The most acclaimed soap opera writer could not create the story about the rise and fall of Manhattan’s Steinberg family, aka the Jewish Kennedys, that occurred during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
Ariel Levy of The New Yorker hosts “The Just Enough Family,” an eight-episode podcast about the late Saul Steinberg, a corporate raider who got the dynasty rolling, via interviews from those who benefited from his American dream come true: his brother Bob and his ex-wife Kathy, their daughters Jane and the designer Liz Lange, plus a brother, mother-in-law, cousin, and former spouse.
It is indeed entertaining, as well as sad, funny, intelligent, ridiculous, and throw in a bit of schadenfreude, because, really, how badly can you feel for obscenely wealthy people with their own 727, helicopter, chauffeured cars, Manhattan apartment purchased from a Rockefeller, Southampton summer house, Aspen ski chalet, Bedford country home, and parties thrown at the Met’s Temple of Dendur? (Levy calls the way they lived “an opulent shtetl.”)
But most of all, there are lessons to be derived from this series about the precariousness of life, the meaning of family, the seduction of money, and much more.
Just Enough Is Enough: As a child, Liz wrote a story about “Lisa” who lived with the “Just Enough” family. As the name suggests, they had only what they needed, as opposed to the Steinbergs who, in her words, “had way too much.” Life imitated art when Liz became friends with the daughter of a single mother who lived in a one-bedroom apartment, where mom slept in the living room on a pullout and the girl had the tiny bedroom. “I just thought that was the coolest. I just wanted her room,” said the scion who had a giant bedroom decorated by a famed interior designer. Sometimes simple is indeed better.
No Matter How Rich You Are ... : Around the time of 9/11, Liz, who changed the game in maternity wear and became a multi-millionaire on her own steam, was diagnosed with cervical cancer, her first husband suffered from mental illness and eventually took his own life, and upon her parent’s breakup it was revealed that her father had been having a decade’s long affair and he was known to her and her family under an assumed name. When Bob married his girlfriend, Liz, serving as an attendant, sobbed through the ceremony. No one’s safe from misfortune.
Money Should Not Be The Glue: “We’re Steinbergs,” stated Liz. “We’re made of money.” Until they weren’t. Everyone loves a winner, but when things went sideways Liz’s grandmother sued her sons Saul and Bob whose business had gone bankrupt. At some point in there, Saul had fired Bob. Friends and colleagues, always around to curry favor, stopped returning phone calls. Suddenly, the family that “lived on top of each other” and spent every holiday together were fighting to the point of collapse. Saul died in 2012 not speaking to Bob, their mother or other family members. The marriage vows about richer/poorer, better/worse, sickness/health, should also apply to family.
All That Glitters Isn’t: “I was always aware that there was a lot from the outside world about my family that looked very charmed,” said Liz. “Not that things were so terrible, they weren’t, but the reality like every reality, wasn’t exactly sparkly. I became overly invested in the idea that even if things aren’t so good, at least let them look good. At least let people from the outside be envious.” Remember that next time you covet someone else’s anything.
Too Much Can Be Too Much: “My mother was a shopper’s shopper,” said Liz about Kathy who spent at least a million a year on clothes and jewelry, then eventually admitted: “Financial freedom is great but the money become too important. It was just about things.” Since around 2014, it’s been reported that people — especially millennials — are eschewing goods for experiences. A turn for the better, no?
With the family fortune gone and members in an us vs. them situation, Liz and Jane remained close, summering in the Hamptons, carpooling, having their kids share bedrooms, and living simply. And it’s just enough.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the upcoming novel “The Last Single Woman in New York City,” to be published by Heliotrope Books.