Award-winner photographer Mary Ellen Mark, whose portraits of Courtney Ross appear on page 190, is seen here with Ross (left) at Camp Blue Bay in East Hampton, Long Island. A Cry for Help, Mark’s book-length photo-essay about children living in New York City homeless shelters, has just been published by Simon & Schuster.
Since the death of legendary Time Warner empire builder Steve Ross, his enigmatic, reclusive widow, Courtney, has lavished her time and his fortune on the exclusive New Age girls’ school she created for their daughter, Nicole. In the Hamptons, Michael Shnayerson checks out Ross’s educational fiefdom, and her plans for an all-encompassing 130-acre Ross Institute.
Courtney Ross, who attempts to merge Eastern and Western cultures in the Ross School curriculum, sits with her King Charles spaniel, Sage, at her home on Georgica Pond in East Hampton, New York, September 6, 1996.
Nearly every day, an olive-green Range Rover whisks Courtney Ross from her home on East Hampton's Georgica Pond over to the dead end of a winding road in the piney woods. There stands a contiguous row of unprepossessing, condolike studios with a sign that announces the Ross School. Depending on whom you ask, the Ross School is either a bold experiment in private education for middle-school girls or a modern-day version of Marie Antoinette and her sheep farm at Versailles. No one denies, though, that for a woman who inherited as much as half a billion dollars three years ago, Ross puts in the time.
In the late afternoon of a midsummer day, when one might expect to see a school's parking lot empty, I find the Range Rover by the door of Studio One. Inside, a nervous-looking secretary leads me through an elegant, high-ceilinged conference room where three men and a woman pore over blueprints. The woman, in jeans and a blue work shirt, waves hello as I'm led upstairs to a sanctum of leather smoking chairs and plush white sofas, Indian artifacts and William Wegman photographs-testaments to Ross's exquisite taste. From a refrigerator filled with perfect rows of soft drinks, the secretary extracts a Diet Coke. When I decline a glass, panic flits across her face. "Please," she says, "just take the glass."
A moment later, the blue-jeaned woman appears from below to offer a businesslike handshake. At 48, Ross is as trim as a Texas cowgirl, with straight blond hair and a fresh-faced smile, though she is not without a palpable wariness. She knows her school is growing too big to go unnoticed, yet she guards her privacy fiercely.
Five years ago, Ross hired a teacher to start a home-study program for her daughter, who was in the third grade, and a friend -both named Nicole- at her East Hampton house. Partly, it was for her husband's sake: Warner Communications chairman Steve Ross had just effected the Time Warner merger, meant to cap his remarkable rise from Brooklyn poverty to the highest circles of corporate power, only to learn that his prostate cancer was back after several years' remission. For comfort -and for privacy at a time when news of Ross's condition might have affected Time Warner stock- basing the family at their Long Island home made sense. Courtney also felt that Nicole, the Rosses' only child together, ought to be coached as carefully as possible; one day, after all, she stood to inherit a major fortune.
By the time Steve Ross died in December 1992, four other students had joined. Then there were seven, then eight. This fall, 48 girls are enrolled at the Ross School -12 in each of four grades, fifth through eighth- which accounts, in part, for the construction crews outside, and the blueprints in the conference room. But not entirely.
Ross picks up a phone, and a moment later Shirley Klein, her new headmistress, joins us, bearing two placards. Part of Klein's appeal to Ross was that she comes from the United Nations International School in Manhattan, which, like the Ross School, is global in its outlook. "I think the East and West are coming together after a long schism," Ross says, "and that education has to incorporate a lot of what the East has to offer. The future is going to be very challenging for our children. They need to be globally educated."
Thus the spiral of placard one, symbol of the Ross School's special curriculum. Each turn of the spiral represents a period of global cultural history, from pre-history to the present. The school's four grades take on the spiral's middle turns, studying everything that evolved in each of those eras. Ross has plans to expand the school to 12 grades -one for each turn of the spiral- and to make it coed: nearly 450 students within the next five years. But that's not all.
As placard two makes clear, school is but one part of a Ross Institute that will be, in effect, a 21 century village for learning. It will include an "elders center," so seniors and students can help one another. An arts center will be open to all. A communications center will beam the institute's progress on Internet, creating a "virtual" school to reach inner-city kids, among others. At its core will be a "wellness center," combining Eastern and Western practices.
The institute would sound as unlikely as it does ambitious -if not for Ross' extraordinary resources. Already her putative board includes filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, talent-agency executive Jeff Berg, Warner's executive Terry Semel, and former Warner Bros. Records chief Mo Ostin, all friends or employees of her late husband. To this mix, which is, admittedly, rather entertainment-heavy, she adds Howard Gardner, the distinguished Harvard theorist, whom she calls the school's intellectual godfather, and Elizabeth McCormack of the MacArthur Foundation.
Along with such connections, there's the money. Having already spent much as $10 million on the school as its sole benefactor, Ross has an option to purchase 130 acres of woodlands adjacent to it for the institute: In the Hamptons woods-where land sells for $100,000 an acre- that's a lot of real estate. Initially, her financial advisers asked, Wouldn't a parcel of 30 acres suffice, when college campuses are built on less? Now, she says, they've come around-with Ross most people do.
"I'm so influenced by Dr. Jonas Salk," Ross says. She met the great man not long before his death last year. "One thing he told me was: Don’t emphasize the negative. Put your energy into people who share your vision. Work with like-minded people. And that's what we have here in the school now."
For the 45 minutes that Ross has spoken, Klein has sat utterly attentive, as if hearing this pitch for the first time. "Yes," she says now, with the nervous energy Ross seems to provoke in the like-minded. "We really do."
There are, in America, few women on their own as wealthy as Courtney Sale Ross, fewer still as elusive, as enigmatic, as controversial.
During her decade-long marriage, Ross managed to establish a reputation among many of her husband's colleagues and friends as cold, reclusive, and prone to a lifestyle of almost unimaginable luxury. Any new wife controlling access to a man as powerful -and generous- as Steve Ross would have incurred resentment. But Courtney seemed to go out of her way to do so by favoring celebrities over Ross's old friends. With Ross's death, however, she all but vanished from public view.
The school that has become her life is the subject of much curiosity in the Hamptons. When Ross School students study ancient Greece, they go to Greece. But its founder's queenlike willfulness keeps the gossip mill churning. I ask Bert Fields, the famous Hollywood litigator who serves as Ross's consigliere, if she is as hard-driving as she's reputed to be. "Oh, she can be fierce," he says cheerily. "But that's because she's so committed."
Ross's teachers have to be as committed as she, which is why, on August 1, I find them back at school for a monthlong series of seminars with gurus -from West and East- recruited by the woman they address only as "Mrs. Ross." Today they are in the basement-level dining room, drawing cross sections of vegetables at the behest of a New Mexico-based educator named Anne Taylor, whose book School Zone: Learning Environments for Children caught Ross's interest. Two cameramen move about the room, capturing the scene on video. At the Ross School, every such colloquium and every student trip is filmed. The teachers greet me a bit nervously; later I will learn they have been warned not to answer any questions I put to them about the school.
After lunch Ross's secretary -the latest in a parade of personal assistants that reportedly included one who had worked for Bette Davis- leads me upstairs to the conference room. There Ross is just concluding a meeting with Steven Bingler, an architect from New Orleans, referred by Howard Gardner because of his innovative ideas in school building. Bingler is tossing off ideas for the institute.
"What would the campus of your dreams be?" Ross has asked him. It's the question her late husband was famous for posing to startled cable operators: What would your dream cable company do? How much money do you need? The operator would pick a number out of the air. You got it. The round, blond-wood conference table with the Deco design is from Steve Ross's office; the institute is, in a sense, Courtney's version of a Steve Ross vision of the future, technology-driven, all-inclusive, global in its implications and reach.
Bingler grows more excited as he talks. A planetarium on top of the dining room. A "natural environment" of animals -the students will help birth them and take care of them, learning biology as they do. Trails and ponds and bridges from one island pod to the next. "I'd like to have holograms for the art on the walls," Ross says. "And shoji screens." She smiles. "But these are all dreams for the future."
That one visionary woman at the table has the money to do all this is intoxicating. "I think money brings a certain energy," Ross agrees. "I know I'll need to raise outside funding for the institute. My feeling, though, is that where it's from matters. Here, now, everyone is committed. I want money from people who are just as committed."
The conference table is set for lunch. Villeroy & Boch china is put on starched linen place mats and set off by gleaming French silver. Iced tea is served in crystal goblets by Mrs. Ross's factotum, a purringly efficient man named Darius Narizzano. ("He's the Mrs. Danvers of the operation," observes a social acquaintance.) After a buffet of cold poached salmon, thin-sliced tomato and mozzarella, and ratatouille, Ross vanishes up to the sanctum for a meeting with Shirley Klein and a parent. Klein reappears with a stunned look on her face. "That parent is a single mother," Klein explains. "Her older daughter just got into Skidmore College [Ross's alma mater in Saratoga Springs, New York], but her mother can't afford to send her. Now she's up in Mrs. Ross's office weeping -Mrs. Ross has just told her she'll pay the girl's full college tuition."
Ross's money has bought state-of-the-art computer and video technology, brought in the gurus, and solved problems along the way. Other problems, it soon becomes clear, have been caused by money -and by the source of that money. For while Courtney Ross may be a visionary, she can also be very controlling.
Until last year, the school remained small enough that its founder's management style made more sense -or at least affected fewer souls. The school was simply one grade, advancing year by year. The group traveled a lot -to Egypt, Sardinia, the Caribbean, the Galapagos. Teachers were forced to put in long hours, yet few were asked back. For them, the sense of failure was sometimes compounded by brusque treatment. One teacher learned she was being let go only when she wasn't invited to the year-end staff meeting. "After the graduation," recalls a colleague, "there was an awards picnic; she wasn't invited to that either, but she showed up anyway, with a bright-red face. You could just see how devastated she was." (Bert Fields says there were valid reasons for the "form of notification.") Still, the students were learning, and, as Ross is fond of observing, the students are her primary responsibility.
Last year, however, the school expanded from one grade to three, which is to say that fifth and sixth grades were added to the seventh grade that Nicole and her classmates would be entering. To meet the challenge, Ross hired a new director: Harriet Fulbright, the recently widowed second wife of Senator William Fulbright. A graceful, elegant woman in her 60s who had spent most of her professional life in education, Fulbright resettled in the Hamptons from Washington. For Fulbright and a newly expanded faculty, Ross convened at the start of August a "mentors' week," during which a parade of education experts came to expound their theories.
The experts, including chaos-theory pioneer Ralph Abraham and radical historian William Irwin Thompson, all had weighty credentials, but none addressed practical issues. "William Irwin Thompson was telling us everything he'd learned about pre-history on up," recalls one former teacher. "And we're sitting there getting ready to teach a brand-new group of kids, having to prepare a brand-new curriculum. We have no schedule; we don't know what we're going to do. And Courtney kept saying, 'Don't worry about it.' We were all terrified." Finally, Fulbright suggested the teachers meet to talk in more practical terms. "Courtney was listening," recalls one teacher, "and her face got darker and darker." Within a day, Fulbright was pulled aside, and told to gather her possessions and leave.
(Fulbright's travels on behalf of the Fulbright Scholar Program, says Fields, proved "inconsistent with the requirements of a full-time director"; he adds that her contract was paid out in full. Fulbright says that she had explained her travel schedule before she took the job, and that Courtney had assured her it would enhance the school's stature.)
That weekend, two teachers shared their fears with each other by phone. "We can't go back to that place," one said. But they were stuck; they'd moved to East Hampton.
"Everybody moved here," explains one staff member. "That's the stranglehold she has."
"The teachers come with such excitement, stirred by this talk of 'dreaming their perfect school jobs," says another, "and then they're caught." Lori Schiaffino, whose daughter is the other Nicole for whom the school was begun, and whose friendship with Courtney led her to work for Steven Spielberg, says that impression is wrong. "Courtney and the board set high expectations, and teachers who can't meet them feel they've failed, which tends to embitter them."
Courtney with students of the Ross School at their orientation, September 7, 1996. Ross has an option to buy 130 additional acres to expand the school into an institute, with arts, communications, and “wellness” centers.
As the last school year got under way, the teachers realized just how all-consuming their jobs were. "We have an extraordinary faculty," Ross has told me. "You come in here at one in the morning, they're still working. No one tells them they have to be here at those hours, they just want to be." In fact, the teachers were often asked to take on extra projects that forced them to stay late, and few were happy about it.
Often one or more of the teachers would be summoned to attend long evening meetings with Ross. When Ross voiced an opinion, her listeners felt compelled to agree. "I've never seen Courtney change her mind about anything," one faculty member observes. "And so no one ever says no to her!" Instead, whenever Ross was around, teachers learned to wear "happy faces," as one teacher puts it.
Worse, Ross had an odd penchant for shifting teachers out of the specialties for which they'd been hired, undermining them, and pitting them against one another. (Fields points out that all faculty members invited back have re-signed.) As disconcerting, she seemed to flout her own rules. For weeks at a time, Nicole was taken out of school to travel abroad with her mother; her teachers felt powerless to object. They were told to change their curriculums so that Nicole's classmates could study the country Nicole was visiting, but that proved hard to coordinate.
Ross was in India with Nicole last winter when she first heard how upset some of the teachers and parents were about upcoming student trips. Ross had decreed that the fifth grade would go to Boston for about 7 days and the sixth to Washington for about 10 days. As for the seventh -Nicole's grade-it would go to Rome. For three weeks.
The complaints frustrated Ross. Were the critics implying that Washington and Boston were inferior to Rome, just because they were cheaper to reach? And who were they to complain about travel when the Ross School -which was to say Courtney Ross- was paying the travel expenses for even those students on full $7,200 tuition? A stiff letter was tendered by Ross's board to parents, advising that if the Ross School "failed to meet" their children's travel needs, perhaps they'd be happier at another school.
Ross had a point, and the parents' complaints subsided. But it was then that she became aware of another problem: Anne Radice, her personal chief of staff, had established a close friendship with the lecturer brought in to prep the seventh-grade girls for their trip to Rome. Worse yet, the lecturer was one of Ross's friends: Iris Love.
Radice had come into Ross's orbit two years before, when she guided Nicole's class around Washington. She was, in fact, the provisional head of the National Endowment for the Arts under George Bush, having replaced John Frohnmayer after his fiery departure over controversial grants to Holly Hughes and others. In the winter of 1993, Ross hired her to organize the estate after Steve Ross's death, and to deal with the endless charities that asked for gifts, because "that's what Steve would want."
Soon, Radice realized that her new job meant being on call 24 hours a day, and involved such menial tasks as walking Courtney's dog. But she adapted, "which is to say everyone has to do everything, and do it all at once," says one observer.
With the expertise of a Washington bureaucrat, she also marshaled power, writing all checks and managing her boss's schedule. If the teachers found that frustrating, so did Ross's board and the trio one teacher calls the "hissy-fitters"-Ross's manservant, Darius, and her two young New York-based "cocurators," Steven Szcezepanek and Leonardo Niva-for their whispering about other staff members. Radice's detractors seized on the chance that her new relationship provided to upset Ross.
Iris Love, the well-known archaeologist and Guggenheim heiress, had known the Rosses since 1987, when an accident landed her in a sports clinic in the bed next to the garrulous Steve Ross. Soon after, the Rosses talked her into joining them on a yacht trip through the Greek isles -a trip that began inauspiciously at the East Hampton airport, where she and Barbra Streisand waited interminably aboard the Rosses' plane for Courtney to appear.
Love gave her first lectures while Ross and her daughter were in India, and all went well. Upon Courtney's return, however, the atmosphere grew tense, with Courtney, in Love's view, unreasonably tough on her teachers. "I was very angry, I'll plead guilty to that," says Courtney. "But I hadn't realized how little the students had done to prepare for Rome. I was trying to protect their education."
At one meeting, Ross made Nicole's "core teacher," Marcia Mitrowski, cry. Mitrowski, a former New York public-school teacher, was popular with her students and fellow teachers alike. "I just couldn't stand to see another human being reduced in front of her peers in this manner," Love recalls. "I got up and I went and sat next to Marcia and said, 'Defend yourself.' Well, Courtney decided this was betrayal."
The end came when Love, committed to give more lectures, left for a week to attend the Dachshund Club of America show; Love owns the top-ranked dachshund in the country and had made clear her obligation well in advance. Radice took the same time off, from which Ross seemed to infer the two were traveling together, though this was not the case. Radice was fired. (Fields says her termination was not based on any relationship she might have had with Iris Love.) Love returned home to find a letter from the Ross School thanking her for her first lectures and looking forward to the rest. As she stood in her foyer with her bags, another letter was hand-delivered by Ross's driver, declaring that her services were no longer wanted.
Mitrowski is gone, too -no surprise- but the rest of the faculty remains, a far better record than in previous years. And the students seem to have weathered the turbulence, even thrived. Barbara Council, a teacher at the Bridgehampton public school whose daughter attends Ross, offers a strong endorsement. "I already see sixth-graders at the [Ross] school being more analytical and interpretive than seventh- and eighth-graders in public school," she says. "They're allowed to speak from their own creative and spiritual viewpoints.... Every one who's been at the school a year or more has developed so much. It's like a flower opening up."
"The girls have grown so confident," adds Craig Wingate, whose daughter Lauren was the school's third student. "The other day she went to buy a snowboard and asked the salesman one question after another. You don't often see 13-year-olds doing that."
As the teachers prepare for this year's expanded class schedule, their days begin at 8:20 with compulsory yoga. After pretzel-like contortions, they lie down on mats, breathing deeply as Ross's own yoga teacher bids them to feel unconditional love for themselves: "Let the negative thoughts leave..."
Today two gurus have come to address the group: Ralph Abraham, whose Chaos, Gaia, Eros is a modern classic for the chaos-theory crowd, and William Irwin Thompson, whose educational community of the 70s, Lindisfarne, is a legend of sorts, and who last year wrote material for the Ross School's curriculum on cultural history. As the teachers listen respectfully, Thompson riffs: "We have to retrieve the wild, chaotic, spontaneous, and feminine.... Realize that the domination myths are oppressive, get back to participatory culture from technology!" Of course, he cautions, "every retrieval can be 'captured' by ideology."
Abraham, whose own white paper on math for the school is a counterpart to Thompson's, looks puzzled. "Hey, Bill, what's this word 'retrieval' you're using?"
Thompson explains, in essence, that we're rediscovering important values that pre-date Western civilization.
"Oh," says Abraham. "Well, not everything is a retrieval, though. Chaos theory is not; it's completely new. And the wheel in 30 B.C. was not a retrieval; it was new."
"But we do have the recovery of spacetime patterns!" Thompson exclaims. "And the global civilization of the goddess that preceded the patriarchal takeover!" And look at this school, he adds. "We are a performance of the planetary renaissance -not just an elementary school!"
Other theories invoked in these August days are perhaps more useful. Howard Gardner's notion of "multiple intelligences" is embraced vigorously. Traditional testing measures only verbal skills, goes the theory, whereas children bring any of at least eight intelligences to bear, including visual ones. So the Ross School emphasizes performance and eschews grades in favor of student "portfolios" of work. Gardner, whose books on learning have given him top-guru status in the education field, praises the Ross School as a "very serious undertaking," with a "quite sensible curriculum," and Ross herself as a visionary. His endorsement is obviously genuine, though his Project Zero at Harvard has also received at least $350,000 from the Ross-family foundation, and last year his son, Jay, worked for Ross on video projects. Courtney's latest catch is M.I.T.'s Sherry Turkle (Life on the Screen), who will hold seminars in computer ethics and such issues as on-line aliases; at Courtney's urging, Turkle, who speaks admiringly of the school as a "lab," is drafting a grant proposal to the Ross-family foundation.
With gurus, teachers, parents, and students, Ross is remarkably generous. Which is also to say, of course, that all are beholden to her.
0n a Sunday evening in late August, I drive over to the school to find, once again, the olive-green Range Rover in its usual space in the lot. Upstairs in Ross's sanctum, two places have been set for dinner at her long, table-like desk. Ross has had no weekend plans; her social circle, she admits, is small, and she seems to have no romantic life at the moment. "I'm shy," she says. "I'm a loner. The school is my life."
"This single-minded focus you bring to the school -did you always have it?" I ask.
"I don't think I did," Ross says. "But I was serious. I remember when I got out of college I really wanted to be in the real world."
Courtney Sale Ross was born and brought up in Bryan, Texas, a small city northwest of Houston. In my mind's eye I see The Last Picture Show and Cybill Shepherd, but Courtney shakes her head no. "My father's family, though, were ranchers out in West Texas, where it's really hard. My grandmother came to Texas in a covered wagon."
Courtney's parents met during the war; when they married, her father, E. B. "Chick" Sale, gave up the ranching life and came to work for his father-in-law, the county's Coca-Cola franchiser. But he appears to have been a lackluster businessman, for Courtney's mother took over the franchise soon enough. "To be a Coca-Cola family really meant something in Texas," says Courtney. "Even today if you put a Pepsi in front of me I'd be startled."
The essence of the Ross School, Courtney says, traces back to Holton-Arms, the Bethesda boarding school which she and her sisters attended. One of the women who ran it, Mrs. Brown -"Brownie"- taught art history, for which she made her girls often go to the National Gallery. "She was rare and tough and magical," Ross remembers. "She challenged me in a way that I'd never been challenged before. And she traveled extensively; she didn't believe teachers could teach these cultures unless they experienced them."
Next to Brownie, the greatest influence on Sale was the Marcus family of Neiman Marcus. While at Skidmore she met Lawrence Marcus. Far older than she, he wanted to marry her, and often took her to the family's Dallas home; his older brother Stanley became a mentor and friend. Stanley traveled the globe in his "quests for the best" to fill the store with artifacts that taught a generation of young Texans more about aesthetics and multiculturalism than any museum. "She was always searching," recalls Stanley Marcus, now 91, of his brother's young friend. "That was why she opened the gallery."
The gallery was in Dallas, where Sale debuted with a show of William Wegman prints that was nothing if not bold. It certainly wasn't successful. "That's how little I was focused on what would sell," she says. "Conceptual art? In Dallas? In 1972?" Gamely, Sale moved to New York and found a job working for art dealer Joseph Helman at the Blum-Helman gallery. By 1974 the economy was so terrible that she decided to bail out. "I'd been up visiting my sister in Canada, and I picked up a Fortune magazine. There was an article on Warner Communications. It seemed like a really creative company. Then I met someone who was head of one of the divisions...I asked if I could get an interview."
The interview was with Jay Emmett, Steve Ross's closest colleague at Warner. "He said, There's someone I want you to meet." Courtney Sale and Steve Ross talked, by her account, for five hours that day. She left with a new job that involved her with two of Ross's favorite pieces of the growing Warner conglomerate: Jungle Habitat, a New Jersey game park, and the Cosmos soccer team. Soon she and Ross, recently separated from his first wife, Carol Rosenthal, began going out. A year later, Ross was introduced at a dinner at '21' to New York socialite Amanda Burden, recently divorced. Dazzled, he dropped Sale cold.
Angry though she was, Sale was soon engaged in what she calls one of the most productive periods in her life: curating a major bicentennial show at the New York State Museum in Albany. "People were rooting for me to fail," she says with a laugh. But Sale worked hard, and she had an excellent eye. Former New York State arts administrator Kitty Carlisle Hart recalls, "It was one of the most beautiful shows ever. Courtney did a terrific job."
The show led to a chance to make a documentary film on artist Willem de Kooning. Sale was sitting one day on the floor of her New York apartment, surrounded by transparencies, when the phone rang: one of Steve Ross's close friends was calling to say Ross wanted to see her again. Though his business was booming in early 1981, Ross had hit a personal nadir, his relationship with Burden ending in a joyless 16-month marriage. "I said, 'I suppose if he wants to see me he'd have to call me,"' Courtney recalls. "So he did."
Social friends marveled at Sale's willingness to return, and speculated about the marriage that ensued. "Steve was difficult," says one close friend. "In private, all that charm turned off. He didn't know how to spend family time; he was just always on the phone." But Steven Spielberg calls the Rosses "the best couple I've ever known." As for Courtney, she says simply, with real feeling, "He was my Prince Charming."
Courtney made several more documentary films about artists, and a Warner-financed multimedia boondoggle about music impresario Quincy Jones called Listen Up, which lost $25 million, according to a recent report in The New York Observer. Much of her time, though, she spent traveling to collect the art that came to fill the Rosses' homes in East Hampton and New York. Spielberg, awed by her taste, asked her to decorate his Georgica Pond home. "What I knew," Spielberg says, "was going down to the furniture store in the San Fernando Valley and buying butterfly chairs and a Formica table. Courtney turned me on to the craftsman period -Stickley and Van Erp, Hoffmann and Biedermeier. I was amazed," he adds, "how much elegance cost."
With Courtney at his side, Ross became regally extravagant. On their art-buying sprees, the Rosses thought nothing of taking a floor at the Paris Ritz, filling it with thousands of dollars' worth of flowers, and surrounding themselves with security details that numbered, when such friends as Dustin Hoffman and Spielberg were along, more than a dozen. As parents, they indulged their only daughter. "Her birthday parties were always wild extravaganzas," recalls one friend. If the theme was "The Little Mermaid," "tropical fish would be flown in from all over the world." For Nicole's ninth birthday, in June 1992, 34 people were flown down to Disney World. "There were insane costumes made for everyone," recalls one participant.
The trip to end all trips began in the fall of 1991, when the two Nicoles set off on an Asia itinerary meant to take them through their third-grade school year. Along with Courtney, the entourage included a cameraman, Courtney's personal trainer, her personal assistant, a nurse, a maid, two teachers, a guide, and two friends, Evelyn Ostin and Iris Love. The Hong Kong press reported 160 suitcases for the group, including school equipment and clothes for Steve Ross and his senior staff. The clothing, one participant reports, was incredible. "There were suites with just clothing racks. Then Courtney would wear the same thing four days in a row." Suddenly the call came from Hong Kong: Steve Ross's condition was far worse than had been believed. The entourage would have to come home.
Courtney waves off talk of her lavish travels as social gossip. Over fruit and coffee, however, she eagerly takes on the issues her school has raised. "I don't look to let a teacher go," she says of past turnover. "But we're on a fast track here. I work hard and expect others to work hard, too. I don't think people should live in a threatened environment, but I do think an awareness of expectations should be maintained. If the teacher isn't there, it's one issue for me: what happens to the kids?"
How about delegating? I wonder. Can she do that?
"Yes, I think I can delegate," Ross says. “Can I delegate to people who I don't think can fulfill the delegated responsibilities? No. But ... for me to be able to do what I have to do, I have to build a structure. To go raise the money, to make the mentor connections, I can't be operating in the microcosm. Fortunately, Shirley's fully capable of doing that."
In early September, Ross invites me to her New York apartment for a farewell lunch for Shuichi Kato, a Japanese scholar who has been giving faculty seminars.
Ground rules are established: I am not to identify individual pieces of art, not to take any notes, just gather the essence, as Ross puts it, of the home that expresses her character and aesthetics, her love of art and multiculturalism, the passions that led to, and shape, the Ross School.
To be so constrained in touring an apartment once described by an awestruck Calvin Klein as the greatest secret in New York is, to say the least, a challenge. When I arrive, I'm ushered into a room Ross calls the de Kooning room; you'll have to guess why. The names of three masters of Art Deco furniture-Pierre Chareau, Jean Dunand, and Jean Michel Franck-come to mind, by chance. The de Kooning room is small; the apartment is big. Two duplexes big. The Rosses moved into one of the duplexes in the early 1980s, and almost immediately began trying to expand. They were blocked from above by the Lauders of the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire, who had no interest in selling, and by financier Henry Kravis and his then wife, Carolyne Roehm, from below. One day in 1987, while Courtney was in Asia with de Kooning's wife, Elaine, she talked to Bette Bao Lord-novelist and wife of China hand Winston Lord, a neighbor. Lord asked if Ross had heard the bad news that William Goldman, the screenwriter, and his wife were separating. The Goldmans lived adjacent to the Rosses. Discreetly, Courtney excused herself and put a call in to her husband in New York. In no time, the Goldmans' duplex was theirs.
Shuichi Kato is with us in the de Kooning room, a bit tuckered out from his week at the school. Here, too, are Steven and Leonardo, the apartment's co-curators; because the collection is basically complete, they spend most of their time monitoring the humidity and temperature in each of the rooms, dusting and polishing, that sort of thing. Leonardo takes me on a tour, first into a living room, which has more Deco masterworks-a bit of Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann here, a bit of Adolf Loos there, a pair of Josef Hoffmann somethings or other in the hall-then into Courtney's study. Ineffably, the names Jean Michel Franck and Eileen Gray come to mind, God knows why. In an essential sense, different styles are beautifully mingled: Native American artifacts, Peruvian weavings, and a Greek helmet that any museum curator would love to get his hands on.
Up a sweeping marble stairway, past various Cretan sarcophagi, is the master bedroom, where unnameable American Impressionist paintings adorn the walls, but where my attention is drawn more to the multiline phones on either side of the four-poster bed, a legacy from her marriage. By the time we've gone through the Japanese-style workout room and Chinese study with the canopied bed made of some extinct wood, lunch is ready in the dining room. There the glasstopped table encases a weaving with the telltale squares of Vienna's mid-Secession period, and the elongated spoons we're given for our soup bear the "WW" insignia of the Wiener Werkstättethe Vienna workshop of the early 1900s.
With us is Paul Goldberger, architectural critic of The New York Times, and Elizabeth McCormack. We dine sublimely on a succession of Japanese dishes in honor of our guest. Each dish, by Japanese custom, is fraught with meaning: the quail-and-quail-egg soup connoting mother and daughter, the omelette-like "golden purse" of vegetables connoting wealth and success, and so forth. At meal's end, Ross presses her buzzer to have the cook, a young man named Brant, take his bows. Brant seems relaxed and cheerful, though a caterer who worked with him last year paints a different picture: "Brant's a nervous wreck."
That next Monday, school begins at last. At 9:05 A.M., a dozen fifth-grade girls sit up straight around a blond-wood table as their core teacher broaches the word "civilization." One is Tibetan, with beautiful, cappuccino-colored skin and shoe-button eyes. Another is the daughter of singer Billy Joel and his ex-wife, Christie Brinkley; in the intensifying rivalry of Hamptons private schools, their patronage is one of the great plums. Courtney Ross is absent, but her taste pervades the room: in the students' uniforms of white polo shirts and off-white khakis, in the lockers of blond sycamore, in the Egyptian artifacts atop those lockers. Ross believes her students should learn to live with art; she's got the art to spare.
Michael Schneider, ponytailed dean of math and science, holds his first class in a new, state-of-the-art science lab, asking seventh-graders his favorite question: "Is anything not science?" In the technology room, a score of new Power Macintoshes is arrayed. Yet in one of the "core" classrooms, a more impressive sight unfolds without benefit of new equipment. Susan Maran, the summer session's shiest teacher, comes dramatically to life. Buoyant and engaging, she soon has every student waving an eager hand -a tribute not to spirals or "virtual" education but to the unalloyed pleasure she clearly takes in cultivating young minds.
"To have a first week like this -with the goals clear, the faculty excited, the kids imbued with a sense of belonging- is any director's dream," Shirley Klein tells me. Klein's survival of the August mentor parade is another encouraging sign. Like-minded as she tries to be, Klein is strong, and certainly comes from a strong family: both her parents are Holocaust survivors. Having hired her, Ross is clearly trying to cede some control. "She isn't the whole answer," observes one teacher, of Klein. "But she might be part of the answer."
The other lesson from a day at the school is that running a school is hard. As a work in progress, the Ross School has had more growth pains than it might have had if its founder had embraced her late husband's dictum: Get the best people for the job and let them do it. But if "the foundation is there," as one parent puts it, perhaps that's worth the sacrifice, as with buildings and bridges, of a few workers along the way. Ross, in any event, has no intention of letting up now. "I'm going to be here," she says, "until the day I die."