I met architecture critic, writer Fred A. Bernstein years ago at a dinner held for an installation of a painting of mine at Art Basel Miami Beach, It’s Later Than You Think. It’s later than we ALL think but Fred’s friend, Leah Adler, better known as Steven Spielberg‘s mother, made the most of her time on the planet. Fred posted this loving tribute to her and I asked if I could share it with you. As I commented on his post, “we should all be so lucky.”
Leah Adler, a California restaurateur who dished out forgettable food and memorable anecdotes — many about her son, Steven Spielberg, the most successful director of all time — died at home on February 21.
For more than 30 years, Ms. Adler presided over the Milky Way, a kosher dairy restaurant on Pico Boulevard near Century City. But she rarely set foot in the kitchen. Her domain was the front of the house, where she ricocheted from table to table, keeping as many as a dozen conversations going at one time.
She reminded anyone who asked about her son that she also had three daughters, Anne, Nancy, and Sue. But it was Steven who provided Ms. Adler with her best material.
The actor Kirk Douglas, who befriended her in the 1990s, wrote in his 2000 memoir, Climbing The Mountain: My Search For Meaning,
“Leah never brings up her famous son. But if you cue her, she’s off.”
Once, when her diamond earrings attracted compliments, Ms. Adler recalled that, because Steven hated seeing his mother get old, she had consulted a doctor abut having a facelift. But she decided plastic surgery wasn’t for her.
“So I called Steven and said, ‘I’m going to keep the face; you’re just going to have to decorate it better.’”
The earrings arrived the next morning.
Asked how she liked her son’s scary film Jaws, she said:
“I heard somebody in the theater screaming at the top of her lungs. And then I realized it was me.”
A diminutive presence in denim smocks with Peter Pan collars, Ms. Adler opened the Milky Way with her second husband, Bernard Adler, in 1979. The menu offered cheese blintzes and — in a nod to the southwest — latkes with jalapenos. But the specialty of the house was Ms. Adler’s irreverence.
In 1994, after watching her son win seven Academy Awards for Schindler’s List, she announced,
“If I’d known how famous he was going to be, I would have had my uterus bronzed.”
According to Mr. Douglas, the perpetually youthful Ms. Adler told him,
“The only rule in my family is: don’t become an adult.”
Leah Adler was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on January 12, 1920. Her father, Philip Posner, a Russian immigrant, was in the garment business, but, she said,
“what he really liked to do was dance ballet and play guitar.”
Leah’s mother, Jennie Posner, was a public speaker.
“When they opened a building, they’d hire her to speak. She had a speaking voice like a singing voice. I remember her walking around the house, practicing her speeches while she dusted. She mostly missed the dust — she was never too domestic.”
Her parents, she said,
“were madly in love with each other their whole lives, and I thought that’s how everybody lived.”
Her uncles, she said, included a Yiddish Shakespearean actor (”I remember him in the living room doing ‘To be or not to be’ in Yiddish”) and a vaudevillian (“He used to dance with a straw hat and a cane”).
“We were poor,” she adds, “but there was no depression in our house. We didn’t know what we didn’t have. And we liked what we did have. I remember going to bed thinking, ‘Wow, I have new shoes,’ and jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to look at my new shoes.”
Leah studied to be a concert pianist, but after she married Arnold Spielberg, an electrical engineer, parenthood became her chief creative outlet. Steven, the first of the couple’s four children, terrorized his three sisters. Ms. Adler recalled:
“He used to stand outside their windows at night, howling, “I am the moon. I am the moon.” They’re still scared of the moon. And he cut off the head of one of Nancy’s dolls and served it to her on a bed of lettuce.”
“If I had known better,” she quipped, “I would have taken him to a psychiatrist, and there would never have been an E.T.”
Instead, she supported his early filmmaking efforts, loading up her car — a 1950 Army surplus jeep — and heading into the desert near the family’s home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“Steven had the whole family dressed up in ridiculous costumes,” she recalled. “He’d say, ‘Stand behind that cactus,’ and I actually did it Nobody ever said no to Steven. He gets what he wants, anyway, so the name of the game is to save your strength and say yes early.”
Once, she should have said no, early. Steven wanted to do a scene (similar to the one in his firm Poltergeist decades later) in which blood came oozing out of Leah’s kitchen cabinets. She not only agreed but went to the supermarket and bought cans of cherries, which she cooked in a pressure cooker until they exploded all over the room.
“For years after that,” she said, “my routine every morning was to go downstairs, put the coffee on, and wipe cherry residue off the cabinets.”
When he was fourteen, Steven made his first full-length movie, a sci-fi flick called Firelight, and he got a theater in Phoenix to show it. It was Leah who put up the letters on the marquee.
Leah and Arnold Spielberg split up in 1966. The reason, Ms. Adler said, is that she had fallen in love with a family friend, Bernie Adler, whom she married in 1967. With Mr. Adler, who was an Orthodox Jew, she became Sabbath-observant, which gave her one day a week away from the restaurant.
Mr. Adler died in 1995. During her years as a widow, Ms. Adler often socialized with her first husband, Arnold Spielberg, who survives her.
Ms. Adler said she had good relationships with all four of her children, which she attributed to the fact that she kept busy at the restaurant.
“I’m not sitting around waiting for them to call.”
In addition to her four children, she is survived by 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
When people asked her what it was like to have a son like Steven Spielberg, she replied:
“I get all the glory. I eat it up. And all I have to do is be the mother.” –Fred A. Bernstein