A Dynasty of Closed Ranks
Monday, October 9, 2006
Theodore N. Lerner and his family have spent their lives in the Washington area, but even those who have worked alongside them say the family retains an aura of mystery and power.
Ed Risse, a planning consultant who worked for Lerner's former attorney, John T. "Til" Hazel Jr., in the 1990s, recalls when Lerner would arrive at Hazel's Fairfax City law office for meetings. With little warning, the limo would pull up, Lerner would get out surrounded by family members and other company executives and they'd all be whisked into the building.
"He had an entourage. It was an event -- the visiting of royalty in a small provincial town," Risse said.
And most of the entourage tends to be family. Lerner's son, Mark, a part-owner of the Washington Capitals, oversees leasing and management and is taking an active hand with the Nationals. Robert K. Tanenbaum, married to Lerner's daughter Marla, oversees project financing. Marla leads the family's charitable foundation. Edward L. Cohen, married to daughter Debra, manages its financial investments.
At a recent interview, the sons-in-law did most of the talking. Theodore Lerner -- still fit thanks to regular tennis -- looked on impassively and crumpled a slip of paper into a ball. When he spoke, it was in short bursts.
The principals in the company hold monthly meetings for their 400-employee real estate business in Bethesda, as well as regular meetings to discuss the Nationals. The family says decisions are made by consensus. But the patriarch is still considered a first among equals, even as he nears 81 and now splits his time between his office in Bethesda and his second home in Palm Springs, Calif.
"How many stories do you hear about the guy who doesn't give up any power until after the eulogies are said? That's the pattern in most situations," Cohen said. "Here you've got a man who works every day but goes to California and lets his children run everything day to day. He's out in California at his desk waiting for someone to call to seek some wisdom, and he's available to give it to us."
As Lerner tells it, it all started with a $250 loan he got more than 50 years ago from his wife, Annette, whom he met at a dance at Washington's Coolidge High School and married in 1951. The couple still live in the Chevy Chase house where they reared their children, a home assessed at $1.2 million and decorated with the artwork of Annette, an artist and collector.
"I had to make sure her investment was protected, so I had to work very hard," Lerner said.
The son of a clothing salesman who emigrated from Palestine, Lerner was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home on Fifth Street NW. His 1944 Roosevelt High School yearbook shows a shock of curly hair and a crimped smile over this caption: "Quiet Ted has done much to keep Roosevelt a top-rating high school."
After a stint as an Army clerk, Lerner graduated from George Washington University on the GI Bill. On his 21st birthday, his father died, and Lerner started selling homes on weekends to support his mother, sister and brother. He got a law degree from GWU, but his only stint as a lawyer came when he was appointed to represent a parking attendant who drove off with a car. He got the sentence reduced, but the defendant didn't pay up and was never heard from.
"I decided to stick with real estate," Lerner said.