In the 2015 film “Woman in Gold,” Ryan Reynolds plays Randy Schoenberg, a 30-something lawyer who takes up the case of a family friend named Maria Altmann, played by Helen Mirren, who is trying to retrieve a painting from Austria that had belonged to her family as a child before it was stolen by Nazis in World War II. While such a matter would not typically receive the attention of Hollywood, this was no ordinary case and no ordinary painting. Authored by the world-famous Gustav Klimt, the painting, known as the “Woman in Gold,” was by the late 1990s regarded as the “Mona Lisa” of Austria. Against all odds, Randy opted to sue the Republic of Austria, citing a little known exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which earned the case international attention, eventually making its way to the United States Supreme Court, where Randy argued the landmark case and won. In this episode, the real Randy Schoenberg ’84 tells his story. A native of Los Angeles, Randy attended Harvard School, Princeton University, and USC Law, citing the role of various educators in preparing Randy for his moment on the world stage. Randy references Lee Carlson ’50 and James Lander of Harvard School, in addition to Erwin Chemerinsky and Edwin “Rip” Smith of USC Law, as profound educational influences.
Laura Ross is the Associate Head of School at Harvard-Westlake. In this episode, Laura speaks about helping to lead the school through a pandemic, and what it feels like now to watch students and teachers re-enter physical spaces and experience newfound gratitude for the Harvard-Westlake community. Laura also speaks about her upbringing in Santa Barbara, CA, where she attended Crane Country Day, Santa Barbara Middle School, and Santa Barbara High School, all of which greatly influencing how Laura considers schools as families, start-ups, and multifaceted ecosystems where students should be given both the trust and space to find their identities and passions. Laura also describes her long and varied career in schools, from working in college admission at Stanford, Scripps, and Columbia, to her independent school work at Convent of the Sacred Heart in San Francisco, St. Stephens Episcopal in Austin, and Greenhill in Dallas, before arriving at Harvard-Westlake in 2017 to run the upper school. Laura cites Rob Rosenthal of Wesleyan University and Jim Montoya of Stanford University as profound educational influences.
D. B. (Dan) Weiss is co-creator of HBO’s Game of Thrones. In this episode, Dan speaks about how Game of Thrones came to be. First, how he and co-creator David Benioff read “A Song of Ice and Fire” and believed they understood how to adapt this complex narrative to the screen. Second, how they convinced author George R. R. Martin and HBO that he and David, who had never run a television series before, had the vision to helm this massive production. Third, finally shooting the pilot, which famously had to be almost entirely re-shot due to flaws in the narrative. But despite it all—Game of Thrones became a worldwide culture phenomenon, with more than 32 million viewers per episode across all platforms by its seventh season. Dan also talks about growing up outside Chicago, attending Wesleyan University and other writing programs, and the profound impact of teachers in encouraging his writing from a young age. Dan aimed to convey this same approach show-running Game of Thrones, keeping clear channels of communication across multiple countries and production teams, recognizing and nurturing talent, and knowing when to suppress ego for the good of the enterprise—a value that he and David Benioff share. Dan credits Winnie Engerman of Highland Park High School and Kit Reed of Wesleyan University as life-changing educational influences.
Aaron Mieszczanski is Director of Admission at Harvard-Westlake School. In this episode, Aaron speaks about his unique year in admission, both the challenge of not being able to welcome families to campus physically, but also the benefits of creating broader points of access through virtual engagement. In describing Harvard-Westlake’s approach in evaluating applicants, Aaron is quick to point out that there isn’t just one type of student that stands out in a Harvard-Westlake pool. “We seek cultural adds, not cultural fits,” explains Aaron, which this year means welcoming students from 175 zip codes and 250 sending schools across Southern California. Aaron points out how this is made possible by the indispensability of financial aid, which not only enables greater access and diversity, but maximizes the school’s excellence. Aaron also speaks about growing up in The Bronx in a family of educators—attending Fieldston, Williams College, and receiving his Masters at Penn—and progressing through admission roles at The Thacher School in Ojai and University High School in San Francisco, before arriving at Harvard-Westlake in 2018. Aaron cites educators Kelvina Butcher of Ethical Culture Fieldston School and Bill McMahon of The Thacher School as profound life influences.
Gray Davis ’60 was the 37th Governor of the State of California. In this episode, Governor Davis speaks about growing up in Los Angeles, attending Harvard School in the 1950s, and how a chance encounter with Harvard teacher Nat Reynolds ’51 changed the trajectory of his life. Governor Davis also discusses his time at Stanford and Columbia Law before serving in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star. Seeing firsthand how, in his words, low-income minority soldiers bore the brunt of combat in far greater numbers than his white counterparts, Governor Davis was inspired to address this inequality through politics, holding various statewide positions before being elected California Governor in 1998. Lastly, Governor Davis speaks about California’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the challenges of running a state in crisis, and his trademark stoicism–a trait which aided him through the many highs and lows of politics, including the 2003 recall. Governor Davis cites Nat Reynolds ’51 of Harvard School and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley as profound life influences.
Gina Prince-Bythewood is a director and writer whose films include Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, Beyond The Lights, and most recently, 2020’s The Old Guard starring Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne. In this episode, Gina speaks about her beginnings in Pacific Grove, CA, finding motivation through athletics and inspiration through the encouragement of great teachers, leading her to UCLA film school, writing for television, and then a chance to write and direct her first film, Love & Basketball, at just 28. Gina speaks about her love of filmmaking, the intimacy of directing actors and the joy of building character, but also the systemic challenges that Black women like her face in building careers in Hollywood, particularly behind the camera. Having recently accepted a leadership role with the DGA, Gina now finds herself quite encouraged by the conversations occurring around her and what she sees as real progress being made across the industry. New and meaningful directing opportunities are also making their way to Gina, including two upcoming projects—Women of the Movement, a limited series about Mamie and Emmett Till that Gina recently shot in Mississippi; and the Woman King, a historical epic about an all-female military unit starring Viola Davis. Gina references Ellen Coulter of Pacific Grove High School and Ivan Cury of UCLA Film School as profound educational influences.
In 1987, Thomas C. Hudnut took over as head of Harvard School, then an all-boys former military school in Studio City. 26 years later, Tom retired as President of Harvard-Westlake School, a multigender institution featuring 1,600 students spread over two campuses and commonly regarded as one of the finest independent schools in the country. In this episode, Tom shares his perspective on that journey. When he took over in 1987, was Tom aware of a potential merger between Harvard and Westlake? What were the factors that finally led to the joining of these two proud institutions? Once merged, how did Tom set out to create, in his words, “the independent school equivalent of Stanford,” featuring centers of excellence not just within academics and athletics, but also in areas like journalism and the performing arts? Tom also speaks about his childhood in Rochester, New York, as the son of a Presbyterian minister, attending public schools in Rochester before heading to Choate, Princeton, and the Fletcher School at Tufts. Finally, Tom discusses his long and distinguished career in schools, beginning with St. Albans in Washington D.C., followed by stints running Norwood, Branson, Harvard and Harvard-Westlake, and now as a full-time head of school search consultant. Tom cites Canon Charles S. Martin and John Davis of St. Albans School as a profound educational influences.
Bill Whitaker is a featured correspondent on CBS’s 60 Minutes, which since its founding in 1968, is widely considered the most successful and venerated news magazine show in the history of broadcast journalism. In this episode, Bill speaks about his long journey to get there, beginning with being raised and educated in the presciently named Media, Pennsylvania. With the help of various educators, Bill’s curiosity for history and storytelling led to a fascinating journalistic career, taking him through newsrooms in San Francisco, Charlotte, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Beijing; but Bill’s keenest insights are saved for his current post in New York on 60 Minutes. What was it like to blow the lid off the opioid epidemic through a 4-episode investigation led by 60 Minutes producer and Harvard-Westlake alumnus Sam Hornblower ’97? How did it feel to be at the US Capitol just days after the siege? And how does 60 Minutes inculcate and sustain its unparalleled culture of journalistic excellence? Bill cites Elinor Cadman of Media Elementary School, as well as Robert Huff and Richard Reinitz of Hobart College, as profound educational influences.
In 1978, a 16-year old Pam Shriver upset the #1 women’s tennis player in the world, Martina Navratilova, to reach the US Open Women’s Final. This improbable showing launched a professional tennis career in which Pam would win an Olympic gold medal in 1988, reach #3 in the world in women’s singles, and garner a staggering 22 grand slam doubles titles–20 of them partnering with that same US Open semifinal foe, Martina Navratilova. In this episode, Pam describes growing up a sports lover in Baltimore, MD, Billie Jean King’s inspiring example, Martina Navratilova’s fearlessness and “growth mindset,” and how a championship playing career migrated into a broadcasting career at ESPN, where she covers grand slam tennis today. In addition to Billie Jean King, Pam cites Marty McKibbin of McDonogh School and congresswoman Jane Harman as inspiring life influences.
Beanie Feldstein ’11, whose acting credits include critically acclaimed films like Lady Bird and Booksmart, in addition Broadway’s Hello Dolly, was nine years old when Ted Walch cast her in Harvard-Westlake’s upper school production of The Sound of Music. This led to a lifelong friendship and mentorship that influences every role Beanie inhabits to this day. In this episode, Beanie also speaks about the unwavering support of her family and friends. Firstly, parents who provided grounding and encouragement from the beginning, as well as her older brother, actor Jonah Hill, who became a profound mentor much later in life. Secondly, her Harvard-Westlake classmates, who remain her closest friends and greatest creative inspirations. Beanie tells the moving story of watching her high school prom date, Ben Platt ’11, win a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical in 2017–a moment she had foreshadowed years earlier. In addition to Ted Walch of Harvard-Westlake, Beanie references Anne Gesling of the Morgan-Wixson Theatre and film director Greta Gerwig as profound life influences.