The Magazine

Hollywood High

At $27,000 a year, girls learn a lesson or two.

Mar 24, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 27 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Then there's the story of how Archer got its name, after a living-room brainstorming session at which Meehan and her female friends ("lawyers and poets, therapists and grandmothers") munched on pita pockets, picked out the colors for the school uniforms (as the McManus passage indicates, attire plays an important role in this book) and decided it was okay to call it a "girls'" school even though the word "girls" was kind of politically incorrect. One of Meehan's friends, Archer cofounder Vicky Shorr (described in an appendix as "fluent in Portuguese and Joan of Arc") announced that she had had a 3 A.M. vision of Isabel Archer, the "independent young woman" (Shorr's words) who was the heroine of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. Now, I haven't looked at Portrait of a Lady since my college freshman English class, but I do recall that Isabel, in James's ironic molding, was so "independent" that she was something of a fool, throwing over a handsome and decent American suitor for a foppish poseur (and fortune-hunter and adulterer) who was also an American but had adopted a pretentious European veneer designed to appeal to naive and culturally aspiring young ladies of means like Isabel. (You might say that he was the John F. Kerry of his time.)

Well, at least the poets and therapists didn't give Archer the name they'd originally picked out for the school: Adelphi. As one of Meehan's friends explained at the wine-and-pita party, "Adelphi means 'sister' in Greek." Actually not; it's a Latinization of the Greek word for "brothers."

Meehan describes herself and her husband, screenwriter/producer Gary David Goldberg, as "ex-hippies and granola-crunchers" who dress in tie-dye (or at least did back then) and live the simple bohemian life. Maybe so, but they are ex-hippies who made really good (more power to them, of course), because the only action in Learning Like a Girl that doesn't take place in Los Angeles's ultra-affluent Westside (Beverly Hills and beyond) consists of the daily commutes that Archer's scholarship students make by bus from their ethnically "diverse" neighborhoods in down-market, heavily minority South-Central Los Angeles.

At its founding, Archer occupied a congeries of vacant commercial space in Pacific Palisades, just south of Malibu, then moved in 1999 to its present location, an eight-acre former Eastern Star retirement home of strikingly handsome Spanish Revival architecture on Sunset Boulevard.

"People here do stuff that is essentially inventive," writes Meehan of her fellow movie types and the other high-salaried symbolic analysts who are her Westside neighbors. Learning Like a Girl is sprinkled with the dropped names of Meehan's Hollywood and political pals who gave Archer its initial boost: Not only Hanks and Friedan, but also Kate Capshaw, Frances Lear, Barbara Boxer, Pat Schroeder, ex-Texas governor Ann Richards, and Nancy Daly Riordan, wife of the former Los Angeles mayor.

Archer got started after the formerly all-girls Westlake School in Bel Air, where one of the Meehan-Goldberg daughters had matriculated (that fills in the picture of the Meehan-Goldberg family finances), merged in 1991 with the formerly all-boys Harvard School to become coeducational. The merger outraged the Gilligan-saturated Meehan, who had a younger daughter she'd planned to send to Westlake and, apparently, quite a few other Westlake parents and alums. And so Archer was born.

Learning Like a Girl chronicles its growing pains: fights with various homeowners' groups in Brentwood who objected to the large concentration of teen-agers, "Lucy" the dud first headmistress who showed up at the school's opening in an "all-white suit and sunglasses" (oops--after Labor Day, I guess), and the financial problems that can beset even the highest-tuition schools.

You have to give Meehan, Shorr, and the third Archer cofounder, Megan Callaway, credit for pulling the whole thing off. It's one thing to sit in your living room talking about starting your own prep school from scratch, especially a school that plans to compete at the very top of the market, and it's another thing to follow through. (In an appendix, Meehan offers some useful tips for would-be school founders on how to stay afloat and avoid some of the crazies who will inevitably attach themselves to this kind of project--although I wish she hadn't insisted on analogizing the process to the flights of Canada geese over her summer home in Vermont.) And I came to quite like Gary Goldberg, who, onetime granola-cruncher though he might be, informed one of his daughters, according to his wife, that the writing assignment she planned to turn in at her "permissive" elementary school was substandard.

The daughter's response: "I feel good about myself, that's all that matters."

"Actually, it's not," replied her father. A man after my own heart.