It was Iole Lucchese’s smile that first won over Richard “Dick” Robinson, the powerful head of Scholastic, when the lithe brunette met him at a Canadian booksellers’ conference in 1992.
Lucchese, then 25, was an ambitious junior book-club editor at the Toronto branch of the New York-based company that would go on to earn massive profits with the publication of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, beginning in 1997.
Although there were several young women in similar roles at Scholastic Canada’s Book Clubs vying for the attention of the married New York boss whenever he made his rounds of the operation, it was Lucchese who would capture his attention.
“I remember the way he looked at her,” recalled a former Scholastic worker. “I thought ‘Oh, s–t, he’s got his eye on Iole.’”
“She was extremely attractive and she knew she was attractive, and she used that as best she could,” a former Toronto colleague told The Post.
Soon after that first meeting, Lucchese experienced a meteoric rise at Scholastic Canada before taking on executive roles at the publisher’s SoHo headquarters, culminating in her recent appointment as board chair earlier this month. She also began a long affair with Robinson, who was 30 years her senior.
The relationship eventually led to the break-up of Robinson’s second marriage in 2002, publishing world colleagues told The Post. Robinson’s divorce from Helen Benham, also a former Scholastic employee and the mother of his two sons, was finalized two years later, court records show.
Last week, Benham, their sons and many in the New York publishing world were reportedly blindsided to find out that Robinson, who died suddenly in June, left everything to Lucchese. The assets include the controlling shares to Scholastic, the $1.2 billion company started by his father in 1920, and all of his personal possessions. Lucchese, whom he described as his “partner and closest friend,” is the executor of his will, according to a copy of the document seen by The Post.
“I was shocked and we were not expecting this,” Benham told the Wall Street Journal when details of the will, drawn up in 2018, were made public this week. Benham, the owner of the SoHo Sanctuary spa in Manhattan, had been with Robinson at the family’s summer home in Martha’s Vineyard when he collapsed from a heart attack on June 5. She did not return The Post’s requests for comment.
“You might think from the will that he didn’t see his sons,” Maurice “Reece” Robinson, a filmmaker and Robinson’s 25-year-old son told the Wall Street Journal. “That’s not true. For the last two years, I saw him multiple times a week.”
Son John Benham Robinson, who is 34 and goes by Ben, told the newspaper that his father’s estate plans “served as salt in an open wound.” He also said he had never met Lucchese and only spoke to her for the first time on the telephone after his father’s death.
But some of Lucchese’s former colleagues in her hometown of Toronto were not surprised by her sudden windfall. They told The Post this week that the 54-year-old publishing executive, whom they described as smart, hard-working and ambitious, was also very strategic when it came to her career.
“She’s like a chameleon,” sad the Toronto colleague. “I saw her put on that smile that could win you over, and then she abruptly turned around and walked away.”
There is little public information about Iole (pronounced ih-o-leh) Lucchese in New York, even though she has been a fixture at the company’s corporate headquarters since at least 2014, and is described as a permanent US resident in court documents.
In recent years, as head of strategy and later as vice president for the company, she has been instrumental in turning some of Scholastic’s most popular titles, such as “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and “The Magic School Bus” into award-winning animated TV and live action films.
Former colleagues say she has been commuting back and forth from her home base in Toronto, where she lives in a $4 million Tudor-inspired gated home in a posh neighborhood. She and her husband, Quentin Kong, a marketing and sales executive of Caribbean-Chinese descent, bought the home in 2006. When the marriage ended, Kong transferred it to her for $2, public records show. Their son, now in his early twenties, and Kong still live in Canada.
Lucchese was born in 1966 to workin-class Italian immigrant parents Rosa and Cesidio Lucchese. She grew up in Toronto with sister Eva, and was the first in her family to attend college, according to a corporate bio. Lucchese graduated with a BA from the University of Toronto in 1989 and later married fellow student Kong. It’s not clear when they divorced, although they were jointly listed in 2013 as financial donors to the Crescent School, one of the city’s most exclusive private boys’ school where their son was a student.
“She was never really into her husband, and was often dismissive of him,” recalled a publishing industry source who knew Lucchese in Toronto. “Her work always came first.”
It’s a characteristic she shared with Robinson, who often put in 12-to-16 hour work days. Under his tenure, Scholastic grew into the largest children’s publisher in the world. thanks in large part to the success of the “Harry Potter” series, and other popular titles such as “Captain Underpants” and “Goosebumps.”
Robinson also formed his most lasting romantic relationships at the company. Colleagues described him as socially awkward in public settings, but also “a serial philanderer” who slept with some of the women he employed.
Robinson’s first wife, Katherine Prentis Woodroofe, was the editor of Scholastic Scope Magazine. They wed in 1968 when Robinson was editorial director and his father, Richard Robinson Sr., was still chairman of the board, according to their New York Times wedding announcement. Robinson, who held degrees from Harvard, Cambridge University and Columbia and had once worked as a teacher in Illinois, became president of Scholastic in 1974. He was named chairman of the board in 1982 after the death of his father.
In the early 1980s, Robinson started dating Benham while still married to Woodroofe, engaging in military-like maneuvers to make sure that his girlfriend did not pass by his wife’s desk at Scholastic headquarters, a former employee told The Post.
“Dick was like the Sun King of Versailles,” the former employee said, comparing Robinson to France’s Louis XIV, who kept a small army of mistresses.
Robinson, who married Benham in 1986, was also nothing like a stereotypical cut-throat executive, former workers said. In addition to publishing, he dabbled in restaurants, becoming an early investor in Balthazar, the now legendary SoHo restaurant opened by Keith McNally, his neighbor in Martha’s Vineyard, in 1997. He lived in a sprawling Greenwich Village penthouse, where actor Alec Baldwin was his neighbor.
Robinson and Lucchese began their romantic relationship in the 1990s, according to former employees. (He and Benham would officially divorce in 2003.)
“He was clearly besotted with Iole, but the relationship was never acknowledged and never spoken about,” said a Canadian entrepreneur who had done business with both Lucchese and Robinson. “At first they tried to keep it under wraps, but soon everyone pretty much knew.”
Despite the relationship, Lucchese “could be completely dismissive of [Robinson] in public and very mean to him during meetings. It was not graceful,” the entrepreneur said.
One former Scholastic executive director referred to the two as “the Bickersons.”
Robinson was so enamored of Lucchese that he wanted to make her president of Scholastic Canada in the late 1990s, before then-President Larry Muller was ready to retire.
“To her credit, she said ‘No, let Larry carry on. I’ll learn from Larry and we’ll do it nicely,’” the former Scholastic worker told The Post. “Maybe she felt she wasn’t ready or maybe she didn’t want to deal with the gossip.”
When Muller retired in 2004, Lucchese was made co-president of the Canadian operation along with Scholastic Canada executive Linda Gosnell. A corporate bio says that, under Lucchese’s tenure, annual revenues at the subsidiary grew from $25 million to $150 million.
By 2014, Lucchese was spending increasingly more time in New York. In Canada, the former Scholastic worker said, she started to acquire “a patina of New Yorkness,” becoming more sophisticated in her style of dressing and even more ambitious.
Both Lucchese and Robinson were described as being “passionate” about Scholastic, which is probably why he ultimately left her the company, said a source. Neither of his two sons showed interest in the business, the source said.
Yet an obituary in the Vineyard Gazette said that Robinson had been spending weekends at his summer house, jogging daily and speaking with his sons and Benham, who had become a close friend after their divorce, about “moving the company in the digital age to reach parents directly.”
In 2019, Lucchese accompanied Robinson to the PEN gala at the Museum of Natural History, where his neighbor Baldwin presented the Scholastic head with an award for his contribution to children’s publishing. Baldwin read a letter from “Harry Potter” author Rowling who described her relationship with Robinson as “one of the most significant and meaningful partnerships of my life.”
While he certainly valued Rowling, whose books went on to generate nearly $8 billion in worldwide revenue, it was Lucchese who had been Dick Robinson’s most significant and meaningful partner.
“Iole must have been the love of his life,” said the former employee. “That would really explain why he left her everything.”