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It’s tough to say just what Harvey Weinstein had in mind when he started scribbling around the margins of his friend Sheila’s high school yearbook. The two were classmates in the 1969 graduating class at John Bowne High School in Flushing, Queens. Weinstein wrapped his message around his own picture. “Dear Sheila,” he scribbled, “We had a blast — best is yet to come. Love, Harvey.” And then, above his photo, in the same blue scrawl: “New York State Prison 3553333369.”
In the wake of potentially allegations of rape against Weinstein from actresses including Asia Argento, Rose McGowan and Paz de la Huerta (as well as dozens of other abuse and harassment claims against the mogul following an October 2017 piece in The New York Times), that signature takes on new significance — especially as prosecutors in multiple cities weigh criminal charges.
The picture came to The Hollywood Reporter in the course of our research for an in-depth story on Weinstein’s early life, from childhood through the time he and his brother founded Miramax. As we reached out to dozens of people who knew Weinstein during childhood, a friend of Sheila’s passed it along to us, with her permission.
In hindsight, it’s tempting to find extra meaning in Weinstein’s adolescent message — both in the words themselves and the prominence of the last two prison identification numbers. But the only one who really knows is Weinstein himself, who declined to comment other than to release this statement: “Mr. Weinstein will do his own recollection of his childhood memories but appreciates The Hollywood Reporter doing theirs. While he understands there is so much more to say, he will do so at a more appropriate time.”
By the time Weinstein enrolled at John Bowne High School, he had skipped the eighth grade and joined the class of 1969 a year early. He and a few dozen other kids were members of a program for intellectually advanced students called “Special Progress.” The school, sandwiched between a Jewish cemetery and the campus of Queens College, was then a standout of the New York City system. With more than a thousand kids in his class — and upwards of 3,000 total — Weinstein could have easily disappeared into anonymity.
Instead, he embraced extracurricular life. The yearbook lists him as the news editor of the school paper, a member of the student council and part of the radio club. “He was very good at coordinating things,” recalls his childhood friend Peter Adler, who had known Weinstein since he was 3 years old and graduated John Bowne the same year, “If we wanted to play a softball game, Harvey was always the one getting everyone together.”
In high school, say those who knew him at the time, he was firmly entrenched with an “artsy-fartsy” hippy crowd. Still, more than one friend from this time commented on Weinstein’s restraint. Pot was rampant at John Bowne, but Weinstein didn’t partake all that much. Friends say he went to parties, but no more or less than anyone else.
He’d play poker for money with friends on Friday or Saturday night, but never at his own home, which some friends describe as “tense,” and where he shared a room with Bob on the first floor of the Electchester housing development. “Harvey was not a smoker either. He was almost like a little saint, it’s ironic,” says classmate Michael Ellenberg, “I wouldn’t have guessed any of [the current allegations against] Harvey. He was just some nerdy, smart Jewish kid from Queens. It just turns out he was a little smarter, a little riskier than the rest.”
He wasn’t exactly popular, but wasn’t an outcast, either. Ellenberg remembers being surprised one day when Weinstein, upon hearing him whistling a tune to the Broadway show Hair, chastised him for being too far behind the times. “He got on my back for it, saying these songs are not even current,” Ellenberg says, “I thought that was funny, and I was surprised he was into theater or music.”
His passion for film, initiated by a father who took Harvey and his brother Bob on movie excursions into the city, was nurtured at Bowne. He took a social studies class with a film component and, long before IMDb, wowed at least one fellow student with his encyclopedic knowledge, able to rattle off the entire cast and crew of certain titles. “He was into movies, but that’s kind of about it,” recalls Michael Fox, another classmate, “I remember him and his brother as being kind of like the ‘out’ kids within the ‘in’ kids, not really likable.”
Other friends, like Adler, disagree and say Weinstein had a wide circle of friends and was well-liked. “He was a leader and he was fun,” Adler recalls, “He talked a lot, had ideas, and always, always had an interest in film.”
One thing most everyone agrees on is that Weinstein didn’t date in high school, not for lack of effort. “I’m sure he tried,” says one friend. Nor was he athletic, handsome or particularly gallant. Says Adler: “Harvey was fat and disheveled. He didn’t dress well, and had pimples. He was not an attractive guy.”
But he made up for it with the kind of over-the-top personality that became so prominent later on.
“He played it out through his grandiose braggadocio,” says Adler, “He overcame it. Some would see it as obnoxious.”
Underneath the loud, brash exterior, there was almost certainly pain.
“Just look at his yearbook picture,” says Brian Assesson, a classmate, “It’s a really serious mug. He doesn’t look happy at all.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.