What a curious license plate, the mayor was thinking.
“What’s beshert ?” Richard Riordan asked press aide David Novak as they headed into a radio station recently.
“You and Nancy are beshert ,” Novak said, defining the Hebrew word. “When two souls are brought into the world, you’re fated eventually to be together. And when you come together, it’s meant to be--strong people and similar interests, from biking to children to taking care of people. It’s beshert .”
A week later, Nancy Daly, the mayor’s beshert , arrives at the Children’s Museum. Her presence is as muted as the kid-packed building is raucous. She slips in wearing a taupe pantsuit and pearls, her dark blond hair curling slightly beneath her chin.
At first glance, Daly seems rather like the incarnation of two Southern Californias--the fresh, pert looks of Gidget polished by the tasteful imperatives of Rodeo Drive. She’s petite--and remarkably trim, thanks in part to thrice-weekly visits from a personal trainer she met while helping at MacLaren Children’s Center, the county’s emergency foster home in El Monte for abused and neglected kids.
MacLaren might seem an odd place to find a fitness guru, but it’s one of the capitals on Daly’s map. The facility has been one of the most notable stops on her journey since her first visit 15 years ago.
The ripples from that visit have been profound. Daly, 52, went on to become one of L.A.'s most prominent children’s activists, partly by harnessing substantial Hollywood contacts stemming from her 30-year marriage to Warner Bros. CEO Robert A. Daly.
Nancy Daly helped start the United Friends of the Children, a charitable foundation that channels volunteers’ time and money to MacLaren; she helped establish the county Department of Children’s Services, and she served on the nonpartisan National Commission on Children, which recommended government policy reforms.
Dr. Donald Cohen, director of the Yale Child Studies Center, served with Daly on the commission from 1989 to 1992. “She was the central, most important person on the commission for adolescence and foster care and the transition from foster care to adulthood,” he says. “She brought this real personal engagement to thinking about these children because she didn’t relate to them in a professional capacity, but as a mentor and advocate and friend of children in foster care.”
In the course of helping children find some semblance of family life, and a little peace, Daly found more than a personal trainer--she found Riordan. He had lost two of his five children a decade ago--his only son drowned and a daughter died of bulimia--and Riordan was known for funneling his money and his drive into children’s charities. (They receive most of the $3 million he donates yearly.)
Daly and Riordan met about five years ago, when she asked him to fund a $20,000 computer reading lab at MacLaren. (He did.) Riordan was impressed: “I thought she was somebody who obviously cared. I was very struck with her practical ability, that she knew how to implement things, which is rare among people, whether in government or charity.”
A couple years later, Daly and friends hit up Riordan for another donation, this time to help bankroll an immunization program for underprivileged children. He gave $25,000.
“He got on the speaker phone and rounded up other people immediately who then gave us money,” Daly says. “It just happened when we sat there. It was very obvious that he does things immediately. He’s a doer and doesn’t put things off. I had never seen anybody operate that way before.”
Daly filed for divorce in November, 1991, and her first date with Riordan was a Christmas holiday party at Union Station.
“When I found out she was separated,” Riordan says, “I thought, ‘This brilliant, beautiful caring human being, I ought to do something about that.’ ”
Says Daly: “I think both of us have lived full lives. We’ve had a lot of experiences, and sometimes I think we’ve been in training for each other.”
He had been footloose since his separation five years ago from his second wife, Jill. But Daly has been the official First Significant Other from the start of his Administration, appearing by his side at the July, 1993, inauguration.
They live apart--Daly in an airy, 15-room home in Bel-Air, and Riordan, 64 today, in a $6-million French Colonial house in Brentwood--and see each other, she says, “as often as possible.” That often translates to five days a week, for city and charity functions or that scarce resource, leisure: biking, reading, or spending time with family or friends.
Making the date is no easy feat. “It’s a complicated procedure,” Daly says. “It takes his office and my secretary a lot of planning. They talk to each other a couple of times a day to coordinate.”
Both Daly and Riordan are Catholics, and the mayor’s personal life has caused ripples in the Catholic community. The Los Angeles archdiocesan newspaper, the Tidings, recently published this query from an “ordinary divorced Catholic”: “Given that the mayor has been married twice, is separated from his wife, has been keeping company with a married woman, and is ‘pro-choice’ regarding abortion, how can he receive Communion?”
Father Gregory Coiro responded that separated and divorced Catholics may still receive the sacraments. The couple declines to discuss Catholic reaction to their relationship.
Even if theirs is not a marriage, it’s a union of sentiment and city life. Riordan has charged Daly with heading a committee to propose changes in the way Los Angeles serves children.
“I didn’t need another responsibility,” Daly says, legs crossed on a floral sofa in her home. “But I knew it was an opportunity to create some change and bring in these fabulously talented people that I knew. There’s never really been a place in the city to go (on behalf of) children. You could go to an individual city councilperson on an issue, but there was never the place to go. More than anything, we’d like to see that happen.”
Daly is also taking on the major renovation of Getty House, the mayor’s official but vacant Windsor Square residence, near Hancock Park. She has recruited friends to raise funds, and the committee has persuaded professionals (architect Grant Taylor and attorney Jeff Glassman, among them) to donate services. David Hockney is honorary chairman of the art committee. Their mission is to restore the 1921 English Tudor home for an April, 1995, opening.
The mayor has no plans to live there. “But there is no really official place (here) to properly entertain foreign dignitaries and conduct the business of the city in a way that would entice people to do business (in Los Angeles),” Daly says.
She is mindful of the importance of meshing work and pleasure, bringing to the city years of experience as a CEO’s wife in Hollywood, where business is often done outside studio walls.
“It’s one thing to sit in an office and it’s another to sit at dinner and interact in a more informal way,” she says. “I think there’s tremendous benefit to that. New York City has Gracie Mansion, and it’s a privilege and an honor to go there, and I think we need a similar setting in this city.”
Daly knows the art of entertaining. In court papers stemming from her divorce, she argued that her skills as a hostess enhanced Bob Daly’s professional reputation, creating “executive goodwill” that helped him reach the top of his field. She said the warm family atmosphere she cultivated despite his long work hours and her charity deeds also contributed to his image and earning power.
“Bob always supported my work in charities and I believe that this work enhanced his reputation and standing in the entertainment industry,” Nancy Daly said in court papers. “Shortly after Bob became CEO of Warner’s, at my instigation he dispensed with the customary Christmas practice of sending expensive gifts to industry notables and instead made a contribution to MacLaren Hall on their behalf. . . . We were one of the first studio executive families to do this. . . .”
Daly maintained that she was entitled not only to her share of the couple’s tangible assets--estimated by Bob Daly in court papers at $45 million--but also to millions in future earnings because of the so-called executive goodwill. The case resulted in a mountain of documents as Nancy Daly sought to wrest closely held financial information from parent company Time Warner Inc. and court depositions from its top officials.
She attempted to learn the contents of Bob Daly’s new five-year contract and, failing that, of Warner Bros. President Terry Semel’s recently negotiated deal.
As the battle intensified, Bob Daly’s attorneys threatened in court papers to seek a deposition from Riordan. Her side countered that it in turn might seek a statement from singer-songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, described in court documents as Bob Daly’s “current co-habitant.”
The Dalys recently settled the case and agreed to keep secret its details, thus avoiding a monthlong trial and the prospect of their divorce becoming enshrined in California law.
The heady issues of the case demonstrate how American Dream-like Daly’s life has been. She was born in northern New Jersey to middle-class parents; her father was an accountant, and her mother, a homemaker. Her older brother, Gregory MacNeil, is a New Jersey businessman.
She capped a reasonably happy childhood with secretarial school. During her first permanent job as a secretary at CBS, she met Bob Daly, who started his career in the mail room there. They married in 1961, when she was 20 and he was 24, and embarked on traditional married life in a Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment.
She quit work a couple of years later, and in 1966 they started a family. Daughter Linda, 28, teaches learning-disabled children at the HELP Group in Sherman Oaks; Bobby, 26, works as a producer and interactive-computer entrepreneur in New York, and Brian, 23, recently graduated from New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
Daly says she enjoyed being a mother.
“I loved being home with my kids,” she says. “I organized play groups for my children when they were very little. I was always finding ways to network and bring mothers together. And I don’t get crazy over things. I loved having them around. So I was a Cub Scout leader, a Girl Scout leader, a soccer coach. I just loved the world of children.”
Particularly children who might have annoyed less patient adults.
“Kids always have a couple of friends (who) are off the wall and you are going, ‘Oh my God, what kind of trouble are they going to get into?’ As much as I may have worried occasionally, those were the friends I was most interested in. I like kids who are maybe supercharged, who have a lot of dimensions. I find them challenging and exciting.”
After living in New Jersey for 10 years, the Dalys came to California in 1978 for Bob’s new position as president of CBS’ entertainment division. Shortly after the move, Nancy discovered MacLaren.
“Going to MacLaren changed my life,” she says simply.
It happened one Christmas. She had heard through industry friends of plans to hold a holiday party for MacLaren kids. The partyers included Bob Newhart’s wife, Ginnie; Barbara Rickles, and Henry and Stacey Winkler.
“I had never seen a place like this,” Daly says. “It had been a probation facility, and it was turned into a protection facility several years earlier. . . . They changed the population, but they didn’t change the environment for the children. The kids looked sad, and I found it almost unbearable.”
Daly expected the children to be afraid of outsiders but was encouraged by their response to the volunteers’ visits. She returned with Henry Winkler after the Christmas party.
“I never saw anybody with such an ability to relate to these children,” Daly says. “He went into one of the toddler cottages, and there was a little boy on his bed, and he was hitting himself, and Henry said, ‘Why are you doing that?’
“And he said, ‘I’m bad. I’m bad.’
“And Henry sat down on the bed with him and cuddled him and told him he wasn’t bad. And I guess probably more than anything, his sensitivity and this child’s feeling that he was somehow to blame for his being there--he was maybe 3 or 4--that was the most poignant time.”
That was the beginning of United Friends of the Children. The handful of friends has quadrupled over the years to 80 hands-on volunteers. They make monthly treks to MacLaren for barbecues and grooming days, on which Vidal Sassoon hairdressers bolster the kids’ self-esteem with new dos.
“Many of my members did manicures, so we could do massaging and touching and caring and demonstrating to the children that they are cared about by people who aren’t getting paid and who aren’t trying to abuse them in some way,” Daly says.
United Friends also sponsors a tutoring program for learning disabled residents, a theater program and a store where the kids can exchange good-behavior points for new jeans, stuffed toys and Cross Colours T-shirts.
“I must say it was something (Nancy) had a vision for, and it’s grown now,” says longtime friend Joanne Agoglia, who has worked with United Friends and on other projects. “Nancy always has new ideas, and she’s able to make it all come together. She has good instincts for the people that can work together and enjoy being together and because of that, we accomplish a lot.”
Daly’s organizational talent also involves tapping her industry contacts on MacLaren’s behalf: Jon Peters and Barbra Streisand paid for MacLaren’s swimming pool. Warner Bros. donated a bus emblazoned with Bugs Bunny. Movie studios lend first-run prints for special MacLaren showings at the El Monte Theater.
“So we’ve touched every part of the community as a whole to pull them in in some way or other and help us, and we’ve never been turned down for anything,” Daly says.
The beginning was rough, however. County officials resisted United Friends’ efforts until the county Department of Children’s Services was established a decade ago.
“They used to try to fight us from coming to MacLaren and doing what we could do,” Daly recalls. “Because it brought attention to what was really a negative, the open wound of the county. Because it was sort of hidden out in El Monte, nobody quite knew until we came along what was going on and we brought attention to that and made it known.”
Daly, Stacey Winkler and United Friends lobbied heavily for the creation of the children’s department. At the time, money targeted for children “was buried in the welfare system, and we felt the money wasn’t going to the children,” Daly says. “It was going elsewhere. Nobody could find it.”
Working with county Supervisor Ed Edelman, the group enlisted celebrities Daniel J. Travanti, Carol Burnett, Sally Struthers, Henry Winkler and Lyle Alzado to testify for the new department. And it helped TV reporters expose problems in the foster-care system.
Edelman, who appointed Daly to the advisory Children’s Services Commission, says her efforts were critical.
“I think without her help, it may not have been established,” he says. “She was very, very helpful (because of) her enthusiasm, her dedication and obviously her ability to organize and get people to follow her lead.”
And as Daly talked to kids in foster care, she heard the constant refrain: “I want to go home.” Her campaign for family preservation began five years ago.
“The ideal is to work with families and return children,” she says. “Here you’ve created a population of children that can’t go home. There’s no one who’s saved their pictures that they drew all the way through school. There’s not a continuity, someone who remembers their first steps. We have kids who don’t have anybody with those cherished memories. They’re sort of isolated in the world.”
Daly worked with the Department of Children’s Services to change the way the county deals with troubled homes. Rather than put kids in foster care, the idea is to work with families to create healthier environments for children, enabling them to stay at home. And she helped lobby for state legislation a couple of years ago that permits counties to shift some foster-care money to family preservation.
This is one organized woman. A month after the Northridge earthquake, her skills are evident in a nearly pristine collection of Rookwood pottery, made in turn-of-the-century Cincinnati, surrounding her first-floor fireplace.
Only one piece had not been waxed into place, a museum technique for preserving fragile objects.
Only one piece broke in the quake.
Daly’s three dogs--sibling labs Bud and Goldie and Yorkshire terrier Molly--prowl about. Family members dot the living room in spirit and in photos. Daly is particularly fond of one photograph of her Republican boyfriend jogging with the Democratic President. She’s a liberal Democrat, and the picture could be a metaphor for the couple’s political alliance. Daly calls their respective party lines insignificant.
“I consider them at this point labels, and I think many people do. So many of my friends who are strong liberal Democrats, some of whom voted for the mayor and some didn’t. One thing I’ve learned in these months is, the people who voted for him are thrilled with him, and those who didn’t think he’s doing a great job.”
She likes some of the perks of dating the mayor--the dinner with Rosa Parks, the evening at her home with Transportation Secretary Federico Pena. But the sudden transformation into public figure is something else for Daly, who values her privacy.
“I guess I have to say it surprises me, but yesterday I went to a restaurant Downtown, a hotel, and I was parking my car and the man who took my car recognized me,” she says. “That’s still very surprising to me. I’m used to being an anonymous person. But it isn’t something I’m uncomfortable with.”
The consummate organizer recognizes the value of the public eye in getting things done. So although she’s hesitant to do interviews, mindful that requests have come since she and the mayor went public, she consents.
And on this clear morning of spring, with the brash sounds of kids ricocheting off the Children’s Museum walls, Daly tours a photo exhibit, trailed by cameras herself. The exhibit features pictures shot by kids from MacLaren and from Ann Theisen’s home--the former nun has taken in 10 adoptive and foster children, some of them drug babies--under a United Friends program.
The young photographers are there. They’re proud and they’re pulling Daly this way and that to see their work. Maggie, an 8-year-old with long brown braids, takes Daly to see her photo of a baby in bed pondering the onlooker, a hand tugging at her right ear.
There’s a quote with the picture: “I like to sleep in my bed but then I go into my mother’s bed when she’s sleeping.” Beneath those words the quote is translated into sign language, because Maggie cannot speak.
As Maggie looks at Daly in triumph and expectation, Daly responds in the language all children understand. She bends down and plants a kiss on Maggie’s head.
Nancy MacNeil Daly
Family: Recently divorced from Warner Bros. CEO Robert A. Daly, with whom she has three grown children.
Native?: No, moved to Los Angeles in 1978; lives in Bel-Air.
Passions: Children’s charities.
Interests: Mayor Richard Riordan, renovation of Getty House, biking, Rookwood pottery.
Housemates: Dogs of various descriptions.
On being a traditional mother:
“I loved being home with my kids. . . . I loved having them around. So I was a Cub Scout leader, a Girl Scout leader, a soccer coach.”
On arranging a date with the mayor:
“It’s a complicated procedure. It takes his office and my secretary a lot of planning. They talk to each other a couple of times a day to coordinate.”
On becoming a public figure:
“I guess I have to say it surprises me, but yesterday I went to a restaurant Downtown, a hotel, and I was parking my car and the man who took my car recognized me. That’s still very surprising to me.”
* Staff writer Terry Pristin contributed to this story.