What makes someone a star? Some say having the loving support of a mom who helps nuture a dream.
In a series of interviews with the mothers of men and women who've reached the apex in their fields, from sports and politics to entertaiment and business, Stephanie Hirsch sheds light on the life lessons that have helped shape some of America's most well-known citizens.
Hirsch spoke to the inspiring moms of Beyonce, Lance Armstrong, Uma Thurman, Justin Timberlake, Tim McGraw, Cindy Crawford, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Matt Lauer, Alicia Keys, Steven Spielberg and more.
Read the first chapter of "Mother Nuture" below:
Leah Adler, mother of Steven Spielberg
"Never lose your inner child."
When Leah Adler—the mother of the Steven Spielberg, one of the most prominent filmmakers in Hollywood—was asked whether she knew her son was going to be successful she said, "I never really thought about it like that. I thought maybe he would get a job in a supermarket as a carryout boy." While most fifteen year-olds were actually working as carryout boys, Steven had completed his first movie, Escape to Nowhere, and by the time he was sixteen his production of Firelight was shown at a local movie theater. Years later, his production of Amblin' led to his becoming the youngest director ever to be signed to a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio. In the 1970s Steven made his commercial film debut with The Sugarland Express and later became an international superstar with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Steven is responsible for some of the biggest blockbusters in movie history including: E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Schindler's List, for which he won Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture.
He went on to make Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, the WWII mini-series Band of Brothers, Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, and Munich, which received five Academy Award nominations and was Spielberg's sixth Best Director nomination. Steven is also the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and the Irving G. Thalberg Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has dedicated himself and his resources to many philanthropic causes including the Righteous Persons Foundation which was established with the profits from Schindler's List and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, which has recorded over 50,000 Holocaust survivors' testimonies. Steven is married to actress Kate Capshaw and is the father of seven children.
When Leah describes her own parents and upbringing, the role models for a son who had the creative wherewithal to make his first movie at thirteen is clear. "Although it really could have been a dismal childhood, it was so full of color. My father was Russian and very into the arts and loved music…He would never walk into a room; he would leap into a room like a Baryshnikov. We were poor and happy." Joy, as Leah described it, permeated her upbringing, including religion. "Shabbat," she said, "was the most glorious day in our house." Passing on the tradition, religion also played a significant role in her household. "We always lit candles and had Shabbat dinner. Although we weren't very religious, the kids were raised in a very traditional home."
Leah said that it was her mother, Steven's grandmother, who originally saw something in her grandson. "My mother, who was a highly intelligent woman, would say to me, 'Keep your eye on him. He's amazing.'" Although for a free spirit like Leah it wasn't about pinpointing some abstract quality and honing in on it. Reflecting today, she said, "I don't think like that. If I saw it, I wouldn't have recognized it."
As a child that was always ahead of the curve, Leah said that Steven was speaking "articulately" at a year. When most kids his age were playing with trucks or sports, Leah said Steven's childhood was more about making films in the backyard. "He came up with such weird things. I loved his crazy ideas." While other mothers were driving their children to little league, Leah said she was involved in a different way. "I schlepped him wherever he wanted to go to shoot film. When he was twelve he wanted to go to the desert and film, so I took him." As fitting for someone who would go on to become the most famous director of his generation, Leah said that Steven was always the director in these situations. "I didn't set the example. He directed me from the time he was very young." Asked about whether, and when, she read to him, Leah said there was no schedule, an approach which is certainly emblematic of her parenting style. "Whenever is the greatest time I know."
For Leah, being Steven's mother was about sharing his passion for movies. "I was always fired with this kind of creativity. I loved the birth of things." However, Leah was hardly a pushy, over-bearing mother trying to make her son into a young film prodigy. More than anything, Leah said that her parenting style was as much defined by cultivating her own interests as it was about Steven. "I had my own agenda. I was busy with my own stuff. I would say to the kids, 'Don't kill each other,' when I would leave to do my own things."
However, Leah was always there when it mattered. "I remember he used to get frightened, because he had such a vivid imagination. I would just hold him until he calmed down." Leah described a zest and passion for everything she did in life—qualities her son certainly inherited. Comparing her enthusiasm to watching a storm ascend, Leah said, she loves watching things build. "I love excitement. When a storm is coming you should see me." It was this image, she said, that encapsulated how she parented and approaches her life. "I lived for the moment and never about tomorrow or the day after."
While there was certainly an unusual energy permeating Steven's childhood, Leah said there was also a sense of normalcy about the day-to-day routine. "We ate dinner together every night. It was important for us to do that because, as a family, we really ignite each other."
Leah said she has, and would, do anything to help Steven in his career, including ruining her brand new kitchen cabinets. "We had just built this gorgeous house with ash cabinets and Steven was working on film called Firelight…it was really quite a production. There was a scene where a bunch of cherries explode in a pressure cooker and I hurled the contents of all these cans of cherries on my ash cabinets and as they're slowing oozing down, he's filming. It was fabulous. I lived in the house for eight years, and I never got the cherry juice out of the cabinets. Every morning I'd get up with a sponge and go, it oozed for eight years. I've ruined my cabinets, but I was so thrilled with the shot he got."
Asked about her involvement in the more typical aspects of her son's life, Leah said, "I had the world's record as the one Mom who did not join the PTA. I ruined the hundred percent membership rule." In lieu of spending time at PTA meetings, Leah said she took the kids on trips. "We traveled a lot. We did a lot of camping. I'm a camper, a real basic camper." Reflecting on how she participated in Steven's enormous success, Leah said, "I always used to tell him that guilt is a wasted emotion…but we come by it honestly, because that's the Jewish part." Leah also credits her approach of treating her children as adults. "I never lectured them. I talked to my children as friends, so the advice I gave came out as non-pushy, which is why I think they could take it to heart. I think most kids won't listen to things their parents say just because a parent said it. With Steven, and all my children, it was more of a friendship of give and take. I wanted them to think of me as their ally."
Particularly as her children got older and entered their teenage years, Leah conveyed a sense that she "got it." "I would always tell the kids if you go to a party and you're having a wonderful time, you should leave because they'll want more and then they'll call you again." It was this ability—to give advice that spoke to her children's needs at different points in their lives—that Leah said defined her parenting style. "I was the type of mother who would keep my kids out of school to go get chocolate sundaes because I wanted to hang out… Above all, I never pushed them to do anything, including make their bed." But that didn't mean that everything always went smoothly. "We fought. We screamed, but we did it in a healthy way."
Leah said she also made a concerted effort to expose Steven to the complexity and humanity of the world—experiences which are certainly reflected in the breadth and depth of his films. "We were always adopting or picking up all kinds of people, whether it was the housekeeper or the child of alcoholic parents… We were not class distinct people. We never saw class. If we saw class we actually gravitated toward the lower class, not the upper class. We just felt more comfortable there." Leah said that this is how Steven still lives his life. "Steve and Kate are frugal. They have middle class values. They want their kids to grow up with values. And so, in order to grow up with values, particularly when you're a billionaire, you need to have restrictions. I think that Steven is, above all, someone who sees different people's points of view, whether it's middle class, whether it's someone struggling, or whether it's a lost kid."
As fitting for someone who interprets the world through such a creative lens, Leah said her experience of motherhood could be captured by a photograph she has of herself and her daughter, Sue, in the living room in their pajamas: "The picture was just so dramatic. I was just so swept up in the moment, which is how I am. I'm just very present."
Above all, Leah emphasized her commitment to just being who she was—a quality she certainly imparted to her children. "I just like being me. I like my role in life." For Leah, that has meant eternal youth to a certain degree. "I think some of my parenting success has come from the fact that I've never lost my inner child." Having a mother like Leah, who helped her son realize his dreams, has set in motion a much bigger chain of events. "Steven has always helped young film makers. I think he realized the importance of having someone believe in you." Distilling it all down to an apt metaphor, Leah said, "You have to let your kids lead. It's just like dancing."