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An Empire Undone
By Vance H. Trimble

Chapter One: Wooing the President of Yale

Benno Schmidt Jr., the president of Yale University, kept lifting his eyebrows and shooting wry looks at Peter Jennings, the ABC television network anchor who sat across the candlelit black marble table set for twelve. In considerable amazement, he listened at a Long Island beach house dinner party in the summer of 1990 to a bizarre scheme being vigorously espoused by one guest he had only met this night.

Calmly and persuasively, Chris Whittle was suggesting that America's bankrupt public school system should be turned upside down -"reinvented"- and that he was ready to tackle the job himself while making a profit doing so.

Not surprisingly, the powerful and sophisticated president of Yale and Jennings, a knowledgeable education buff, fired challenging questions. Between bites of grilled tuna the other guests, sophisticates all, leaped in and fueled a stimulating debate that rattled on for three or four hours. At times it was heated.

The hosts were Ed Victor, an international literary agent in London, and his lawyer wife Carol Ryan. Both Americans, they regularly came home to spend summers at Two Barns on Long Island's Little Noyac Pass in Bridgehampton. Their beach house, romantic, historic, and aptly named, was constructed from two seventeenth-century English barns they had dismantled and numbered board by board in 1981 and then shipped across the Atlantic to be reassembled and joined as their vacation home.

This dinner highlighted the weekend Benno Schmidt and his wife, Helen Cutting Whitney, a documentary filmmaker, were spending as the Victors' guests at Two Barns, as they did every year,

Mort Janklow, a New York literary agent, was another one of Victor and Ryan's dinner guests that evening. He recalls thinking that Chris Whittle -"a really smart guy"- was sending up trial balloons and"noodling"an idea he hadn't yet thought out.

"I don't think there is anything that Chris Whittle has not thought out,"rejoins Victor."In a sense it was a trial balloon. I think it was one of the first public outings of the Edison Project, but I remember the dinner table was, to make a terrible pun of the Edison Project, `lit up' by this conversation.

"It really did dominate the evening. I know that very heated words were exchanged between Chris and Peter [Jennings]. They really went at it. Peter is an expert on education. It's a regular part of his American Agenda on the nightly news. They crossed swords a lot, as did Harry Evans and Chris."

Ed Victor was referring to another guest, Harold Evans, former editor of the London Times, who had become head of Random House's trade book division. He was present with his wife, Tina Brown, then editor of Vanity Fair and soon to be named editor of the New Yorker. The other three at the table were Peter Jennings's wife, the author Kati Ilona Marton; Mort Janklow's wife, Linda, who headed New York City's ghetto school cultural program; and Chris Whittle's fiancee, Priscilla Rattazzi. Daughter of an Italian count and niece of billionaire Gianni Agnelli, Italy's richest man and chairman of the Fiat automobile empire, she occupied her family's summer house nearby in East Hampton. She knew the Victors because her five-year-old son Maximilian played in the Long Island"brat pack"with the Victors' small boy, Gary. Priscilla Rattazzi currently was awaiting a divorce from Maxi's father, her second husband, Claus Moehlmann, a German investment banker.

Despite Machiavellian overtones that could be suspected later, the dinner party was not a deliberate ploy for letting Chris Whittle try out wacky ideas on Benno Schmidt or, for that matter, on any guest."Benno and Chris are both pals of mine,"says Ed Victor,"and I thought they should get to know each other."

Schmidt later said of the dinner party,"I've often wondered whether my old friend Ed had any thought that an oak tree might grow out of that acorn."

Throughout the evening, Chris Whittle was definitely on the defensive, countering sharp blows from every side. Ed Victor watched and marveled at his poise and argumentive skills. Though Whittle had bought and was remodeling his own house in East Hampton across a pond from Priscilla Rattazzi's, Victor had first met him in 1989 in London. A mutual friend in Hollywood had asked the agent to introduce Chris to the London literati, which included going to Ken Follett's Christmas party and a photo exhibit by Koo Stark, the actress who dated Prince Andrew in the mid-eighties. However, no one at the table knew more about him than Tina Brown, who had just published in her March 1990 issue of Vanity Fair (whose cover displayed near-nude actress Kathleen Turner) a thorny profile:"Is Chris Whittle the Devil?"The introductory deck read:

Chris Whittle, the marketing whiz from Tennessee, has seen the future and it is"enlightened commercialism"- ads everywhere, even in doctors' waiting rooms and between the pages of books. With the launch this month of Channel One, a news program for classrooms with commercials and expected revenues of $100 million, Whittle has raised an uproar. Is he a visionary? Or is he asking us"to sell access to our kids' minds"?

At this dinner party, no one rehashed Chris Whittle's image as a maverick of controversy in American media for the past two decades. The talk centered on his private-public school brainstorm and his impending challenge of America's elementary education with a multi-billion-dollar scheme that had not yet been publicly announced.

"We were talking about education,"says Janklow,"lamenting the failure of the American public school system. Linda is chairman of Arts Connection, which is the largest inner-city school cultural program in the United States. They give 2,600 cultural performances in the ghetto schools every year. She was talking about the schools she visits in the ghetto where the educational system is failing. I recalled the time in the forties when I was in public school and we still had the first-generation children of immigrant parents for whom teaching was a big deal. And how we had such wonderful public education in New York and how that was now failing.

"Chris began to talk, asking, wouldn't it be wonderful if there could be a way to really take the kinds of things that are possible in private schools and do them in a broad-based educational structure. It seems this was something he was noodling with. But it was clear to me that he was convinced then there was a way to improve the education system that might not be possible in the public context which has been traditional in this country.

"Some of us argued we weren't getting the right kind of teaching and the ghettos had become uncivilized. That it became dangerous and impossible to teach in those environments. And the illegitimacy of children ... That kind of thing. Really far-ranging discussions.... And Chris was the only one who had obviously focused on trying to find a solution to this problem."

Peter Jennings objected to the"reinventing"idea. He feared 200 to 250 alternative Edison schools scattered across the United States would"take away"from the state educational system. Ed Victor recalls Jennings arguing that the country's energy and resources should go to improve the existing system, not create an untried alternative. Chris Whittle countered that millions spent by Edison on research and development would inspire states to emulate its anticipated revolutionary methods.

Benno Schmidt has a vivid recollection of the dinner-table debate."Chris Whittle said he had in mind creating a new nationwide system of schools that would be rethought from the ground up. He thought we needed a revolution in education, that the existing schools were so fragmented, so constrained by politics and by the sort of inherited model and approaches they had. Hence they were not capable of the kind of revolutionary change he thought education needed. That the way to do it was to create a new nationwide system of schools, get investors to finance it, because it couldn't be financed any other way. And that was about it.

"Jennings jumped in. Said he had been around to a lot of schools. Thought there was a lot of innovation going on, and a lot of new thinking. And that the problem really wasn't so much with the schools but with the problems of family and kids that they bring to the schools. So there was a lot of discussion about what current schools are doing. And some skepticism, I guess, about whether it would be possible to create a whole new system."

When the last guest had departed and the Schmidts relaxed for a nightcap with the Victors, the president of Yale was of the opinion that he had experienced a stimulating dinner-table joust over the future of American education with an intense, articulate, and serious young man with notable powers of persuasion. And that was all.

But he did not know Chris Whittle. It was not to be their last encounter on that subject.

When Chris phoned him at Yale weeks later it took Schmidt a moment to remember who he was."I didn't think anything more about him or the idea after that dinner, just an interesting dinner. I wasn't expecting to hear from him."

Chris Whittle asked if he could come to New Haven and see the Yale president.

"I assumed,"says Schmidt,"he wanted to come up and just get some general advice and counsel from me on how to go about thinking through the strategy for this project. And to talk more generally about my sense of education and what the problems were in the country, and what the opportunities were."

When Chris arrived, Schmidt was in the midst of a busy"sort of dentist-style day,"rushing from one meeting to another. Schmidt took his visitor to the celebrated Mory's for lunch. At the table, Chris got right to it.

"I know you are going to think I'm crazy,"he said,"but I want to persuade you to leave Yale and to join this new project, because nothing like it has ever been done before."

Benno Schmidt was taken totally off guard. The offer came in what he remembers as"a most friendly, engaging way."His eyebrows shot up, and his mouth fell open.

"Yes, you are! You are crazy!"

The Yale president smiled, dismissing the offer about as casually as he would a five-dollar bet on tomorrow's weather."I said, 'I think your project sounds very intriguing, but there is no way I could think about leaving Yale.'

"And then he said, 'I expected that would be your response, but let's talk about it anyway a little bit.' So he laid it out a little bit at lunch. I said, 'Look, I really think you mustn't waste your time thinking this is something that I could possibly do. I've got things at Yale that I'm in the middle of that just have to be carried out. This seems a worthwhile project. I'd be happy to give you advice. It's interesting and fun - but there's no way.'"

Chris said,"Well, okay. I understand. But I'd like to talk with you some more about it."

"Okay, okay,"said Schmidt."Just give me a call whenever you're up in this neck of the woods and we can sit down again."

They had no further contact for weeks. But right after New Year's 1991 Chris returned to New Haven.

"I heard,"Schmidt recalls,"more of his conception of how the project would be organized and conceived from the beginning, what his strategy was for thinking that it could be accomplished, what his public purposes were in doing it. This was really intended by him as an effort to kind of open up a system of education that he felt was closed and increasingly moribund and failing. And his view that opening it up to innovation and competition and choice was probably the best way to bring about change that was crucial."

Chris Whittle conceded he would have to raise an enormous amount of venture capital - $2.5 billion!

The first step, at a cost of $60 million, would be to create a think tank of experts to thrash out the model for the new schools. Once that was done, his basic scheme called for a network of two hundred profit-making schools that would open their doors in 1996 for children as young as one year old through the sixth grade. Grades up to twelve would be phased in one year at a time. This would require $2.5 billion from large investors to acquire land and build facilities equipped with computers and audio-visual aids. By the year 2010 there would be one thousand Whittle schools.

© Vance H. Trimble

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