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The Man Who Would Be KINGMAKER : Stanley Sheinbaum, High-Level Kibbitzer, Mentor and Fund-Raiser for American Liberals

June 28, 1987|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein is the West Coast correspondent for the National Journal.

IN THE VIP LOUNGE ABOVE the auction room at Sotheby's in New York one drizzly evening this May, Stanley K. Sheinbaum is pacing like an expectant father. He walks up to the window that overlooks the hall. He walks away. He picks at the hors d'oeuvres arrayed on a table. He chats for a moment with his wife, Betty. He shuffles over to the bar. He drifts back to the window. He looks uncomfortable. "This is not my world," he says, as he watches the room below fill with elegantly dressed couples, all of whom seem to have known each other since prep school. Then he walks away again.

Sotheby's on a night when the polo set has dropped in for the spring auction of contemporary art is not Stanley Sheinbaum's usual habitat. Since the day 23 years ago when he married Betty Warner, the daughter of movie mogul Harry Warner, Sheinbaum has had the money to mingle in these circles. But this isn't his crowd. It's the wrong coast, the wrong style and the wrong politics.

Sheinbaum is a creature of living-room Los Angeles. He is the genial proprietor of the city's busiest political salon and a full-time political activist at the hub of the city's liberal Westside world. During his 16 years in Los Angeles, Sheinbaum has built a unique political role. He doesn't actually have a job per se, although he participates in half a dozen left-of-center organizations and is a University of California regent. Sheinbaum's work is easier to list than it is to define: He's a networker, a mentor, a high-level kibbitzer, a fund-raiser, a source of funds himself, and an operator who brings together causes, money and politicians. On any given evening in his living room, amid the pottery, paintings and elegant artifacts, you might find Walter F. Mondale or Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, John Kenneth Galbraith or Abbie Hoffman, giving a speech, or looking for money, or, typically, both.

"He's sort of the Statue of Liberty for liberal politics in America," says Anthony T. Podesta, founding president of People for the American Way, one of the liberal groups on whose board Sheinbaum sits. "He stands there at the harbor in L.A. and says, 'Give me your tired, your hungry and your poor, and we'll see if we can do something with them.' "

It's an apt comparison, except, to the consternation of many around him, Sheinbaum can't slow down enough to become a monument. At 67, he remains an insistent, deeply committed man who lives his life behind a wall of motion that obscures his feelings and motivations even from many of his closest friends. Few people in liberal Los Angeles don't know Sheinbaum; but very few know him well. He is a public man driven by private doubts and uncertainties.

There is a palpable restlessness in Sheinbaum, a ticking compulsion to be where the action is, which helps to explain why he is at Sotheby's now, eyes nervously darting around the room, while John Marion, the auctioneer, dispatches with items number 22, 23 and 24. Then Sheinbaum sits back, takes a deep breath and listens to the buzz that ripples through the aisles when Marion announces lot 25, the evening's premier attraction, a striking 1944 Willem de Kooning oil-and-charcoal painting called "Pink Lady" being offered for auction by Stanley and Betty Sheinbaum. The bidding starts at $1 million, and, even so, for the Sheinbaums this is not a happy occasion.

One morning not long ago, Sheinbaum invited 40 friends and political colleagues to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to look over Democratic presidential candidate Bruce E. Babbitt, the former Arizona governor, who was trolling for money. As the host, Sheinbaum introduced the governor. "The quality I like best about Bruce," Sheinbaum said, "is that he is an arguer. Bruce fought back in discussion and that delighted me enormously." A few minutes later Babbitt got his turn. "I spent a lot of time arguing with Stanley," the candidate said, "but the plain fact is, he's never conceded me a single point." Babbitt then moved into his speech. But a few moments after that he was interrupted by a loud cry from the audience. "Wait a minute," Sheinbaum shouted, reaching for a last laugh. "How do you spell 'conceded'?"

BETTY WARNER SHEINBAUM, an artist herself, bought "Pink Lady" more than 30 years ago from painter Fairfield Porter. At the time, a decade before she met Stanley Sheinbaum, she was married to Milton Sperling, a writer and producer. The painting cost her about $17,000.

"Pink Lady" was put on the block last month primarily to establish an endowment for one of Stanley Sheinbaum's current projects: New Perspectives Quarterly, a small politics and policy magazine. The magazine was founded in 1983 by former Gov. Edmund G. ( Jerry) Brown Jr. As is so often his style, Brown drifted off after a few years, and the magazine's editor, Nathan Gardels, approached Sheinbaum, who had been involved tangentially, about taking over the publication.

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