The bleak grind of the pandemic had been wearing Dick Robinson down, just like everybody else. He’d been working long days in the near-empty SoHo Headquarters of Scholastic, the $1.2 billion corporation he ran, which his father founded more than 100 years ago. He was trying to keep the business power on as schools shut down across the country, taking with them Scholastic’s legendary in-person bookfairs. He began spending weekends and holidays on Martha’s Vineyard, where he and his ex-wife Helen Benham had bought a place in the ’90s. The house in bucolic Chilmark still served as a retreat for Benham and their adult sons, Ben and Reece. One Friday last June, the exes talked late into the night about their plans for the family’s future together as well as for the company. The next day, during a ramble on 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 then came another seismic surprise: Robinson had left controlling shares of the family company to a Canadian executive named Iole Lucchese, the company’s chief strategy officer and head of Scholastic Entertainment—and now, in the wake of his death , the chair of the board. With Peter Warwick as newly minted CEO, Lucchese would oversee a children’s media empire crammed with beloved (and lucrative) franchises like Clifford the Big Red Dog, Harry Potter, Captain Underpants, animorphs, and The Magic School Bus in an era when Hollywood eagerly devours literary properties to feed the ever-flowing streamers. TO Wall Street Journal story aired plenty of dirty laundry about Scholastic’s “messy succession” and the ascendance of Lucchese, Robinson’s “former girlfriend,” who had also inherited all of Robinson’s personal possessions. Robinson’s two sons began to consider contesting the will.
While Scholastic publicly closed ranks around Lucchese, a protective corporate force field, current and veteran employees privately traded bewildered gossip. The executive suites had already been gladiatorial, people said, with shifting alliances and backstabbing betrayals more suited to game of Thrones than a whole children’s media company. Now, they argued over whether Lucchese was suited to the job, whether she could keep the place from being chopped up or sold off. And they pondered the shadow Robinson’s personal life had cast over the innovative, far-reaching business he had built around his deeply felt mission to get children to read books.
“It’s worse than a normal death because of the sense of betrayal that everybody’s feeling,” says a longtime former employee. “A big mistake is what it was.”
“He really was the heart of the company,” says Kathy Walsh, a former longtime marketing executive for Scholastic. “And you know, when the heart dies, I think the company will go the same way.”
Maurice Richard Robinson Jr. grew up watching his dad, Maurice “Robbie” Robinson, build Scholastic into a respected brand. But the son graduated from Harvard planning to go his own way. “I was going to be a teacher and a writer—joining Scholastic was never a consideration, and my father knew that,” he once told a reporter. An admirer of the Beat poets, Robinson kicked around in blue-collar gigs as a bricklayer and railroad switchman before going to graduate school at Cambridge. After a stint as an Illinois schoolteacher, he returned to New York City in the early 1960s, hoping to gain entry to the literary world.
The family business sucked him in: He took a job as an associate editor at Literary Cavalcade, a company publication, then stayed on, creating a magazine called scope, designed to engage disabled students with lively coverage of current events, world politics, and pop culture. “I will 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. “It 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, feeling, “This place is pretty great; there’s a lot of talented and caring people walking around the halls.”
Although Scholastic had thousands of employees around the world, Robinson developed a knack for remembering everyone’s name and what they did. He made small talk with junior employees in the hallways and had no qualms being seen in sweatpants and a raggedy T-shirt from his regular trips to the company gym in the basement of Scholastic’s SoHo headquarters, spread across two valuable buildings owned by the company. The building at 555 Broadway is an original cast-iron structure dating back to 1899. The adjoining 557 Broadway was designed by Aldo Rossi and built at the turn of the 21st century, and was home to the Scholastic store until 2015. The pair is probably worth $100 million today.
Inside the office there was an aura of approachability around Robinson. “I felt that everyone who joined the company [was] part of his extended family,” recalls Anne Kenney, who worked as a Scholastic magazine publisher and director of multicultural marketing over the years. “If you had a problem or you talked about something, he would remember, like you were family.”
I have forged inroads in the grown-up world too. A consummate New Yorker, Robinson bankrolled Keith McNally’s Balthazar, the brasserie that helped chic-ify SoHo, and could often be found there early mornings, breakfasting with the regulars. Robinson spent 32 years on the board of the Association of American Publishers, endowed a position at Teachers College, and counted among his pals the late Penguin Books CEO Peter Mayer (the two visited the Mayo Clinic together for checkups) and his neighbor actor Alec Baldwin , who considered Robinson “a gentleman of the old school.” But mostly, 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 dedicated to his father’s business and committed to running the growing company as if it were a large extended family was someone far more opaque than he appeared to the outside world. Within Scholastic itself, it was common knowledge for many years that Lucchese was his girlfriend. “Did people know Dick fucked around? It was the best-kept secret not happy!” a former employee says wryly, adding, “He dated only within the company…and we were all aware of it.”
when the New York Times ran a profile of Lucchese last fall, the comments became a war zone as readers bickered over the story. Some felt it was catty or misogynistic to suggest that the executive had n’t earned her place de ella at the top of the Scholastic empire. She had served the company for decades. Why should it matter whether she had dated the boss or not? Others revealed in the innuendo.
Having spent my career writing about women who’ve been undermined in the workplace, mocked or silenced for trying to break into the white male citadels of power, I was thrilled to see a female executive earning 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 requested an interview with Lucchese and her team from Ella, eager to hear her plans for keeping Scholastic relevant and afloat in a turbulent pandemic moment.
Instead of trumpeting their forward-looking plans for the 100-year-old public company, Lucchese and CEO Warwick declined to be interviewed by vanityfair, as did many current Scholastic employees, though they did give me a tour of the archives. The company further declined to make any statement regarding a number of questions Vanity Fair posed about Lucchese’s history with the company, various employee relationships, and the company’s view of Benham and the sons, among other inquiries. The skittishness, the fortress mentality, the code of silence all made me feel at times like I was trying to penetrate the defenses of a government security agency rather than a kids’ media company. But I was able to speak to nearly two dozen former and current employees, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, and together they painted the picture of a visionary company driven by and tangled up in the complicated instincts of its late leader.
for much of its existence, Scholastic was known mostly for its magazines—the first founded in 1920—and then school book clubs, an arena it entered in 1948. Surely many readers will remember the buzz that whirred through the classroom whenever Scholastic book club catalogs were passed out . Teachers were happy to encourage purchases—not only was it getting kids excited about reading, but classrooms could earn bonus books as a commission.
Many of the titles in those early book club catalogs were licensed from other publishers; Norman Bridwell’s Clifford the Big Red Dog, first published in 1963, it was one of the company’s few homegrown classics. But Robinson had an ambitious vision, and when he took over from his father, he began creating an ecosystem. In the 1980s, the company bought up a bunch of small regional bookfair companies. Scholastic built a direct relationship with millions of students, encouraging them to browse at the bookfairs and make their own choices—something kids rarely got to do. It also gave the company enormous power within the children’s book industry: Publishers who wanted to get their books into students’ hands often had to license paperback rights to Scholastic. For authors it was a tempting proposition; even little-known writers could sell bajillions of copies.
Between the book clubs and the bookfairs, Scholastic—which went public in 1992 (NASDAQ: SCHL)—suddenly had a near-monopoly on the grade school market, turning the seemingly dowdy arena of children’s books into a cash cow. Robinson kept an eye trained 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. By the mid-1990s, Robinson had created such a vibrant brand that Ted Turner approached him about partnering on a 24-hour Scholastic cable network for kids. He turned it down, according to a former employee close to the deal, because Robinson feared sharing control with another entity, potentially diluting the Scholastic name.