Manhattan private-school parents have a well-deserved reputation for letting nothing get in the way of what they think is best for their kids—especially when it comes to how a school is run. Still, you might think that in the chaotic early days of the coronavirus’s arrival in the city, even as schools struggled to close down to protect children, their parents might be able to put aside their self-interests and agendas.

In most schools that was surely the case. But St. Bernard’s, on the city’s Upper East Side, is not most schools. And not even the arrival of a global pandemic was going to keep a months-long battle being fought at the school from escalating into a legal battle. On March 19, 2020, two anonymous parents (John Does 1 and 2) found the time and energy to file a civil lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against the school and its executive committee. As Jim Walden, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said, “There is power and wealth on both sides of this drama.”

You can say that again.

Class Portrait

Pitted in battle is quite a cast of rich and powerful characters. So many sides, so much aggression, suspicion, and mistrust. In one corner is a board of trustees composed of a Who’s Who of next-generation Masters of the Universe, the men and women who dream about being the new Stephen Schwarzman.

Among those who think they are Wall Street’s New Guard are: Craig Huff, the president of the school’s board of trustees and a co-founder of hedge fund Reservoir Capital; Thomas Walker III, a former Goldman Sachs banker; Geoffrey Hsu, who now works at the huge hedge fund Citadel; Susan Webster, who is a former partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, the Wall Street law firm, and who is now the general counsel at the Fremont Group, a private-equity firm affiliated with the Bechtel family; and a group one could call the Blackstone Three: Prakash Melwani, Blackstone’s chief investment officer; Michael Chae, Blackstone’s chief financial officer; and Vicki Foley, the wife of Blackstone senior managing director David Foley. (There are more boldfaced names, too, such as Anna Caspersen; Samantha Boardman; Gifford Miller, the former New York City politician; and Adebayo Ogunlesi, the lead board director of Goldman Sachs.)

In another corner are a group of infuriated parents with their own ties to the one-tenth of the 1 percent but who chose the 116-year-old school because it promises an education steeped in the eternal, not the transactional. Among them: Philip Bobbitt, a Columbia University law professor and the nephew of Lyndon Johnson who lived in the White House for a summer when his uncle was president; Chris Martell, whose wife, Arianna, is the granddaughter of David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard; Ron Perelman, the multi-billionaire buyout mogul, and Anna Chapman, his fifth wife; Priscilla Rattazzi, a fashion photographer and scion of the powerful Agnelli family who is married to Chris Whittle, the education entrepreneur; a descendant of the Nederlander family, of Broadway fame; Andrew Solomon, the National Book Award–winning author; and Scott Bessent, who was once the chief investment officer of Soros Fund Management and now has his own hedge fund.

In a third corner are the “Old Boys” (yes, they call themselves that), the school’s close-knit alumni network. Among the school’s alumni are Benno Schmidt, the former president of Yale; and Tony Gardner, the former U.S. ambassador to the European Union. (The group also once included George Plimpton, as well as Peter Matthiessen, James Merrill, Avery Dulles, and Louis Auchincloss.) There are around 2,800 living Old Boys, and their leaders are trying hard to make peace between the board and the parents. But it hasn’t been easy.

In the middle of the ring is Stuart Johnson III, who has been St. Bernard’s headmaster for 35 years. That’s a long time, but it’s not without precedent at the school, which was founded in 1904 by John Jenkins, a Cambridge-educated Brit who served as headmaster for the next 45 years. His successor served for 22 years. Johnson started as a seventh-grade homeroom teacher in 1978 after graduating from St. Albans School, in Washington, and from Exeter and Yale. He became headmaster in 1985.

So many sides, so much aggression, suspicion, and mistrust.

Like Johnson, the school is dedicated to old-fashioned pedagogy, intellectualism, and erudition. It serves boys, grades K through nine, and then traditionally ships them off to the finest prep schools, such as Andover, Exeter, and St. Paul’s. (My class at Andover included four St. Bernard’s grads, including a grandson of a former U.S. president, a descendant of a U.S. Founding Father, and another of an original settler of New Amsterdam.) In a time when every private school seems to be in a race to throw over its curriculum in favor of adding classes in coding and Mandarin, St. Bernard’s stands resolute in its mission to give boys an education rooted in the classics. It’s a school that likes tradition. And a headmaster’s lengthy tenure has been part of that.

None of this is cheap. Tuition for the year is $48,500. And at a time when many parents across the city and country are simply worried about how their kids will be educated in this moment, such a price tag makes the battle seem like, well, a luxury. The school’s endowment, as of June 2018, according to its most recent public filings, is around $141 million, of which nearly $49 million is invested in hedge funds and nearly $20 million in private-equity funds. All of which makes the school one of the most highly endowed in the city. Yet, aside from providing “a generous sum” annually for financial aid, St. Bernard’s pretty much sits on its money; there are no plans for any new facilities.

Johnson is generally revered. “He taught me Greek after school when I was in seventh grade,” says one Old Boy. Adds another: “He’s been really an amazing, amazing headmaster.” Then, off the top of his head, this Old Boy quotes Suetonius about the emperor Augustus, “He came to a city of brick and he left a city of marble,” and adds, “That’s how I feel about Stuart, a great, gentle scholar.” Johnson’s total compensation for the school year ended June 2018 (the most recent year for which information is publicly available) was just more than $650,000. But he allegedly had no written contract, putting him in a weak negotiating position.

Good-bye, Mr. Johnson

The controversy at 4 East 98th Street began quietly enough in May 2019 when the executive committee of the board of trustees—then composed of Huff, Walker, Melwani, and Webster—decided that Johnson should start thinking about leaving the school. (Geoffrey Hsu joined the executive committee, as its fifth member, after the decision was made to replace Johnson.) Huff—according to what he told a meeting of the Old Boys Council on February 13—contacted Johnson about retiring “after input from a significant number of trustees.” Huff said he’d talked to Johnson occasionally about succession, given that he might decide to leave or that he might get hit by a bus. “He’s human,” Huff told the alumni gathering. “We all age and die.” The executive committee then hired a law firm, Patterson Belknap, to negotiate a severance agreement with Johnson.

There are many theories about what prompted the board’s executive committee to terminate Johnson—effective June 2021. In exchange for a severance payment of $4 million, according to someone familiar with it, Johnson and the members of the executive committee signed mutual non-disclosure agreements. (A source close to the board disputed the severance-payment amount.) In other words, they aren’t talking. But the drama and theories abound. They range from the relatively mundane to the serious and salacious. Among them:

• After 35 years as headmaster, it was time for Johnson to go.

• The man the board had secretly handpicked as Johnson’s successor—fellow board member Robbie Pennoyer, Old Boy class of 1997; descendant of J. P. Morgan, the man; and the assistant head of school at Grace Church School—might have slipped away if the executive committee didn’t act quickly enough in securing his services. “We are going to find a young Stuart Johnson,” Huff allegedly said at a faculty meeting about Johnson’s departure. Further inflaming the situation is a rumor that Russell Pennoyer “colluded with Huff” to make his son Johnson’s replacement.

• The financial wizards on the executive committee wanted Johnson to update the St. Bernard’s curriculum, give iPads to kindergartners, and eliminate Latin—moves he resisted.

• They wanted him to expend more effort working his network at the top prep schools to get their kids in, and for the children of their buddies to gain easy admission to the school—requests he was said to have resisted. (A person close to the board calls these claims “total fiction.”)

• Another issue that concerned parents was the school’s handling of a student who allegedly made anti-Semitic remarks to the son of Jill Kargman, the author and actress, whose parents are Arie and Coco Kopelman. According to an article Kargman wrote in The Tablet, in August 2018, the unnamed boy told her son, “I’m a fan of Hitler! God sent Hitler down to kill the Jews because they nailed Jesus to the cross!” Kargman’s son later left St. Bernard’s. Huff says that St. Bernard’s “does not tolerate anti-Semitism or any other form of discrimination.”

In other words, it’s a real shit show. And one that many in the community believe could have been avoided if it had been handled more, shall we say, diplomatically. But any chance of that now seems remote at best. Instead, the battle rages on and on, even though the school building itself remains closed, amid the pandemic, and students are being taught remotely.

Passing Notes

The negotiations about Johnson’s departure lasted until last November. Then, on December 18, at a regularly scheduled board meeting, Johnson gave his usual “headmaster’s report” and then ended by telling the full board what the executive committee already knew: he had agreed to leave St. Bernard’s at the end of the next school year, in June 2021. He asked the trustees to find a new headmaster who appreciated what some call the “eccentricities” of the school and who loved teaching boys. “For some of us in the room who had known Stuart a long time, it was a very sad moment,” says one board member. “Some grown men may have wept.” He had already signed the “employment agreement,” along with the pesky non-disclosure agreement. “It was,” says one Old Boy, “Stuart’s choice to negotiate only with the executive committee.” Huff says that Johnson voluntarily agreed to the negotiations with the executive committee over his future, and that it was Johnson’s decision to confer only with the executive committee.

Johnson also asked the board to keep the news quiet for a day, as he did not want to disrupt the festivities scheduled for the next day, December 19, which was the last day of school before the holiday break, and meant the students would gather for their annual tradition: singing carols in Latin, German, French, and English at the Church of the Heavenly Rest at Fifth Avenue and 90th Street. Johnson said he would tell the faculty his news at the usual “high-spirited” lunch after the caroling that marks the end of the semester.

Tuition for the year is $48,500. And at a time when many parents across the city and country are simply worried about how their kids will be educated in this moment, such a price tag makes the battle seem like, well, a luxury.

And then things got strange again. After the Christmas concert, Johnson e-mailed parents a short letter announcing that he would be leaving. “After forty years here I’d like to try something different,” he wrote. “(Suggestions welcome.)” An hour or so later, Huff sent out his own letter to parents, thanking Johnson for “four decades of excellence” and praising him for giving the school 18 months to find his successor. He informed parents that, early in 2020, a search firm would be hired, and that a search committee, drawn from the school community, would set about finding Johnson’s successor, hopefully by the summer.

But something didn’t smell right. The “Suggestions welcome” line in Johnson’s letter prompted many in the community to believe that his retirement was less than voluntary. It also didn’t help allay suspicions when Huff allegedly started telling parents that Robbie Pennoyer had already been selected to replace Johnson and that they would “love” him. “He is a home run,” Huff told them. “We had to move quickly so that we don’t lose [him].” Huff says that neither the executive committee nor the board has a preferred candidate, and that the board will appoint a search committee to fill the position. The two heads of the search committee have already been appointed. (Neither Russell nor Robbie Pennoyer responded to requests for comment.)

By the time the students and faculty returned to the school after Christmas vacation, parents, some trustees, and many Old Boys were in high dudgeon. This being New York, letters—and vitriol—started flying. A letter from the “St. Bernard’s Community” on January 13 set the tone. The parents who wrote the letter wanted Johnson to stay for at least another 10 years, so that he could surpass Jenkins’s tenure as headmaster, as he had once hoped to do. “We implore you to reconsider your decision to retire,” they wrote. In a January 14 letter, a group of parents and alumni, including the Martells, the Bobbitts, the Nederlanders, and Benno Schmidt, class of 1955, wrote Johnson about their concern that the board’s executive committee is “seeking to place undue pressure on you to enforce a secretive and ill-considered decision,” a decision, they argued, that only the full board of trustees could make. “We implore you to give this a bit more time,” they concluded. A petition, with some 600 signatures pledging support for Johnson, was submitted. There were hastily called meetings of the board—allegedly without proper notice—and of the Old Boys. As the rancor ratcheted up, the board hired—at the school’s expense—a public-relations firm, Rubenstein Strategic Communications. In its mid-January meetings, the full board ratified Johnson’s “employment agreement” and his decision to step down.

Going for the Jugular

The board’s action was not the end of the story. In two e-mails sent on January 15 and January 16—the first to Huff, the second to the full board—Scott Bessent, the hedge-fund manager and a parent of a son in the class of 2024, got angry, and personal. “The executive committee and the board only have yourselves to blame for the frenzy that Stuart’s proposed departure has created—both through timing the announcement hours before holidays and the lack of transparency, clarity and obfuscation around the decision,” he wrote Huff. Not keeping Johnson as headmaster, Bessent wrote, had “a disturbing heavy-handed, disingenuous and somewhat desperate feel.” He seemed furious that the executive committee had made the decision without the participation of the full board. He shared his view that it was “highly inappropriate” that three members of the four-member executive committee, who made the decision to terminate Johnson, “no longer” had boys at the school and one had moved his son “to Riverdale [Country School] after fifth grade.” He went for the jugular. “How do you think it looks from the outside for three MBAs with no experience as educators to dismiss the head of a beloved NYC institution just before a break?” he wrote. “St. Bernard’s is not a private equity investment where the CEO is let go for not meeting a set of goals created by a consultant.”

Another issue that concerned parents was the school’s handling of a student who allegedly made anti-Semitic remarks to the son of Jill Kargman, the author and actress.

In his e-mail to the full board, Bessent used words such as “craven” and “deceit” to describe the executive committee’s behavior. He suggested the committee forced Johnson to send out his December letter “under censorship” and “duress” and noted that it may have violated New York City employment law. He wrote that he and his husband were among the Top 10 largest donors to the school and that “it sickens me that any portion of our gift was spent on legal opinions or a lawyer’s presence for last night’s meeting.” He wrote that he had canceled his pledge and urged others to do the same. (He noted that some $500,000 in pledges had been rescinded.) He called for board term limits, a walkout by students and parents, an Old Boys boycott of school activities, coordinated sick days, and putting tuition in escrow. “We teach our boys not to be bullies and be truthful; yet, the leadership of St. Bernard’s has bullied the members of the community and created a false narrative,” he concluded. “Shameful.” Huff wouldn’t respond on the record to the claims made in Bessent’s e-mails.

Soon after, some person or persons, writing under the pseudonym “Tabor Jenkins” (an inside joke referring to the school’s founders), forwarded Bessent’s e-mails to parents and wrote, “You need to know. Stuart is being forced out.” According to a separate video recorded on January 16 that has made the rounds, a group of parents waited three hours to confront Huff after the meeting confirming that Johnson had been terminated. Wearing a puffy North Face jacket and an Hermès tie, Huff deflected their anger with the shield of the signed NDAs. “We will not allow a coup,” one of the parents told him.

For the next month or so, there were a series of contentious “coffees” between parents and board members, including Julie Richardson, a former partner at Providence Equity Partners and a former partner of mine at JPMorgan Chase. There were plenty of tears and accusations. The letters continued flying. One from Gillian Gorman Round, a parent. Another from a bunch of parents, including Benno Schmidt. One from Philip Bobbitt. A long one from the incomparable Andrew Solomon. The furor got to the point that an inflammatory letter about the executive committee’s actions was sent to the board with the name of Erin Drouin, the president of the Parents’ Association, at the bottom. Drouin denies having written the letter. She wrote in an e-mail that “somebody else wrote it and put my name on the signature line.”

On February 4, a letter from Johnson tried to calm passions. He repeated that he was leaving at the end of June 2021 and that his priority until then was “to restore the calm, hard-won and fragile, that is vital to the happy functioning of this school.” He pleaded for respect, honesty, and patience. But that backfired, too, when Philip Bobbitt, for one, sent around another letter suggesting that Huff had “extorted” the letter out of Johnson, an allegation someone close to the board denies. Bobbitt demanded the board give Johnson a new seven-year term and “the apology he deserves.” At a contentious Old Boys Council meeting on February 13, Bartle Bull, a renowned alum and son of another alum with the same name, told Huff the entire board should resign. During that Old Boys meeting, Huff admitted the board wanted Johnson gone.

Enter the Lawyers

On Valentine’s Day, the lawyered-up letters started to appear. There was one from Lisa Cleary, the Patterson Belknap attorney representing the board, to Bobbitt. There was one from Bessent to Cleary, in which he asked her about the potential conflict of interest her firm appeared to have because of its long association with the Pennoyers. (Russell’s father was a longtime partner at the firm.) There was another from Bessent to Cleary, fired off 45 minutes after he had written a letter to the board saying, “This is the last email that you will receive from me,” and adding that “it may seem paradoxical, but I actually have no taste for the vituperative that is flying around 98th Street.”

To try to stave off what surely was looking like litigation between the disgruntled parents and the executive committee, some cooler heads tried to fashion a compromise, led by former parent Mary Jo White. White is heavy artillery. She’s a former U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton. On February 19, a meeting was arranged. In attendance were White; Huff; three other trustees; Tommy Kempner, the billionaire former board chairman and a son of Nan Kempner, the late Manhattan socialite; and a small group of parents and Old Boys. At that meeting, Huff gave his “oral approval” to the parent representatives to speak with Johnson to try to come up with a compromise, according to a letter from “Tabor Jenkins.” It took another week to get Huff’s written permission.

In a time when every private school seems to be in a race to throw over its curriculum in favor of adding classes in coding and Mandarin, St. Bernard’s stands resolute in its mission to give boys an education rooted in the classics.

On February 26, a compromise negotiated by the group—seemingly led by Lee Eastman, the noted entertainment attorney and nephew of Linda McCartney—and drafted with Johnson’s input and approval was sent to Huff and the rest of the board. The deal called for, among other things, Johnson to stay at the school another five years; for a new “senior exmissions” administrator to be hired to try to boost the placement at the best prep schools; for efforts to be made to improve the STEM program and to improve Spanish and Mandarin offerings. The compromise also called for the succession process to begin after three years. Further, an unnamed two of the five members of the executive committee would be replaced; Huff, however, would remain president. The signatories to the compromise letter were Martell; Lee Eastman; Harry Davison, a managing director at Bessemer Trust and a descendant of one of J. P. Morgan’s closest partners; and Oscar Anderson III, an Old Boy and senior managing director at CVC Credit Partners.

The board met on February 26 and March 2 to discuss the compromise. By March 9, with no response from the board, “Tabor Jenkins” informed the community that things were not looking good. “What a pity,” the e-mail said. “What a shame. It would have been so much wiser to respond constructively to our proposal.” On March 15, having received no response to the compromise after 19 days, the four signatories informed the board by e-mail that a lawsuit against them would be filed the next day. The four men weren’t a party to the lawsuit, they told the board. Still, they continued, “consider this a last ditch plea to engage and respond constructively—especially now as we face such uncertain times—times that will require a united community and stability, consistency, and trusted leadership.” Huff replied to Eastman over e-mail that the board could not respond that quickly. Eastman tried one more time. “It is not patience that is needed—it is leadership and a solution that will work for everyone,” he wrote. The lawyer for the anonymous plaintiffs, Jim Walden, a former assistant U.S. attorney, presented his findings to Patterson Belknap, who declined to negotiate.

Then came March 19, and the filing of the civil lawsuit. In addition to the accusations of a secretive coup and of board micro-managing and admissions favoritism, the plaintiff parents added new, somewhat amorphous charges of “conflicts of interest” related to the school’s hefty endowment and that “personal relationships with fund managers” may have resulted in a “substantial loss” to the school’s portfolio. (Walden, the plaintiffs’ attorney, promises his amended complaint will provide more context.)

Everyone is now lawyered up. For his part, Johnson filed an affidavit recently with the court reiterating his intention to leave and that he did not want to abrogate the agreement he signed on December 18. He repeated that he had not been pressured by the board to depart. He wrote that although he appreciated the “kind words” in the lawsuit about him, he did not support the plaintiffs’ effort to get him to stay beyond June 2021. (Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.) The New York State Attorney General’s Office has also started an investigation, which was asked for “on behalf of faculty members at St. Bernard’s seeking whistleblower protection,” according to a letter Walden wrote to Letitia James, the state attorney general, that further alleged that a “serious conflict-of-interest currently exists between the Board and Executive Committee of St. Bernard’s on the one hand, and Headmaster Johnson on the other.” It’s not clear where this investigation is heading.

In an interview, Walden says he can understand Johnson wishing that he could have departed on his own timetable but also realizing that les jeux sont faits. “As a former federal prosecutor, having seen people do lots of bad things, I can absolutely understand a guy who cares about his staff, cares about his legacy, cares about the school realizing that however it happened, he’s now crosswise with the executive committee of the board,” he says. “They’re intent on getting rid of him, and he’s got a lot of people that he brought into the school that are critical to the school’s success who had been fighting for him to keep his job for several months, including by providing information to lawyers about potential conflicts of interest and financial misdealings.”

Walden says that with several very powerful people “in the crosshairs,” it’s understandable that Johnson has reconsidered and now feels it might be best “for him to just play the company game and go quietly.” He pauses, and then continues about Johnson, “Put another way, when the evidence is presented in court, it’s going to be very, very clear that up until the last minute he was telling people left, right, and center that he was under duress and that he didn’t have a choice and that he was concerned that the board was going to start going after other people. I don’t think that anyone is going to be convinced of anything else after all the evidence is heard.”

To one rational Old Boy, the saga is, of course, a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. “Much as I love [Johnson], it’s inconceivable that there’s nobody else who is well suited to both carry forward the traditions and culture of the school and bring something valuable and new to the table,” he says. “It’s inconceivable to me that there’s no such person.... If somebody had met him on the right level or over the right time period, this would have happened in a very seamless way, is my guess. But I think it was handled in a ‘too businessperson’ way. It’s a school that is not a materialistic school. I think there was a cultural mismatch. I’m afraid to say it’s almost that simple.”

William D. Cohan is a Writer at Large for air mail