LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
It did not take me long to make the papers for the first time.
“Warren and Betty Steinberg presented John Steinberg with his first grandchild yesterday, a boy, at Cedars,” it was reported in the March 29, 1949, edition of The Hollywood Reporter, the popular daily trade publication for the movers and shakers in show business.
“He’s happier about that than the opening of the swank new Hillcrest.”
If that were, indeed, the case, then Grandpa must have been overjoyed, for he was totally committed to his job managing the mostly Jewish Hillcrest Country Club, the answer to decades of discrimination by those who belonged to the older, Waspy Los Angeles Country Club. Hillcrest was also a haven for people in the entertainment community denied membership in other clubs.
Grandpa was never afraid to take a risk. In the early ’30s, he owned an upscale restaurant on Long Island called the Pavillon Royal, which attracted some of the biggest acts in entertainment. Ethel Merman, the legendary Broadway singer, who often performed there, credits him with her first big break. Another to benefit was FDR, who held major campaign events on the grounds. In 1936, like so many others in his generation, Grandpa made the move out West, taking over the Café Trocadero, a posh club on the Hollywood Strip that was a hangout for Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Cary Grant.
Years later at Hillcrest, the regulars were just as impressive, featuring the likes of Jack Benny, George Burns, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, George Jessel, Danny Kaye—they called it the comedians’ table—and a buxom blonde named Marilyn Monroe whose lap I sat on one day. I went to the club once a week, sitting on Grandpa’s lap—I’m guessing I enjoyed Marilyn’s more—as he played gin rummy. Another time, I was introduced to a singer who had established quite a following, Elvis Presley. He gave me an autographed guitar.
I began to believe the entire world was filled with Jewish comedians. It was Burns, in fact, along with Grandpa, who took me to my first professional baseball game, about three years before the Dodgers arrived from Brooklyn. We saw the Hollywood Stars, the minor league outfit that competed in the Pacific Coast League at old Gilmore Field on Beverly. To me, while there couldn’t have been more than maybe 10,000 spectators in the stands on any given night, it seemed like the big leagues. Thus began my childhood love affair with baseball.
Grandpa enjoyed the finer things in life, wearing the most expensive suits and Bay Rum Cologne. His fingernails were manicured every day, and he went on gambling trips to Havana. Grandpa had what they used to call “style.” On Monday nights, he took the family out to one of the old, classic L.A. restaurants. Our favorite was Lawry’s, a prime rib palace on La Cienega. Spending time at his home in Beverly Hills felt like entering a universe that did not exist anywhere else. He owned every state-of-the-art gadget, even a machine that squeezed real oranges.
On my mother’s side, I never knew either grandparent. My grandmother, Florence, died in 1937 from a brain tumor. She was thirty-nine. My grandfather, Leo Blass, somehow found time to take care of three young daughters, including Betty, my mom, who was only nine, while maintaining a medical practice and assuming an active role in the local Jewish community and in the City of Hope. In 1948, he helped found City of Hope National Medical Center, and when the new State of Israel was fighting for its survival against several Arab countries, he went there to help assess the nation’s medical needs and treat the wounded soldiers. He didn’t think about the risk he was taking, only about the good he might accomplish. Grandpa remains an inspiration to this day.
He was shot by a sniper, and he died a few days later. He was buried in Safed, a city in the northern part of the country. Once the war was over, his three daughters decided to keep him there. My mother was devastated to lose another parent at such a young age—she was twenty—but there was little chance to grieve. She was about to become a parent herself for the first time.
My parents proudly named me after Grandpa Leo. As for the unique spelling of my first name, it depends on who I choose to believe. According to my dad, Leigh came from James Henry Leigh Hunt, a nineteenth-century English poet, essayist, and critic. Mom, meanwhile, attributed it to the actress, Vivien Leigh, immortalized in film history as Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. I suppose I’ll never know the true story—or both versions might be accurate. Either way, my lifelong love for the written word and the cinema were clearly ordained from the start.
I was only ten when I worked on my first publication, The Corinthian, named after our residence on Corinth Avenue in a section of Los Angeles adjacent to Culver City. Culver City was home to MGM Studios, and we snuck over fences on back lots to play on Western, Mexican, and South Sea sets.
Assembled with the use of a regular typewriter, the paper chronicled such earth-shattering events in the neighborhood as a mouse we found in our house; the visit to the Marchewka family from Aunt Blanche, coming all the way from Canada; and the breaking news that the Eschners were selling their house. Our one block certainly felt like a separate world to my friends and me. Everything seemed bigger in those days.
My parents were progressive on every issue that mattered. Both were terribly sad on election night in 1956 when Adlai Stevenson lost for the second time to Dwight D. Eisenhower. There was one political figure, however, they disliked more than any other, Richard Milhous Nixon. They called him “Tricky Dick.” They weren’t alone.
To my father, being passionate about one’s opinions was not sufficient. Each person had a moral obligation to do something about them. It was a lesson I never forgot.
“When you’re looking for someone to solve problems in the world, there is no they,” he said. “The they is you, son.”
Dad was eternally optimistic, preferring to see the good in human nature. I adopted the same attitude, though it would sometimes later be to my detriment. He was even-mannered, fair, and consistent.
While he was in the Marine Corps, before he was shipped off to the Pacific theater in 1942 or 1943, Dad wrote an editorial for the Daily Trojan, the USC student newspaper, criticizing the relocation of Japanese residents in internment camps. By the mid-1950s, after a series of temporary jobs, Dad discovered his true calling as an English and social studies teacher and athletic director, starting out at Jordan High School in Watts. Dad eventually became the vice principal at University High and Crenshaw High, and principal at Le Conte Junior High and Fairfax High.
His father was not very pleased, to say the least, with his career choice. Just a few decades after the Great Depression, Grandpa was more interested in his son making money, as he had done very successfully, than in making a difference. One night, though, he went to a school function at Jordan and was amazed at the effect Dad had on his students, the love they showed him. Grandpa never brought up his son’s choice of career again. My father cared deeply about other people and served on the Human Relations Commission in Los Angeles for thirty years, multiple times as its president.
Grandpa was right about one thing: We struggled to get by. In those early days, the five of us, which included my brothers, Don and Jim, shared one bathroom. The three boys slept in one room on bunk beds. When our jeans wore out, we didn’t purchase new ones. We put patches on them. Our shoes had taps to preserve the soles. We watched cartoons on a tiny black-and-white television.
Yet we never thought of ourselves as deprived. There were many other riches to savor—simple ones, such as our dog, Harry, named after the book Harry the Dirty Dog, or playing hide-and-go-seek or staging rubber-band wars or my favorite, going around the block to Henry’s Market for a candy bar and a large bottle of pop and then hanging out by the railroad tracks to throw rocks and talk about comic books or who owned the best baseball card collection. We used our imaginations to make games out of ordinary objects.
For me, as much as I adored Superman, the greatest heroes in my early youth called themselves Dodgers. I’d rooted for them when they were in Brooklyn and can still recall watching on our Emerson as they beat the dreaded Yankees in Game 7 to win the 1955 World Series, their only title in New York. I was in heaven when they moved to Los Angeles in ’58 and was lucky enough, thanks again to Grandpa, to be at the Coliseum for the very first home game against the Giants, the good guys prevailing, 6–5. He got me out of school with a note claiming “urgent family business.” Urgent it most definitely was.
I saw the Rams play in person at the Coliseum, as well. I cheered wildly as their outstanding running back, Jon Arnett, a local kid, sprinted the length of the field for a touchdown. Ironically, given how I’d eventually make my living, it was baseball, not football, that meant more to me growing up. I continued to root for the Hollywood Stars and was drawn to Gene Autry’s Los Angeles Angels when they joined the American League in 1961 as an expansion team, but nothing matched my love for the boys in blue.
One of my favorite players was shortstop Maury Wills, who would become, in 1962, the first to steal more than 100 bases in a season. There was something so wonderfully daring, almost subversive, about the “stolen” base, and no one was a better thief than Wills. I also yearned for him to swing for the fences, as Dad promised to pay me twenty-five cents for every Wills home run. My father was no fool. Over Wills’s fourteen-year career, he hit a grand total of 20. I was mesmerized, as well, by the soothing voice of Dodgers play-by-play man Vin Scully. He painted a picture of each ball game more vivid than the one we observed on TV in our living room. To hear Vin as an adult—in his mideighties, he is still going strong—is no less mystical.
The main reason, though, for my attraction to the Dodgers was Sandy Koufax, the superb left-handed pitcher born and raised in Brooklyn. Sandy struck hitters out like no one else in the game, and I loved strikeouts even more than stolen bases and home runs. He was also Jewish, and for Jews growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I cannot possibly overstate how crucial that was. Anti-Semitism was everywhere, in comments that were far from benign—“You killed Christ” or “Don’t Jew me down”—and it had been less than two decades since the Holocaust.
Sandy proved that Jews could excel in the most innately American of pursuits, our national pastime, and instead of attempting to conceal his rich heritage, he celebrated it. His decision to sit out Game 1 of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, generated even more admiration than anything he did on the diamond. If not for Sandy, I might not ever have become so enamored with sports and drawn to their potential to impact society at large.
I grew up in an area with few Jewish families. From the first day I can remember, I played with the blacks and Mexicans and Asians in our neighborhood, sleeping at their homes so often I felt like part of their families.
Mar Vista Gardens, a housing project for low-income residents, was across the street from my school, Stoner Avenue Elementary. If there were any differences among us, I either didn’t notice or didn’t care. At home, we put a decal on our front door to welcome neighbors from any race, religion, or nationality. Decades later, I blended in easily with the athletes I represented from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. Blacks can usually tell when a white person is uncomfortable around them, and vice versa.
At the same time, I never let the peer pressure on the street compromise the core principles I inherited from my parents. One afternoon, when I was about eight or nine, as I was walking home from school, I saw a handful of gang members torturing a small mutt. I can close my eyes and still visualize each of them burning the dog with their cigarettes. I could not understand why people kept walking by and no one stopped them. Finally, with no one else daring to intervene, I scooped up the poor thing and ran as fast as I could till I was in the clear. They got in their share of punches, but I rescued the dog. Safe to say, I kept my distance from those young punks from that point on.
I was no hero. I was merely doing what my dad would expect me to do. We were on vacation in Chicago in 1960—the little extra money we did have went for annual trips around the United States and Canada—when we observed a man being a little rough with one of his girls who worked the street. Dad did not hesitate. He stopped the car, jumped out, and practically ordered the stranger to leave her alone. More startled than angry, the man did exactly that. Dad was not the only person to show me the difference one man can make. So did actor Henry Fonda, who played a juror in the 1957 film 12 Angry Men. Watching Fonda’s character stubbornly search for the truth against eleven other jurors anxious to convict the defendant and be sent home made me think about going into law someday. I was inspired, as well, by my aunt Eleanor who worked for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and my uncle Larry, an attorney who spent his life fighting for justice, in and out of the courtroom. He was like a second father to me.
A career in journalism was another possibility, although as much as I loved to write, I realized early on I would not be satisfied with reporting on the key events of the day, whether on Corinth Avenue or in the wider world. I needed to take part in them. My parents understood this, too, which is why they organized a political club for my brothers and me called the Muttonheads. We selected a president, vice president, and treasurer, and conducted our meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order. In retrospect, I’m not certain whether we were truly dedicated to the ideals of democracy or just interested in the dessert we received at the end of each meeting.
Another highlight of my youth came before a slightly larger gathering, and the odds of it occurring were one in a thousand.
My classroom at Braddock Drive Elementary, which I attended before Stoner, was picked among the dozens in Los Angeles to be a source for the popular CBS daytime show Art Linkletter’s House Party, and then I was one of the fortunate four chosen randomly for the segment “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” in which the host interviewed youngsters between ages five and ten. When Mr. Linkletter asked who I thought was the smartest person in the world, I didn’t hesitate.
“Myself,” I told him.
It sounds, despite our financial difficulties, like the typically idyllic Leave It to Beaver childhood from the ’50s, and in so many ways, it was.
My brother Jim and I fought all the time as kids—what brothers don’t?—but as adults we grew quite close, and I rely on him to this day. The same goes for my other brother, Don, an outstanding athlete in his youth. I also benefited enormously from a large, loving extended family. Aunt Eleanor, Uncle Chuck, Uncle Larry, Aunt Anita, Uncle Arthur, and Aunt Milly each played significant roles in my upbringing. I have such fond memories of the summer we spent with Uncle Arthur, a colonel in the air force, and his family at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio; my cousin David became an older brother to me. Speaking of family, that is how I felt about our next-door neighbors, Alma, Adolph, Peter, and Margaret Landsberger. We ate together at each other’s homes constantly.
Yet life was complicated, even then.
Take my mother, for example. She was an amazing woman, possessing a wit and intelligence that would have taken her a long way in another, more liberated era. She introduced me to movies and books, could solve a double-crostic puzzle at the speed of light, and could be the life of the party like no one else.
Unfortunately, for three or four days each month, she would check out. She would go into her room, shut the door, and start to sob.
“I’m coming down with the flu,” she’d say.
Every time this took place, Dad asked my mother’s sister Aunt Eleanor, who lived a few miles away and became another mother to me, to watch over her as the rest of us left the house for a break from the tension. Dad could do little except make sure Mom had enough to eat. Then suddenly, almost mysteriously, the episode would be over and she would again be the mother we needed her to be.
I wonder if she was similar to many women of her generation, trapped at home with three children by the age of twenty-five, not able to pursue her own lofty dreams, whatever they may have been. Mom, though, would not be denied forever. She went back to school years later, received her master’s degree, and became the city’s first audiovisual librarian.
No matter the cause of her behavior, the effect on me was profound—then and forever. I couldn’t completely trust her. I didn’t know when the loving mother might turn into the absent one.
Even when Mom was doing better, I still felt at times like the odd man out in my own home. She would work on a puzzle with Jim while Dad participated in sports with Don. That spurred me to charge out into the world and accomplish as much as possible.
First came the news we were leaving Corinth Avenue.
My parents decided to move to nearby Cheviot Hills, which presented both opportunities and challenges.
On the plus side, our new house would be much larger. My brothers and I would each enjoy our own room for the first time. We would even own the true barometer of success in the promised land of California, a swimming pool. We weren’t rich—we were never rich—but we were now members of the middle class. Our good fortune came when our stock in Avnet, an electronics company owned by a friend of our uncle, suddenly went up about fifty points. Another advantage was that Hamilton High School, which I would be attending, was close to MGM Studios, where a number of television shows were filmed.
On the other hand, we were moving from an area where I knew everyone—I had been class president and editor of the school newspaper in junior high—to a section of Los Angeles where I knew no one. The families in this new neighborhood were wealthier and the kids were cliquish.
From my first day at Hamilton, I could see it was a place where students were very serious about their education. I have never been in a more competitive academic environment, and that includes the University of California, undergrad and law school.
I picked three activities I knew I could thrive in: the school newspaper, student government, and the forensics team, where I wrote and delivered a speech on social responsibility that won statewide awards. I also ran cross-country. I loved playing all sports, but it seemed like I could run forever.
I wrote columns, editorials, and features for The Federalist. In one column, I urged the administration to eliminate fraternity- and sorority-type social clubs. I felt they were elitist and excluded too many students. Members of one club seized a huge stack of the papers and burned them in the lunch area.
In the spring of 1965, my senior year, I ran for student body president, and it wasn’t just my parents who urged me to make a difference. So did my social studies teacher, Blanche Bettington, who had been at Hamilton since the dawn of time, if not before. Ms. Bettington spoke in a high-pitched voice and dressed rather plainly even as styles grew more modern, but there was a passion in this woman that could not be stifled. She didn’t believe only in textbooks. They revealed what someone else felt. She wanted to see what we felt—and there was no institution in America, political or religious, we did not have an obligation to openly question.
“You’re a leader,” Mrs. Bettington used to tell me. “You have a responsibility. Other kids follow you. What are you going to do with that? Are you just going to be another wealthy, unfeeling power broker when you grow up?”
Heavens, no, I told her, not me. I would never become one of them.
I won the election, serving until I graduated in June of 1966. It was impossible to ignore the major issues of the day, of course, such as the war in Vietnam or the war over civil rights. Between the footage on the evening news and the gruesome images in Newsweek, Time, and Life, we certainly were not in the dark about what was going on around us. At school, though, we were mainly occupied with such life-and-death matters as whether we could eat lunch on the front lawn on Friday afternoons and what the theme should be for the prom.
Even so, my education in the art of politics at Hamilton was quite extensive, preparing me well for the intense negotiations I’d conduct years later. We formed the Beverlywood Young Democrats—Beverlywood was our district on the west side of Los Angeles—with dozens of us vying for control, and not everybody playing by the rules. One kid got his tires slashed in a particularly nasty campaign. We counted votes and packaged slates of candidates, assembling our own machine. Two members, Henry Waxman and Howard Berman, would become U.S. congressmen; another, Michael Berman, a top political strategist.
Before I knew it, summer was around the corner, and so, suddenly, was life after high school. Leaving Hamilton, as it turned out, would be as difficult as it had been to leave Corinth Avenue. I had made many friends and accomplished a great deal, making my parents prouder than ever, and now, yet again, I would have to start over.
I assumed my choices for college would be fairly limited. In our family, I wasn’t the smart Steinberg (that was Jim) or the athletic one (that was Don). I was the handsome and popular one, which works for the self-contained, insular world of high school but does not guarantee a successful college career.
“I guess I’ll have to go to Santa Monica College,” I told my father, referring to a small junior college a few miles from home.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“I’m not as intelligent as the other kids in my classes,” I said.
Dad, who by now had become a high school vice principal, stared at me for the longest time and then set me straight.
“You know I have access to certain IQ information,” he said, “and son, I have seen your numbers. They are not any different from Jim’s.”
“Do you mean I might have an IQ of about 120?” I asked. I shouldn’t have been shocked. My grades were excellent, and I had been reading at an extremely high level since elementary school. I’d even been moved up a grade, and could have moved up another if my parents hadn’t been concerned about the effect on me socially.
Dad paused again. “Son, your brother is in the Einstein category, and so are you,” he said.
I didn’t believe him. How could I? To believe him would mean the narrative I had framed in my head for years was flawed. I could write convincing editorials, win debating contests, become student body president, and date the most beautiful girls, but to possess an IQ like Einstein? Me? Please.
Yet I did agree with his encouragement to broaden my search beyond Santa Monica College. My first choice was several hours up the coast, the University of California at Santa Cruz, a brand-new campus with pass/fail classes.
The school, not surprisingly, was bombarded with a massive number of applicants and I didn’t get in. I was redirected to UCLA, which pleased two proud alums, Warren and Betty Steinberg, who met when Dad was the sports editor and Mom the managing editor of the Daily Bruin. Dad earned three degrees from UCLA; Mom, two.
I was looking forward to it. I’d grown up a “Bruin Baby,” being taken to the Coliseum to watch Red Sanders coach two-way single-wing football, and to Venice High and the Sports Arena to see basketball games. In basketball, the Bruins had already won two NCAA crowns (1964, 1965) under legendary coach John Wooden and were on the verge of becoming a dynasty. My father was even more fanatical. He did not miss a single home game between 1947 and when he passed away in 2004.
The only drawback was not being able to participate in a more authentic college experience, as my family didn’t have the resources to place me in a dorm. Staying in the same room I had occupied for three years, I almost felt as if I were back in high school.
One solution was to join a fraternity. I went through rush and chose Pi Lambda Phi, a predominantly Jewish house, which was every bit as rowdy as the frat in Animal House, complete with toga parties.
Then came Hell Week, and that is putting it mildly. The brothers woke us up every hour to do push-ups and sit-ups and if we didn’t execute them properly, they swatted us in the butt with wooden paddles that stung for days. They forced us to wear the same clothes every day for the whole week, and we were fortunate to squeeze in a meal or two. I remember asking myself, How could these brothers, mostly Jewish, be so sadistic? It must not have bothered me too much, though. I was soon one of them and proud of it.
At UCLA, I enrolled in anthropology, not knowing what the word meant, because it was the last class available. I was late one day and took the only seat left. When I looked up, I couldn’t see the professor because of a massive head and Afro in front of me.
After class ended, the student turned around.
“Sorry if I blocked your view,” Bruins basketball star Lew Alcindor said.
The fate of the football team led to my first march. Political or not, we strongly believed in the cause.
Fresh from a 14–7 triumph over archrival USC, the higher-ranked Bruins were unfairly denied an invitation to the 1967 Rose Bowl. Hundreds of us marched in Westwood down Gayley Avenue, cut over to Wilshire Boulevard, and actually stopped traffic on the 405 freeway, the busiest in the United States.
About six months later, the cause was a bit more serious, and what I witnessed that day changed me forever.
LBJ was in town for a Democratic Party fund-raiser. While the president was dining inside the Century Plaza Hotel with the donors at $1,000 a plate, we assembled outside to protest the war in Vietnam.
There was no reason to believe it would be a violent demonstration. The crowd was filled with plenty of regular folks expressing their constitutional rights, along with my idol, the fighter Muhammad Ali, who had already been stripped of his heavyweight crown for refusing induction into military service.
Then the police, who feared we’d gotten too close to the hotel and might try to take over the building, suddenly began swinging billy clubs. I was in shock. I had grown up in awe of the police, no doubt from seeing them on TV every week putting the bad guys away. Now they were the bad guys, clubbing anybody who stood in their path. I also received a crash course in the power of the media and how it can alter the entire perception of events. The coverage on television focused mostly on the angry demonstrators, suggesting, in a not too subtle way, that the cops were fully justified in their excessive actions. I was appalled.
Once again, like father, like son.
The next day, I wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times sharply criticizing the police. The paper ran it.
Several days later, there was a knock at the door. It was an FBI agent. He wanted to know why I wrote the letter and interrogated me about my political views. I got the feeling I was being put on notice, and it would not be the last time.
I didn’t care. I was making plans for a new life in Berkeley.
It started with a visit to campus a few months earlier. I was walking down Telegraph Avenue, the main drag, when I fully took in for the first time the smells, sights, and sounds of the 1960s—dope and incense, tie-dyed shirts, beautiful braless women in bell-bottoms, the music of the Beatles and the Stones coming out of speakers in every window. I put headphones on later that afternoon at a friend’s fraternity house and went into a trance as I listened to the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” I took the headphones off and realized, as the Buffalo Springfield song so accurately put it, “there’s something happening here”—and, whatever it was, I needed to be in the middle of it. Berkeley was the center of the counterculture in the world.
I felt a tremendous sense of liberation as I headed up north, leaving home for the first time.
Copyright © 2014 by Leigh Steinberg