She is known for her long days at the office and is said to be “passionate” about Scholastic. (Interestingly, no one says she was passionate about Dick. In fact, she was known to stand up to him in meetings, and could be “completely dismissive” of him in public.)

All things considered, Dick Robinson, who made his share of questionable choices during his lifetime, appears to have made the right one when it came to ensuring the future of his company. Lucchese, with or without the personal relationship with Dick, looks like the best person in the Scholastic orbit to guide its future. Her rise at the firm may have been unorthodox, but look at the corporate culture. The fils Robinson, neither of whom wanted a career at Scholastic, should be ashamed of themselves for pissing on her parade.

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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