Those who knew Robert Flaxman, the wealthy real estate mogul who served a month in prison over the so-called Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, were shocked to learn the 66-year-old was found dead at his $16 million Malibu mansion last week.
The Los Angeles Coroner’s Office ruled the death a suicide.
In an email, Bill Weinreb, the lawyer who represented Flaxman in the college admissions case, said, “I can tell you that I was shocked and saddened by the news, which came as a complete surprise.”
Flaxman’s first wife, Laurie Henderson, was also stunned.
“When you think about it, nobody knows what people’s demons are,” Henderson told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “People do things for a reason [and] they don’t even know what the reason is.”
“I don’t know why he committed suicide,” she added. “I’ve been sick about it all day.”
Flaxman owned a $600-million real estate firm called Crown Realty & Development. He recently sold off several of his own multi-million-dollar homes, including a pair of $38-million Beverly Hills mansions and a $7.7 million home in Malibu, according to The Real Deal, which first reported Flaxman’s death.
Henderson, 64, recalled the man she met in college and married at age 21 as a “great guy” who graduated top of his class from chiropractic school in the early 1980s. Flaxman “probably could have touched anything and turned it into gold,” she said, adding that as a student he pulled in an extra $8,000 a week or so—roughly $26,000 today, adjusted for inflation—selling water softeners as a side hustle. He was also managing a large mall at the time, and became more invested in real estate as their relationship went on. “That was his passion from when I first met him,” Henderson told The Daily Beast.
After their divorce, Henderson said the two remained close for several years until her new husband became jealous and forced her to stop communicating with Flaxman altogether. In the ensuing period, Flaxman remarried and had two children and Henderson reconnected with Flaxman after divorcing her second husband. He eventually started partying and drinking more heavily, said Henderson, who by then had developed a warm friendship with her ex, and became known for hosting glittery events at his Beverly Hills homes, even dating a Playboy bunny. It was almost like his previous life—the chiropractic job, the comfortable marriage—was “erased,” Henderson said.
“I think he got into the cocktails a little too much, the drugs,” she said. “He got into that, and he kind of started liking that quite a bit. I think the money, combined with all that—there’s just no boundaries.”
Still, Henderson acknowledged, that’s what people do in Los Angeles. And, she said, “He might have partied, but he did that because he could afford to do that. But people that mattered to him, mattered to him. He truly cared about people.”
Henderson said Flaxman, who was by then divorced for the second time, asked her to marry him again, but she declined, explaining that she “loved him, but wasn’t in love with him.”
In 2019, Flaxman was charged with bribing a test proctor to inflate his daughter’s ACT scores—one of nearly 60 people charged in the high-profile cheating scandal, which sucked in stars like Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman, and fellow businessmen like investor Robert Zangrillo, who was later pardoned by then-President Donald Trump. Flaxman served one month in jail and paid $50,000 in fines. At the time, a spokesperson said Flaxman was “deeply remorseful” and “accepts the court’s determination of punishment as just.” (Flaxman was initially also charged for allegedly having paid a $250,000 bribe to get his older son into the University of California San Diego, but the charge was subsequently dropped.)
Henderson suggested the publicity around the scandal may have contributed to her ex-husband’s unhappiness.
“Every family has troubles,” she said. “But when you’re out there in the news, your troubles are going to be bigger than everybody else’s. And he didn’t really have a way to hide them anymore.”
Still, Henderson maintained that Flaxman had handled the situation with “grace,” and had not lost many close friends because of it. He was married for the third time less than two years after his sentencing, in May 2021, to a woman with whom he had a young son.
That’s what made Flaxman’s death all the more confusing to Henderson. “I can’t imagine him doing this to his son, his littlest son, unless he really felt that there was no way out,” she said.
Henderson said she was “saddened” by the thought that Flaxman may have struggled with where to find help.
“He’s smart in every other way, but why wasn’t he smart in this way?” she said. “I’ll never get it. I will never ever get it.”
“But I’ve already talked to him today,” she added. “‘I said, ‘If you’re listening, I’m really sorry.’ It just sucks. It really does.’”
Flaxman’s second wife and current partner did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. You can also text or dial 988.