The Butler's Child - Lewis M. Steel


Shortly after Jack Warner, cofounder of Warner Bros. Studios, double-crossed his brothers, Harry and my grandfather Major, in May 1956 by secretly arranging to buy back his Warner Bros. stock and take over as president, Harry had a heart attack and then a stroke, from which he never recovered. Harry died on July 25, 1958, in California. His wife, Rea, bitterly said, “Harry didn’t die. Jack killed him.” After Harry’s funeral in Los Angeles, Major and Jack shared a limo. True to his vow, Major didn’t talk to his brother. For me, back in New York, life went on as if nothing had happened. I had seen my granduncle Harry only a few times, once in California when Major and my grandmother Bessie had visited his ranch, where he kept his stable of racehorses, and on another occasion in New York City. I worked that summer as a cub reporter on the weekly newspaper the Riverdale Press, and played tennis at Major’s Westchester country club.

There was little in my life—almost totally detached from the California Warners—that reminded me I was part of a motion picture family. My dad operated a drive-in theater in suburban Westchester County and owned a theater in Jacksonville, Florida, but that was nothing compared to the Warner empire.

Yes, I remained a beneficiary of the wealth spun off by Grandma Bessie. As a result my wife, Kitty, and I moved into our Central Park West apartment in 1966. But when it came to financial backing I had small change compared with two of Harry’s grandchildren, Warner and Linda LeRoy. My cousin Warner married and moved into the fabulous Dakota co-op a few blocks north of us, but in reality a world away. He also purchased an East Side movie house, with the thought that he could turn it into a playhouse where he could produce and direct shows. Instead Warner decided to become a restaurateur and turned the theater into a gorgeous restaurant, Maxwell’s Plum, with a spectacular Tiffany-glass ceiling, that became the talk of the town. When Kitty and I wanted a special dinner, we used our connection to get a prime table. But that was all. Warner was a mover and a shaker, and I was becoming a civil rights lawyer, helping those who moved and shook only when their lives became intolerable. We would also see Linda from time to time at Grandma Bessie’s with her husband, Mort Janklow, who became one of the city’s most-sought-after literary agents. From Linda we would hear a few pieces of gossip, like the time her granduncle Jack, whose eyesight was apparently failing, tried to pick her up at a social event. “Uncle Jack,” Linda had to say, “I’m your niece.” Jack stories, of course, shocked no one. We had heard that he had disinherited his son, Jack Junior, falsely accusing him of making a play for his fading-actress stepmother. Quite an evil man, that Jack Warner, I thought. Fortunately, however, I had nothing to do with him.

But then I did. My brother, John, who kept up some contacts with the Warner family, was happy to inform me after we moved into our apartment that Jack owned an apartment on Fifth Avenue, right across Central Park from us. High up in the tower of an architectural gem, the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, there he was, his picture windows, sparkling in the evening sun, looking down on us. In my imagination Jack was living like royalty, and I was always in his sights. I was sure Jack—who could not even identify his grandniece who had grown up around him—had no idea who I was and couldn’t have cared less if he had. But there he was, in his aerie, looking down on me, reminding me that I was a Warner too, although neither in name nor in family connections. Even when Jack died in 1978, more than ten years after my grandfather Major passed away and eight years after Bessie died, I still saw him there, in my mind’s eye, looking down, a ghostlike presence who had rained evil on his own family, reminding me of the two worlds I lived in—a heritage of upper-class privilege and my current life as a civil rights lawyer, putting all my Warner connections behind me.

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Fifty-three years ago I made the decision to join the legal staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a small band of like-minded lawyers dedicated to the fight for racial equality that was being waged