By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 5, 2008
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The next day, Steiner joined thousands of protesters marching on the Pentagon.
One of his colleagues, Kermit Lipez, recalls that Steiner had an
"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.
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. . . ."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
At 65, he still has enough of the 25-year-old in him to deliver.