ON A SHOESTRING: Edward J. Leven arrived in town in 1960 with a handful of rubber checks and proceeded to buy a couple of multimillionaire Avery Brundage’s properties on a shoestring.
Brundage, onetime virtual czar of the Olympics, would soon regret the deal and that he hadn’t looked closely into Leven’s dubious real estate dealings.
Leven also bought the family-owned Santa Barbara bus company, perhaps for the nickels in the fare boxes.
Using wife Joyce Stone Leven’s alimony, he planned to live in a grand manner and parlay his new holdings into a multimillion-dollar estate. “It is our hope that in 10 years Mrs. Leven will have $2 million free and clear in local real estate,” Leven predicted. (That’s when $2 million would buy a gorgeous Montecito mansion.)
Nothing could be in Leven’s name because of his two-and-a-half-year prison jolt for forging someone else’s name in a San Francisco apartment house deal.
The Santa Barbara Transit Company, owned by Gaylord Spreitz and other family members, was soon plunged into chaos. Drivers went on strike because Leven’s checks bounced, service was interrupted, the insurance was canceled because of nonpayment of premiums, and the feds threatened to sue for unpaid taxes.
Meanwhile, the Levens were living high on the hog in the former Walker mansion, a 15-bedroom spread on Sycamore Canyon Road, and spending time at a rented beach cottage, complete with servants.
But in less than two years, Leven, his wife, three children, 11 cats, a dog, and rabbits were stealing out of town in the dead of night with four vanloads of furniture, leaving behind a bankrupt bus company, thousands of unpaid bills, liens, and lawsuits.
The small bus company, which people joked ran a “Toonerville Trolley” operation, had been looted. With a net worth of $148,000 when Leven took over, it was worthless when he left town and owed $185,000. The little buses reminded me of the one in The Graduate.
After Leven left town, a receiver was appointed to manage what was left of the company. After the mess was explored, the public Metropolitan Transit District was formed, with new buses and vastly improved service, from Carpinteria to Goleta.
Leven’s problem may have involved his admiration for New York swindler/blackmailer/draft dodger Serge Rubinstein. “Serge was one of the fastest men with a balance sheet I had ever seen,” an admiring Leven once said. Too fast, it seems.
In 1955, Rubinstein was found strangled to death on the floor of his Manhattan mansion. One woman had left the womanizing Rubinstein’s place earlier in the evening, and he was soon on the phone trying without success to convince another to visit. At some point that night, he was murdered. As for Leven, he reportedly had a blonde alibi. The crime remains unsolved to this day.
After Leven split town, Brundage’s people repossessed the El Presidio property in downtown Santa Barbara and the Montecito Inn.
Before he took off, leaving a financial shambles behind, Leven told people he planned to head south and subdivide the Beverly Hills Golf Course. To my knowledge, that never happened.
THE MUSIC MAN: For two hours, I was back in the innocent Iowa of 1912, watching a small-town piano teacher falling in love with a rascally traveling salesman, and vice versa. The magical time traveling took place at Santa Barbara City College, where the Theatre Group is staging Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (through July 25). Director R. Michael Gros has put together a delightful musical harking back to Willson’s own Iowa childhood, featuring girls in pinafores, gossiping mothers in flowing frocks, and barbershop quartets singing sweet songs of yearning love.
TY WARNER: As expected, the Beanie Babies billionaire has won a sentencing appeal and won’t have to serve prison time for tax evasion. Federal prosecutors had appealed the judge’s sentence allowing probation for the owner of the Biltmore Santa Barbara and San Ysidro Ranch. Ty still has to serve two years’ probation and pay a fine of over $53 million — and he owes taxes on the $25 million he was caught hiding in a Swiss bank account.
REESE READS HARPER LEE: Ojai resident Reese Witherspoon narrates the audio version of Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman. It was written before Lee’s beloved 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird but never published. Both the new book and Southern-born Witherspoon’s audio version were released this week.