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'King of the Gypsies' Seeks New Image for His People

May 28, 1989|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

Fifteen years after being immortalized as "King of the Gypsies" in a movie and best-selling book, Steve Tene says it is time for him to help Gypsies forsake their old ways for a piece of the American Dream.

No more fathers selling teen-age daughters as wives, no more keeping Gypsy children out of school, no more of the cloistered existence that has fostered the Gypsy reputation for thievery and distrust.

"Tradition has to be broken," declared Tene, who extolled the virtues of Americanization from his ocean-view Laguna Beach home. "It's time to get rid of the negative parts of our culture."

Tene, who runs a catering service out of his home, has grand plans for his reign as leader of the Bimbos, one of about 60 Gypsy family clans in the United States. Tene recently closed escrow on a Laguna Beach art gallery that features aquatic-themed works, and he hopes to convert the place to a showcase for Gypsy art. Tene said he plans to use proceeds from the gallery to benefit AIDS research and to build a private school for Gypsies.

"They don't want to be crooked," said Tene, 44, speaking in a thick New York accent as he paced the living room, trailing smoke from a Winston cigarette. "You gotta give them a door."

Until a few months ago, Tene wanted nothing to do with the title bestowed on him by his grandfather and previous king of the clan, George Tene Bimbo. Just before his death in 1969, the grandfather brushed aside seven sons and about 50 other grandsons to anoint Steve Tene as the new king, passing on the gold medallion and hammered gold ring worn only by the tribe's leader.

Tene, embittered after a childhood he said was dominated by physical and sexual abuse by his late father, refused to accept the jewelry and severed connections to his family. But eventually, Tene re-established the family ties. He credits his sister Elizabeth with persuading him to take up the Gypsy cause.

It was Elizabeth's death in November that convinced him that some of the old Gypsy ways were destroying people. "My sister kept on talking to me, saying, 'There's people out there who need you. You can better them,' " Tene said.

So Tene reclaimed the medallion and ring and began making plans.

Tene is the first to admit that his monarchy faces some big problems. For one, why should the Bimbos trust a man who has ignored the call to leadership for the last 20 years? And why should they abandon the customs that have sustained Gypsies for centuries?

"I know there's a lot of skeptical people out there," Tene said. "You have to show them why they should change. Gypsies won't believe in anything until you show them."

Change has come slowly to the Gypsies, believed to have originated in northern India about 1,000 years ago, migrating throughout the world. Gypsies, who call themselves Rom, are suspicious of the non-Gypsy world. They marry within Gypsy tribes, maintaining the age-old custom of selling daughters as wives, and they avoid forms of government registration such as marriage and birth certificates.

Fearing that schools are teeming with drugs and promiscuity, many Gypsies refuse to enroll their children. As a result, much of the American Gypsy population, including Tene, remains illiterate.

Gypsies still identify by family clans, with groups based on countries of origin, most commonly Russia, Romania and Yugoslavia. The Gypsy population is estimated to be 3 million to 5 million worldwide, with about 50,000 in Southern California.

There are recognized leaders of Gypsy clans apart from the Tene dynasty, but Tene is confident that he will convert the tribe to his outlook.

"My grandfather picked me for a reason. I was very smart," Tene said. "I did my first big scam when I was 4. I robbed my grandmother. Stole money out of her bosom, a couple of thousand dollars, I think. Nobody had done that before."

It doesn't take much digging to discover that Tene has his critics, starting with John Tene, his first cousin. John heads a Boston group called the U.S. Romani Council, which has tried to provide social services for Gypsies and convince them of the value of schooling.

"He should come back to reality," John Tene said of his cousin. "In order for a school to be run, there would have to be an understanding of the tribal members that it wouldn't destroy our way of culture and living."

Steve Tene's reputation among Gypsies "is a poor one," John Tene said, adding that he is incredulous that his cousin would simply up and claim to be king. "Only a fool would walk around and say that," he said.

Steve Tene called his cousin "a fake."

Despite the critics, Steve Tene is brimming with confident plans. At 44, he still looks a lot like his photograph at age 21 that sits on top of the stereo cabinet in his living room. In the picture, Tene's dark brown eyes gaze seductively into the camera, his face half-hidden by one arm. "People tell me I looked like Omar Sharif," Tene said with a smile.

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