- @ CYNTHIA ADINA KIRKWOOD
Millionaire's Companion Inherits Crusade
Laura Winston and Ben Weingart, right, with President Kennedy in 1962
They breakfasted together at five every morning, reading the newspaper and mulling over business ideas.
Laura Winston and her lover always walked hand-in-hand. “Even when it was cold, he’d pick my hand up and put it inside his coat pocket so he could hold it,” she remembers.
And together they lived the Christian Science ethos of the power of thought.
But those idyllic days ended abruptly on October 29, 1974, when real estate magnate Ben Weingart had his $57 million personal estate, a network of companies he controlled, and his life forcibly – but legally – placed in the hands of others.
Winston, whom Weingart called “the most thoughtful girl I’ve ever known,” was thrown out of the house and forbidden to see or speak with him again.
Six years later, on December 22, 1980, the real estate tycoon died of heart and kidney failure at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles. He was 92.
A coroner’s inquest opened last week in Los Angeles to determine whether Weingart’s death was hastened by the three-man conservatorship’s handling of his affairs. His conservators were longtime friends, business associates, and debtors.
Winston, now 57, who has argued that the legal caretaking that took away her lover was “cruel” and unnecessary, was among those who testified.
When her hour-long testimony ended Thursday, much was left unsaid. But in an early morning interview from her home in Los Angeles, Winston, a former dancer, talked about life with her “darling Ben.”
“I used to remember telling people how close we were by saying, “Did you ever have a partner on the dance floor that you were so close – and I don’t mean physically – that there was no resistance when your partner stepped away?”
“Well, Ben and I were like that in life.”
She met the widower in 1959 and treasures her memories of the 15 years they spent together. She easily recalls the day in 1974 when she moved into his home.
“I got very ill,” she says. “I was overdosed with an antibiotic. Ben absolutely put his foot down. . .
“He said, ‘That’s enough of this nonsense. You’re moving in with me. Now don’t give me an argument. You can’t take care of yourself. You’re too sick.’
“And he had to help me walk, I was so weak. He put me to bed in Mrs. Weingart’s bedroom, which turned out to be my bedroom. In a few days, I had recovered.”
She stayed in his Hancock Park home as his live-in companion but kept her own apartment.
Weingart supported that streak of independence and even encouraged his lover to obtain a real estate license. She thought his business acumen and imagination were exhilarating.
She says the good times with Weingart were filled with simple pleasures.
Almost every Saturday, she and Weingart would visit “his baby” – the city of Lakewood. Weingart had developed the Lakewood Center Mall, one of the first such complexes in the nation, and built rows of inexpensive middle-class homes for veterans.
They would stop at the FedMart store in Long Beach; he was the largest shareholder in the retail chain (which recently folded). Then the couple would drive to Lakewood, where they strolled through the center.
Afterwards, they would visit his favorite Lakewood restaurant – the Marie Callender Pie Ship – where he ate hamburgers, apple pie and ice cream.
Weingart, she says, relished the anonymity he felt there.
Winston depicts Weingart as a warm, thoughtful, and “generous” lover. She says he had a penchant for giving stocks as gifts. One March, he gave her a $10,000 check – a birthday gift. At Christmas, she got another $10,000 check. She says the money was spent in litigation related to her ongoing crusade against the conservatorship.
In another example of his generosity, Weingart promised to create a $2 million trust fund for Winston, she says.
Winston says Weingart, a philanthropist whose family sometimes ate only a can of succotash when he was a boy, “was business all the time.”
“Many times at night, he’d wake up and write down ideas on a pad of paper next to his bed. He felt very constructive ideas came to you in your sleep.”
While she sometimes kindled business ideas, Winston knew what mattered most to her.
“Ben Weingart was my business,” she explains.
“My business was to keep Ben healthy and happy. And I think I did a terrific job. Ben said he was happier with me than with anyone in his whole life.”
Nonetheless, other women shared Weingart’s life. Three years after they met, Winston learned about his relationship with a women he said he’d known since the 1920s.
Weingart told her that the woman had threatened to kill herself if he married someone else. So, Winston, fearful that she would be responsible for the other woman’s suicide, says she accepted Weingart’s unwillingness to marry her.
She says she felt no jealousy, no anger.
“How would I feel if I were (her), and Ben were seeing a younger woman?”
Yet, she says that there were other women in Weingart’s life, including an employee who Winston describes as “a darling lady.”
She says she learned of the woman’s relationship with Weingart the day after his conservators evicted her from his home. She returned to the house and persuaded a guard to let her gather some clothes from her bedroom.
“When I got to my bedroom, I saw a strange suitcase there,”
It belonged to (the woman employee), she says.
“. . . If it had to be anybody, I’m glad it was (her).”
“What can you do about it,” she asks. “If you don’t use your religion at a time like that, you are lost. If you let this thing get carried away inside, it’ll eat your insides out. You cannot let that venom spew within you because you’ll only poison yourself.”
Her refusal to harbor that anger stems from religious convictions she shared with Weingart, she says.
Weingart, who was Jewish, was adopted by a strict Christian Scientist who instilled in him a belief that “a thought is released energy.” Winston, the daughter of a Hungarian mother and Ohio-born father, attended a Christian Science Sunday school as a youngster.
Because of his beliefs, Weingart shunned physicians, Winston says.
She relates a second-hand story about how Weingart was once teased into undergoing an eye examination conducted by a friend.
When it ended, the doctor advised him to submit to glaucoma treatments or lose his sight.
“Ben was not one to panic,” says Winston. “He was very calm in a crisis. But the diagnosis did bother him. He couldn’t work it out mentally. . .
“So, he left his work and he was gone a week up into the mountains all by himself. He sat fishing and what we now call meditating and just renewing the old teachings of his adoptive mother. . .
“When he came down from the mountain, he never had a problem with glaucoma after that because he had conquered it.”
Winston says she remained in strict adherence to the power of thought after the conservators were appointed to take control of Weingart’s life and empire. Despite her beliefs, Winston feels bitterness for the conservators, who she thinks forced Weingart to die alone, without friends or family – without her.
Winston has long alleged that Weingart’s closely monitored life and separation from her shortened his life.
“I was so frightened and shocked by what they had done to Ben by making him a prisoner and putting guards around him,” she says. “I was afraid they would murder him just to get the estate and not have to worry about him.”
“But I never voiced that orally while Ben Weingart was alive because when you say the word ‘murder,’ you give it power.”
(This article was first published in the Long Beach Press-Telegram on July 18, 1982. Laura Winston died on February 3, 2010 at age 85, according to the Los Angeles Times. She had pancreatic cancer, said James Burt, her partner of 20 years. Her legal crusade dragged on 15 years through several courtrooms, with Winston often trying to represent herself because she could not afford a lawyer, her lawyer, Michael Larin said in the Los Angeles Times. It so depleted her finances that for years she existed on fast food, according to Larin.
(In 1988, however, she won a private settlement from Weingart's estate that Larin described as in the low seven figures, said the Los Angeles Times. By the time she died, he said, she had spent it all, mostly on gifts for friends.)