That's My Boy

updated 04/25/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1994 01:00AM

SHE HAS THE FEEL OF PETER PAN, THIS SEPTUAGENARIAN, her cropped blond hair barely poking out above the booth in her kosher restaurant in West Los Angeles, her tiny feet swinging impishly above the floor. Peter Pan—or could it be E.T.? Either way, she seems other-worldly—at the very least, a bit of a kook. Just ask Peaches. Or Eddie Bow-Wow. The pair—an orangutan and a golden retriever, respectively—are among dozens of stuffed animals that she likes to surround herself with at home. In the daily rough-and-tumble of life, occasionally they get knocked to the floor. "Oh, honey."" she coos, picking one up. "I'm sorry. Did you hurt yourself?" She pets it before placing it back on the heap. "I'm certifiable, dolly," the playful 74-year-old is the first to joke. "If I weren't so famous, they'd put me away."

No chance of that, since this particular nut is Leah Adler—proprietress of the Milky Way restaurant and, oh yes, the mother of Steven Spielberg. The two share an uncommonly tight bond—evidenced by his trepidation about sitting with her through a private screening of Schindler's List last November. "He couldn't bear to be there when I watched it," says Adler. "He couldn't handle watching me react."

Wise foresight; Adler was awestruck and very emotional. "I could not stop sobbing," she says. Four months later she sat with him at the Academy Awards and wept as he accepted his first-ever Oscar for Best Director. "Nobody can imagine what that feels like," she says. "He's walking up there, and this is my kid, who was eating Popsicles at age 3 with the sticky arms and the juice running down his sleeves...."

She pauses, her blue eyes growing intense. "It's almost as if he lost the 6 million himself." she muses. "I don't know where he gained the great passion to tell this story."

Where he gained it, Spielberg himself will say, is in the chromosomes. As he sometimes tells his mother teasingly, "I'm genetic overload."

Actually, Adler can take little credit for her son's connection to the Schindler story. While Steven was growing up, Adler lit candles on the Sabbath because she likes tradition. But neither she nor Spielberg's father—her first husband, Arnold Spielberg, 77, an electrical engineer now living in L.A.—pushed their Jewish identity much further. Says she: "It was a very nothing part of our lives."

Still, Mom can take a lot of credit for her son's creative inclinations. The daughter of a linguist mother and a classical guitarist father, Leah had a long-standing love of art and independent thinking, as witnessed by her children: Steven, 46; Anne, 43, a screenwriter who lives in the San Fernando Valley and wrote the Tom Hanks 1988 comedy hit Big; Sue, 40, a mother in Silver Spring, Md.; and Nancy, 37, a writer in New York City. "Mom kind of wrote her own book." says Spielberg. When, for instance, he fought with his sisters, Adler would come in to arbitrate, listen to both sides, then shrug and tell her kids to go back to arguing. "We'd be so stunned," he says, "that we'd make peace with one another."

To the charge of eccentricity, Leah pleads guilty. "I was a very delinquent parent," confesses Adler, who married Arnold Spielberg in Cincinnati in 1945 and later moved to Scottsdale. Ariz. "I became a member of my kids' gang. If they wanted to stay home from school, they did. I'd say, 'Let's go out in the desert, guys,' and then I'd write lying notes to their teachers about gastrointestinal diseases."

If there were clashes in the Spielberg home—and there were—they were not between Adler and her children. In 1965, after years of tension, Leah and Vrnold divorced. A year later, Leah married Bernie Adler, another electrical engineer. "He was so funny, so bright, so moral," says Leah. He was also her ex-husband's best friend. Says she: "I was madly in love."

And still is. In a booth at the Milky Way, Leah's eyes momentarily (ill with tears. Recently her husband was hospitalized for a heart condition. Though he has been released and his prognosis is good, she cannot help but wax philosophical. "We're together 28 years and it's not long enough," she says. "When I visited him in the hospital, he looked at me from his bed and said, 'Being here is not good for you. Go shopping." Not good for me!" she adds, with a sigh. "I am the most loved woman."

And not by one man alone. "I'm on a personal crusade to spoil my mother," says son Steven. So far, so good. There are the Tiffany diamond earrings. And the cosmetic surgery he offered to pay for if she were interested. "I said, 'Steve, listen, honey,' " reports Leah. " 'We're not going to fix my face, we're going to decorate it. And then there are those annual birthday bonanzas. Kour years ago. Spielberg flew Adler and the family on a private plane to Las Vegas for a night of gambling. This year he look over the Beverly Hills Neiman Marcus after hours and gave her the pick of the store. She chose a vest and a denim jacket.

A paltry pick? Perhaps. But "all she cares about," says her bemused son, "is how much I love her." Every so often he pops into the Milky Way and orders his favorite dish: fried smelt. Filial devotion, for this proud proprietor, doesn't come any better. "Is there another mother in the universe who has what I have?" asks Viler. "I wonder."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles

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