THE PARK WAS CLOSED the day the moving equipment rumbled across the tawny Palos Verdes bluffs toward Marineland. The orders that had come down the day before were accompanied by strict warnings against leaking the news.
The afternoon was growing warm and hazy as 33-year-old Gail Laule pulled on her wet suit and jumped into a 650,000-gallon tank containing two killer whales. Marineland's new owner, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, had ordered the famous whales shipped out that night, and Laule wanted to spend a few final hours with them. After four years training the whales, Laule knew their personalities well, and now, as she swam with them, their agitation was so palpable she could almost feel it rippling like waves through the pool.
When night fell, floodlights were turned on and most of the water was drained from the tank to limit the whales' movement. A 200-foot crane moved in behind the three stories of spectator stands surrounding the tank and swung a boom across the stadium. Down in the tank Orky turned his 14,000 pounds to the side and watched a huge stretcher drift out of the sky and into place next to him. With just a light tap to his head, Orky--who is generally gentle but capable of outbursts so violent that he once nearly killed a trainer--swam gracefully into its folds. "I truly believe that as he watched, he realized what was going on. He knew what he had to do, and he did it, " says Laule.
But Corky, his 8,000-pound mate, was frantic. The pair had been together in the same pool for nearly 18 years. Corky tried to throw her massive body into the stretcher along with Orky but failed. As the crane lifted her mate hundreds of feet in the air, above the bleachers and into a tank aboard a flatbed truck, the sounds of her desperation filled the hollow tank. Orky responded with a cry Laule had never heard before.
By midnight, both whales had been loaded onto trucks, and a 20-vehicle caravan began its trek to Sea World in San Diego, one of three ocean parks owned by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. For Harcourt, that long night of Jan. 20 meant the end of a desperate search for breeding killer whales. For Marineland, it simply meant the end. Twenty-two days later, William Jovanovich, Harcourt's chairman and chief executive officer, abruptly closed the park and fired its 300 employees.
What ensued was a bitter struggle with former Marineland employees, local residents, Los Angeles schools and the City of Rancho Palos Verdes that damaged Harcourt's reputation and threatened a boycott of its textbooks. Executive Vice President Peter Jovanovich calls the episode the worst public relations disaster in the company's 68-year history--and under the leadership of his father, William, Harcourt has never been known for a knack for dealing with the public. The company became the target of hate mail and the butt of Johnny Carson jokes. Pickets appeared at Marineland and Sea World. Some Southern California schoolteachers and college professors stopped using the publisher's books. Newspapers editorialized about "corporate greed." And, along the way, seven Marineland animals died.
AS THE CHRISTMAS holidays approached last December, rumors began to circulate throughout Marineland that Harcourt had bought the park. That in itself was no cause for alarm to the park's employees. Every winter, like clockwork, the park's attendance dropped off, prompting rumors of a sale. But this time there was reason to take the whispers more seriously: Winston had died.
Winston, at Sea World in Orlando, Fla., was one of the few male killer whales in the Sea World empire, its only male breeder and the father of the only calf to survive in captivity. To the tightly knit world of marine animal specialists, his death the previous April meant that Sea World needed to intensify its search for a male killer whale old enough to breed. Marineland's Orky was the only proven male breeder left in captivity. He had fathered six calves, though none had survived. For at least two years, Sea World had been trying to buy Orky.
The stakes in Sea World's search were high. Shamu the killer whale is Sea World's Mickey Mouse; whales named Shamu are the star attractions of three parks and the focus of their marketing efforts. On a weekday in June, when attendance at the San Diego park was light, there were still no empty seats in the park's shiny new Shamu Stadium as a parade of orcas twirled trainers on their noses and flipped through the air. Even Wall Street doesn't underrate Shamu's draw: One year a Paine Webber analyst began his report to Harcourt investors by noting that the company had lost two killer whales in the fourth quarter.
The birth of Baby Shamu in the Orlando park last year--the only killer whale to be born and survive in captivity--brought the company enormous free publicity nationwide. (In contrast, when a killer whale died in the San Diego park a few years ago, the trainers carrying it out of the park on a stretcher were instructed to shake the dead animal's fins so that passers-by would think it was alive.) Shamu also brings in money through the licensing of spinoff products and, arriving soon at neighborhood theaters, a full-length animated film--with Sea World sharing in the profits.
But Sea World's killer whale collection needs constant replenishing. The average life span of the animals in captivity is less than half the average for killer whales in the ocean. According to federal records, of 18 whales captured for Sea World between 1965 and 1979, 11 have died. Moreover, a new Sea World under construction in San Antonio will need its own killer whales when it opens next year.
Twice in the last decade, states and environmentalists have blocked Sea World from capturing killer whales off the coast of the United States. In 1976, Sea World agreed to drop a planned hunt in Puget Sound after environmentalists and the state of Washington objected. In 1985, environmentalists and the state of Alaska obtained a court injunction preventing Sea World from going forward with plans to capture 100 whales over five years in the waters off the coast of that state. Sea World had planned to keep only 10 of those whales and conduct temporary research on the remaining 90, which would be released.
Sea World could buy whales already in captivity. But in 1986 only five killers in U.S. captivity were not already owned by Sea World--one at Miami's Seaquarium; two at Marineworld-Africa U.S.A., a nonprofit park in Vallejo, Calif., and two at Marineland. Marineworld-Africa rebuffed offers from Sea World to buy its pair of female whales. Marineland did, too--several times. According to high-ranking Marineland sources, Dr. Lanny H. Cornell, Sea World's zoological director, approached Marineland General Manager John Corcoran with an offer to buy the whales for $1 million to $2 million. Corcoran rejected the offer, but Sea World kept coming back. Later, Harcourt bypassed Marineland management and contacted its owner, Hong Kong-based Far East Hotel and Entertainment Ltd., a division of Warwick International, a strategy that ultimately proved successful.
On Dec. 26, Warwick called together the top management team at Marineland to announce that, effective Dec. 30, the entire park would be sold to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich for $23.4 million. That afternoon, two Harcourt officials--Executive Vice President Jack O. Snyder and Senior Vice President Bruce C. Starling--met with senior Marineland officials. They told the staff that Harcourt had no intention of closing the park and that they planned to leave intact the current management team. The killer whales, they said, would remain at Marineland.
"I felt real good about it," said one former senior Marineland official who attended the meeting. "You're always a little nervous about a new owner. But they let us know in no uncertain terms that they had no intention of changing anything."
There was another reason for optimism among Marineland's senior officials: Harcourt was a generous parent to Sea World. The parks' animals received the best care money could buy and its parks were impressive showcases. In contrast, Marineland had been through four owners in 15 years and was showing the wear of financial neglect. The 33-year-old park's tanks and stadiums were aging. Attendance, while up since 1982, still sagged, and profits were slim. Marineland officials were pleased with their first meeting with Harcourt after the sale, and the trainers were told that Harcourt already had plans for $750,000 worth of improvements at the park. "Maybe now we can get the kind of money we need," Marineland General Manager John Corcoran told his employees. The sale was announced to the public Dec. 30, and business at Marineland returned to normal as pin-striped Harcourt officials inspected the grounds and sat in on the shows.
Two weeks later, on Jan. 12, a memo appeared from Harcourt: The killer whale stadium would be closed all day Jan. 20 for major construction work.
But the construction never materialized. Instead, on Jan. 19, Harcourt officials told a handful of Marineland employees that the entire park would be closed the next day: The whales were being transferred to San Diego. Harcourt officials made it clear that employees who told anyone--particularly reporters--about the move would lose their jobs.
Gail Laule was to do two more killer whale shows that day. After the last show, a young girl came up to Laule; she was doing a school project on killer whales and wanted to know if she could come by sometime to see the whales again and talk about their training. "That would be fine," Laule had to lie, while attempting a smile.
THE MIDNIGHT TRANSFER that followed set the tone for the coming battle with the community. Harcourt officials have repeatedly explained that the move had to take place in the dead of night because the caravan took up more than a single lane on the highway. But the secrecy surrounding the transfer, coming on the heels of the surprise sale, continued to gnaw at officials of Rancho Palos Verdes. "They assured us that there would be no changes," says Mayor Mel Hughes. "But it was clear that this changed the character of the park."
Despite the removal of the killer whales and the one-day closure, Harcourt officials offered repeated assurances that the park would remain open. Company officials even promised a new Marineland show, with two pilot whales, Bubbles and Bangles, that would take place in the park's killer whale stadium. But the City Council didn't buy the Bubbles and Bangles story; six days after the whales were transferred, they met to adopt an emergency ordinance declaring that if Harcourt closed the park, it would be required to tear down any abandoned Marineland buildings within two years and to provide a plan for redevelopment of the land within 30 days. Marineland, which brought the city $50,000 a year in various taxes, was an important source of revenue for Rancho Palos Verdes, an exclusive residential suburb. "We wanted to make it clear that we meant business," says Hughes. "Our initial experience with the company was a couple of lies."
Two days after the city acted, a telex from William Jovanovich arrived at Marineland: The entire park would close in 31 days, on March 1. Ed Asper, the Sea World vice president who ran Marineland after the sale, called together Marineland's top staff to make the announcement. "The meeting was short and to the point," a former Marineland employee recalls. "We were in shock."
Harcourt officials attributed the decision to economics: They said the minimum cost of renovating the park would be $25 million. To make the necessary improvements at Marineland economically feasible, annual attendance would need to rise at least 50%. "There is no way we can gain over 1 million paying attendance without killer whales," said the company that had removed Marineland's killer whales. The decision had not been made earlier, Harcourt officials added, because an agreement with Warwick precluded their inspecting the grounds until 36 hours before the closing of the sale. Warwick had wanted to close the sale before Dec. 31 for tax reasons.
In a statement to the press, Harcourt provided new reasons for its removal of the whales. Previously, company officials said they wanted to augment Sea World's killer whale breeding program. But now company officials asserted that Marineland's 650,000-gallon killer whale pool was too small, and that it was so badly in need of repair that it threatened the lives of the two whales. "Sea World's marine biologists thought it necessary to move the two whales immediately to assure their ongoing safety and well-being," the company said in a prepared statement.
While Marineland trainers and veterinary staffs agreed that both whales would fare better in larger tanks, they said the whales were in no danger at Marineland. "Sea World's record on killer whales is worse, despite their good facilities," said Timothy J. Desmond, who had left Marineland the previous year after serving as the park's assistant curator for five years. Marineland's Orky had lived in captivity--in the same tank--for 18 years, and Corky, 17 years. According to records of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Sea World's killer whales have survived an average of 8 1/2 years in captivity.
Three days after Harcourt's announcement, nearly 100 area residents and Marineland employees turned up in Bryant Winchell's Rancho Palos Verdes home to plot a strategy to save Marineland. He and his wife, Helen, had served as volunteers at Marineland's animal care facility, a nonprofit center providing medical treatment for sick or injured marine animals that land on California's coast. That night Winchell, a retired oil company executive and a self-described conservative Republican, became the leader of an activist group called Citizens to Save Marineland.
WINCHELL had chosen a formidable opponent. Perhaps the best description of William Jovanovich, the man responsible for the decision to close Marineland, is one that Jovanovich himself used for a friend, former Yugoslavian leader and dissident Milovan Djilas: "He was oftentimes arbitrary and harsh, in the particular way of intellectuals, but he could also be impulsively warm and frequently humorous." Like Djilas, Jovanovich is a Montenegrin, with roots in the southwestern crescent of Yugoslavia. And Montenegrins, as Jovanovich painstakingly explained in his first book, are exceptionally, even violently, defiant and proud--with a "fondness for self-glorification."
Jovanovich, the son of a Colorado coal miner, joined the firm--then known as Harcourt Brace & Co.--as a $50-a-week textbook salesman in 1947. In just seven years he rose to the post of president, and over the next three decades he took the firm from a privately held publishing house with $8 million in sales to a publicly traded, diversified corporation that last year reported revenues of $1.3 billion and profits of $70 million.
Jovanovich has a pride in his publishing business that borders on arrogance. When Warner Communications in 1981 made a hostile buy into the company's stock, Jovanovich declared Warner an unsuitable partner, pointing to its publication of MAD magazine and "its origins as operators of parking lots and crematoriums."
At a key point in the Marineland battle, a company statement declared: "The publisher of Carl Sandburg and T. S. Eliot does not desecrate what it touches." In fact, the great books that made Harcourt a familiar name in literary circles became a sliver of the company's operations under Jovanovich. At the time he made the comment about Warner, Jovanovich was operating a seafood-restaurant chain and a string of amusement parks, as well as publishing books. "Jovanovich chose to emphasize lucrative and predictable lines," says one former top official. In 1982, Jovanovich decided to underscore the company's transformation from publishing house to corporate conglomerate by leaving New York, dispersing its general-books division to San Diego and its corporate headquarters to Orlando.
On the publishing side, the company's hallmark under Jovanovich became textbooks and educational materials. Harcourt sells more elementary and secondary school textbooks than any other company. But it also has collected under its corporate umbrella insurance companies and amusement parks. In 1976, Harcourt came to Sea World's rescue during a hostile takeover attempt, buying the company for $51 million. Until then, Jovanovich had never heard of Sea World.
Sea World--which operates parks in San Diego, Orlando and Cleveland, with a fourth park under construction in San Antonio--has become increasingly important to the company's financial success. In 1986, Harcourt's amusement parks contributed 17% of the company's income, but nearly 27% of its profits. "It's the most profitable line of business they are in," says Robert Dunlop, a stock analyst with Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. in New York.
Within the press and the investment community, Harcourt is inaccessible and aloof. Stock analysts complain about an inability to obtain the information they need to follow the company. The company lacks a public relations department--unusual for a major corporation--and reporters rarely obtain interviews. (Repeated requests by The Times for interviews with William and Peter Jovanovich, as well as with other Harcourt and Sea World executives, were made over the course of two months. All requests were denied. Harcourt's views on Marineland were taken from early statements to the press and a 10-page company statement issued to Sea World employees.)
Jovanovich's main connection with the public is his writing. He has published two novels and a book of essays on the publishing world, and his views on education and popular culture have appeared in such magazines as Harper's and the Saturday Review. Jovanovich delights in shocking the horn-rimmed New York literary world. Book editors still talk about the 1978 "Monday Massacre," when Jovanovich fired the entire top management of the company's general-books division. Security guards appeared, and division director Kathy P. Robbins and her five top aides were ordered to evacuate the premises by 5 p.m. After that episode, Jovanovich personally took over the division and imposed strict new office hours.
Before the firings, Jovanovich had invited Dan Okrent, the editor-in-chief under Robbins, to lunch at the elegant Lutece Restaurant in New York. Okrent recalls that at that time, tensions between Okrent and his boss, Robbins, were running high--and Jovanovich knew it. After deciding what they both would eat, Jovanovich subtly offered his support in mounting a coup against Robbins; when Okrent didn't take the bait, Jovanovich leaned over the table, put his huge hand across Okrent's wrist and fixed him with a cold stare. "You know," he said, "if we were guerrillas fighting each other in the hills of Yugoslavia during World War II, I'd kill you in 15 seconds."
OUTSIDE THE GATES OF Marineland, William Jovanovich's company was on the defensive. Inside, it was taking the offense. Several hundred residents joined Winchell's citizens group in a rally against Harcourt on Feb. 3. That same day Marineland General Manager John Corcoran was on a plane to Orlando, where he was scheduled to meet with Harcourt's Jack Snyder, one of four executives who are part of Jovanovich's high-level office of the president. Corcoran was planning to discuss benefits for Marineland employees in the wake of the closure. He also wanted to clarify his own role in the coming weeks.
The following afternoon, while Corcoran was gone, Marineland's director of marketing returned from lunch to find her car blocked by a security guard's truck. Back in her office, she recalls, she received word that Ed Asper wanted to see her. "You have until 5 p.m. to remove yourself and your staff," Asper told her. Security guards, he warned, would be posted and no files were to leave the grounds. As the marketing division's 10 employees packed their personal belongings and walked to the parking lot, their cars were searched.
Across the continent in Orlando, Jack Snyder had just told John Corcoran to return to Marineland and clean out his office.
Marineland remained open one more week. At 9 a.m. on Feb. 11, the park's remaining employees were called to a meeting in the dolphin-show arena. A personnel representative from Sea World appeared on stage, accompanied by a pair of beefy bodyguards, and gave a presentation on the company's commitment to help the employees land new jobs. Security guards were posted around the rim of the stadium.
Two hours later, the employees learned that the park would not stay open until March 1. It would not even stay open another day: Harcourt was closing the park for good at 5 p.m. Officials said that they had received three bomb threats and that they were forced to close the park for the safety of the employees. The Lomita sheriff's substation, whose jurisdiction includes Marineland, said the police received no notice of a bomb threat at Marineland that week. "They created phony bomb scares," Mayor Hughes maintains. "That was purely a fabrication--it gave them a reason to close the park down."
A WEEK LATER, Harcourt started shipping the remaining animals out of Marineland. As Sea World animal specialists began preparations to move the dolphins, Marineland trainer Joanne Hay warned that Sundance, one of the park's star dolphins, should not be put in a Sea World tank with other male bottle-nosed dolphins. Sundance, she explained, was a "subdominant male" and would not be able to defend himself against more aggressive dolphins.
The day after his move to Sea World, Sundance died of a fractured skull and cerebral hemorrhage after he was attacked by another male in the tank. Four days later, Echo, a female dolphin that had recently given birth, died at Sea World. Two Marineland harbor seals also died after their transfer. Three other animals from Marineland, including a third dolphin, died in the ensuing months.
A short time after the animals' deaths, Sea World officials said publicly that all the animals had survived the transfer. When Winchell asked Sea World zoologist Lanny Cornell for more information about the Marineland animals, Cornell assured him all the animals had made the move in good health. Cornell declined to comment for this article.
It wasn't until one week later that Winchell's group received news of the dolphins' deaths when one of its members called the southwest regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees marine mammals in captivity. Timothy J. Desmond, former assistant curator of Marineland who was active in the citizens group, learned of the seals' deaths a few days later, again through records kept by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Marineland animal specialists contend that Harcourt endangered the lives of the animals--including the two killer whales--by soliciting little information about their health and behavior. They add that Marineland trainers should have been on hand at Sea World for several days after the transfers to help the animals adapt to the new environment. "The Marineland trainers who worked daily with the animals were allowed only minimal input about behaviors, signals, eating habits, social situations or individual idiosyncrasies," says Desmond. Harcourt officials accept responsibility for the death of Sundance the dolphin; however, they blame the other deaths on chronic illnesses contracted by the animals at Marineland.
As criticism mounted, and news coverage broadened, William Jovanovich lost his patience. "I grow weary of the press, who can make every farce into a melodrama," he wrote to a Long Beach woman who had complained about the Marineland closure. On Feb. 24, Jovanovich, citing adverse publicity, abruptly dropped any notion of developing the 108-acre Marineland site and put it up for sale. A few days later, he assigned his son Peter to mop up the operation.
This wasn't Peter Jovanovich's first difficult task at Harcourt. In 1982, four years after his father's "Monday Massacre," he was assigned to head the company's general-books division in an attempt to improve its fading profitability. He cut back titles and tightened budgets, firing several editors. Peter tends to be more conciliatory, less confrontational than his father. He is also a less imposing figure. Says one former editor: "When you walk away from William, you're left with the impression that he's 6-foot-5. You walk away from Peter thinking he's 5-foot-9. But actually they're about the same height."
Peter Jovanovich's strategy was to hire a Los Angeles public relations firm, Daniel J. Edelman & Co., and make the rounds of the local media to tell Harcourt's side of the story. He reiterated company statements that Harcourt originally intended to continue operating and even upgrading Marineland but that after the company took over the site it had found that was not financially viable. He responded personally to angry letters from residents and said publicly that Harcourt and Sea World accepted full responsibility for the death of Sundance. The 10-page statement, issued to employees in April, stressed that the two killer whales would be more likely to breed in the larger, more modern Sea World facilities.
By the time Jovanovich's son appeared on the scene, the word boycott had filtered into the tactical sessions of Harcourt's opponents. Marineland, which had billed itself as an educational institution, had strong ties to schools and colleges, in part because the park was a popular field-trip stop for Southern California schools. A local boycott of Harcourt texts was a serious threat.
In early March, the English department at El Camino College in Torrance voted to stop using an English handbook published by Harcourt. Faculty at other local colleges and schools followed with their own boycotts. On March 30, the Board of Education of the Los Angeles Unified School District entertained a proposal to boycott Harcourt texts. Instead, the board unanimously voted to notify Harcourt of Marineland's importance to the district's educational programs and to urge the company to provide funding for the park's animal-care facility.
The animal-care center had become the focus of attention from the citizens group and schools. No similar facility existed in Southern California, and Harcourt's opponents were determined to save this little piece of Marineland.
Harcourt had already offered $175,000 to build another animal-care center, but the company's opponents rejected the proposal as inadequate. The City Council complained that the proposal would leave Rancho Palos Verdes with the cost of maintaining the facility. Peter Jovanovich raised the offer to $250,000 and two to three acres of land.
Mayor Hughes hoped that the city's relationship with Harcourt would improve with Peter Jovanovich on the scene. Over the months, Hughes had dealt with a parade of Harcourt officials, only to watch each fade into the recesses of the $1-billion company after giving their assurances and promises. "It was like dealing with shadows," he said.
Peter Jovanovich brought an air of concern and conciliation to his meeting with city officials March 30. He explained the company's new offer, which now also included a laboratory, a classroom and a 50-book library that schoolchildren could visit on field trips. He promised that the existing facility on the Marineland site would not be closed until a replacement was found. Hughes made a counterproposal, and they agreed to keep talking. As he closed the meeting, Hughes says Jovanovich made one more request: "Let's not negotiate this in the press."
The following day, Peter Jovanovich appeared on a local television newscast discussing the proposal. "I've never heard from him since," Hughes says.
A few weeks later, Harcourt closed the animal-care facility.
IN MAY, JOVANICH abruptly ended the Marineland battle and sold the park property to James G. Monaghan, an Arizona developer who had sold the Circus World amusement park in Florida to Harcourt. While the City of Rancho Palos Verdes is pleased with Monaghan's announced plans toturn the Marineland site into a "world-class" hotel and conference center, the sale was the final blow to residents who hoped that a marine park would be resurrected on the property. Negotiations between Harcourt and the L.A. school district over a replacement for the animal-care center are continuing.
Today, as Harcourt closes the Marineland chapter, Jovanovich is at war again. This time his opponent is far more dangerous--corporate raider and British publisher Robert Maxwell, who has launched a hostile bid for Harcourt. But after 33 years on the throne, Jovanovich is not about to relinquish control. Immediately after Maxwell's bid, Jovanovich fired off a press release declaring Maxwell unfit to run his company. Days later, Jovanovich announced a $3-billion recapitalization plan that will triple the company's debt while putting nearly one-third of its stock into friendly hands.
If history is any guide, William Jovanovich will triumph over Maxwell. He has won the major battles that he has taken on in the last 10 years. When Battle Creek, Mich., tried to prevent Harcourt from moving its recently acquired insurance company out of that community, he won. When New York raised objections to the company moving its headquarters to Orlando, he won. And he triumphed over Marineland, the aging marine park on a Southern California bluff. Meanwhile, Orky and Corky have survived their move and now swim in a flashy 6-million-gallon tank that opened at Sea World San Diego in May. Sea World attempted to rename Orky and Corky Shamu and Namu--the stage names given to all the parks' killer whales--but gave up when too many Orky and Corky fans protested.
Mayor Hughes is still convinced that the whole episode took place simply because Jovanovich wanted the whales. "I think they lied to the city and the community at every corner," he says. But Harcourt officials, who have maintained that they fully intended to keep the park open, decline to address these charges. As far as the company is concerned, a Harcourt spokeswoman says, the Marineland saga is history.