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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.

What's more, in 1987 the two engaged in a courtroom battle stemming from the video rights to a never-produced film. A referee found Menendez's conduct "highly inappropriate" in his attempted "squeeze play" to acquire the rights. Bloom was awarded $500,000, which Carolco appealed, and then settled a few days after Menendez's death. "When he wanted to be, he was charming," Bloom recalls. "When he had to be, he was the toughest guy you could meet." In 1987, IVE earned $8 million after reportedly having been close to bankruptcy only a year earlier. At that time, IVE merged with Lieberman Enterprises Inc., a Minnesota record distributor, and became LIVE. Menendez was riding high again.

LYLE WOULD SOMETIMES PORTRAY HIMSELF to friends as a streetwise kid who had come up from the ghetto and knew all about hard knocks. Friends say that Kitty and Jose were indeed poor in their early days in New York. But by the time the boys were born, the family had already achieved the rank of the middle class, living in the New York suburb of Monsey. Before long, the Menendezes would leave it behind for the sylvan comforts of central New Jersey. "Lyle doesn't know what poverty is," says one family member.

The demands of Jose's job meant long hours and frequent trips away from home. But even during the stressful periods when Jose was changing jobs or battling in court, family members never saw critical problems in the household. He ran it in a traditional Latin way that cast him in a dominant role. Kitty was there in a strong, supporting role: "She did more for them than any mother ever, ever did," says a friend. Jose took parenthood seriously, and his approach seemed simple: Expect success, reward it and don't settle for anything less.

Jose often lectured the boys "and could get mad," the family member says. But no one can remember Jose's brand of discipline taking a physical form. "I don't ever remember Jose spanking those kids," this relative says. "He should have. Maybe they were not strict enough."

When the boys were young, they swam and played soccer and tennis, all competitively, but some outsiders remember that the boys did not seem to be having much fun. One former coach recalls that during the summers around 1980, Kitty dropped Lyle and Erik off at the pool at the Bedens Brook Club near Princeton. Though the other members were a sociable group, Lyle and Erik were notable for their standoffishness and spent most of their time with each other.

Lyle was mischievous, often getting into small scrapes. "If you said walk, he would run," says one of the first of his many coaches. And Erik seemed painfully shy, "a sad kid," the coach remembers.

Erik was a good breast-stroker on the club swim team. But after a race, while other parents praised children who had finished far behind Erik, Jose would pull him out of the water and dress him down. "He would practically humiliate him in front of his peers," says this coach. "Then he would put his arm around him." While this was happening, Kitty stood nearby.

"It seemed like Jose was so competitive, he was doing everything he could to try to make him better," the coach allows. "But he was so completely overbearing, it had the opposite effect. Erik had so much less self-confidence because everything he did was never good enough."

This carrot-and-stick approach appeared to be a trademark with Jose. He seemed unable to avoid pushing his sons hard. But he clearly figured that showing them love would make the medicine go down easier. "People will tell you stories of them being aggressive parents," says one old family friend. "It's true. In the beginning they probably were."

When Jose decided that his young sons should excel in either soccer or tennis, they chose tennis, and Jose brought his formidable intensity to the hard court behind their big Tudor-style house in the Elm Ridge Park area near Princeton. Hour after hour, neighbors heard the sound of tennis balls being hit back and forth behind the house on Honey Lake, in the midst of New Jersey woods that were nearly as lush and green as the old family money thereabouts. As early as 6:30 in the morning, Erik and Lyle would be out in the chill air. Jose would hit balls to them, barking out instructions.

When the brothers' private coaches arrived, Jose would keep a watchful eye from the picture window in the living room. Sometimes, he would anger the instructors by giving orders in the midst of a lesson. "He (Jose) would actually come out on the court while I was teaching Lyle and be telling Lyle things to do," says Bill Kurtain, a former coach. "I resented that." Finally, Kurtain quit.

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