The Zuckerbergs of Dobbs Ferry

Photo: Sherry Tesler/Redux

In December 1978, engineers at Atari unveiled an 8-bit personal computer called the 800. Like the Apple II, which had been released the year before, the 800 was designed to appeal to a new breed of American consumer—the casual computing enthusiast. It was a brick of a machine, ten pounds and cream-colored, with a raised keyboard and a pair of cartridge slots under the front hood. Among the earliest adopters was Ed Zuckerberg, a young dentist from Brooklyn. Ed and his wife, Karen, had recently purchased a home in the Westchester town of Dobbs Ferry, 25 miles north of the city. Using a custom modem provided by Citibank, which held the mortgage on the house, Ed found he could make his payments electronically. “This is going to revolutionize things,” he told Karen. “You’re crazy,” she scoffed. “I can write three checks in three minutes. You can write one in an hour.”

The dial-up was painfully slow, but Ed was persistent. He had always loved machines—he believed he had a natural feel for them. He did some rudimentary ­basic coding with the tutorial that had shipped with the Atari, and when IBM opened a string of retail stores around the U.S. in the early eighties, Ed promptly laid down ten grand for a new and more powerful computer, the IBM XT, and accompanying accessories. He installed the machine in his office.

“Oh, it was awful,” he tells me. “Close to a second mortgage and barely any active memory.” But he has no regrets: The limitations of the IBM taught him what he wanted in his next machine. “My lesson learned was not to be afraid to dabble in technology early,” he says. “Not to be one of those guys stuck waiting.”

On a cold day last month, I visit the Zuckerbergs at their home. Compared with neighboring Scarsdale, with its rambling mansions, Dobbs Ferry is a relatively diverse community, which prides itself on the open-mindedness of its population—“Berkeley on the Hudson,” the town supervisor, Paul Feiner, is fond of calling it. The Zuckerberg residence sits on the base of a small slope on the east edge of town, not far from the thrum of the Saw Mill River Parkway. Out front, there are black shutters, a terraced lawn, and a metallic signpost depicting a dentist and an assistant hunched over a supine patient. Ed Zuckerberg works out of a dental office around the side. In town, he is known as “Painless Dr. Z.”

The place has changed little in the decade since Mark Zuckerberg left home, first for boarding school and then for Harvard, where he founded the ­world-altering web company that will soon make the entire Zuckerberg family unfathomably rich. The living room is sparely appointed and carpeted in a soft shade of blue, and the bulk of the decorations are family portraits—in one, Mark and his three sisters, Randi, Donna, and Arielle, pose like spies, their fingers folded into the shape of pistols. The kitchen is small, sunstruck, cozily familiar. Downstairs, a row of theater-style seats faces a large television and a plastic drum set from the video game Rock Band. I ask Ed if he is any good. “Terrible,” he says, grinning.

Zuckerberg is short and densely built, with soft almond eyes and a stare he often holds one beat too long, as if he is attempting to stare directly through you. Despite his bald pate, the 57-year-old is notably youthful. He is wearing a blue button-down tucked into Calvin Klein jeans, a thick leather belt, and a smart pair of loafers. A gold medallion of a triggerfish is nestled in the collar of his shirt. “In Hawaiian,” he tells me, “you’d call it a humuhumunukunukuapua’a.” He says it quickly and melodically, like a song, and one he’d probably been singing since he picked up the medallion, years ago, on a snorkeling trip to Hawaii. At the age of 6, his youngest daughter, Arielle, could pronounce the entire word without once stumbling, Ed recalls proudly. Occasionally, she’d perform the trick for his patients. “Boy, they got a real kick out of that.”

Ed leads me down a short, airless hallway and toward his offices. He is chattering happily—about the New York Giants (triumphant) and the New York Yankees (less so) and the weather (a little nippy). He’s like your standard-issue eighties dad, giving a tour of his comfortingly ordinary home. The one with the really sweet new video games.

We stop in an examination room that gleams with white machines. Ed points to a pair of recent acquisitions: an E4D Dentist, which has a diamond-drill attachment to quickly mill crowns for root-­canal patients, and a Strato 2000, a low-radiation, panoramic X-ray machine. Zuckerberg estimates the E4D had cost him $125,000, then ­launches into an elaborate primer on tax breaks and deferred-payment schemes and the wonders of modern dental technology. “Bottom line,” he says finally, clapping his hands together, “I’m not going to lose any money on this.”

The Facebook family at the company offices in 2005. From left: Randi, Arielle, Mark, Karen, and Edward (Donna not pictured).Photo: Sherry Tesler

In many ways, the story of Ed Zuckerberg is the story of a passion deferred—rechanneled and passed on.

Zuckerberg was raised on a tree-lined street in Flatbush, the son of a mail carrier and a homemaker. His family was the first on the block to own a color TV, and Ed would sit for hours on the living-room floor, watching the images flicker to life. Once he took apart a stereo to see how it worked. In high school, he excelled in math and science, and graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in biology in 1975.

“Growing up Jewish in New York City,” Zuckerberg tells me, “if you had half a brain, your parents wanted you to be a doctor or a dentist. I was actually a numbers guy. But back then, there really weren’t a lot of jobs in computer programming. There were these big, room-size computers that you read about—they worked on punch cards, some of them.” He laughs. “That was not the ‘appropriate use of my time,’ my parents would have said. It wasn’t for the smart boys.”

It was in the seventies, of course, that Bill Gates was dropping out of Harvard to found a software company and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were building circuit boards in a Los Altos garage. But Zuckerberg was a working-class kid from Brooklyn. He wanted stability—his parents did, anyway. And so, in 1975, he enrolled in New York University College of Dentistry.

While at NYU, Ed was set up on a blind date with Karen Kempner, a willowy Brooklyn College undergraduate. If Ed was intense and quiet, Karen was warm, with a thick Queens accent. In 1979, the pair married and relocated to an apartment in White Plains, not far from New York Medical College, where Karen was studying, with plans to go into psychiatry. A year later, they put a down payment on the Dobbs Ferry house.

For many years, Ed commuted daily between Brooklyn, where he kept an office, and Westchester, where his family was steadily growing: Randi arrived in 1982 and Mark in 1984. In 1987, the year his daughter Donna was born, contractors completed work on the renovation of the ground floor of the house, and Zuckerberg moved his practice full time to Dobbs Ferry. A committed diver, he decorated the new offices in an aquatic motif—there were murals of coral, and between two of the examination rooms, a 200-gallon fish tank.

Karen, now a licensed psychiatrist, was enlisted as his office manager—“my most overqualified employee,” Ed says. A few years later, Karen briefly attempted to return to psychiatry but returned home after a year. “She saw those people in the chair,” Ed recalls, “and she didn’t want her kids to turn out to be one of them.”

The family was always “tight-knit,” Donna Zuckerberg tells me—a kind of universe unto itself. The dental offices were separated from the living room by only a single door, and the children would often scamper around the waiting room and past the patients. Ed credits the proximity of all his dental gadgetry with influencing Arielle, who went on to study technology at Claremont McKenna College, and Mark.

“With us, our parents always supported what it was we wanted to do,” Donna says. “They just asked that we do our best at it.” And what they often wanted to do was play with machines. In the eighties, Mark and Randi scripted and filmed The Star Wars Sill-ogy, a live-action parody shot on handheld cameras. In the nineties, SimCity was big—“Mark would sit in front of the screen building these big skyscrapers,” Ed says—and so was Mario Kart. Mark was the family champion.

Which is not to say discipline was not important. But with Mark, the word “no required much more,” Ed told Time in 2010. “If you were going to say no to him, you had better be prepared with a strong argument backed by facts, experiences, logic, reasons. We envisioned him becoming a lawyer one day, with a near 100 percent success rate of convincing juries.”

In the mid-nineties, Mark, who had learned to code on the old Atari 800, built a messaging system that the family dubbed “Zucknet.” Ed employed it to relay messages between examination rooms. The kids, shut behind closed doors, logged on to send messages from one bedroom to the next. They could communicate digitally, in bursts of text, without ever actually saying a word.

Last year, Ed Zuckerberg was invited onto a local radio show hosted by Feiner, the town supervisor. Ed agreed, imagining it would be a laid-back affair. Within minutes, the lines were flooded: Everyone wanted to know how a mild-mannered dentist had managed to raise the founder of Facebook.

Ed was asked about Karen (“a superwoman,” Ed said), corporal punishment (he doesn’t believe in it), Amy Chua’s tough-parenting manifesto Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (he hadn’t read it), and The Social Network (“If I sat back and looked at it as a movie and not as a story about my son, it was a tolerable experience”). The transcript was obtained by the Associated Press and quickly repackaged and chewed over by countless websites. “Zuckerberg Doesn’t Have a Tiger Daddy,” read one headline.

“Look,” Ed Zuckerberg tells me, remembering the fuss, “you have successful kids, and people are going to want to emulate your formula. But we don’t profess any special child-rearing skills.” He frowns. “The best I can say is that as parents, you can engineer the life you want your kids to have, but it may not be the life they want to have. You have to encourage them to pursue their passions. And you have to spend more time on them than you spend on anything else.”

Today, all four Zuckerberg kids live on the West Coast—Arielle close to San Francisco and Mark, Randi, and Donna in Palo Alto. Arielle is a product manager for Wildfire Interactive, a marketing company. Donna, a Ph.D. candidate at ­Princeton, is finishing her dissertation on Euripides and Aristophanes—and running Sugar Mountain Treats, a food blog. After years working at Facebook, most recently as marketing director, ­Randi has launched her own social-media firm, R to Z Studios.

Last year, Randi gave birth to Asher, her first son with husband Brent Tworetzky, who works at an e-textbook company. Around the same time, Ed and Karen bought a house in the San Francisco area, in order to be closer to their children and grandchild. Ed Zuckerberg estimates he’s traveled out west and back twenty times in the past twelve months, good enough for Diamond status on Delta. “It’s cumbersome,” Zuckerberg says of the cross-country shuttling. “Really cumbersome.”

But back in Dobbs Ferry, their profile remains relatively low. “This is a town where people can do that—just drop under the radar,” says Timothy Lamorte, the editor of the local tabloid. When Facebook was first gaining momentum, Lamorte attempted unsuccessfully to reach out to the family. I ask him how many articles the paper had run on the Zuckerbergs since. “Zero,” he says.

Feiner tells me that “some people” in Ed and Karen’s position would be “ostentatious. They don’t want to show off or brag,” he says. “My impression is that Ed is just proud of being ahead of his time and sparking that interest in his son.”

Although he did send out a direct-mail dentistry solicitation to new residents of Dobbs Ferry last year declaring “I am literally the Father of Facebook!,” Zuckerberg estimates that half of his patients remain unaware of his ties to the company. “They haven’t made the connection,” he says. “But you know, we’re very low-key about it.”

That low-keyness marks Ed and Karen as members of a strange new inheritance class—proud parents buoyed up into the globetrotting elite by the unlikely and astonishingly rapid rise of their children. A few years ago, Ed was given the option to buy 2 million shares of Facebook, as a kind of thank-you for having helped Mark get the company off the ground. Ed reportedly tried to refuse, but the board of directors insisted, and the shares were issued to him. After the Facebook IPO, his investment will be worth an estimated $60 million.

Partial retirement appeals to him, but the house and offices will have to be sold in a package deal, and he hasn’t found a dentist willing to take both on.* “It’s my baby,” he tells me. “It’s not like a baseball-card collection that you can just give away.” In the meantime, he’s traveling the country, proselytizing to other dentists about advances in dental technology. And he and Karen are mastering contract bridge. “After 30 years, you learn how to become a dentist, you become good at it,” he says, “and it doesn’t engage your brain in the same way. Bridge does.”

We walk upstairs, where Karen Zuckerberg is making a chocolate pie, from a recipe posted on Sugar Mountain Treats—in the Zuckerberg household, all websites, whether they receive a few dozen clicks a day or hundreds of millions, are treated equally. “Donna said ten minutes prep and half an hour baking,” she frets. “I’m still on prep, and it’s taken me 30 minutes already.” She is dressed casually, in jeans and a sweatshirt. She begins talking about a boyfriend of Arielle’s, who designed a popular new smartphone app, and produces her iPhone to demonstrate. It is open to her Facebook page.

*This article has been corrected to show that Ed Zuckerberg is looking into partial, not full, retirement.

The Zuckerbergs of Dobbs Ferry