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Women say director James Toback assaulted them at Harvard Club of New York

Five women contend James Toback harassed and assaulted them at the Manhattan club between 1980 and 2012.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images /file 2014
Five women contend James Toback harassed and assaulted them at the Manhattan club between 1980 and 2012.

With its leather sofas, oil paintings, and exclusive membership, the Harvard Club of New York City bills itself as an oasis for the Ivy League university’s alumni and faculty.

But five women say the private Manhattan club is where they were sexually harassed and assaulted by a longtime member, the movie director and Harvard University alumnus James Toback. They are demanding an apology and answers from the club and the university — which does not own the club — about how Toback’s behavior seemed to go unchecked for decades.

“Please take action to be accountable for what the Harvard Club turned a blind eye to, at best, and condoned at worst,” one of the women wrote in letters sent recently to the Harvard Club and Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, detailing their experiences with Toback. “Please take responsibility and action, on behalf of all of us who were damaged by a predator who used its premises and the prestige the club infers to lure in naive, unsuspecting girls and women, who have suffered in the aftermath of Toback’s abuse.”

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The women describe assaults that took place in stairwells and private rooms at the club between 1980 and 2012. The women said they didn’t complain to the Harvard Club management or any employees at the time. Nor did they immediately report the incident to police.

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The club and the university said that they do not condone the alleged behavior and that the club has rules to ensure the safety of members and guests. The Globe could not reach Toback, who has been accused by hundreds of women of sexual harassment, for comment. But Toback has denied the allegations against him.

One of the women, Mary Sullivan, now 55, was an aspiring actress in New York in the mid-1980s. She described running into Toback on the street after she left a meeting with a prospective manager near the Theatre District. Toback, she said, invited her for lunch at the Harvard Club.

But lunch became just a drink and then a request to go upstairs to a private room for an audition. The audition never happened.

Instead, when Sullivan, then 22, got into the room, Toback told her he wanted to masturbate in front of her, according to her letter and a subsequent interview with the Globe. He kept blocking her way out of the room, and out of fear for safety and to placate him, she said she let him. When he was done, she left the room, rushed to a nearby staircase, and walked out of the club.

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“All I was thinking was getting out of the building and trying to walk across the lobby with any sort of dignity and not being noticed,” Sullivan, who now lives in Iowa, said in a phone interview. “There needs to be some reckoning and some accountability. . . . He decided to set up his base of operations there.”

In another letter, a woman described a similar incident in November 2012 when Toback took her to his private room at the club for an audition, asked her to remove her clothes so he could see what she looked like in front of a camera, and masturbated in front of her. Toback insisted on taking the woman home and threatened her with harm if she told anyone about what happened, the woman wrote in the letter.

Nearly 400 women, including actresses Rachel McAdams and Selma Blair, have accused Toback of sexual misconduct after a Los Angeles Times story last October about the writer and director’s behavior. Many alleged that Toback approached them on the street and tried to pick them up, sometimes on multiple occasions. Others have said he asked them lewd questions or bragged about his sexual conquests. Some allege that he assaulted them, or, as in Sullivan’s case, forced them to watch him masturbate.

The Los Angeles district attorney’s office is reviewing five cases against Toback to determine whether to pursue criminal charges. The Manhattan district attorney’s office, which encouraged women last fall to call the office’s sex crimes hotline number about Toback, declined to comment.

In the aftermath of the stories last fall, Toback, who directed such films as “The Pick-Up Artist” and “Harvard Man,” and was nominated for a writing Oscar for “Bugsy,” repeatedly denied the allegations. Toback told media outlets that for the last 22 years, he has suffered from diabetes and a heart condition that requires medication and made it “biologically impossible” for him to participate in the activities described by his accusers.

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Toback’s agent, who dropped him after the allegations came to light in October, did not have a way to reach Toback and a telephone number listed in a public database was disconnected.

Toback’s membership at the Harvard Club was terminated in 2017, Michael Holland, the club’s president, said in a statement. He declined to say whether it was in response to the Los Angeles Times story about the director.

“We are saddened to hear of these reports, and the Club has conducted an internal investigation,” Holland said. “Behavior of that manner is simply not tolerated at the Harvard Club.”

The club, which operates as a nonprofit, declined to comment on the results of the investigation, whether its management had received any complaints about Toback, and if it had made changes to its practices or security.

The Harvard Club of New York, founded in 1865, is the wealthiest of numerous private organizations created for the university’s alumni and faculty across the country. It is an independent nonprofit with its own board of directors. The annual dues cost up to $2,000. Members have access to a gym, restaurants, and overnight rooms. Harvard University’s presidents and deans have stopped at the club for events and to speak to alumni groups. While Harvard doesn’t own or control the club, the informal links between the institutions are extensive. A few years ago, the former president of the club went on to lead the university’s advisory board.

Toback, a 1966 Harvard graduate, was, by his own telling in interviews and magazines, at the club frequently. He batted around ideas for a project over lunches and dinners with actor Alec Baldwin at the club, gave interviews to trade publications in the main sitting area, and rented rooms there.

But the women say that his membership and access to the Harvard Club was also Toback’s bait — as much as his promise to help them with their careers and his friendships with big-name actors — to coax them into meeting him.

Annie Hughes was a 26-year-old singer who had aspirations to be in films when Toback saw her in 1982 on a Manhattan street. He told her he was a director, worked with the actress Nastassja Kinski, and gave Hughes his number. When she called him later, Hughes said he invited her to lunch at the Harvard Club.

“It’s the Harvard Club, how could that not be fine?” said Hughes, who now lives in Wisconsin, and she remembered buying a dress for the meeting. “It’s impressive and it’s public. As far as doing everything right, I did everything right.”

When Toback offered to give her a tour of the club, Hughes said she agreed. Toback, she said, took her though a service hallway at the club and then pushed her against the wall and tried to kiss her. Hughes said she put her hands against Toback’s chest, locked her elbows, and tried to keep him at bay. He kept leaning his body toward her and trying to convince her that she should give in and that he could help her career, Hughes said.

Hughes said she told Toback loudly to “stop” and recalls it reverberating in the hallway. She eventually shoved him and ran out of the hallway, she said.

Hughes said the club should have noticed a pattern with Toback over the years.

In fact, in 1989, Spy magazine outlined how Toback picked up women on New York City streets, suggesting auditions and asking them to meet him at the Harvard Club, sometimes for drinks in the lobby, sometimes in his room there. He would quickly turn the conversation to a sexually graphic topic, according to the article.

As recently as 2012, Gawker, the now-defunct online news site, detailed Toback’s use of the Harvard Club to entice young women to meet with him.

The club’s management can’t “plead ignorance,” said Sullivan, who said she wanted an apology from the club and an understanding of whether the club did anything to curb Toback’s behavior or if it has procedures in place to prevent similar incidents.

Toback traded on the Harvard brand and the club’s reputation for years, said Victoria Balfour, a victims rights advocate and New York freelance writer who helped the five women put together their letters for the Harvard Club and Faust.

Balfour said she was verbally harassed by Toback on the streets in New York, and he invited her to the Harvard Club, but she never went.

Neither the club nor the university has provided a full accounting of how they addressed Toback’s behavior over the years, Balfour said.

The university responded to the women’s February letters last week only after The Boston Globe made an inquiry.

Melodie Jackson, a spokeswoman for Harvard, said officials from Harvard have contacted the club to learn more about the situation and what steps have been taken.

“We were deeply saddened to learn of these disturbing allegations and the resulting pain that has been caused to so many,” Jackson said in a statement. The club “is reinforcing its safety and security measures.”

For Sullivan, who said she had a recurring dream about being in a stairway and trying to find a secret passage out, the response from the Harvard Club and the university has remained short on details and unsatisfactory.

“It’s past time when they can stay silent,” she said.

Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.