Family Affairs

A professional Phoenix woman wanted to help one poor, "at risk" family. It was the type of private initiative that both political parties say will ease the harsh impacts of welfare reform. Her three-year experiment in personal responsibility rescued an 1

Esther learned from her dad that she could do anything. Nothing was impossible.

The lesson was a two-edged sword.
Esther tackled life with enthusiasm. While there are entire sections in bookstores aimed at bolstering those who are merely considering a job change, Esther bravely, and successfully, switched careers three times. But with that same gung-ho attitude came hubris. Esther saw no reason she shouldn't overcome complex social problems like drug addiction and a poverty cycle that spanned generations as easily as she changed careers.

Growing up, Esther had also learned a simpler lesson at home: the importance of children.

"I have always tried to be the kind of parent my parents were," said Esther.
She succeeded. Esther made her two daughters, Carol and Sarah, the cornerstone of her life.

As Esther networked and schmoozed her way through the corporate world, her daughters scampered alongside. Everyone learned that when Esther went out to dinner, her daughters accompanied her. The three of them were like sisters; no secrets allowed.

Today, both daughters are well-educated young professionals.
"I speak to each one of them every day," said Esther. "Plus, we are always sending e-mail to each other."

Esther's parents would have been proud.
Esther's dad, an entertainment lawyer, had represented a host of international stars, including Billie Daniels, Lionel Hampton and Eddie Fisher. Esther baby-sat Tony Bennett's kids. Pearl Bailey sang at her Sweet 16 birthday party.

And though he was never a bleeding heart, her father pushed progressive ideas: He championed unions, demanded royalties for black performers and insisted upon integrated accommodations for his stars. Through her father's example, Esther grew up believing in the importance of doing civic good.

Her mother also instilled Esther with values. But they were of a different sort.

The day-to-day tedium of ordinary life bored Esther's mother. So she ignored it. She stayed in bed all day, pleading headaches. At night, the family's black maid would help Esther's mother into her furs, and she would sweep dramatically into nightclubs with her husband, the entertainment lawyer.

Esther does not handle day-to-day routine any better than her mother.
"Order drives me crazy," said Esther. "I make my own disorder. Order bores me."

As an adult, Esther was impulsive in her quest for intellectual and emotional stimulation. She leapt, then looked to see where she'd landed. Husbands, for instance, came in and out of her life like the dry cleaning.

Such peripatetic life choices frighten most people, but Esther was only following her father's advice.

"You have to be a little different. Don't try to be like everyone else. That's what my father told me," said Esther.

Throughout her life, Esther heeded her father's words and clung fiercely to the unconventional in the highly structured worlds of academia, the Chamber of Commerce and parenting.

She combined a good, brave heart and a willingness to face any challenge with a sometimes flaky, superficial focus; she was easily distracted by the next of life's shimmering attractions.

She resided in one of Arizona's earliest geodesic domes. She married five men. She abandoned high-profile careers. Esther had hacked her own trail out of the bush.

Her meandering footpath began back East. Following an extensive education at Cornell, Columbia and Syracuse, and the requisite Ph.D., Esther shed her second husband after moving to her new home in Arizona in 1968. The relocation was not an ideal fit.

She lectured at Phoenix College as a professor of literature. Soon, the department chairman, John Wesley, found himself defending his newest teacher. A fellow traveler in the sexual and political upheaval of the '60s, Esther now found herself in a conservative backwater.

A liberal New York Jew who instinctively spoke her mind did not pass as the girl next door--at least, not in Arizona.

"I ended up as the faculty adviser to SDS as it tried to organize on campus," said Esther. "That was one problem. The day Eisenhower died there was an assembly at Phoenix College. Everyone stood for a silent prayer. I sat down. John Wesley had to give a sworn statement afterwards that I wasn't some kind of Communist. The rumor was that I had refused to stand for the national anthem. It wasn't that; I just don't pray.

"Then I started a film festival on campus. We showed the Arizona premiere of Norman Mailer's movie Beyond the Law. When the first guy said 'fuck' in the movie, every dean in the school got up and left: the Dean of Instruction, the Dean of Students and the Dean of the College."

John Wesley spent so much time defending Esther that he fell in love with her. And while she has remained on friendly terms with all of her husbands, her marriage to John, though not permanent, was special.

He fathered Carol and Sarah and still shares responsibility for the daughters as well as an abiding friendship with Esther.

All that was nearly 30 years ago. Despite the clamor at the time, Esther knows she only dabbled in politics.

"I was so random," she said.
In fact, by the time she left the community college district in 1980 to open her own business, dissident faculty members identified Esther not as a rebel, but as an administration ally.

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