Cre­ator of her own story

Los Angeles Times - - OBITUARIES - By Christie D’Zurilla

She was an artist whose fa­vorite pres­i­dent was FDR. She de­voured books and news­pa­pers and hosted events where peo­ple could dis­cuss so­cial causes and pol­i­tics and raise money for their ef­forts. She hunted for the Ho Chi Minh trail and col­lected mod­ern art. And she knew how to wield a blow­torch.

Betty Warner Sheinbaum, who died Sun­day at 97 af­ter a brief ill­ness, was also part of the Warner fam­ily — as in Warner Bros. Pic­tures — but her in­de­pen­dence from what could have been a pre­dictable Hol­ly­wood-roy­alty story was, ac­cord­ing to two of her chil­dren, what set her apart.

She lived her life at what her son called “the junc­tion of art and pol­i­tics.”

Born in New York in 1920, the girl Harry Warner named Betty May moved with her fam­ily to Los An­ge­les as a tween when her dad, the first pres­i­dent of Warner Bros., came in search of bet­ter light for his movie pro­duc­tions.

Over the course of her life she would live not only in L.A. but in Santa Bar­bara, Santa Mon­ica and Bev­erly Hills, with a brief re­turn to her na­tive New York dur­ing her sec­ond mar­riage.

At 19, Betty Warner mar­ried Mil­ton Sper­ling, a pro­ducer and screen­writer who was in­tro­duced to her by a fam­ily mem­ber and would be­come the fa­ther of her four chil­dren. They would be wed for 25 years be­fore di­vorc­ing.

In 1964, she mar­ried ac­tivist Stan­ley Sheinbaum, who was de­scribed to The Times in 1987 by lob­by­ist Tony Podesta as “sort of the Statue of Lib­erty for lib­eral pol­i­tics in Amer­ica. He stands there at the har­bor in L.A. and says, ‘Give me your tired, your hun­gry and your poor, and we’ll see if we can do some­thing with them.’ ”

But Betty was the one who made Stan­ley a lib­eral, ac­cord­ing to her son, Matthew Sper­ling. To­gether, the cou­ple em­barked on ef­forts that in­cluded a so­journ to Ph­nom Penh, Cam­bo­dia, dur­ing the Viet­nam War in search of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Stan­ley ran un­suc­cess­fully for Congress twice out of Santa Bar­bara and was chair­man of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, and he and Betty par­tic­i­pated in an­ti­war ef­forts and sup­ported the civil rights move­ment, Cal­i­for­nia farm­work­ers’ strug­gles and ef­forts to bring peace to the Mid­dle East.

The cou­ple helped free fu­ture Greek Prime Min­is­ter An­dreas Pa­pan­dreou when he was held pris­oner dur­ing a right-wing mil­i­tary coup and were cen­tral to Daniel Ells­berg’s de­fense in the Pen­tagon Pa­pers case.

“His whole his­tory kind of blended with hers,” daugh­ter Karen Sper­ling said, though be­fore Stan­ley en­tered the pic­ture, Betty was quite ac­tive in art and pol­i­tics on her own. “Stan­ley just con­tin­ued to pro­vide [her] with the next ad­ven­ture in all of this.” Betty was con­stantly at his side, though she didn’t take credit pub­licly, Karen said; the two were “part­ners.”

All the while, Betty Sheinbaum was a pro­lific painter and sculp­tor, work­ing first in oils, wa­ter­col­ors and acrylics be­fore ex­pand­ing into hand­crafts and even cre­at­ing works with parts of old, junked cars (hence the blow­torch). She al­ways took classes, started a hand­crafts gallery that would in­clude work from hun­dreds of artists and had an ex­hibit of her own work at the Tag Gallery in Santa Mon­ica as re­cently as last year.

Her po­lit­i­cal be­liefs were re­flected in her art, in works such as a se­ries on bull­fight­ing that Matthew Sper­ling called “more sym­pa­thetic to­ward the bull,” and a se­ries of en­vi­ron­men­tal works made with re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als.

Also, she col­lected mod­ern art, stay­ing ahead of the curve as she bought pieces on the cheap that would grow in value over the years, of­ten to be sold later to fund var­i­ous so­cial and po­lit­i­cal causes she was in­volved with. She had a keen eye — think Jack­son Pol­lock and Robert Mother­well.

“A lot of peo­ple buy art to have its value go up and to stick it on the wall and stand back from it. My mom bought be­cause she loved a piece and knew the artist,” Karen Sper­ling said. In their house, “there would be a Henry Moore on the floor next to a teddy bear…. Noth­ing was pre­cious be­cause of its ex­pense or beauty. It was to live with. She had a col­lec­tion to live with. That at­ti­tude just made it part of our home.”

At that home there was also ac­tivism and with it, so­cial con­scious­ness. Betty and Stan­ley, who died last Septem­ber at 96, reg­u­larly hosted events for dozens or hun­dreds of peo­ple. Imag­ine Wal­ter F. Mon­dale or Sen. Ed­ward M. Kennedy, John Ken­neth Gal­braith or Ab­bie Hoffman, speak­ing and of­ten rais­ing money in an art-filled liv­ing room that was a launch­ing pad for any num­ber of cam­paigns and po­lit­i­cal causes. Those events were also a place peo­ple could just meet and min­gle.

The home was al­ways “open to con­ver­sa­tion about the arts, mu­sic, lit­er­a­ture, pol­i­tics,” Karen Sper­ling said. “Her whole life was de­voted re­ally to en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to speak to each other and to learn what was go­ing on in the world.”

Matthew Sper­ling said his mother, though mod­est, was proud to be an Amer­i­can, and she and her sec­ond hus­band gave “sig­nif­i­cant sup­port” to the pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns of Eu­gene McCarthy, Ge­orge McGovern, John An­der­son, Barack Obama and Bernie San­ders, and they hosted for­mer Pres­i­dent Clin­ton at their home when he was gov­er­nor of Arkansas.

Karen Sper­ling said her mother was “al­ways wor­ried” about the state of the world, how­ever, and in the months be­fore her pass­ing would sim­ply roll her eyes and say things like, “How did we get here?” and, about the cur­rent pres­i­dent, “How did we get him?”

“She was deeply con­cerned about the di­rec­tion of the coun­try,” her son said.

Betty Sheinbaum was also proud to be a Warner, he said. “She didn’t dis­tance her­self from the fam­ily … but she was her own per­son. It was re­flected in her col­lect­ing. It was re­flected in her art.

“She was an in­de­pen­dent woman, and when you’re mar­ried to Stan Sheinbaum and to my dad, who at the time was an im­por­tant pro­ducer and screen­writer, and had her fa­ther as Harry Warner — to be an in­de­pen­dent woman was re­ally an ac­com­plish­ment.”

Sheinbaum is sur­vived by three of her four chil­dren: Karen Sper­ling, Cass Warner and Matthew Sper­ling (daugh­ter De­siree Sper­ling, born Su­san Sper­ling, died in 2006). She also leaves eight grand­chil­dren and 13 great­grand­chil­dren.

cdz@la­times.com Twit­ter: @theCDZ

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