Stanley Kramer’s executive secretary Leah Bernstein died on Thursday of complications from coronavirus at the Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement home in Woodland Hills in Los Angeles. She was 99.
She is the sixth MPTF resident to die from COVID-19 complications in the past two weeks, beginning with John Breier on April 7, followed by Allen Garfield, Ann Sullivan, Allen Daviau and Joel Rogosin. There are 162 residents at the residential campus and another 62 in the nursing facilities, with 14 who have tested positive in an isolation wing and two others in hospitals. Nine of the facility’s 400 employees have tested positive.
Bernstein also served as executive secretary to Irving Fein — Jack Benny’s manager — and animator Ralph Bakshi. She worked on 28 films with Kramer and counted Sidney Poitier, Bobby Darin and Vivien Leigh among her friends. In a 2015 interview, she said, “I remember Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney playing outside the window, and Katharine Hepburn was always trying to get me to play tennis.”
MPTF CEO-president Bob Beitcher noted that Bernstein was born in 1921, the year that MPTF was founded.
“Our care of her at the end of her life was emblematic of the vision of our founder Mary Pickford,” he said. “MPTF’s commitment is that ‘we take care of our own,’ and when Leah grew too frail, she reached out to us. Mary Pickford always knew that ‘our own’ wouldn’t only be the stars whose flame and fortunes had grown dimmer over the years and needed help,
but also the rank-and-file on the set and in the studios who helped make the stars’ careers and run their lives.”
Bernstein was a native Los Angeleno. At age 16, thanks to her focus on typing, shorthand and bookkeeping at Fairfax High School, she landed a job working nights at MGM Studios. In 2007, she donated a collection of production materials from her years with Kramer to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Bernstein would often say she was most proud about the social impact of the films she made with Kramer and Poitier, and the way they defied stereotypes of the time.
Dorothy Schlom, an MPTF resident whose husband Marshall Schlom worked with Kramer as a script supervisor, said, “She was a delight to know. I remember her sense of humor and the twinkle in her eye as she juggled the problems of the day. She and Marshall often worked together to make Stanley laugh in spite of himself.”
In retirement, Bernstein was a volunteer for organizations such as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Beverly Hills Public Library.
“She believed the most important thing you could do with your life was be genuinely kind to others, and she would
often say to us ‘thank you for being so nice to me,'” an MPTF staff member said.
Kramer died in 2001 at the MPTF. He teamed with Poitier on “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”