By Marshall Heyman | W Magazine | June 2009
Photograph by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
The athletic field at Harvard-Westlake's upper campus.
In Hollywood, it is generally understood that few things are harder than getting your movie made. One of those things may be getting your child into the Center for Early Education, a progressive elementary school off Melrose Avenue, founded in 1939 by a group of psychoanalysts. Popular with the entertainment community—the spawn of Jodie Foster, Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, Mel Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Eisner and Denzel Washington have matriculated there—the Center, as alumni call it, receives 1,000 applications annually for 60 spots: 30 two-year-olds, 14 three-year-olds and 16 kindergartners. (The school, which goes through the sixth grade, has 536 students.) The acceptance rate—6 percent—is smaller than Harvard College’s.
“The numbers are insane,” admits Deedie Hudnut, 61, who has been in charge of the Center’s admissions since the early Nineties. Deedie’s post, which she mans from an unassuming office strewn with Beanie Babies and a stuffed Kermit the Frog, is so significant that in 2006 the Los Angeles Times named her one of Southern California’s 100 most powerful people, alongside Eli Broad, Frank Gehry, David Geffen, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Deedie is just half of one of the area’s most influential power couples. Her husband, Tom Hudnut, 62, is the president and CEO of Harvard-Westlake School, one of the best prep schools in California, if not the nation. Among Harvard-Westlake’s famous graduates are Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Candice Bergen and playboy film producer Stephen Bing (the latter two attended the all-girls Westlake and the all-boys Harvard, respectively; the schools merged in 1989). The Hudnuts may not have the paparazzi pull of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, but they have been known to keep the occasional studio chief quaking in his Gucci loafers.
The Center for Early Education sends roughly 20 to 25 students a year—up to 40 percent of its graduating class—to Harvard-Westlake’s posh new middle-school campus in Holmby Hills, built on property formerly owned by Revlon honcho Ron Perelman. Yet the schools have no formal link, and Deedie generally doesn’t speak to her husband about potential candidates. “I think there’s a common knowledge that I’ve got no pull at Harvard-Westlake, so you don’t have to butter me up,” she says.
The two schools are also distinct in terms of atmosphere. Some observers would describe the Center, where students call teachers by their first names, as “touchy-feely.” “It’s more than just academic—a lot of emotional and social development goes on there,” says fashion designer Jenni Kayne, who attended the Center and hopes to enroll her infant son, Tanner, when he’s old enough. (Competition is so fierce that legacies, says Deedie, are not necessarily admitted, though spots are almost always reserved for siblings.) Deedie agrees with Kayne’s assessment: “That’s probably what makes us different from our peers,” such as the Brentwood School or John Thomas Dye, in Bel-Air. “That,” she adds, “and our diversity.” Many Center students receive financial aid, and 44 percent are children of color.
From top: Deedie and Tom Hudnut.
In contrast, Harvard-Westlake is so academically rigorous that it attracts a specific type of applicant. “By the time kids apply, they know it’s the right place for them,” explains Tom, a jovial Princeton University graduate. He sits behind a regal desk in his office overlooking the Harvard-Westlake upper campus in the San Fernando Valley, classical music pumping through the speakers. “We’re not going to take anyone who can’t do the work. You’d be sunk.”
One member of the media elite who graduated from both schools distills the difference thusly: “Harvard-Westlake is a pressure cooker for the students, whereas the Center is a pressure cooker for the families trying to get their kids in.” Unlike New York private nursery schools, which routinely “interview” toddlers—or, at least, observe them in playgroups—the Center interviews only the parents. “We don’t think we can evaluate a two-year-old,” says Deedie, who had conducted several interviews with parents earlier in the day, none of whom would likely receive an offer of acceptance for their child. “You have to ask: Is this a family you want to spend the next 10 years with?” If there’s a secret to a successful interview, it’s a well-kept one: Most parents of alumni and current students who were contacted for this story declined to speak on the record.
“There’s a lot of anxiety,” says film producer Richard Zanuck, who attended Harvard before the merger, as did his sons, and also served on the school’s board. “And the parents are competitive, whether they’re in show business or are doctors or lawyers.”
But the Hudnuts are quite comfortable dealing with high-maintenance moms and dads. After Deedie and Tom met at a Janis Joplin concert during the Summer of Love—“It doesn’t quite jibe with my students’ vision of me,” admits Tom—they landed jobs in Washington, D.C., he at the prestigious St. Albans School and she at the nearby Beauvoir elementary school. “The entertainment person is similar to the politician in that they’re used to getting special attention,” explains Deedie. “And yet, underneath, they’re regular people with the same kinds of concerns that other parents have.”
A Harvard-Westlake student athlete.
Wealth, of course, is on prominent display at both schools. “What’s my big gripe? Tory Burch shoes,” says Deedie. “I have a couple of pairs, and I thought before buying them. And then you see this four-year-old in them, and you think, No! No!” And Hollywood is constantly bleeding into educational life: Harvard-Westlake has its own student film festival (it hosted director Paul Thomas Anderson in 2008). Last fall Juno director Jason Reitman, class of 1995, started a filmmaking lecture series, which kicked off with an appearance by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody. “After my parents, Harvard-Westlake is most responsible for who I am today,” says Reitman.
And, as reported by the tabloids, Ashton Kutcher signed on last fall as Harvard-Westlake’s assistant freshman football coach. Paparazzi arrived in droves. “I’d never heard of the man until someone said, ‘We hired this guy because he was a friend of our coach,’” Tom says, insisting he’s out of the pop culture loop.
The Center, meanwhile, is often jokingly referred to as the Center for Early Entertainment. But Deedie claims to be equally difficult to impress. Asked whether Apple Martin, the daughter of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, would be a shoo-in, Deedie laughs heartily: “No! None of it is automatic!”
Famous parents, Deedie says, are admitted into the community only if they’re “hands-on.” She will not deal with their assistants. “It’s one of my pet peeves,” she says. “If you’re a good parent, you should be the one finding out about the school.” A certain kind of celebrity can even be a demerit. A couple of years ago, paparazzi followed a couple through the gate. “It’s not the real reason we didn’t take them,” says Deedie, “but we did feel it would be disruptive.”
Predictably, parents with such vast resources come up with outlandish ways to make their children’s applications to the Center stand out. Recently Deedie received a movie treatment from a gay couple about their surrogacy. “I kept it in my pile of outrageous things,” she says, “but I actually liked it.”
“Deedie sees much more [Hollywood posturing] than I do,” Tom says. No one has ever sent him a mock script. “I’ve never met the parent of an eight-year-old that wasn’t going to be president of the United States,” he adds, explaining that by the time kids appear on his doorstep, their parents’ fantasies about them have faded somewhat. “It’s like buying a racehorse: In the beginning, you imagine it will be in the Kentucky Derby. [When kids are applying to the Center], the parents think their kid can do anything. By the time they’re applying to seventh grade, there’s a track record.” When it comes to Harvard-Westlake admissions, most parents know that no amount of sweet-talking or aggression can erase a less-than-stellar academic record.
In any case, like his wife, Tom has no interest in glamorous offerings or quid pro quos, even if two of the Hudnuts’ three children—Sarah, 35, an actress married to a movie producer, and Spencer, 32, a screenwriter who recently received an M.F.A. in producing—could benefit from them. “I’ve never played that card,” says Tom, reclining in his preppy academic’s office smack in the middle of Hollywood. “I am very New England Protestant when it comes to that kind of thing.”