Sarah Lawrence Alums Allege Rape Against Comedian James Veitch

James Veitch
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

A rising star with a book deal and a viral TED talk, Veitch is accused of sexual assault by multiple former graduates who reconnected after learning about his HBO Max special.

On July 23, Meghan Klien, a postproduction supervisor in Los Angeles and a big comedy fan, saw an article about an upcoming HBO Max special featuring a comic named James Veitch.

Klien had barely known Veitch when she was a 22-year-old senior at Sarah Lawrence College in 2009 and he was a graduate student, then pushing 30. But seeing news of the comedy special made her furious. Klien tweeted impulsively: “It was common knowledge to stay away from him when I was an undergrad… It makes my skin crawl to see someone like that succeed knowing how much he violated my classmates. #creep”

Then Klien reconsidered. She had never really verified the stories she'd heard. So she deleted the tweet and texted former classmate Jael Simonson-Tunick, asking if she remembered who Veitch had allegedly assaulted. When Simonson-Tunick got that text, she says, “I immediately felt a pang of rage and shock.” Like Klien, she hadn’t really known Veitch at Sarah Lawrence but knew his reputation. “Something in me snapped,” she says.

Simonson-Tunick reached out to trusted college friends, asking to be connected with anyone who had a story to tell about Veitch’s time at Sarah Lawrence. Thus began an extraordinary organizing effort that ultimately led more than a dozen women to come forward, first in a Facebook group and then in interviews with THR.

“Our little network started bringing in stories left and right,” she says. “In just that first couple of days, I think I got three stories of rape and two of assault. What kept me going was my connection to these women — every woman that I talked to that first day I knew personally.”

Veitch, who is British, declined to comment, but a source close to him says he denies all allegations. He is not a household name, but his star has been ascending. His 2016 TED talk about dealing with spam emails was viewed nearly 62 million times. A 2017 appearance on Conan went viral, with almost 27 million YouTube views. His bit about trolling spammers turned into a deal with Hachette; his book was released in June. In February, Quibi announced that he would be host of a talk show featuring celebrity guests (Regina Hall, Lisa Kudrow).

In August, Simonson-Tunick and Aston Hollins McClanahan, another Sarah Lawrence alum who crossed paths with Veitch, sent letters to HBO Max, Team Coco (which produced the special) and WME alleging that Veitch engaged in sexual misconduct at Sarah Lawrence; they noted that THR was preparing a story. In response, WME dropped Veitch as a client. Following a query from THR, an HBO Max spokesperson said in a statement, “We were deeply disturbed to learn of these allegations of unacceptable behavior by James Veitch and will be removing the special from our platform for now.” A spokesperson for Conan O’Brien’s production company said, "Team Coco takes these allegations very seriously and supports HBO Max's decision.” While Quibi declined to comment, a source says Veitch will be edited out of the show, which taped in December but is being pushed to November. Hachette did not respond to a request for comment.

The HBO Max special — which dropped Aug. 20 — was not the first time the women who ultimately joined the Sarah Lawrence group had heard about Veitch’s building success. Kristen Gull, now a comedian herself, had been so angered when Veitch appeared on Conan in 2018 that she had tweeted: “@ConanObrien, did you know you hired @veitchtweets known sexual predator?... #rapist.” She got no response from TeamCoco at the time.

Gull says she met Veitch when she was a freshman during orientation week, when he asked her to have a drink with him. She told him she wasn’t old enough to drink, and by her account, he bought her a bottle of gin. He then made repeated attempts to kiss her. She managed to rebuff him, but in time, she heard allegations that others had fared much worse. In response to Veitch’s appearances on Conan, she not only tweeted but created a Facebook group called “James Veitch Is a Piece of Shit” where others could leave comments about their alleged experiences.

That group didn't really get traction, and at one point it appeared that the energy behind it would dissipate. But as the HBO Max special drew near, the Sarah Lawrence alums once again became active. Simonson-Tunick collected stories that ranged from allegations of emotional abuse to rape. Some women shared texts or Facebook exchanges with Veitch. Several said they felt, in retrospect, that Veitch had chosen them for their naivete. Sarah Elliott, who says she had a toxic ongoing relationship with Veitch, wrote in a statement: ”I think what really attracted him to me was my poorly disguised insecurity. I think he immediately smelled my vulnerability, my desperation for validation, the blood in the water.”

The Facebook group took the campaign to the next level after McClanahan joined. She recalled an encounter with Veitch in 2010, the year after she graduated, when she says she fled Veitch’s apartment after he tried to rip her clothes off. She decided to gather the accounts and seek an outlet where women who chose to tell their stories could do so, ultimately approaching THR.

Among those who contributed statements to the group was Julia Tackett, who met Veitch at an end-of-semester celebration in May 2008, when she was 20. It was summer, her friends had left campus, and she was feeling isolated, so when Veitch invited her to have dinner, she says she was happy to go to his apartment. Prepared to have a sexual encounter, she says she agreed readily when he suggested ordering in. And she says she wasn’t resistant, after dinner, when he guided her toward his bedroom. But while she had anticipated love-making, she says he shoved her onto the bed, slamming her hip into the footboard, pulled up her dress and raped her anally.

“I remember rushing to the bathroom: the dress was white, and I didn’t want the blood to stain it on the train ride home,” she wrote. On the journey back to her apartment, she continued, she started to convince herself that the episode had been some kind of misunderstanding. “I had flirted too much,” she mused. “I had had too much to drink with dinner. I had said something I couldn’t remember, which must have been the secret handshake that invited rape.” (A former boyfriend confirms that Tackett had told him several times over the course of years that Veitch had assaulted her.)

After the alleged rape, Tackett says she saw Veitch for a few joyless hookups, struggling to make the incident somehow acceptable. “It needed to be corrected,” she later wrote. “If I could put myself back there, I would do it right this time.”

Anna Thorn says she went out with Veitch a few times when she was a 20-year-old senior and then decided she didn’t want to see him anymore. When she went to his room to tell him, she says, he asked her to stay with him. She agreed, with the explicit understanding that there would be no sex, and lay down on his bed still clothed. “I just sort of started trying to go to sleep,” she tells THR.

But she says Veitch tried to initiate sex. “He wheedled, he tried charm,” she would write later. “I turned my back and said no, clearly and repeatedly. Naively, I thought of 'no' as a sacrosanct, powerful word. … But he turned me around, pinned my hands, and pulled my underwear down. He shoved my legs open and physically forced me to have sex. It was painful and shocking. I screamed.” She felt she was outside her body and says, even years afterwards, just the smell of the cologne that Veitch had worn would bring back the same sensation. (A friend confirms that Thorn told her in 2009 that Veitch had raped her.)

Hannah, who asked that her last name be withheld, remembers an end-of-semester celebration in 2009, when she was drinking with a group of friends. After they made their way into a room in the theater department, she lay down on a mat that was on the floor. “People peeled off from the group one by one until it was just me, James, and another woman from our class,” she wrote. “I was very, very drunk — blacking in and out — and remember James kissing this other woman and then pushing her head toward me to make us kiss. She pulled away, laughed, and left, told him to make sure I got home safe.”

At that point, Hannah says, Veitch gave her more wine. “The next thing I knew, he was on top of me, having sex with me, without a condom. I tried to push him off but I was too drunk to do anything meaningful. He finished and I stumbled out of there.” Hannah says she didn’t speak of this incident for years. “I was too embarrassed to tell anyone,” she says. She didn’t even mention it in the journal that she kept. She only told her fiance recently, when Simonson-Tunick reached out to her about the Sarah Lawrence group.

As a grad student directing plays, Veitch had constant interaction with undergraduates who were interested in theater. One of the most memorable events to women in the Sarah Lawrence group was the 2009 production of Urinetown. Veitch, as director, had told the undergraduate student playing Little Sally, described as a street urchin, to pretend she was having an orgasm — something that had not even been hinted at in the script. Gull, then a 19-year-old sophomore, was appalled that a student playing a child was asked to simulate something unambiguously sexual. “It was basically a pedo joke played out for the whole theater department,” she says. (Simonson-Tunick also remembers the “jarring” scene.) Gull later learned that Veitch had surreptitiously recorded their conversation about the performance and played it for others in what she regarded as an attempt to humiliate her.

Elliott, who transferred to Sarah Lawrence as a 20-year-old sophomore, also had an experience in which Veitch secretly recorded a conversation with her. She says she dated him against her instincts, but he was “very, very good at making you feel like putting yourself in the situation with him was your mistake, and now you owed him.”

When Elliott learned that Veitch had recorded one of their arguments and played the tape for others, she says, she reported the behavior to John Dillon, then head of the college’s theater department; Allen Lang, who still teaches in the department; and others in the administration. Lang said her complaint would be taken seriously. Elliott produced for THR a message from Veitch dated March 3, 2009, with Dillon copied. Having learned that she was “upset by hearing that there was a recording I made of you that I have played for others,” he wrote, he was offering his “humblest apologies,” adding, “I have deleted this recording.”

Elliott also received a March 13, 2009, response from now-retired dean of graduate studies Susan Guma, saying that administrators had met with Veitch. “We do hope that there will not be any similar instances going forward,” Guma responded.

Though none of the members of the Sarah Lawrence group say they reported sexual misconduct to the college, some former students believe that on-campus security was aware of Veitch's reputation. Katie Bainbridge, the costumer on Urinetown, had clashed with Veitch during that production but chatted with him when he came by the room where she was working on another play. When she mentioned that she was having an issue with her phone, he offered to try to fix it. After trying to solve the problem without success, Bainbridge wrote, Veitch said to her, “You know, I've been working very hard to fix your phone for almost an hour now. I think I deserve a little payment.”

When she asked what he meant, she says, he answered that while he had seen many beautiful sights on campus, he had never seen her breasts, and that it would be a shame for him to graduate without seeing them.

Bainbridge says she was never shy about nudity but had no interest in accommodating him. He then asked for a kiss. She was expecting a peck but instead, she wrote, “He pushes himself against me, forces my lips open with his tongue and sticks his tongue as far down my throat as he can.”

Bainbridge says she pushed him away and left. At that time she was recovering from surgery, so she was being driven by campus security. “When I got in the car, the guard driving me could tell something had happened — I was visibly shaken,” she wrote. “He asked me what was wrong, and reluctantly, I told him. ... He was not surprised. 'Oh, that creep? I am so sick of his shit.'" Bainbridge said she was eager to forget the incident and didn’t have the energy to make a fuss.

Even though none of the students says she reported allegations of sexual misconduct and Sarah Lawrence says they did not receive any complaints of sexual assault or harassment, Gull is among those who believe Veitch’s reputation was widely enough known that she questions whether further action might have been taken. “It makes me mad at my college, that I love a lot,” she says.

Bainbridge notes that when Veitch left Sarah Lawrence, an episode that would become a massive scandal would soon be underway. As The Cut first reported, a parent named Larry Ray moved onto the campus in 2010 and essentially led a cult from his daughter’s dorm. In February, he was charged with conspiracy, extortion, sex trafficking, forced labor and related offenses.

The Sarah Lawrence alums say they are encouraged now that the group has come forward. Simonson-Tunick says she’s proud of the women who are telling their stories. “I'm sure if I knew what I know now, I would have tried harder to make people listen about James” when she was at Sarah Lawrence, she wrote in an email when she first contacted THR. But she thinks it would have made no difference. It seemed that way again in 2018, when Veitch was getting noticed for his appearances on Conan. “So I didn't do anything with my rage,” she wrote. “Post-pandemic, however, when I heard the news that this [alleged] serial rapist was achieving wider success, I had one thought: I don't have control over much in this world anymore, but I can control this. I can do something about this.”