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His hero’s death sets a man’s life adrift

Times Staff Writer

The laughter went flat. The smiles froze before they had time to disappear. In the back of the Ambassador Hotel ballroom, David Steiner couldn’t tell what was happening. But a change in mood raced through the crowd like an electrical charge, arcing from face to face.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had just finished his victory speech after winning the California primary and exited through a door near the podium. It was just after midnight on June 5, 1968.

At 25, Steiner, who left his job at the Justice Department to join the campaign, had never before felt so giddy with purpose.

Now an awful energy emerged from the closed door. He felt a rush of dread.

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Steiner ran toward the door and found himself suddenly smashed against it in the pandemonium. Women in straw boater hats cried. Men covered their mouths in shock. Steiner tried to pry the door open. But the crowd pushed against him. He saw one woman go under, another shoved hard against the wall.

Steiner dashed to the microphone where Kennedy had just spoken.

“Is there a doctor in the house?” he asked. His voice quaked. “Would a doctor come right here?”

In desperation, people asked him what happened. Steiner didn’t have any information. He was just trying to help anyone who might have been injured in the frenzy. But the movement in the room portended a greater calamity.

Television cameras zoomed in on him as if he were a spokesman, capturing his face forever in that moment.

And then, the cavernous room was nearly empty. The Klieg lights were gone. Steiner was sitting on the stage. Now he knew that Kennedy had been shot in the head and rushed to the hospital. He felt that if he stepped off the stage he would free fall into an abyss.

All his life, Steiner had been on a track somewhere, focused and striving. But like so many young people whose trajectories converged in that era’s burst of idealism, the assassination of Kennedy 40 years ago today would set him adrift.

Steiner grew up in Encino. His dad owned a patio furniture business. David played basketball, football and golf at Birmingham High School and was obsessed with girls and movies.

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His parents were of a generation that hunkered down and tried to survive world events -- not seek to change them. His mother was stoic. His father had a salesman’s view of human relations. He spent his money on sports cars and imported shoes, drank Scotch and didn’t come home much.

By contrast, David was excitable and sentimental, with a voice that caught whenever emotion overcame him. Seeing the hatred in Southerners’ faces as the National Guard escorted black students into school upset him profoundly. He wanted to fight for social justice. When he went to UC Berkeley in 1960, he decided he would be the next Clarence Darrow, largely based on Spencer Tracy’s portrayal of him in “Inherit the Wind.”

He stayed vaguely attuned to events. John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired him. But it was movies that planted in him a sense of soaring potential, a need to do something of human consequence. One weekend, when his parents had guests in town, he holed up in the Encino Theater and watched “Shane” at least half a dozen times.

In college, he met his dad and a younger sales associate for dinner in San Francisco.

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After a few drinks, the salesman blathered on about how he was going to make it big in the paper clip business. On his way back home, Steiner thought, I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. But it ain’t going to be paper clips.

In his final year as an undergraduate, he was accepted to Boalt Hall School of Law.

Steiner was fascinated as the Free Speech Movement roared up at Berkeley. But he didn’t have an impulse for rebellion. Only one time did he step into the fray: He joined the massive sit-in at Sproul Hall.

When police told students they would be arrested if they didn’t leave, he left.

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He felt like a coward as he walked away. But he was just a mainstream kid.

His image of a man fighting for justice looked more like a bespectacled Atticus Finch than longhaired Jerry Rubin. After law school he took a job in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington.

On Oct. 20, 1967, he noticed workers setting up a podium outside his office window on Constitution Avenue. Soon, a crowd of demonstrators coalesced, chanting against the Vietnam War and the draft.

Steiner pictured all of them looking in through the window and seeing this young government lawyer in his rolled-up sleeves. Oh my God, I’m the bad guy, he thought.

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The next day, Steiner joined thousands of protesters marching on the Pentagon.

One of his colleagues, Kermit Lipez, recalls that Steiner had an infectious energy.

“He was always an inspiring figure,” says Lipez, who is still friends with Steiner. “He had this Pied Piper quality. He was just eager and bubbling over with ideas.”

In March 1968, Steiner learned that Kennedy’s campaign was hiring. He went to the headquarters and signed up to work in the California primary as an area coordinator. He quit his job and took a plane to Los Angeles the next day.

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Steiner felt he had seen a deep spiritual change in Kennedy since President Kennedy’s assassination, a suffering; his early impetuousness had matured into a deeper resolve and empathy. Steiner admired how at ease Kennedy appeared shaking hands in the ghettos and sitting with farmworkers in the fields.

On the day of the California primary, Steiner helped get people to the polls in East L.A. He didn’t get back to the Ambassador until late. When he learned that Kennedy had won, he felt he was now at a fulcrum of history where he could make his mark.

Steiner watched the victory speech from the back of the ballroom.

“The country wants to move in a different direction,” Kennedy said. “We want to deal with our own problems in our own country, and we want peace in Vietnam. . . . The fact is all of us are involved in this great effort. And it’s a great effort not on behalf of the Democratic Party, it’s a great effort on behalf of the United States, on behalf of our own people, on behalf of mankind all around the globe. . . .”

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Kennedy looked exhausted, slightly uneasy with the crowd’s roaring adulation.

In Washington the next morning, Kermit Lipez woke up to see the news on television. His old friend was unmistakable -- the high, strained voice, the wide-set jaw tapering to narrow chin.

“For me that remains a terribly vivid memory,” recalls Lipez, now a federal appellate judge in Maine.

Steiner felt like his face was now a symbol of that moment.

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He drove around Los Angeles for days, depressed and lost. He saw the photos and TV footage of “Bobby” lying on his back, blood pouring from his head. Steiner thought Kennedy looked like a little boy, alone, as people panicked around him.

Following the assassinations of JFK and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Steiner saw this as the very vision of hope dying. Old, cynical forces had finally trampled a youthful insurgency that sought only justice and peace.

Steiner hooked up with an old girlfriend and went with her one afternoon to a hairstylist on La Cienega Boulevard. While she was getting her hair done, he wandered the street and stepped into a rug shop. The owner -- a burly, thick-forearmed man -- offered him some tea. They sat and talked about the assassination. The man kept saying how the Kennedys were womanizers. Steiner blurted out: “I think I’m going to Europe.”

The man, perhaps sensing that Steiner had lived a sheltered life, offered some advice: “Jump in every barrel of . . . you can find.”

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This struck him deeply. The most elaborate plans can be dashed in an instant. The experience cannot.

He flew to London and met a beautiful woman who showed him around the city. She took him to a pub, where he drank too much and made a pass at her. He never saw her again. In Paris, he sat in a room under a bare lightbulb reading Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” over and over. He hitchhiked through Austria and crossed the Iron Curtain to Prague. He slept in a barn one night when he ran out of money. In Greece, he met a woman working at the American Express office, and they took off to see North Africa.

But by January 1969, he decided he wanted to go home. The artist inside him clamored to get out. He signed up for film school at UCLA and worked the window at All-American Burger on Melrose Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard. One day, he saw a stylish man coming up to the window.

It was his father.

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They eyed each other.

“It was the Kennedy thing, wasn’t it?” his dad asked.

The look in his eye said more: Why is my Boalt grad, Justice Department attorney son working at burger stand?

“Yeah,” Steiner said.

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He would struggle in Hollywood for years -- jumping into every barrel of dung like the rug man told him.

Steiner flew to Oakland to make a documentary on the Black Panthers as a project for his master’s degree. He would follow them on and off for three years, until Huey Newton confiscated his footage and fled to Cuba in 1974.

He tried to write a book about the margins of the Hollywood dream. He volunteered on a phone bank for farmworkers’ rights. He married a woman in New York and wrote a script about Latino asbestos workers. He got divorced and moved back to Venice Beach, where he took care of a disabled beat poet, William Margolis. He wrote poetry and screenplays and essays.

For all the passion he threw into every endeavor, they nearly all collapsed in failure.

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When Stefani Valadez met Steiner in 1986, he had just returned from helping refugees in Nicaragua and was living in his Volkswagen van in Venice.

“He didn’t have a credit card,” she says. “He didn’t have car insurance. He was helping a paraplegic, doing his shopping. I think he slept on his couch.”

He had recently started practicing tai chi. She showed him a very difficult move -- Snake Creeps Down -- in high-heeled boots. He was transfixed.

She was a musician with a 10-year-old son. Within six months, she left her boyfriend and moved in with Steiner.

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Valadez’s own artist’s spirit was checked by her single-mom’s practicality. Steiner slowly realized he needed to be more pragmatic if he wanted to be serious with her. He started to work stints for law firms, ghostwriting briefs.

They got married in 1989. When Valadez got pregnant, he agreed to take the bar exam.

As he was taking a bath, Valadez delivered the good news that he passed the exam. “I hate lawyers,” he said. “I’m going to keep writing my screenplays.”

After briefly trying to start an entertainment law firm, they moved to Barcelona for a year in 1996. To pay for their boys’ tuition at an international school, they started teaching English.

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Steiner had never thought about it before. But he loved teaching.

In room 204 of Hamilton High School last week, 13 students were watching Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.” The teacher flips on the lights. He is thin and athletic, with a wide-set jaw, narrow chin and white beard. He wears cargo pants and a Nehru-collar shirt.

“I think what made Brando amazing was not just his brute force but the sensitivity. . . . There was a gentleness. A gentleness.”

His voice quakes. His hands drive home his words.

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Steiner has been teaching history and film for 11 years -- first in Compton, now at Hamilton in the South Robertson section of Los Angeles. The school is predominantly black and Latino, with a mix of white, Middle Eastern and Pacific Islander. Last year, in an informal poll, the students voted him their favorite teacher.

In a sense, this job was his big break.

He is still an artist. In summer and on weekends, he furiously types away in Venice, writing a book about his life.

But he sees his teaching as the refocusing of all that youthful energy that was scattered that night 40 years ago.

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Valadez constantly worries he will get fired because he holds nothing back. His opinions on the Iraq war, on the Bush administration, corporate Hollywood -- they all come pouring out in stream-of-consciousness fervor.

He continues his lecture, gesturing feverishly.

“What makes Hollywood so crazy is that mixture of the vulnerability it takes to make art and the hard edge it takes to make money,” Steiner says.

“The trick is to make your break in a dirty business and remain innocent and vulnerable enough to deliver when you make your break.”

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At 65, he still has enough of the 25-year-old in him to deliver.

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joe.mozingo@latimes.com


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