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Marcia Lewis
Marcia Lewis has been subpoenaed in probe into allegations involving her daughter and President Clinton. (AP)

Role Puts Spotlight on Lewinsky's Mother

By Jeff Leen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 1998; Page A01

Those who have met Marcia Lewis in recent years -- before the uproar involving her daughter, Monica Lewinsky, and the president of the United States -- often recall two impressions. First, she has what one acquaintance calls a certain "Rodeo Drive quality" -- that glistening, well-preserved Southern California sheen that only money can buy. Second, people express surprise at learning she has a daughter old enough to have worked at the White House.

Now she is, indelibly, "the mother" in the Lewinsky-Clinton saga. But at 49, Marcia Lewis is not your old-fashioned iron-gray mom or even your modern-day, yuppie soccer mom. This mother is built for speed.

Marcia K. Lewinsky -- Lewis is her pen name -- is flashy enough to become a story of her own in the larger saga of her 24-year-old daughter.

Interviews with a dozen friends and acquaintances also portray a Marcia Lewis who is more complex than her sketchy public image, an energetic, determined woman who is devoted to her two children.

"Monica worships her mother," said a family friend who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The two are incredibly close. And alike. Marcia is Monica squared."

Marcia Lewis is now entangled in the investigation of her daughter and President Clinton, a material witness in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of allegations against the president. Lewinsky turned to her mother, her confidante, for advice after learning she might have to testify in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case about her alleged relationship with the president, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Lewis's testimony is sought by investigators who want to know what she knows about Lewinsky's reported assertion that Clinton wanted her to lie to Jones's lawyers. Lewinsky reportedly swore in an affidavit last month that she did not have an affair with Clinton, and the president has also denied having sexual relations with her.

Mother and daughter, who share an apartment at the Watergate, now have criminal defense attorneys who are negotiating with Starr's office -- loquacious California civil lawyer William H. Ginsburg for Lewinsky, low-profile Washington defense lawyer Billy Martin for Lewis.

"We've been told by attorneys not to say anything yet because the matter's under investigation," said Debra Finerman, Lewis's sister. "When we can, we'd love to tell our side."

But friends and acquaintances say it's possible to plumb Lewis's background for clues to Lewinsky's behavior. Both, for example, are said to possess vivacious personalities that leave an imprint on powerful older men. Both span Beverly Hills and Washington. Both share a love of glamour, of excitement, of shopping. Both love to talk, although neither is talking to the media now.

Both were heading to New York before the furor hit -- Lewinsky to a new job, Lewis to a new man. Lewis in some ways remains a greater mystery than her daughter. A legion of professional investigative reporters and Internet amateurs have yet to determine where she was born, where she went to college, whether she is a Democrat or a Republican, what she really thinks of the predicament that has befallen her daughter.

So far, her only reported comment suggests a brazen pragmatism.

"What's the big deal?" Lewis reportedly said when she met prosecutors on Jan. 16, the night Starr's office tried to persuade Lewinsky to turn informant for them, according to a source close to the prosecutors. "So she lied and tried to convince someone else to lie?"

For her part, Monica Lewinsky has reportedly said she was raised that way.

"I was brought up with lies all the time," she said on tapes secretly recorded by her friend Linda R. Tripp and quoted by Newsweek. "That's how you got along."

Most of the information that can be gleaned about Marcia Lewis's early life comes from her divorce file in the late 1980s. The court records offer glimpses of a family for whom money could buy everything but happiness.

Marcia Kaye Vilensky, a native Californian, married Bernard Lewinsky, the son of German Jews who immigrated to El Salvador, on April 15, 1969. She was 20, he was 26. Bernard would soon graduate from medical school at the University of California at Irvine.

Marcia Lewinsky attended a four-year college and worked at an unspecified occupation for the first three years of the marriage, earning a gross monthly income of about $500, according to filings in the divorce case. Then she quit and took on full-time the role of a doctor's wife. The couple was living in San Francisco when Monica was born July 23, 1973. A son, Michael, came along in 1977.

Bernard Lewinsky prospered. He became a partner in Western Tumor Medical Group, a radiation oncology clinic that brought him a monthly income of more than $37,000 by the late 1980s. The family moved to Beverly Hills.

Marcia Lewinsky's "typical day," according to a vocational examination later conducted by a divorce case expert for her husband: "marketing, driving her children to activities and dates with friends, or shopping and lunch with her sister."

Wearing designer clothes, she tooled around in her Mercedes, shopping at Bullocks-Wilshire, attending the symphony and trading movie star gossip with her sister, Debra Finerman, who is also married to a doctor, at fashionable West Los Angeles restaurants. Lewis and her sister dressed alike -- in stylish black with gold chains -- and carried themselves with panache, recalled a man who saw them often back then.

"They would really try to walk into a room and get everybody to notice them," said Arthur Kassel, whose wife once owned the Hollywood Reporter, an entertainment industry trade journal. "They were two pretty blondes."

During the divorce proceedings, Lewis would estimate household expenses at $25,707 a month, including $95 for books and magazines, $300 for baby sitters, $720 for tennis lessons for the children and $1,800 for psychiatric care. In a later document, Lewis said her monthly needs include $70 for cosmetics, $140 for manicures, $200 for facials -- and $760 a month for psychiatric care for her children.

The family lived in a $1.6 million Mediterranean-style mansion with a red-tile roof and a manicured lawn on North Hillcrest Drive in Beverly Hills, in the 90210 zip code that is home to movie stars and a Fox TV show. Bernard Lewinsky collected fine wines and paintings.

"I and my children have maintained an affluent lifestyle and have traveled first class extensively," Lewis stated in divorce papers. "We have always provided the children with expensive extracurricular lessons and tutoring to satisfy any desires that either they or we may have. I and the children have never had to worry about the cost of anything that we reasonably desired. I have always been able to buy whatever clothes either I, or the children, needed or desired and I have always been able to spend substantial amounts of monies for grooming, health and aesthetic purposes."

Divorce wrecked this surfeited life. In September 1987, Lewis alleged that her husband was giving presents to "a third party," including "gifts from Tiffanys, Louis Vitton [sic], and other well known stores."

She also alleged in her divorce filings that Bernard Lewinsky verbally abused her and terrorized the children. He called her "crazy," a "bitch," and "a [expletive] moron," she claimed. He "belittles the children and yells at them for no apparent reason whatsoever," she stated. "On many occasions, respondent will tell the children, 'Leave the dinner table,' 'Go to your room,' 'We don't want your opinion,' and other similar remarks, leaving the children totally inhibited and in fear of him."

The husband replied in court filings that his wife's comments about his temper and alleged abuse were "absolutely ludicrous" and that she was spending him into poverty.

"Our spending has been far in excess of what can be afforded," Bernard Lewinsky stated. "I take the blame for having failed to force a reduction in the standard of living; although we have argued about it for years." The doctor did not return a reporter's phone calls.

The family's financial problems were real. Bernard Lewinsky didn't pay his income taxes in 1986 and 1987 and he owed more than $250,000 to the IRS, which had slapped a lien on the Hillcrest house and was threatening to seize it, according to papers filed in the divorce case.

The divorce put Lewis in a financial pinch. She had to borrow $13,500 from her sister to pay for her legal fees, divorce documents state.

She walked away from her marriage with $554,749 in proceeds from the sale of the house, $6,000 a month in alimony, $5,000 a month in child support and $25,000 for her attorneys' fees, according to settlement documents filed in the proceeding.

Most of what is known about Lewis's recent life comes in connection with the book she published in 1996. With few professional credentials as a free-lance writer, Marcia Lewis marshaled her resources and wrote "The Private Lives of the Three Tenors: Behind the Scenes with Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras."

Those who know Lewis through her work on the 311-page book say that she is, for all her public flash, a women of a certain grit and discipline. "She was somebody who was serious and dedicated and had something she wanted to do," said David Vigliano, her agent. "And whether she had real experience or not, she pulled this book off, which is not easy to do, even for experienced journalists."

She had long wanted to be a writer. Her divorce pushed her to try it. In the course of the divorce proceedings, she evolved from describing her occupation as "housewife" with no separate income to "free-lance writer" with a monthly income of $175. She and her sister co-wrote a couple of feature articles that appeared in the Hollywood Reporter magazine in February and March 1988 under the double byline Marisa Lewis and Debbie Lewis, the Reporter said in a statement issued after the scandal broke.

Bernard Lewinsky asserted during the divorce that his wife should get a job writing for a public relations firm, where he said she could earn up to $2,000 a month. Beyond describing herself as having "no real vocational training or skills," Lewis said she suffered from tachycardia -- an abnormally rapid heartbeat -- and as a result "cannot endure heavy physical exertion."

But her book belies the feckless, sickly image that comes out of the divorce files. She managed to sell a book proposal -- for "high five-figures," according to a source familiar with the book auction -- and then produce a publishable manuscript in a speedy six months.

"She had that Rodeo Drive quality in her voice, in her manners, in her answers, but she knew what she was doing," said Steve Schragis, president of Carol Publishing, Lewis's publisher. "She promised to deliver a book on time and she did. She said it would have sexy intimate details on the tenors and it did. She delivered the goods, basically."

Those familiar with the book say a lifelong interest in opera in general and Placido Domingo in particular sparked Lewis to attempt it. In a publicity memo that was never used for the book, Lewis coyly hinted at rumors of an affair with Domingo, the world famous tenor who is also artistic director of the Washington Opera. But Domingo has said he only knew Lewis "socially" through his performances with the Los Angeles Opera.

Her encounter with Domingo most likely convinced her she knew enough behind the scenes detail to pull off a book, according to someone who knew her during the writing process.

There is something starry-eyed about the book's personal focus and adoring approach, especially in the passages about Domingo. A three-page fantasy scene about an encounter with Domingo was cut from the finished manuscript because it didn't fit with the rest of the book, Schragis said.

But intimations about sex with a Domingo-like figure remain in the book.

In a chapter titled "Domingo as Don Juan," Lewis described Domingo as an "hidalgo," a true Spanish gentleman with a broad romantic streak.

She wrote that hidalgo is Domingo's favorite Spanish word and then she went on to imagine what an affair with an hidalgo must be like for women lucky enough to have one:

He telephones before the concert, "whispering to protect his famous voice." They meet late at night after the triumphant concert, his adrenalin still racing from the encores. Later, every message he leaves on her answering machine ends with the words, "For you, darling, a big kiss." If she travels to New York to meet him, "he fills her suite at the Plaza Hotel with dozens of red roses," she wrote.

"An hidalgo's lovemaking would be passionate and romantic, with murmurs of adoration and love, and an expert knowledge of how to pleasure a woman," Lewis wrote. "Is Domingo an hidalgo? Millions of women the world over sincerely believe he is."

The book sold about 20,000 in hardback, a moderate success, Schragis said. The book also brought Lewis together with the man slated to become her second husband, a New York communications executive named R. Peter Straus who owns radio stations and small newspapers in New York state.

Lewis met Straus, 74, at a book-signing party in Westchester County, N.Y. Straus is a widower whose late wife, Ellen Louise Sulzberger Straus, was a member of the family that owns the New York Times.

"I'm engaged to Monica Lewinsky's mother and that's it, period," was all Straus would say when contacted this week.

Straus, an opera buff, was struck by Lewis's bubbly personality, sense of humor and blond good looks, said a person with knowledge of the romance. She reminded him of one of his daughters. Last year, Lewis moved to Manhattan's Park Avenue to be near him. No wedding date has been set.

Lewis's future remains uncertain. Schragis, the book publisher, doesn't see her writing the ultimate scandal book starring her own daughter, even though such a book could reap millions.

"If Monica's not going to be writing her own book, I would very much doubt her mother would write a book if her daughter didn't want her to," Schragis said. "There's going to be Monica's book or nobody's book."

Washington Post researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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