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.”
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.