Leah Adler, restaurateur and mother of Steven Spielberg, dies at 97

February 22, 2017
Leah Adler

Leah Adler, a well-known restaurateur and former concert pianist and painter, died Tuesday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 97.

Most of America and the world first heard her name when her son, Steven Spielberg, kissed her and described her as “my lucky charm” while accepting an Academy Award as director of the film “Schindler’s List.”

Although invariably linked to her famous son, during the last four decades of her life, Adler she earned almost equal renown as proprietor, greeter and presiding presence at the strictly kosher The Milky Way restaurant on West Pico Boulevard, popular with Orthodox rabbis, show biz luminaries and tourists.

Born Jan. 12, 1920, in Cincinnati as Leah Posner, she was raised during the Roaring Twenties and the subsequent Depression. At 5, she learned to play the piano and studied at her city’s music conservatory.

Shortly before the United States entered World War II, she had a single date with Arnold Meyer Spielberg, corresponded with him with him while he served with the Army Air Corps in the Pacific, and married him after his discharge in 1945.

Over the next 10 years, the couple had four children — son Steven and daughters Anne, Sue and Nancy — all raised in a somewhat chaotic home environment that encouraged their different talents.

“Leah and I had an open house in the sense that we gave all our children a lot of freedom to do their own things and develop their imaginations,” Arnold Spielberg told the Journal in a 2012 interview.

His wife expanded on this assessment. “Everything in our household was exciting, everything had an edge of hysteria,” she remarked in an interview.

As Arnold Spielberg evolved into one of the pioneers in computers and system engineering, he moved frequently from city to city and his growing family with him.

Along the way the family encountered the prevalent anti-Semitism of the times. For instance, in Scottsdale, Ariz., a neighboring family used to stand outside the family home chanting, “The Spielbergs are dirty Jews.”

One morning, she recounted, she got a hysterical phone call from the neighbors. It seemed that 10-year old Steven had snuck out of the house during the night and smeared all their windows with peanut butter. Characteristically, the mother did not scold her son for this prank. As she recalled the incident later, she commented, “Wasn’t that ingenious of Steven? I was so proud of him.”

The proud mother also passed on a special skill to her son, who has a sideline of making matzah brei twice a week, occasionally for an entire film crew during a shoot.

“My mom used to make it when I was growing up, so it reminds me of home,” the filmmaker said. “My mom used to make salami and eggs one day, and matzah brei the next day.”

Leah and Arnold Spielberg divorced in 1965 and two years later she married Bernard Adler. In the late 1970s, the couple opened The Milky Way restaurant, with the husband handling the business end and he wife as hostess, greeter and reigning presence. She also was in charge of the hallway art gallery, featuring posters of each of her son’s movies.

The petite hostess became a popular, frequently quoted public figure who counseled foreign tourists on the fine points of kosher cuisine and on general life problems.

Nancy Spielberg described her mother as “well-known for her red lipstick and Peter Pan collars, for her love of daisies, blue jeans and sparkling bling … she loved camping, fishing and crossword puzzles and is best remembered for her limitless love for the people around her.”

Another characteristic was Leah Adler’s sharp wit and a gift for the bon mot. At a party in her restaurant following the triumph of “Schindler’s List” at the Academy Awards, she observed, “I told Steve if I had known how famous he was going to be I’d have my uterus bronzed.”

At the same party, a prominent Hollywood talent agent jokingly told the then-74-year-old Adler that he had a deal for her to star in three movies. Adler looked at the man sternly and demanded, ‘No nudity.’”

Leah Adler is survived by her four children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Her first husband, Arnold Spielberg, turned 100 this month and her second husband, Bernard Adler, died in 1995 at 75.

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