Leah Bernstein, the former executive secretary to producer-director Stanley Kramer, has died of coronavirus-related complications at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s skilled nursing home in Woodland Hills. She was 99.
Bernstein is the sixth retiree to die of COVID-19 at the Woodland Hills facility, despite the staff’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus.
During her long career in Hollywood, Bernstein also worked as the executive secretary to Irving Fein, Jack Benny’s longtime manager, and animator Ralph Bakshi. She had lived in the Mary Pickford House on the Motion Picture campus for the past two years.
Bernstein was born in 1921, the same year the MPTF was founded, “and our care of her at the end of her life was emblematic of the vision of our founder Mary Pickford,” said Bob Beitcher, president and CEO of the Fund. “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 fame 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.”
A Los Angeles native, Bernstein landed a job at MGM Studios when she was only 16, recalling in a 2015 interview: “I remember Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney playing outside the window, and Katharine Hepburn was always trying to get me to play tennis.” She would go on to work with Kramer on 28 films, counting luminaries such as Sidney Poitier, Bobby Darin and Vivien Leigh among her friends.
In 2007, Bernstein 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. “Reflecting on her career, she would often say that she was most proud about the social impact of the films she made with Stanley Kramer and Sidney Poitier, and the way they defied stereotypes of the time,” Beitcher said.
Those films included Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), a Best Picture Academy Award nominee that earned Hepburn the second of her four Best Actress Oscars.
Dorothy Schlom, an MPTF resident whose husband Marshall Schlom worked with Kramer as a script supervisor, called Bernstein “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 enjoyed spending time with her family, especially her great-great nieces and nephews, and was a dedicated volunteer for organizations such as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Beverly Hills Public Library.
“Even in her late 90s, Leah had a dry witty sense of humor and was a flirt until her last days,” Beitcher said. “Celebrating her enduring sweetness, one staff member fondly recalled, ‘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.’”
Bernstein lived her final days on the same campus as her old boss, Stanley Kramer, who passed away at the Motion Picture Home in 2001.