Tucker Carlson is remembered as a provocateur and gleeful contrarian by those who knew him in his early days.
His bohemian artist mother abandoned her young family and cut Tucker and his brother out of her will.
At a Rhode Island prep school and at Trinity College, classmates remember him as a skilled debater who could both amuse and infuriate his audiences.
On Oct. 29, 1984, New York police killed an elderly Black woman named Eleanor Bumpurs in her own home. Bumpurs, who lived in a public housing complex in the Bronx, had fallen four months behind on her rent. When officials from the city housing authority tried to evict her, she refused, and they called the police. Five officers responded by storming into her apartment. Bumpurs, who had a history of mental illness, grabbed a butcher knife as two officers pushed her against a wall with their plastic shields and a metal pole. A third officer fired two shots from his 12-gauge shotgun, striking Bumpurs in her hand and chest.
Eleanor Bumpurs' death dominated the city's news for two months and led the NYPD to revise its guidelines for responding to emotionally disturbed individuals.
At St. George's prep school, some 175 miles away in Rhode Island, the incident deeply haunted Richard Wayner. He was one of the school's few Black students and had grown up in a residential tower not far from where Bumpurs had lived. He earned straight As and was so admired that in 1984 his peers elected him senior prefect, the prep equivalent of student body president, making him the first Black class leader in the school's 125-year history. Harvard soon beckoned.
Wayner was frustrated with how the St. George's community seemed to ignore the conversations about racial justice that were happening outside the cloistered confines of Aquidneck Island. It bothered Wayne that almost no one at St. George's seemed to know anything about Bumpurs' killing. "You had your crew, you put your head down, and you tried to get through three or four years of prep school with your psyche intact," Wayner said of those days.
As senior prefect, one of the duties was to deliver an address each week at the mandatory Sunday chapel service. One Sunday, perched from the chapel podium, Wayner described the shooting as a sea of white faces stared back at him. He concluded with the words: "Does anyone think that woman deserved to die?"
Near the front of the chapel, a single hand went up for a few brief seconds.
It was Tucker Carlson.
Then a sophomore, Tucker had a reputation as a gleeful contrarian – an indefatigable debater and verbal jouster who, according to some, could also be a bit of a jerk.
"Tucker was just sort of fearless," said Ian Toll, a St. George's alumnus who would go on to be a military historian. "Whether it was a legitimate shooting may have been a point of debate but the fact was that Tucker was an underclassmen and the culture was to defer to the seniors."
Wayner himself never saw Tucker's hand go up, and the two kept in touch over the years. (Note on style: Tucker Carlson and the members of his family are referred to here by their first names to avoid confusion.)
Four decades later, glimmers of that prep school provocateur appear on Tucker's Prime Time show on Fox, which garners an average of between 3 to 4 million viewers a night. His furrowed visage and spoiling-for-a-fight demeanor are all too familiar to those who have known him for decades.
In the words of Roger Stone, a Republican political operative, frequent guest, and longtime friend of Tucker's: "Tucker Carlson is the single most influential conservative journalist in America… It is his courage and his willingness to talk about issues that no one else is willing to cover that has led to this development."
Tucker's name has even been floated as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2024. "I mean, I guess if, like, I was the last person on earth, I could do it. But, I mean, it seems pretty unlikely that I would be that guy." he said on the "Ruthless" podcast in June, dismissing this possibility.
Tucker's four decades in Washington, and his transition from conservative magazine writer to right-wing television pundit, have been well documented. But less well known are his early years and how they shaped him: his bohemian artist mother, who abandoned her young family and cut Tucker and his brother out of her will; the Rhode Island prep school where he met his future spouse; and his formation into a contrarian debater who could both amuse and infuriate his audience with his attention-getting tactics.
Tucker declined to participate in an interview with Insider. "Your level of interest in the boring details of my life is creepy as hell, and also pathetic," he wrote. "You owe it to yourself and the country to do something useful with your talents. Please reassess."
Tucker Carlson's West Coast roots burrow as deep as a giant redwood.
He was born in San Francisco in May 1969 as the excesses of the Sixties peaked and the conservative backlash to the counterculture and the Civil Rights movement started to take shape.
Tucker's mother, Lisa McNear Lombardi, born in San Francisco in 1945, came from one of the state's storied frontier families. Lisa's mother, Mary Nickel James, was a cattle baron heiress. Her great-great-grandfather had owned 3 million acres of ranchland, making him among the largest landowners west of the Mississippi. Her father Oliver Lombardi was an insurance broker and descendant of Italian-speaking Swiss immigrants.
Lisa enrolled at UC Berkeley, where she majored in architecture. She met Richard Carlson, a San Francisco TV journalist from a considerably less prosperous background, while still in college.
Lisa and Richard eloped in Reno, Nevada in 1967. The couple didn't notify Lisa's mother, who was traveling in Europe with her new husband at the time. "Family members have been unable to locate them to reveal the nuptials," a gossip item published in the San Francisco Examiner dished.
Tucker arrived two years later. A second son, Buckley, was born two years after that. As Richard's career began to flourish, the family moved first to Los Angeles and then, in 1975, to La Jolla, a moneyed, beach-front enclave about 12 miles north of San Diego.
When Lisa and Richard divorced a year later, in 1976, Richard got full custody of their sons, then 6 and 4. According to three of Tucker's childhood classmates, Lisa disappeared from her sons' lives. They don't recall Tucker talking about her, or seeing her at school events.
Marc Sterne, Tucker's boarding school roommate who went on to be executive producer of the Tony Kornheiser Show, says the two didn't talk much about Tucker's relationship with his mother and he got the impression that Tucker and Richard were exceptionally close. When Sterne's own parents split up that year, he said Tucker was supportive and understanding.
Lisa spent the next two decades as an artist – moving first to Los Angeles, where she befriended the painter David Hockney, and later split her time between France and South Carolina with her husband, British painter Michael Vaughan.
In 1979, Richard Carlson married Patricia Swanson, heiress to the Swanson frozen foods empire that perfected the frozen Salisbury steak for hassle-free dinners. She soon legally adopted Tucker and Buckley.
When Lisa died in 2011, her estate was initially divided equally between Tucker, his brother Buckley, and Vaughan. But in 2013, Vaughan's daughter from another marriage found a one-page handwritten document in Lisa's art studio in France that left her assets to her surviving husband with an addendum that stated, "I leave my sons Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson and Buckley Swanson Peck Carlson one dollar each."
A protracted battle over Lombardi's estate involving Vaughan and the Carlson brothers wound up in probate court. The Carlsons asserted the will was forged but a forensic witness determined that Lisa had written the note. The case eventually went to the California Appellate Court, which allowed the Carlson brothers to keep their shares in 2019.
"Lisa was basically sort of a hippie and a free spirit," said one attorney who represented the Vaughan family and recalled having conversations about the case. "She was very liberal and she did not agree with Tucker's politics. But she stuck the will in the book, everyone forgot about it, and then she passed away."
In a 2017 interview with The New Yorker, Tucker described the dissolution of his family as a "totally bizarre situation — which I never talk about, because it was actually not really part of my life at all."
When Lisa left her husband and two young sons, she was escaping suburban family life in favor of the more bohemian existence as an artist.
One of Tucker and Buckley's former teachers said their mother's absence "left some sour grapes."
"I felt they sided with the father," Rusty Rushton, a former St. George's English teacher said.
After the divorce, Lisa returned to Los Angeles and tried to break into the city's thriving contemporary art scene. She befriended Mo McDermott, an LA-based British sculptor, model, and longtime assistant to David Hockney, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. A few years before he met Lisa, the scene was captured in Jack Hazan's 1974 groundbreaking documentary "A Bigger Splash," which followed Hockney and his coterie of gay male friends idly lounging around the pool in his Hollywood Hills home.
"When love goes wrong, there's more than two people who suffer," said McDermott, playing a slightly exaggerated version of himself, in a voiceover in the documentary.
Lisa and McDermott became a couple and Lisa won admission into Hockney's entourage. Hockney lived a far more reclusive lifestyle than his pop art compatriot Andy Warhol but some four dozen or so artists, photographers, and writers regularly passed through his properties.
"She was more like a hippie, arty kind of person. I couldn't ever imagine her being a mother," said Joan Quinn, the then-West Coast editor of Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine, who knew Lisa during those years and still owns several of her works. "She was very nervous all the time… She was ill-content."
The pair were often seen at Hockney's Hollywood Hills home and at Friday night gallery openings on La Cienega Boulevard. They collaborated on playful, large-scale wood sculptures of animals, vegetables, and trees. A handful of their pieces could be seen around Hockney's hillside ranch.
"Hockney had me over to meet them. He wanted a gallery to handle their work," said Molly Barnes, who owns a gallery in West Hollywood and gave the pair shows in 1983 and 1984. "They were brilliant and David loved Mo. He thought they were the best artists around."
"She was quiet and intellectual and somewhat withdrawn," Barnes said. "She had come from a lot of money and that reflected on her personality. She wasn't a snob in any way but she had the manners of a private school girl and someone who was fighting the establishment."
None of them recall Lisa discussing her two sons.
McDermott died in 1988. After his death, Hockney discovered that McDermott had been stealing drawings from him and selling them. Hockney said the betrayal helped bring on a heart attack. "I believe I had a broken heart," Hockney told The Guardian in 1995. (Hockney did not answer multiple inquiries about Lisa or McDermott.)
In 1987, Lisa met Vaughan, one of Hockney's peers in the British art scene known as the "Bradford Mafia." They married in February 1989 and for years afterward they lived in homes in the Pyrenees of southwest France and South Carolina's Sea Islands.
Lisa continued to make art, primarily oversized, wooden sculptures of everyday household items like peeled lemons and dice, but she exhibited her work infrequently.
She died of cancer in 2011, at which point Carlson was a decade into his media career and a regular contributor on Fox News.
In contrast to Lisa's privileged upbringing, Richard's childhood was full of loss.
Richard's mother was a 15-year-old high school girl who had starved herself during her pregnancy, and he was born with a condition called rickets. Six weeks later, his mother left him at an orphanage in Boston called The Home for Little Wanderers. Richard's father, who was 18, tried to convince her to kidnap the infant and marry him, but she refused. He shot and killed himself two blocks from her home.
A Massachusetts couple fostered Richard for two years until he was adopted by a wool broker and his wife, which he described in a 2009 reflection for the Washington Post. His adoptive parents died when he was still a teenager and Richard was sent to the Naval Academy Preparatory School. He later enlisted in the Marines and enrolled in an ROTC program at the University of Mississippi to pay for college.
In 1962, Richard developed an itch for journalism while working as a cop in Ocean City, Maryland at the age of 21, and the future NBC political correspondent Catherine Mackin, helped him get a copy boy job at the Los Angeles Times. Richard moved to San Francisco three years later and his career blossomed.
He started producing television news features with his friend, Lance Brisson, the son of actress Rosalind Russell. They filmed migrant farm workers in the Imperial Valley living in cardboard abodes in 110 degree weather, traipsed the Sierra Nevada mountains to visit a hermit, and covered the Zodiac Killer and Bay Area riots (during one demonstration in 1966, they sent television feeds from their car where they trapped for four hours and a crowd roughed up Brisson, which required four stitches under his left eye). Another time, they rented a helicopter in search of a Soviet trawler but they had to jump into the Pacific Ocean when the chopper ran low on fuel near the shore and crashed.
In 1969, Richard and Brisson co-wrote an article for Look Magazine that claimed San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto had mafia ties. Alioto sued the magazine's owner for libel and won a $350,000 judgment when a judge determined the article's allegations were made with "actual malice" and "reckless disregard for whether they were true or not." (Richard was not a defendant in the case and has stood by his story. Brisson declined an interview.)
Richard moved back to Los Angeles to join KABC's investigative team two years later. One series of stories that delved into a three-wheeled sports car called the Dale and the fraudulent marketing practices of its founder, Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael, won a Peabody award in 1975. The series also outed Carmichael as a transgender woman. (Richard's role in Carmichael's downfall was explored in the HBO documentary "The Lady and the Dale.")
Soon after arriving as an anchor for KFMB-TV, San Diego's CBS affiliate, Richard ran a story revealing that tennis pro Renee Richards, who had just won a tournament at the La Jolla Tennis Club, was a transgender woman.
"I said, 'You can't do this. I am a private person,'" Richards, who years later would advise Caitlyn Jenner about her transition, urged the television journalist to drop his story, according to a 2015 interview. "His reply? 'Dr. Richards, you were a private person until you won that tournament yesterday.'"
By the time he left the anchor chair in 1977 to take a public relations job with San Diego Savings and Loan, Richard had soured on journalism.
"I have seen a lot of arrogance and hypocrisy in the press and I don't like it," he told San Diego Magazine in 1977. "Television news is insipid, sophomoric, and superficial… There are so many things I think are important and interesting but the media can be counted on to do handstands on that kind of scandal and sexual sensation."
Years later, Richard said that he never tried to encourage his eldest son in politics or journalism, but that Tucker had a clear interest in both from an early age.
"I never thought he was going to be a reporter or a writer. I never encouraged him to do that," Richard told CSPAN of his eldest son in 2006. "I actually attempted not to encourage him politically, either. I decided those are the things that should be left up to them."
A La Jolla childhood
After the divorce, Richard and his boys stayed in La Jolla in a house overlooking the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. Friends of Tucker's would later say that the trauma of their mother's absence brought the three of them closer together.
"They both really admired their dad. He was a great source of wisdom. He's one of the great raconteurs you'll ever meet. They loved that glow that came from him," said Sterne, Tucker's boarding school roommate. "They both looked up to him, it was clear from my eyes."
In an essay included in his book "The Long Slide: Thirty Years in American Journalism," Tucker described Richard as a kind parent who imbued family outings with a deeper message.
One of Tucker's earliest memories, he writes, was from just after the divorce, when Tucker was seven and Buckley was five: the brothers gripping the edge of a luggage rack on the roof of his family's 1976 Ford Country Squire station wagon, while their father gunned the engine down a dirt road.
"I've sometimes wondered what car surfing was meant to teach us," Tucker wrote. "Was he trying to instill in us a proper sense of fatalism, the acknowledgement that there is only so much in life you can control? Or was it a lesson about the importance of risk?... Unless you're willing to ride the roof of a speeding station wagon, in other words, you're probably not going to leave your mark on the world."
More often, the boys were left unsupervised and found their own trouble. Tucker once took a supermarket shopping cart and raced it down a hill in front of their house with Buckley in its basket. The cart tipped over, leaving Buckley with a bloody nose. He also recalled building makeshift hand grenades with hydrochloric acid and aluminum foil – using a recipe from their father's copy of "The Anarchist Cookbook" and tossing them onto a nearby golf course.
"No one I know had a father like mine," Tucker wrote. "My father was funnier and more outrageous, more creative and less willing to conform, than anyone I knew or have known since. My brother and I had the best time growing up."
Richard sent Tucker to La Jolla Country Day, an upscale, largely white private school with a reputation as one of the best in Southern California, for elementary and middle school.
In his book, "Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution," Tucker described his first grade teacher Marianna Raymond as "a living parody of earth-mother liberalism" who "wore long Indian-print skirts," and sobbed at her desk over the world's unfairness.
"As a conservative, I had contempt for the whiny mawkishness of liberals. Stop blubbering and teach us to read. That was my position," he wrote. "Mrs. Raymond never did teach us; my father had to hire a tutor to get me through phonics."
"I beg to differ," Raymond countered in an interview, saying that she was also Tucker's tutor during the summer after first grade and was even hired again. "I'm a great teacher. I'm sure he liked me."
For her part, she remembered Tucker as a fair-haired tot who was "very sweet" and "very polite." (When The Washington Post reached out her her, she said Carlson's characterization had been "shocking.")
Friends from La Jolla remember that Tucker loved swimming the mile-and-a-half distance between La Jolla Shores Park and La Jolla Cove, jumping off cliffs that jut out into the Pacific Ocean, riffing on the drums, and playing Atari and BB gun games at the mall with his friends.
"He was a happy kid. We were young, so we used to go to the beach. We did normal kid stuff," said Richard Borkum, a friend who is now a San Diego-based attorney.
When they weren't at the beach or the mall, Borkum and another friend, Javier Susteata, would hang out at the Carlson home listening to The Who, AC/DC, and other classic rock bands. Borkum said the adults at the Carlson household largely left them alone.
"I'm Jewish and Javier was Mexican and I'm not sure they were too happy we were going to their house," Borkum said.
Another friend, Warren Barrett, remembers jamming with Tucker and going snow camping at Big Bear and snorkeling off Catalina Island with him in middle school.
"Tucker and I literally ate lunch together every day for two years," Barrett said. "He was completely the opposite of now. He was a cool southern California surfer kid. He was the nicest guy, played drums, and had a bunch of friends. And then something must have happened in his life that turned him into this evil diabolical shithead he is today."
San Diego's next mayor
Richard, meanwhile, was exploring a second career in public service.
By 1980, he had risen to vice president of a bank headed by Gordon Luce, a California Republican power broker and former Reagan cabinet official. The following year, Richard's public profile got a boost when he tangled with another veteran television journalist, CBS's Mike Wallace.
The 60 Minutes star had interviewed Richard for a story about low-income Californians who faced foreclosures from the bank after borrowing money to buy air conditioners without realizing they put their homes up for collateral.
Richard had his own film crew tape the interview, and caught Wallace saying that people who had been defrauded were "probably too busy eating their watermelon and tacos." The remark made national headlines and Wallace was forced to apologize.
Pete Wilson, the U.S. Senator and former San Diego mayor, encouraged Richard to run for office.
In 1984, Richard entered the race to challenge San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock's re-election.
"He was a very well-regarded guy," Hedgecock told Insider. "He had an almost Walter Cronkite-like appearance, but because he was in local news he was all about not offending anybody. He didn't have particularly strong views. He was nice looking, articulate, and made good appearances, but what he had to say was not particularly memorable other than he wanted me out of office."
Sometimes Tucker tagged along for campaign events.
"He would always show up in a sport coat, slacks and a bowtie and I thought that's really nice clothing for someone who is a kid," Hedgecock remembers. "He was a very polite young man who didn't say much."
Five days before voters went to the polls, Hedgecock went on trial for 15 counts of conspiracy and perjury, an issue that Richard highlighted in his television campaign ads.
Richard still lost to Hedgecock 58 to 42 percent despite pouring nearly $800,000 into the race and outspending Hedgecock two to one. (Hedgecock was found guilty of violating campaign finance laws and resigned from office in 1985 but his convictions were overturned on appeal five years later.)
In the fall of 1983, a teenaged Tucker traded one idyllic beachfront community for another.
At 14, Tucker moved across the country to Middletown, Rhode Island, to attend St. George's School. (Buckley would follow him two years later.) The 125-year-old boarding school sits atop a hill overlooking the majestic Atlantic Ocean, and is on the other side of Aquidneck Island where Richard Carlson went to naval school.
The private school was known as a repository for children of wealthy East Coast families who were not as academically inclined as those who attended Exeter or Andover. Its campus had dorms named after titans of industry, verdant athletic fields, and a white-sand beach.
Senators Claiborne Pell and Prescott Bush graduated, as did Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and poet Ogden Nash. Tucker's class included "Modern Family" actor Julie Bowen; Dede Gardner, the two-time Oscar-winning producer of "12 Years a Slave" and "Moonlight"; and former DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson. Billy Bush – "Extra" host, and cousin to George W. Bush – was three years behind him.
Tuition at St. George's cost $13,000 per year in the 1980s (it's now up to $67,000 for boarding school students) and student schedules were tightly regimented with breakfast, classes, athletics, dinner, and study hall encompassing each day. Students were required to take religion classes, and attend chapel twice a week. Faculty and staff would canvass the dorms on Thursdays and Sundays to ensure no one skipped the Episcopal service.
Tucker impressed his new chums as an hyper-articulate merrymaker who frequently challenged upperclassmen who enforced dorm rules and the school's liberal faculty members.
"He was kind of a California surfer kid. He was funny, very intelligent, and genuinely well-liked," said Bryce Traister, who was one year ahead of Tucker and is now a professor at the University of British Columbia. "There were people who didn't like Tucker because they thought he was a bullshitter but he was very charming. He was a rascal and a fast-talker, as full of shit as he is today."
Back then Tucker was an iconoclast more in the mold of Ferris Bueller than preppy neocon Alex P. Keaton, even if his wardrobe resembled the "Family Ties" star. Students were required to wear jackets, ties, and khakis, although most came to class disheveled. Tucker wore well-tailored coats and chinos, pairing his outfit with a ribbon-banded watch and colorful bowtie which would later become his signature.
"He was always a very sharp dresser. He had a great rack of ties. He always knew how to tie a bowtie but he didn't exclusively wear a bowtie," said Sterne, Tucker's freshman year roommate. "He always had great clothes. It was a lot of Brooks Brothers."
Their crew crew held court in each others' dorm rooms at Auchincloss, the freshman hall, kicking around a Hacky Sack and playing soccer, talking about Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Hemingway, and dancing to Tom Petty, the Grateful Dead, and U2 on the campus lawn. Televisions weren't allowed so students listened to their Sony Walkman swapping cassette recordings of live concerts. Tucker introduced several bands to his friends.
"He loved classic rock and he was and still is a big fan of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead," said Sterne, who saw a Dead show with Tucker at RFK Stadium in 1986.
Sometimes the clique got slices at Aquidneck Pizza and played arcade games in town, hung out in history instructor William Schenck's office, and smoked pot and Marlborough Red cigarettes on a porch in the main building's common room that faced the ocean, according to multiple sources. When the school administrators banned smoking indoors the following year so they congregated behind the dumpster behind the dining hall.
Vodka (often the brand Popov) mixed with Kool-Aid was the drink of choice and students stockpiled bottles under their beds.
Tucker was an enthusiastic drinker, half a dozen classmates recall. In his book, "The Long Slide," Tucker credits Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" for enticing him to try drugs in 10th grade, The experience gave him "double vision and a headache." By the time he got to college, Tucker writes, "I switched to beer."
By the late 1990s Tucker stopped smoking. He eventually cut alcohol too in 2002 after drinking so much while covering George W. Bush in New Hampshire during the 2000 primary that he accidentally got on the wrong plane, according to a friend.
Most of Tucker's fellow students remember him best as a skilled speaker.
"He was always eager to take the less palatable side of the argument and argue that side," said Mahlon Stewart, who attended prep school and college with Tucker and is now a geriatric specialist at Columbia University. "Back then it was comedic. I thought it was an act."
"His confidence was just amazing. He could just put out some positions and be willing to argue anything no matter how outlandish," Keller Kimbrough, a former classmate who's now a professor at the University of Colorado. "We were talking about politics and religion one time Tucker pulled this card out of his wallet and said, 'Well actually I'm an ordained minister, I'm an authority on the subject.' This was a stunt. He could literally play the religion card."
"When he got the job at Fox I just thought 'Wow that's perfect for him, that's exactly what he can do.'"
Their dorm room discourses were never serious. Tucker would pick a side in a debate between whether the color red or blue were better, and the crowd would erupt whenever he made a good point, friends said.
"Even at age 15 he was verbally dexterous and a great debater," Ian Toll said. "His conservative politics was fully formed even back then. He believed in strong defense and minimal government."
His teachers saw a pupil who was primed for law school.
"Language and speaking came naturally to him. He took pleasure in it," said Rusty Rushton, Tucker's former English teacher. Tucker's politics, though, "seemed fluid to me," Rushton said.
"I don't think of him as a deeply ensconced ideologue."
He ditched soccer after sophomore year to act in a school theater production of Ayn Rand's courtroom thriller "Night of January 16th" (Julie Bowen starred as the prosecuting attorney. Tucker played a juror).
But Tucker found his voice in competitive debate when he eventually joined the school's debate club. The team traveled to other private school campuses to compete against schools like Andover, Exeter, and Roxbury Latin in tournaments.
"He won some debate and basically did a victory lap afterward and got in the face of all the faculty there," one alum from a rival school who debated against Tucker said. "After defeating the student team, he started challenging the faculty, and said, 'Do any of you want to take me on? Are any of you capable of debating me?'"
In the fall of Tucker's sophomore year, a new headmaster arrived at St. George's, Rev. George Andrews II. Andrews' daughter, Susie – who Tucker would eventually marry – was in Tucker's class.
According to school tradition, a rotating group of underclassmen was charged with serving their classmates dinner and, one night in late September, Tucker and Susie had the shift at the same time.
"They were sitting at a table at the far end of Queen Hall just leaning in, talking to each other," Sterne recalled. "You could see the sparks flying, which was cool."
Susie floated between the school's friend groups easily. When she was seen mingling with Tucker, some questioned what she saw in him.
"People were saying, 'Come on Susie, why are you dating Tucker?' He's such a loser slacker and she was so sweet," Traister said.
The pair started dating at the age of 15 and quickly became inseparable. Tucker gained notoriety on campus for repeatedly sneaking into Susie's room on the second floor of Memorial Schoolhouse, the school's stately administrative office that housed the headmaster's quarters.
He had less time for his dumpster buddies now that the couple hung out on the campus lawn, attended chapel and an interdenominational campus ministry organization called FOCUS.
His senior yearbook included a photo of Tucker squinting in concern to a classmate, with the caption "What do you mean you told Susie?
While Susie was universally liked within the St. George's community, her father was polarizing.
Andrews led the school during a turbulent period – it was later revealed – when its choirmaster Franklin Coleman was accused of abusing or having inappropriate conduct with at least 10 male students, according to an independent investigation by the law firm Foley Hoag in 2016. (Two attorneys representing several victims said 40 alumni contacted them with credible accounts of molestation and rape accusations at the hands of St. George's employees between 1974 and 2004 after a 2015 school-issued report detailed 26 accounts of abuse in the 1970s and 1980s. (Coleman was never criminally charged and he has not responded to Insider's attempts to reach him.)
Over his eight-year tenure as school music director, from 1980 to 1988, Coleman invited groups of boys to his apartment for private parties. Sometimes he shared alcohol and pot with some of them, gave them back and neck rubs, showed pornographic videos, traveled with them on choral trips and stayed in their hotel rooms, and appeared nude around some of them, the report found.
Several of Tucker's classmates and former faculty said they had no reason to believe he would have been aware of the accusations.
"There were rumors circulating wildly that Coleman was bad news. The idea was he would cultivate relationships with young men," Ian Toll, a St. George's alum, said. "Anyone who was there at that time would have likely been aware of those rumors."
Andrews told Foley Hoag investigators he was not aware of any complaints about Coleman until May 1988 (by then, Tucker had finished his freshman year in college) when school psychiatrist Peter Kosseff wrote a report detailing a firsthand account of misconduct. But Andrews acknowledged to investigators the school could have been aware of "prior questionable conduct" before then, the report said.
Andrews fired Coleman in May 1988 after the school confronted Coleman with allegations of misconduct and he did not deny them.
According to the investigation, Andrews told students Coleman resigned due to "emotional stress" and that he had the "highest regard and respect for him." On the advice of a school attorney, Andrews did not report the music teacher to child protective services. He also knew that his faculty dean wrote Coleman a letter of recommendation for a job at another school, according to investigators.
Andrews left the school a few weeks after Coleman departed. By September 1989, he was named headmaster at St. Andrew's School in Boca Raton, Florida which he led for 18 years. (Andrews declined to speak about Tucker or his tenure at either school.)
St. George's, meanwhile, reached an undisclosed settlement with up to 30 abuse survivors in 2016. Coleman found work as a choir director at Tampa Preparatory School in Tampa Bay, Florida before he retired in 2008.
In the fall of 1987, Tucker enrolled at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where Rev. Andrews had also attended.
Nearly two-thirds of Trinity's student body back then originated from private schools and many came from wealthy backgrounds. Tuition in 1987 cost $11,700 plus an additional $3,720 for room and board—around $27,839 in today's dollars.
"When the Gulf War broke out" in 1990, one Trinity alum who knew Tucker recalled, "there was a big plywood sign in front of the student center that read, 'Blood for Oil,' and someone else threw a bucket of paint on it."
The posh campus was situated in the middle of Hartford, Connecticut, the state's capital and one of its poorest cities. Discussions about race and inequality were sometimes at the forefront of campus politics, but many students avoided engaging in them entirely.
"There were issues about whether black students should only date other black students, that kind of thing," said Kathleen Werthman, a classmate of Tucker's who now works at a Florida nonprofit for people with disabilities. "My sophomore year, for new students, they had a speaker talking about racism, and one of the students said, 'I never met a black student, how are you supposed to talk to them?' And the idea that only white people can be racist was challenged too."
Susie was at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. His brother remained in Rhode Island and other prep school friends had fanned out across the East Coast.
Tucker moved into a four-bedroom dormitory overlooking the main quad. One suitemate, Neil Patel, was an economics major from Massachusetts who played intramural softball. (They would co-found the Daily Caller together two decades years later.) Other roommates played on the varsity soccer team and they formed a tight-knit group.
"I remember being struck by him. He was the same way he is now," said Rev. Billy Cerveny, a college friend of Tucker's who's now a pastor at Redbird Nashville. "He was a force of nature. He had a sense of presence and gravitas. You might get into an argument with him, but you end up loving the guy."
Tucker often went out of his way to amuse his friends. Once during the spring semester, several activists set up a podium and microphone beneath his dorm window to protest the CIA's on-campus recruitment visits. The demonstration was open-mic so Tucker went up to the stage and told the crowd of about 15 people, "I think you're all a bunch of greasy chicken fuckers."
"I think people laughed. He did," Cerveny said. "There was always a small collection of people any time there was an issue who tried to stir the pot in that way. Some people were dismissive and other people loved it, thinking 'Oh we're getting a fight here.'"
As a sophomore, Tucker and his friends moved into a dingy three-story house on Crescent Street on the edge of the campus. He ditched his tailored jackets, khakis, and bowties for oversized Levi jeans, t-shirts, and untucked oxford shirts. Tucker commandeered a low-ceilinged room above the front porch with so many windows he had to hang up tapestries to keep out the sun. The tiny alcove had barely enough space for an eight-foot futon and several bookshelves Tucker built himself stacked with books he collected. Friends remember Tucker receiving an 8-by-10 manilla envelope that his father sent through the mail once or twice a month containing dozens of articles from newspapers and magazines.
One of Tucker's friends, Cerveny, remembered stopping by Richard's home in Washington, D.C. and finding evidence of his hobbies, including the world's second largest collection of walking sticks.
"His house was filled with rare canes he collected from all over the world," Cerveny said. "The hallways had really amazing rows of canes hung on hooks that were specially made to mount these things on the house. One used to be a functional shotgun, another one was made out of a giraffe. His dad would pull out newspaper clippings of WWII Navy aircraft carriers. It changed the way I thought about a lot of things. I had never seen anything like that. Who collects canes?"
During sophomore year, Tucker's friends decided to rush Delta Phi, a well-to-do fraternity also known as St. Elmo's. The Greek scene had a large presence on campus — about 20 percent of men joined them even though Trinity was a liberal arts school — and St. Elmo's had a reputation as freewheeling scamps. Once a year, a St. Elmo's brother would ride his motorcycle naked through the campus cafeteria. (Faculty voted in 1992 to abolish Greek life saying they were sexist and racist, and school administrators instead forced fraternities to become co-ed.)
But Tucker refused to come aboard. Some classmates thought it was because he didn't want to be hazed.
"Tucker was not a joiner like that," Mahlon Stewart said. "He wouldn't have set himself up for whatever humiliation would have been involved. He would not have put up with that."
But Cerveny, who pledged the fraternity, said it was a matter of faith.
"I remember explicitly him saying 'Look, I want to focus on what my faith is about and I thought this would be a big distraction,'" Cerveny said. "But he was very much in the mix with us. When we moved to a fraternity house [on Broad Street], we asked him to live with us."
Tucker occasionally dropped in on his friends' fraternity events and occasionally brought Susie when she visited or Buckley when he drifted into town. Other times they hung out at Baker's Cafe on New Britain Avenue. Mostly Tucker stayed in his room.
"He was basically a hermit. It wasn't like he was going to a ton of parties" one Trinity St. Elmo's brother said. "He was not a part of the organizational effort of throwing big parties, or encouraging me to join the fraternity."
Susie, who didn't drink or smoke, was a moderating influence.
"Tucker and Susie had their moral compass pointing north even back then," Sterne said. "Tucker's faith was not something he was focused on in his early years but when he met Susie and he became close to her family, that started to blossom and grow in him. Now it's a huge part of his life."
By the time his crew moved to another house on Broad Street, they each acquired vintage motorcycles and tinkered with them in their garage. Tucker owned a 1968 flathead Harley Davidson that barely ran and relied on a red Jeep 4X4 to transport friends around town (the Volkswagen van he had freshman year blew up). He smoked Camel unfiltered cigarettes, sipped bourbon, and occasionally brewed beer in the basement, including a batch he named "Coal Porter," according to GQ.
When he wasn't reading outside of his courses or tinkering with his carburetor, Tucker took classes in the humanities and ultimately majored in history.
Tucker dabbled in other fields including Russian history, Jewish history, Women's Studies, and Religious Studies, sitting in the back of lecture halls with his friends.
Ron Kiener, who taught an introductory level course in Judaism, recalled Tucker performing "poorly" but earning a credit.
"He did not get a stellar grade from me," Kiener said. "Based on what he says now he surely didn't get very much out of my courses."
But Leslie Desmangles, who led courses in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Myth, Rite, and Sacrament, said Tucker was engaged and likely did just enough to pass his courses even if he wasn't very studious or vocal in class discussions.
"He was interested in understanding the nature of religious belief and studying different cultures and religions but I'm not sure if he had an interest in diversity," Desmangles said. "He was genuinely interested in ritual since a lot of the Episcopal church is highly ritualistic."
Tucker's fascination with religion extended to his extracurricular activities too. He and several friends joined Christian Fellowship, a Bible study group that met weekly and helped the school chaplain lead Sunday services. Some members even volunteered with ConnPIRG, a student advocacy group on hunger and environmental issues, and traveled to Washington D.C. to protest the Gulf War.
But Tucker steered clear of campus activism. He spent his free time reading and seeing Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, and Sting perform when they came through Connecticut. Sometimes he skipped school to follow his favorite band, the Grateful Dead, on tour.
He took an interest in Central American politics too. At the end of freshman year, Tucker and Patel traveled to Nicaragua. "We did not have a place to stay or any set plans," Tucker told the Trinity Tripod, his college paper, in March 1990. "It was very spontaneous. We are both extremely political and we felt that getting to know the country and some of its citizens would give us a better perspective on the situation."
In February 1990, Tucker returned with three friends to Managua for 10 days to observe Nicaragua's elections. The National Opposition Union's Violetta Chamoro, which was backed by the U.S. government, defeated the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front Daniel Ortega who had been in power since 1979.
A month later Tucker and his classmate Jennifer Barr, who was separately in Nicaragua to observe elections and distribute medical supplies to the Sandinistas, shared their perspectives about their visits to a small crowd at the Faculty Club for the school's Latin America Week. Tucker thought press coverage of the election was too left-leaning and criticized the media for skewing a conservative victory, according to Barr.
"I don't think it was necessarily true," Barr said. "He was dismissive [about my views]. I did get a sense that he believed in what he was saying, and it was very different from my experience and my understanding of the race."
Tucker's stance on U.S. politics at the time was less didactic. As the 1992 presidential election loomed his senior year, Tucker touted the independent candidacy of Ross Perot, a Texas business magnate, to his friends although it did not appear that Tucker was an ardent supporter.
"Tucker would go on and on about how Ross Perot was the answer to this or that, as a joke, and every one would participate" one St. Elmo's brother said. "He liked the way Ross Perot was basically throwing a wrench into the system. He wasn't a serious Ross Perot proponent. He was cheering on somebody who was screwing up the system."
In Tucker's college yearbook, below his tousle-haired, bowtie wearing thumbnail photo, was a list of his extra-curricular activities: "History; Christian Fellowship 1 2 3 4, Jesse Helms Foundation, Dan White Society." Neither of the latter two – named, respectively, after the ultra-conservative North Carolina Senator, and a San Francisco supervisor who assassinated Harvey Milk in 1978 – ever existed.
Tucker admired Helms for being a "bull in the china shop" of Congress, one classmate said. Some friends believed Tucker slipped in the off-color references as a lark.
"It's like a joke you and a friend would put in a series of anagrams that only you and two friends would remember and no one else would," the St. Elmo's friend said. "It's so niche that only someone like Tucker is thinking things like that or would even know the name of the person who killed Harvey Milk. He paid attention to things like that."
Others claimed Tucker was the victim of a prank.
"It would not at all surprise me if one of the other guys in the [fraternity] house filled it in for him, and not just an inside joke, but pegging him with something that he got grief for," another close friend said.
An outsider among insiders
By the spring of 1991, Tucker's academic performance had caught up with him. He had accumulated a 1.9 grade point average and may have finished with a 2.1 GPA, according to one faculty member who viewed a copy of his transcript.
Tucker would eventually graduate from Trinity a year late.
Falling behind was not uncommon. About 80 percent of Trinity students completed their degrees in four years, according to Trinity College records. (A Trinity spokeswoman would not comment on Tucker's transcript due to FERPA laws, which protect student privacy.
Tucker's post-collegiate plans fell through too. Tucker applied to the CIA that spring. The spy agency passed.
"He mentioned that he had applied and they rejected him because of his drug use," another college friend said, while declining to be named. "He was too honest on his application. I also probably should say I don't know whether he was telling the truth or not."
Once the school year was over, Tucker and Neil Patel hit the road on a cross-country motorcycle ride.
After that: Washington DC.
Tucker's family left Southern California for Georgetown after President Reagan named his father head of Voice of America. In June 1991, President George H.W. Bush appointed Richard ambassador to the Seychelles and the Carlson family upgraded to a nicer house in Georgetown with a pool in the basement.
That summer, with Tucker's father and stepmother often out of town, the Carlson household was the center of Tucker's social lives, the place they retired to after a night drinking at Georgetown college dive bars like Charing Cross and Third Edition, and pubs like Martin's Tavern and The Tombs, immortalized in St. Elmo's Fire.
In August, Tucker and Susie got married in St. George's chapel and held a reception at the Clambake Club of Newport, overlooking the Narragansett Bay.
Back in Washington, Tucker's prep school, college, and his father's Washington-based networks began to mesh. Tucker took a $14,000-a-year job as an assistant editor and fact checker of Policy Review, a quarterly journal published at the time by the Heritage Foundation, the nation's leading conservative think tank.
For the next three decades, Tucker thrived in the Beltway: He joined The Weekly Standard and wrote for several magazines before appearing on cable news networks as a right-of-center analyst and host at CNN, PBS, and MSNBC. His father embarked on a third career as a television executive where he ran the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and his brother became a political operative and a pollster.
By the time Tucker reached the core of the conservative media sphere, a slot on Fox News's primetime opinion lineup, he shed friends from his youth who couldn't grapple with the hard-right turn he veered once he became the face of the network.
One friend was not surprised with Tucker's act. In the spring of 2016, during the heat of Donald Trump's presidential campaign against Hilary Clinton and a few months before "Tucker Carlson Tonight" premiered on Fox, Tucker had lunch with his old prep school classmate Richard Wayner who made the speech about Eleanor Bumpurs all those years ago. Wayner believed Tucker's gesture from his pew was never serious.
"As a 9th or 10th grader in a chapel full of people in a conversation, he was trying to get attention," Wayner said.
The two stayed in touch over the years and Tucker at one point suggested he write a handful of pieces for the Daily Caller, the conservative news and opinion site that Tucker co-founded and ran in the 2010s.
As they settled into their table at a Midtown Manhattan steakhouse, the two chatted about Wayner's experience on the board of St. George's (which Susie was about to join) and their respective careers. Tucker was floating around at Fox, and Wayner, now an investor and former Goldman Sachs investment banker, said the conversation drifted toward salaries.
"He was asking, 'How much do you make on Wall Street' and was like, 'Wow, Wall Street guys make a lot.'" Wayner said.
When they left the restaurant and headed back toward the Fox News headquarters, several people recognized Tucker on the street even though he had jettisoned his trademark bowtie years ago.
Wayner saw Tucker making the pragmatic decision to follow a business model that has made his conservative media counterparts a lot of money.
"I don't think he has a mission. I don't think he has a plan," Wayner said. "Where he is right now is about as great as whatever he thought he could be."
"Tucker knows better. He does. He can get some attention, money, or both." he added. "To me, that's a shame. Because he knows better."
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