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Really Best Friends Forever

The ties of a dozen women stretch across six decades to their West Adams girlhood

July 07, 2002|CINDY CHANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Friendship and longevity are simply not the kinds of things one can know about in the beginning. Certainly the Dreamers had no idea back when they were kids that now, at age 75, they would still be together, still be best friends. Still be a dozen strong.

Time is a powerful test. And 12 is a big number.

For six decades, since their high school days--and for some, dating all the way back to grade school--the women have been fast friends.

And they have the memories to prove it: Remember when you scraped your knee on the pedals of my bike? When you copied my essay word for word and got a better grade than I did? When we sneaked into the Hollywood Bowl on a double date?

To say nothing of the time the whole group went skinny-dipping at age 60.

Shirley, Esther, Hannah and Betty have known each other since 1933, when they were in the first grade together at Virginia Road Elementary School in the West Adams District of Los Angeles. At Mount Vernon Junior High, they met Phyllis, Gloria, Frances, Billie and Marie. Evelyn, freshly transplanted to Los Angeles from New York, was in the same 10th-grade French class as Shirley. Ruth, Millie and Janet entered the fold in high school too.

When the girls were seniors, they formed a girlfriends club, with officers and regular meetings, and called themselves the Dreamers. The group has shifted slightly over the years--one early Dreamer has fallen out of touch, another woman has been an occasional adjunct member, and one member has died--but 12 are still together, still helping each other through all that life dishes out.

Even through the most hectic times of their lives, the group has managed to get together nearly every year. At their most recent reunion, to celebrate hitting the 75 mark, almost everyone made it to a seaside resort in Del Mar for a three-day gabfest and story swap.

They say they haven't changed much since their school days, and when they are all together, joking and laughing and reliving the old memories, it doesn't take much of an imagination to see them as their younger selves. "We were all children together, and around each other, we're still children," says Phyllis Kurtz Rabins.

Most of the girls grew up in West Adams, then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, and most attended Dorsey High. Their parents were mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, and it was natural that their best friends would come from the same neighborhoods and schools and backgrounds.

"First we were Californians and people, but we understood that we were also Jewish girls," Shirley Lazarus Steppler says. As they were growing up, World War II was being fought. They wrote letters to soldiers and sailors but also played tennis, went horseback riding and spent lazy days at the beach.

"Going steady" with a boy meant dates at a hamburger joint called the Witch Stand, jitterbugging together to live big bands, and parking on Mulholland Drive for long make-out sessions. "We kissed like crazy, but that's as far as we got. There was no sex. We didn't sleep together. It was a question of whether you got married, or it was over," Betty Fisher Weiner says.

The girls didn't have hokey bonding rituals--no secret handshakes, no oaths sworn in blood, no chants, none of the stuff from the "Ya-Ya Sisterhood"--but they did formalize their friendship by creating the Dreamers.

New members had to be approved by unanimous vote of the current members. "I would invite someone over to a meeting, and everyone had to approve. It was highly selective," says Steppler, who is club historian.

It was common in those days for girls to organize their own social clubs, Steppler says. She got the idea for the club from her older sister, who was in a club. (Her sister's club, a group of six women in their late 70s, still meets.)

The Dreamers shared more than lipsticks, suntan oil and the latest gossip--they shared boyfriends too. "Maybe I'd go with Malcolm and then Shirley went with Malcolm. And this one went with Morty and then I went with Morty ... and there were no hard feelings! We were not jealous of each other," Fisher Weiner says.

Really? No hard feelings? The query is met with a chorus of indignant no's. "We were glad to get rid of them!" Hannah Handman Hamovitch declares.

After high school, some of the girls went to college; others worked for a few years before getting married.

"I think the fantasy of that period was really not having a career for most of us. It certainly was not my fantasy. We wanted to get married and live happily ever after and have children," Steppler says.

All the Dreamers did marry and have children. Most stayed in the Los Angeles area--Fisher Weiner lived for a time in New Jersey but eventually moved back. One Dreamer lives in Northern California, but the rest settled in Southern California communities, from Beverly Hills to Van Nuys.

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