Eric Eisner steers his gray Lexus past two security guards and into the lot of Lennox Middle School. The campus is close enough to LAX that airborne jets form a scrim in the sky. A third of the families in Lennox, which is 93 percent Latino, live below the poverty line. By eighth grade as many as half of the boys in the school will have joined a gang.
Eisner, who was president of the David Geffen Company for ten years, shows up almost daily to meet with a handful of kids who are part of his Young Eisner Scholars program. The core of the 15-year-old endeavor is the children of Lennox, but Eisner adopted TEACH Academy of Technologies in Inglewood after good friends Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine noted the low number of African American students in YES. Pleas from parents and administrators also led to his expansion into the Jane Addams and Dana middle schools in nearby Lawndale and Hawthorne. Both are predominantly Latino. Despite Eisner’s lack of experience in education outreach, the former entertainment mogul is enjoying marked success. His scholars are ensconced locally at prestigious private schools like Harvard-Westlake, Marlborough, Archer, Brentwood, Crossroads, Chadwick, and Cate, and in the east at Andover Phillips, Choate Rosemary Hall, Phillips Exeter, and Lawrenceville. The schools, which base scholarships on need, usually cover most of the tuition, with the parents paying a few hundred dollars annually for a $30,000-a-year education (as much as $60,000 at the eastern boarding schools). This enables YES to concentrate on helping with personal expenses and, later, college. Most of the students are accepted into illustrious universities: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Brown, and Carnegie Mellon.
The focus of the program is weekly hour-long sessions in which the students discuss math problems. YES also subsidizes eye exams and orthodontia for the needy, yoga for the anxious, Spinning classes for the overweight, even therapy on a case-by-case basis, because Eisner believes all children, not just the privileged, have a right to them. He and a second instructor divide the teaching, conducted with groups of two to four students during midday breaks at their schools. Eisner and YES executive director Alina Beruff additionally spend hours on their cell phones checking on schools, chatting with potential donors or employers, and dispensing advice to those who’ve moved on to high school, college, or postgrad work, because once in YES, you’re a member for life.
Eisner clanks up a metal ramp and into a small room in which eighth grader Noe Giron sits stiffly on a folding chair. “You’ve grown since the last time I saw you,” says Eisner to the boy, who has a buzz cut and a gap-toothed grin. Noe doesn’t move. He missed the deadline for applying to the California Academy of Math and Science in Carson, the MIT of high schools. For Eisner the slip was a disaster. It meant that Noe might end up at Hawthorne High, among the county’s lowest-performing schools. Eisner phoned the CAMS principal, who was so impressed by previous YES students that he overlooked the late paperwork and admitted Noe.
As Eisner’s smile broadens, Noe—who wasborn to a handyman father and a homemaker mother with three other children—relaxes. “You’re rare even for a really smart ghetto brat,” Eisner goes on to tell Noe in one of his signature impromptu pep talks. He predicts that as a minority student with a CAMS diploma, Noe will have his choice of elite universities. “The colleges like to think they’re the ones who will save you, who will send you up the stairway to the stars, not realizing you’re well on your way,” he says. “I’m your stairway to the stars.”
Taken out of context, Eisner’s brash language might startle. But liberating kids from extreme poverty demands bravado, and he can turn that on with ease. Eisner has even equated himself with God, though he claims not to believe in one. Such dramatic flourishes are meant to galvanize the 319 kids in YES into trusting his plan. “This is the first time anyone is talking to them like they have a future,” he says.
Eisner, who is 66, graduated at the top of his law school class at Columbia in 1973. He soon followed friends Peter and Barbara Benedek to Los Angeles, where Peter cofounded United Talent Agency. Eisner was hired at an entertainment law firm with a movie studio clientele. As a teenager, he had performed in a well-regarded rock band in New York, and the musicians who knew him came calling. “They didn’t care that I was fresh out of law school,” he says. “It was all right because the big part of the job was to negotiate record deals, and this was the absolute gold rush of the record business.”
Eisner became president of the David Geffen Company in 1980, but only after a long courtship. “David and I wind up in a debate for a couple of months,” Eisner says. “And the more I know him, the more I can see how brilliant he is. I said, I don’t want to be president of a record company. ‘OK. So what do you want?’ I want to do movies. ‘So we’ll do movies.’ And I’m into Broadway shows. ‘We’ll do Broadway shows.’ And he said, ‘In ten years we’re going to sell this company for a fortune.’ ” Between hit films Risky Business and Beetlejuice, Broadway’s Dreamgirls, Cats, and Miss Saigon, and music acts Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, Elton John, Don Henley, Peter Gabriel, and Neil Young, Geffen’s predictions came true. “It was a phenomenal ten years, the absolute champagne uncorking of the music business right up until the time we sold it,” Eisner says,“and then it all ended.”
During the next eight years, Eisner wrote a script, Of God and Country Club, which sold for $1 million; produced films for friend Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records; and honed his golf skills at the Bel-Air Country Club. He had no aspirations toward volunteer work. Then came a fund-raiser for the Richstone Family Center, which he attended with his wife, photographer Lisa Eisner, only because she had a teenage crush on honoree Arnold Palmer. Eric was seated next to Dorothy Courtney, then executive director of the center, which mentors kids in L.A.’s poorest and most violent communities. “You must have some time to give us,” Courtney said to Eisner. “I had a moment,” he recalls, “where a lot of the past gets compressed. I knew that I had never in my entire life done anything for another person. I had done things that other people thought were valuable to them, but it was only to get paid. Louis, my younger son, had been doing a paper in high school about whether anyone ever does anything truly altruistic. He was fascinated with that topic. And I thought, ‘You’re 50 fucking years old, and if you’re ever going to do something like that…’ ”
Eisner told Courtney he was on board but that he wanted to meet the smartest kids from “one of these port-of-entry barrios,” he recalls. “She said, ‘Great. There’s this middle school that has no high school, and it has a high dropout rate.’ ” The place was Lennox Middle School, commonly known as LMS. In his 30 years in L.A., Eisner had never been to Lennox, a rectangle of stucco bungalows engulfed on two sides by Inglewood. Its school district suffers from poor tax revenue and state cuts but hasn’t drawn the attendant publicity that has surrounded—and helped—the Los Angeles Unified School District. The Richstone Eisner Education Program launched in 1999. By 2010, Eisner had outgrown Richstone and incorporated as YES.
Eisner is intent on shaping clear thinkers and speakers who will excel despite being rocketed away from their comfort zones.
There’s no citizen intercession group like it. Organizations such as City Year send hundreds of young people into LAUSD’s troubled institutions to provide classroom assistance and social support. Another, the 35-year-old Fulfillment Fund, pairs underserved L.A. high schoolers with mentors who aid in navigating their way into college. These programs seek a systemic fix, aiding thousands. YES is far more customized and benefits a relative few. That approach failed to resonate with philanthropist Eli Broad, who turned down YES for funding, as did the Gates Foundation. Eisner defends his narrow scope for its trickle-down effect: The kids who are in private school serve as role models within their community, living billboards for the benefits of a good education. They are proof of what is possible.
To that end Eisner typically seeks children with strong math skills, who are more likely to score well on the Independent School Entrance Exam for prep school admittance. But his primary purpose is to sharpen the students’ verbal abilities. He puts their word choices through an almost Talmudic scrutiny. Sloppy vocabulary is unacceptable. “We’re giving them skills their environment, which undervalues language, has deprived them of,” Eisner says. “The lack of vocabulary and clarity in their speech indicates how fragmentized their thinking becomes. They live in language ghettos.”
The discussions digress into teachable moments on everything from banking practices to horse racing culture. His process is part Einsteinian reductionism, part boot camp for the outside world. Eisner is intent on shaping clear thinkers and speakers who will excel despite being rocketed away from their comfort zones. His disappointments come with those who try to skate by on a brainy charm rather than engage in a demanding dialogue. “Eric has an unerring instinct about kids, and I trust him completely,” says Judith Wolstan, director of admission at the Chadwick School. “He knows his students and he understands our mission and programs, so he is able to collaborate with us to enroll kids who will thrive in our school academically and personally.”
When I ask YES students what they think of their benefactor, they universally call him quirky, a genius, and often, a second dad. Some of them would have made it to college anyway, but it wouldn’t have been on this exhilarating path, and certainly not to these expensive schools. Pose the “what if” question, to chart the course of their lives had Eisner not tapped them on the shoulder, and they go dead still. Some of the smartest kids in L.A. don’t have words for that.
If Eisner is a father figure, Alina Beruff is the big sister. While the 27-year-old oversees daily operations and money management, she is also the kids’ wardrobe adviser, health counselor, and social media censor. A five-foot-ten native of Mexico City, with long legs and hair that drifts to her waist, Beruff grew up in Washington, D.C., surprising her father by opting for the University of Maryland over an Ivy League school (he said she chose mediocrity; she saw her chance to stand out as the opposite). She is unflappable, fluent in Spanish (the first language for the majority of YES kids), and whirs with energy.
A student who suffers from stress-related eczema is signed up for yoga. She accompanies another girl to Spinning classes to help her lose weight. A boy with severe acne is sent to a dermatologist. A YES student develops an anxiety disorder. Beruff takes her to a therapist, and finally, after she’s diagnosed with scoliosis, a chiropractor. YES then pays for a swim program to alleviate her back pain. A collegian with an online gaming addiction drops out of school; YES arranges for treatment and finds him a paid internship with a New York apparel maker. The young man is back at his vaunted eastern university two years later. Beruff is the teens’ conduit to Illene Tonick, a UCLA psychology professor who provides therapy at a reduced fee. Beruff also watches over a small group of undocumented students, consulting with immigration attorney Alan Klein on the paperwork to keep them in school, a service he performs pro bono.
One day Beruff took Jesus Rivera, whose family of eight was packed into a two-bedroom apartment in Lennox, to the downtown Westin Bonaventure to interview for Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut. Jesus, who had never been in an elevator, rode the Westin’s four times. As the chubby teenager, who favors Metallica T-shirts and thick glasses, walked in for his appointment, Beruff deduced that “the interviewer was confused. You could tell he was thinking, ‘Who did they send us?’ ” Afterward Choate chose to wait-list Jesus, but Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire snapped him up. His first semester he earned straight A’s.
Working with YES, Beruff has become practiced at averting disaster. A mother who didn’t have the $200 for her daughter’s Brentwood School tuition wanted to pull her child from the school. Beruff blocked the girl’s exit and asked Brentwood to send future bills to YES. Brentwood graduate Diana Orozco was a freshman at Yale when her father was deported. Diana called Beruff about a flight home so she could start supporting her family. “If anyone is getting on a plane, it’s me to fly to you,” Beruff told Diana. “Making the meager wages you’ll get at the local panadería isn’t going to elevate your family. You need to stay where you are.” Beruff talked almost daily to Diana about remaining at Yale. That summer Diana interned at Goldman Sachs in New York, where she made such a strong impression that the company encouraged her to return.
YES lost its first student this year when a Dana eighth grader, who had been awarded a scholarship to Archer School for Girls in Brentwood, left the program. Her mother said she had been pushed too hard. Two others almost slipped from YES care last year. A brother and sister, both at private schools, were put into protective custody when the mother’s boyfriend attempted to molest the girl (their father was living on the streets). Beruff would wake up at 4:30 in the morning to transport the pair from foster homes in South Gate and Lynwood to their Westside campuses. “Seeing our commitment to the kids, social services came to rely on us to get the siblings to required meetings and generally monitor their well-being,” she says. She and Eisner had long feared that the mother would derail their futures. When the woman was deported early this year for prostitution, Beruff was relieved.
In late summer Eisner interviews candidates for YES. Most have been singled out because of high math grades; others are recommended by teachers. They are generally ten years old and aware of what the program provides. “I was hoping that something like this would happen to me,” one LMS boy tells Eisner. Boxes of Kleenex are in ready supply. “Ninety percent of the kids start crying,” he says. “I thought it was something I said; then I realized it was the nature of having attention on themselves that they’d never experienced.” In his selections Eisner looks for a sense of adventure and wonder—signs that a child is ready to move on.
He places value on resilience as well, likening YES to a crucible, with high expectations and hard work forging the kids’ development. The students undergo hours-long treks on buses that transport them from a familiar culture to one completely foreign. The economic disparity they experience can be profound. A girl cried for days after her first trip to a classmate’s home—a three-story Brentwood house complete with movie theater. “I kept thinking, ‘Why didn’t my parents tell us we were poor?’ ” she says. “I got so worried about money, that we didn’t have enough. I stopped going home with girls for a year after that.”
Eisner finds the boys more adaptable. When I meet over the summer with a group of seventh- and eighth-grade boys from LMS and Dana as they’re being groomed for places like Brentwood, not one says he’s daunted by the leap into the unknown. “Life is full of change,” says Sabastian Chacon. “You have to make something of it.” Eisner also credits sports for the males’ smooth transitions. “Once you’re on the varsity baseball team, you have 12 new friends,” he says.
In his selections Eisner looks for a sense of adventure and wonder-signs that a child is ready to move on.
The girls flourish when they gravitate toward the intellectuals in their new schools. On a warm spring afternoon at Marlborough School in Hancock Park, Sonia Gonzalez has wrapped a scarf, a Christmas present from her friend Tess, across her uniform shirt. Tess lives minutes away in the wealthy enclave that surrounds Marlborough. The girls met as seventh graders at a French Club meeting. As the senior moves around the campus, she’s repeatedly congratulated on her appearance with Madeleine Albright at an all-school forum. Sonia was among a handful of students chosen to question Bill Clinton’s secretary of state. She is obsessed with the Prague Spring of 1968 and asked the Czech-born diplomat about its cultural and economic impact. “You two made a connection that was fantastic to watch,” says Victor Ortiz, who heads the school’s honors research in humanities and social sciences program, which publishes Sonia’s work in its journal. Seven years before, while a bored sixth grader at LMS, Sonia had low aspirations for college. By her senior year she had been accepted at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Duke. She picked Stanford because of the students’ friendliness.
Eisner foresaw a different transition for Frania Navarro. Frania has the face of a model and a luminous smile, which brought her a large number of friends at LMS. When she arrived at the Brentwood School for the first time in ninth grade, she didn’t see the verdant grounds or the elegant buildings; she saw a sea of white people. “I was so uncomfortable,” Frania says softly. Four years later, more settled but still feeling like an outsider (no one asked her to the prom), she wrote in the school newspaper: “I wonder if I made the right choice in choosing to come to a private high school over going to a charter or a public school in my neighborhood. Coming to Brentwood, I am grateful to have obtained the opportunity to have a better education and be in a class of peers who are truly engaged and have a curiosity for learning. At the same time I have gone through many adversities here. There was never a time I haven’t felt different.”
“I’m not surprised,” Beruff says after reading the article.“At Lennox Frania was a social success, beautiful, and the highest achieving. She goes to Brentwood, and all of a sudden she’s the poor Latino girl.” Beruff persuaded Frania to help a group of YES students distribute sandwiches outside the Midnight Mission on skid row. “At Brentwood Frania had been focused on the fact that everyone had more than her,” Beruff says. “I wanted her to know that there was another side of the spectrum. She was seeing people who would walk into her home and consider her wealthy.”
LMS prodigy Maria Quiñonez had no trouble with the academic rigors of Harvard-Westlake, but the school contacted Eisner after noticing that she ate lunch alone every day. His advice to her was simple: “Look at this as a job for which you are expected to not only master the academics but to make friends and assimilate, so that you can show these people what you can do.” Maria is now a junior at Yale. Her brother, Gabriel, who recently graduated from Harvard-Westlake, needed no such counseling: He’s been in a relationship for three years with a girl from Archer.
Eisner lives in Bel-Air in a serene, sycamore-shaded home by architect Cliff May. He sent his sons, Louis and Charlie, to Crossroads School and the Brentwood School and was himself a student at Manhattan’s Little Red School House, an experiment in progressive education. Eisner was besotted with music and would tail his three older brothers to the jazz clubs in their Greenwich Village neighborhood. He took up classical guitar at ten and played the trumpet in the school orchestra, sitting next to trombonist Angela Davis. As a teenager, he joined a rock band, the Strangers. Among his close associates was Stephen Stills, who performed for basket change (Stills later recorded one of Eisner’s songs as a member of Buffalo Springfield).
While in high school Eisner fell for Nora Guthrie, the daughter of the folk music hero. They split their time between each other’s homes, residing like a married couple. “In her house there were no rules because her father wasn’t there. In my house there were no rules because my parents didn’t know how old I was,” he says. “I was so many brothers down the road that there was nothing left but benign neglect.”
During his senior year, the Strangers were offered a record deal, but Eisner refused to drop out of school. He received a National Merit Scholarship to Columbia, where he was in the thick of the 1968 campus takeover by the Students for a Democratic Society. “My roommates were more political than I was,” he says. “I knew about the military-industrial complex, but I didn’t give a shit about it. I gave a shit about getting laid. But now I’m with these guys, and I’m getting educated by them. It was so fascinating and so dramatic, and I got caught up in it and became one of the leaders.” One summer on a trip to France he stood next to Jean-Paul Sartre at an antiwar event. Fluent in French, he chatted at length with the existentialist about politics and why he burned his draft card.
Eisner calls the encounters that have defined his life a string of miracles; other times he describes them as a preternatural chess game. “It’s almost as if a path is made for me that I’m not aware of that somehow leads to something I could never have imagined,” he says. It didn’t hurt that he attached himself to the smartest people. “I valued my relationships with the kind of kids to whom school just came like that,” he says. “I wanted to know how they got it that fast.”
Eisner’s connections have proved fruitful for YES, such as the day he received a large check from the foundation established by former Pritzker attorney Hank Handelsman, a Columbia classmate. Among those who have donated generously to YES are Geffen, Hard Rock Cafe cofounder Peter Morton, New York Giants owner Steve Tisch, and billionaire film producer Ryan Kavanaugh. “The L.A. community can be amazing when you provide them with a tangible way to make a difference,” he says. “Millions have come in from people who got a whiff that this program is really doing something.”
Jim McMenamin, who was dean of admission and is now director of principal gifts at Columbia, says he watched the tough, entrepreneurial Eisner evolve into a masterful teacher. “These kids are so exceptional, and they are already competitive candidates because of the work Eric started with them in junior high,” he says. “The private schools are aware they need to fund them. When the child of a doctor or banker runs into a kid whose dad is a bricklayer, drives a used car, doesn’t go on vacations, and yet is doing well in school and is an amazing person, it rocks the rich child’s world.”
What’s worrying Eisner nowadays is the growing number of YES kids either attending or poised to enter college. While some universities have been Soros generous, others have been Scrooge stingy. So this October Eisner is staging a fund-raiser at the Sunset Tower Hotel. Its owner, Jeff Klein, plans to donate the site and foot the food and bar bills, which he did for Eisner’s previous fund-raiser, in 2010. Writer Malcolm Gladwell, who compared YES to the underground railroad in a small Vanity Fair piece, will again be the main attraction.
Eisner currently offers as much as $12,500 per year to a collegian. More than one student has been caught short, facing tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Neidin Hernandez was determined to go to Brown University after finishing Marlborough this year, but the scholarship was so meager that she would have had to pay $28,000 a year. Intent on finding her a patron, Eisner prevailed on art collector Adam Lindemann (several of his family members had gone to Brown) and his wife, Amalia Dayan (granddaughter of the late Israeli general Moshe Dayan). They pledged $16,250 annually. YES covered the remaining $11,750. When Neidin failed to personally acknowledge the gift, Beruff called and learned that Neidin’s two uncles had been killed in a gang shooting. She was caring for her cousins. “She had this incredible guilt over this feeling of joy while her family was suffering,” Eisner says. “That’s a perfect snapshot of what YES is about.”
Two years ago Eisner expanded into Harlem at the urging of Double Discovery, an education outreach program founded in 1965 by Columbia students. His reputation had preceded him. “The schools were fearful I would poach the best kids and send them off to Exeter,” he says. The agreement reached was that YES would work within the public schools, unless a dangerous home environment prompted the child’s move to boarding school. Among Eisner’s first acts was to scoop up a homeless boy. He tapped Chris Bonilla, a YES student from Lennox who’s now at Columbia Law School, to be the child’s guardian.
This summer Eisner launched a Chicago branch, spending two weeks in June working with 16 sixth and seventh graders while his Midwestern counterparts observed him. He expects to travel to the satellites three times a year: in the fall to interview candidates, then in the winter and spring to evaluate their progress.
As he was analyzing the Chicago challenges, I brought up the prospect of failure. The notion doesn’t register with Eisner, whose competitiveness and zealotry he terms a “sort of psychosis.” It’s never been more pronounced. “There’s a confidence I have that not a lot of people do,” he says, “and it’s knowing from chapter one of my life that for chapter two I can make this happen…. I need to win at this. Not I want to. I need to.”
On occasion his boldness can be overwhelming. Sonia remembers their first meeting as less than confidence building. “He was white,” she says, “and very intimidating.” In an essay that won Marlborough’s Guerin Prize, which includes a trip to New York to meet a celebrity of her choice (Stephen Colbert topped the list but declined; runner-up Jon Stewart agreed to the visit), Sonia wrote about growing up “in a forgotten corner of Los Angeles. My world was narrow streets not meant for playing. When I was eleven, I was called into the office of Eric Eisner, a retired Hollywood executive who channels his resources toward helping bright, underprivileged students. Private school was never an option for me, especially one with $30,000 annual tuition, but Eisner said he would help me get a scholarship if I was willing to put in the effort.”
Sonia understands now that the intensity is his way of “separating the strong from the weak.” And showing them what lies ahead. “Here we are Mexican Americans who tend to be so humble, and there was this hotshot white guy who essentially was telling us, ‘I am someone you may meet in the future. Don’t be afraid.’ It was the best gift he gave us.”
Ann Herold is the managing editor of Los Angeles magazine. Her last feature was on girls’ club volleyball in December 2012.
This feature originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.