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The Continuing Education of Mrs. Ross

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From left, Chinese bronze sculpture, an Asian-style dining area, and a sculpture of Nike at the Ross school in East Hampton.  

Ross Global’s demurely Delphic motto could be the inscription over Mrs. Ross’s own doorway: KNOW THYSELF IN ORDER TO SERVE. Mrs. Ross has been serving up culture for as long as anyone could remember. Steve Ross was dating Courtney Sale, the art dealer, but chucked her overboard to marry Amanda Burden, from one of the oldest of old-line Wasp families. After Burden left him, Steve came meeching back to Courtney. Epic spending ensued, much of it on art. In Mrs. Ross’s custody is one of the major assemblages in New York of French Art Deco and the best examples of Wiener Werkstätte in the country to be found outside of Ron Lauder’s Neue Galerie. When New York City determined Mrs. Ross owed back income taxes in 1993 and 1994, her collections alone were valued at approximately $68 million.

“I think one of the problems Steve had with his two other wives was that they weren’t the least bit interested in what he was truly good at, which was wheeling and dealing,” says one acquaintance. “But Courtney at heart was a wheeler-dealer, too. She would involve herself in areas someone like Amanda wouldn’t have dreamed of.” Courtney, who by this time was making documentaries about artists, sought the company of painters and intellectuals; Bill de Kooning came for dinner, but some of the others looked down on Steve, considered him a vulgarian.

Her pilgrimage to enlightenment began when Mrs. Ross, in a snit with Spence School, withdrew her daughter, Nicole, and, after a short stint in East Hampton public school, took tutors along on location with Nicole and a few other girls who soon joined them. They spent a little more than a year trekking to Paris, Berlin, London, and the Galápagos Islands, when they weren’t encamped in a studio Courtney had rented in East Hampton. But there were also overnights at her 740 Park digs, where the little girls wandered among her many prize de Kooning Woman drawings, the Lichtenstein, the Gorky, the Pollock, the pre-Columbian textiles, and were herded to museums, Broadway shows, and French restaurants. Mrs. Ross made sure they tried caviar and learned how to set a table with crystal. Her girls called her Courtney. “She was our friend!” says Alex Fischman, who started with Ross in the fifth grade.

When Nicole reached high-school age, boys were introduced into the biosphere. The school by then was undergoing a radical expansion as buildings were being unveiled one by one in the scrub oaks and pitch pines. The Skidmore graduate and self-styled interior designer set about testing her costliest theory yet, as quoted in the school’s brochure, that “beauty in the classroom affects the quality of the lesson.” One could evaluate the project through a Freudian prism, Mrs. Ross re-creating her girlhood, gifting a school—culture!—to a small town on Long Island, and running the entire ranch as its CEO, just like her mother.

“She was incredibly exacting,” says one builder. “You know that fire-breathing machine in Dr. No? I would come out of meetings with her, hold my arms out, and say, ‘Is my flesh still on me?’ 

“She doesn’t like to hear no. If you said, ‘Courtney, you can’t do that,’ the response would be something like, ‘Oh, really? Let me show you,’ ” says Fred Stelle, the architect who did the master plan for the East Hampton school and was eventually fired, rehired, then fired again.

Says another ex-employee, “It was as if Donald Trump were a school principal.”

Atmospheric conditions permitting, she could work her charms on both sexes. “She kind of looks out of the side of her eye and smiles a sort of lopsided grin and lets her shirt fall open,” says one builder. “But she wanted to get the school finished, and she was very effective.” Wooing prospective architects, she’d offer to whisk them to Kyoto, to learn Japanese joinery! She appreciated an audience and was always scootering VIPs through, soliciting input and sharing ideas with the likes of New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger, Billy Joel, Oprah. When Bill Clinton stayed chez Spielberg, he dropped in to see Mrs. Ross next door on Georgica Pond. World leaders were discussing the Ross mission!

In 2000, Ross completed the spalike Center for Well Being at the school, geothermally heated and cooled, a ski-lodge fireplace on its ground floor, a koi pond in its basement. The local porch-rockers nicknamed it “the Canyon Ranch School.” This was what $1,000 a square foot looked like: Rain Head showerheads (and Ethernet ports) in the locker rooms. Automatic-flush toilets, labeled w.c. in the European manner. Hand-inlaid Mondrian floors in the school’s music room. Transporting the whale-rib-size roof beams required closing the George Washington Bridge to all other traffic.


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