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Monica's Mom, the Reluctant Starr Witness

Controversy: Marcia Lewis is positioned to know what really happened between her daughter, Monica S. Lewinsky, and the president. Kenneth Starr wants to know too--so the pressure is on.

April 02, 1998|RICHARD T. COOPER MARIA LA GANGA and JACK NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Skeptics are incredulous that merely appearing before a grand jury could bring on emotional collapse. Unstrung by salacious accusations? Isn't this the woman whose book "The Private Lives of the Three Tenors" focused on gossip about the sex lives of Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti?

Hasn't her editor said the original manuscript contained a fantasized love affair between Domingo and an imaginary fan? What about Lewis' suggestion, described by her publisher, Stephen Schragis, president of the New York-based Carol Publishing Group, that they pump up interest in the book by spreading rumors that Lewis herself had had an affair with Domingo?

Friends answer that these are fragments of a life out of context: "Three Tenors," for example, was standard fare in the world of People magazine journalism.

As for her emotional state, "I don't know how strong she is," says one person who has known Lewis for many years. "She tried to keep going and give her kids the semblance of a normal life" after the divorce, "but it was her love of her kids that kept her going. . . . I don't think of her as all that much of a tower of strength."

A Family Forged in Hardship

Marcia Kay Vilensky was born on April 30, 1948, at Children's Hospital in San Francisco, the same hospital in which her daughter would be born 25 years later.

Marcia's father was 42 and had been living in San Francisco for six years then. Details of his earlier life are obscure, but he attended Moscow University, and some evidence suggests he may have belonged to a rare group of Holocaust survivors known as the "Sugihara Jews."

In the early 1940s, in apparent defiance of his own government, the Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, issued thousands of transit visas to desperate Jews and others to go to Japan. Many survived the perilous trip across the Soviet Union and entered Japanese-held Manchuria.

Somehow Samuel Vilensky got to the United States and, by 1948, had established himself as a self-employed import-exporter and married Bronia Poleshuk, a 28-year-old Russian refugee born in the British Concession at Tianjin, China. She had attended Yenching (now Beijing) University and, like thousands of other Jewish and White Russian emigres, apparently survived World War II in northeastern China, only to flee the ensuing civil war.

For a time, Marcia and her parents lived in a modest row house in the Outer Sunset district of San Francisco, but Samuel was attracted to business opportunities in Tokyo.

There, over the next 10 years, fortunes smiled. Upon Samuel's death, Bronia moved back to the United States and settled in Santa Rosa near her mother.

Marcia finished high school there, attended a local junior college for two years and transferred to Cal State Northridge, earning a degree in urban planning. And she met Bernard S. Lewinsky, a medical student beginning his internship at Los Angeles County General.

They were married in 1969 at San Francisco's elegant Fairmont Hotel, a source of great pride to Marcia's mother. But they soon settled into the less glamorous life of a doctor-in-training, first in Los Angeles and then in the Bay Area. Marcia worked for local social welfare agencies, sometimes with troubled children.

Eventually, Lewinsky entered a lucrative radiology oncology practice in Los Angeles. By the late 1970s, he had moved his family--which now included Monica and her younger brother, Michael--into the glittering lifestyle of Beverly Hills.

It was here that Marcia launched her journalism career, adopting Lewis as her professional name. Her sister, Debra, had married a cardiologist, Willmore "Bill" Finerman Jr., whose mother's involvement in local politics led to an invitation for Marcia and Debra to cover city council meetings for Beverly Hills Today.

They graduated to lighthearted society news, wrote similar pieces for the Hollywood Reporter and tried publishing their own upscale quarterly, Beverly Hills Magazine, which survived for only three issues.

The Lewinskys divorced in 1988. The record is shot through with assertions of cruelty and infidelity on Bernard's part and profligate, self-indulgent spending on Marcia's. Given the inflated rhetoric and jugular tactics endemic to such contests, it is hard to judge what the record proves about the individuals, except that it was bruising for everyone--including Monica.

Friends paint a picture of Lewis as mother that is far different from the one suggested by the divorce and the Hollywood reporting career.

Lund, whose son Tyler became close to Michael, remembers Lewis as one of the most devoted of mothers. For at least two years, Lewis was team mother to the baseball squads the two boys played on, responsible for the life-or-death trivia of snack schedules, coaches' gifts and team parties.

"Game after game after game, Marcia and I were in the bleachers rooting for the kids," Lund recalls. "Some parents did a lot, some did nothing. She was always ready to go the extra mile."

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