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THE MENENDEZ BROTHERS : Jose Menendez Gave His Sons Everything. Maybe Even a Motive for Murder.

July 22, 1990|JOHN JOHNSON and RONALD L. SOBLE | John Johnson and Ronald L. Soble, Times staff writers, are working on a book about the Menendez case for New American Library.

JOSE MENENDEZ'S STORY BEGINS in Cuba, where he was the child of well-to-do business people and star athletes. When Fidel Castro came to power, his parents shipped their 16-year-old son to America, where he lived in the attic of a cousin's house in Hazelton, Pa.

Commanding and supremely confident even as a young man, a star swimmer in high school, Menendez won an athletic scholarship to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he wooed a vivacious beauty queen from Oak Lawn, Ill. Mary Louise Andersen was a blond communications major nicknamed "Kitty." Friends saw her as glamorous and a trifle mysterious. She rarely talked about her past, perhaps because she was ashamed of having come from a broken home, and was a bit of a quiet rebel. Once, Kitty purposely scandalized the small town of Watseka by painting the town in a skin-tight black dress and a white wig. And if some people were shocked when she began seeing this young man from Cuba, she just smiled.

Kitty, who was two years older than Jose, fell for the charming, good-looking man, even though they were from vastly different worlds. "All of a sudden, she was hit by a bulldozer," says Jo McCord, Kitty's roommate at the time. Menendez's family thought he was too young to get married, but he wrote that "if I'm old enough to live on my own at 16, I'm old enough to get married at 19."

The couple married in 1963 and moved east, where Menendez transferred to Queens College in New York and washed dishes at the 21 Club while he earned an accounting degree. David Inerfield, one of his teachers, recalls Jose as an ambitious, struggling student who "would batter me for a better grade."

Later, he was no different in the business world, developing a reputation as a tireless worker with a quick mind and an ability to solve problems. His first job was at the prestigious accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand. Lyon's Container Service in Illinois was so impressed by the suggestions he made while doing its books that it hired him away to be comptroller; three years later, he was the company's president. And by the age of 35, he had been named executive vice president in charge of U.S. operations at Hertz, an RCA Corp. subsidiary.

About a year later, in 1980, the company, after checking to see whether he could get along with a less-buttoned-down crowd, put him in charge of its record division, RCA-Ariola. Menendez ultimately directed worldwide operations as chief operating officer--at a salary of $500,000 a year. He developed a reputation for being more prepared than anyone else. "His attitude was, 'I'm a winner. I'm going to take this dog company and make it No. 1,' " says John Mason, an entertainment attorney and close friend. Though that never happened, Jose was responsible for expanding the company's Latin music line and helped to sign notable groups such as Duran Duran and the Eurythmics.

Despite his immersion in the entertainment business, he avoided its trappings. He rarely made an appearance on the party circuit and was something of a square, reportedly even lecturing some RCA acts to knock off the drug use. That's not to say he shunned symbols of his new-found status; he drove a big Mercedes or rode in limos and jetted around the world.

A friend once chastened Lyle for the imperious way he treated waiters and waitresses. "I get that from my father," Lyle replied. "They're here to serve me." Another friend and business associate, Glenn Stevens, said Lyle told him stories about Jose's berating employees. "I thought, 'How could you idolize somebody like that?' " The brothers were enthralled by their father's success; Lyle, in particular, found ways to drop Jose's connections into conversations with people he had just met.

Then, in 1986, General Electric Co. purchased RCA, and when Menendez failed to become president, he left. Menendez's sterling reputation came in for some battering once he departed. Elliott Goldman, the new president, says he found that Menendez had engaged in a common industry practice of shipping too many units, which made immediate sales look good. Another RCA executive said in a recent interview that Menendez was not setting aside adequate cash reserves.

Menendez landed on his feet when he was quickly hired by Carolco Pictures, which made its reputation with Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo" movies. Menendez brought his family with him to California, where his mission was to pump life into a subsidiary, International Video Entertainment Inc., a failing company Carolco had bought from a former pornography distributor named Noel Bloom. IVE had lost $20 million in 1986, but Menendez quickly turned it around by slashing the payroll and moving to isolate Bloom, who eventually left to start his own company. Morally and politically conservative, Menendez "resented Noel terribly" because of his porn background, family friend Mason says.

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