Phyllis (left) and Esther Weiss

On April 5, Esther Weiss, who first moved to Santa Monica in 1944, passed away peacefully of natural causes surrounded by her family. She was 97. The mother of my good friend, Phyllis Weiss, Esther had battled courageously. 

Three years ago, at Phyllis’ request, I called Esther and we chatted for over an hour. Hearing stories of her life, I was reminded of Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book “The Greatest Generation.” That was Esther’s generation, which seemingly didn’t complain about life’s hardships, they just did what needed to be done.

Esther was remarkably informed, graceful and calm. I say “calm” with a smile because I wouldn’t say Phyllis, a former flower child, hippie, jazz dancer at the famed Candy Store night club, inherited the “calm gene.”

I’m reminded of when 19-year-old Phyllis wanted to join famed attorney, 40-year-old Marvin Mitchelson, in an impromptu trip to Las Vegas. Esther vetoed the idea, despite Phyllis pleading, “This is supposed to be a democracy.” “No, sweetheart,” Esther replied, “this is a monarchy and I am the Queen.” (A compromise was reached in which a friend joined Phyllis on the overnight jaunt and return home.)

As a peace offering, Phyllis bought her mother a queen of hearts necklace that she wore till her death. In fact, family and friends affectionately called her “Queen Esther,” fittingly because she certainly possessed regal-like grace. As for the necklace, it’s among the precious keepsakes of her mother’s Phyllis cherishes.   

Besides intelligence, what Phyllis and her younger brother Allen seemingly inherited was a boundless free spirit. That would explain Esther’s bold move from Kansas City to Santa Monica at age 21, all alone, and with no job, during the chaotic times of WWII.

She bravely took the El Capitan train to L.A., even though she only slightly knew the woman she would room with. In fact, one day that roommate said she was going to wash her hair and never returned! (She met a guy and moved in.)

But Esther didn’t panic. Ever resourceful, she made friends with people who would ultimately be in her life until old age. Open-minded, she loved meeting people who were different religiously and politically.

Esther worked diligently as a secretary for a Hollywood apparel company. But she and her friends also often stayed up late dancing with servicemen at Santa Monica’s 1400 square foot swing dance club, Casino Gardens. She was also one of millions of  Frank Sinatra “bobby soxers,” young females who swooned and screamed at his shows.

Intellectually-minded, Esther often went to the theater and museums, and attended art exhibits and lectures. She was also part of the joyous excitement as L.A. celebrated VE Day on May 8th 1945.

Esther eventually fell in love with Norman Weiss. He wrote her poetry, wined and dined her, and played her songs on the piano. They were married in Reno, honeymooned in San Francisco, and started their life together.

The couple had two children, Phyllis born in 1949 and Allen in 1950. The family soon moved to a house off Sawtelle, which was separated from Sepulveda by cornfields. It was then Esther learned to drive, and forever loved the freedom that a car provided.

Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t last, and Esther was left with no job and two children to support. Undaunted, she landed a job at UCLA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and stayed until retirement.

Allen would grow up to earn two Masters degrees and a PhD and become a USC professor. Phyllis was a prolific dancer whose talent, personality and looks allowed her to cross paths with innumerable celebrities, including Sinatra.

On her 95th birthday, Esther told everyone she was going to live to 100. She passed away at 97 but, in battling her various illnesses, she kept her word to do her best. In fact, you could say she lived life doing her best.

Not long before her passing, Esther asked Phyllis, who visited her mother almost daily, a question about one of her daughter’s celebrity acquaintances. Phyllis never talked about them nor did Esther ever pry. But on that day, seeming out of the blue, she asked, “What was Frank Sinatra really like?” Phyllis’ answer, “Larger than life,” made her mother smile.

Thankfully, Esther lived long enough to see the birth of her only great-grandchild, Ashton Noah Greenberg. His parents brought him to see her only weeks before she passed. Esther was overjoyed. It brought to mind the optimistic idiom “As one door closes, another opens.”

Esther Weiss is survived by her daughter Phyllis Weiss, son Allen Weiss, daughter-in-law Debbie Macinnis, grandsons Daniel Greenberg, Scott Greenberg, Ryan Jaworski, granddaughters Brittany Greenberg and Katie Jaworski, and great grandson Ashton Greenberg. As family and friends can attest, Queen Esther was graceful to the very end.

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