Lee Moldaver, for more than 30 years Santa Barbara’s most ubiquitous community activist and by far its most mysterious, died July 28 at a Santa Barbara acute-care facility while recovering from a particularly difficult gastrointestinal infection that laid him up in the intensive care unit for more than six weeks. He was 71.
In recent years, Moldaver had been most active with the Santa Barbara Chapter of the Audubon Society; before that he’d been one of the more prominent public faces of the Citizens Planning Association, the Trust for Public Land, the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, and the Public Education Foundation to name just a few. In the will he’d been preparing at the time of his death, Moldaver had named 16 community organizations he wished to leave money to. In his apartment, there were hats of more than 100 organizations with which he’d worked.
For decades, Moldaver would show up regularly at Board of Supervisors meetings and City Council sessions to weigh in on one item or the other. He was unfailingly gracious in his remarks — taking pains to find something kind to say about his opponents — and flamboyantly erudite. At one point, Moldaver was an investor in the Victoria Street Theater, the last independently owned movie theater in Santa Barbara. He always had something to say, and his remarks were impeccably crafted.
Until ill health sidelined him, Moldaver made it a point to be everywhere at the same time; he knew absolutely everyone and — endowed with a prodigious intellect and encyclopedic memory — seemingly knew everything, too. While Moldaver clearly lived the life of the mind, he was also an avid volleyball buff, either as a fan or player. He did not have a TV, he once explained, saying it would have distracted him from making the rounds as vigorously as he did at myriad art openings, civic fundraisers, gala events, free lectures, and concerts in the park.
Whatever Santa Barbara had to offer, Lee Moldaver always dove in headfirst and never had any interest in coming up for air.
Moldaver was a major player for a while with the local toastmasters community, and back when KDB still existed as a classical radio station, Moldaver’s commentaries on civic matters were frequently broadcast for public consumption. People calling county government and put on hold would often find themselves listening to Moldaver’s thoughts.
Politically, Moldaver was a prominent figure in the nondenominational, moderate, slow-growth, environmental-minded progressive ascendancy that took over local politics in the late 1970s and has remained in charge until it was supplanted by the more party-dominated politics that holds sway now. As public a figure Moldaver was, it was never clear — at least to friends — whether he was Republican or Democrat. As ubiquitous as he was, Moldaver was also intensely private, secretive, and it seemed almost intentionally mysterious. Close friends remain uncertain about key details of his past and how they fit together. Moldaver attended the University of Chicago; he also reportedly attended Yale. He was also reportedly admitted to Harvard Law School, but he ultimately opted to move to France instead, either to study film directing with acclaimed French film director Francois Truffaut or to write a book about him. But when Truffaut died, Moldaver moved back to the United States.
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It appears Moldaver probably moved to California in the mid-1970s reportedly because of his intense interest in things cinematic. It appears he moved to Santa Barbara in 1976, and he struck up a close friendship with Tom Rogers — a Yale alum who was regarded as Santa Barbara’s rising political star who could go all the way until his career — and his life — was cut short by ALS.
Moldaver grew up in Cleveland Ohio; his full name was Leo Joseph Moldaver. His father, Joseph Moldaver, was an attorney specializing in wills and trusts, and his mother, Pauline, was an Argentinian refugee. (He has a younger sister, Linda, and younger brother, Simon, as well.) Both Moldaver’s parents were reportedly devout in their Jewish faith; Lee himself was not. Moldaver’s mother — an avid early morning swimmer -— -moved to Santa Barbara in 1982 and lived much of that time with Lee; she died late last December at age 92. Lee was named executor of her estate. Moldaver did not marry and left behind no children. What he did for a living was never exactly clear; he lived a frugal existence. His passion — aside from being in the swim of Santa Barbara life — seemed to be environmental protection and open space preservation. Intellectually, he was an insatiable omnivore, and he would often pop into the offices of local media outlets — always unannounced — and share the bounty of his knowledge. He displayed a keen awareness of the idiosyncrasies and tendencies of the many reporters who covered Santa Barbara politics over the past 30 years, and he was uncommonly familiar with the comings and goings of players within Santa Barbara’s political bureaucracy, particularly as it related to land use. He was, in other words, a fountain of inside information and exhibited a keen grasp of how a given elected official’s actions might not conform with his or her words.
If Moldaver knew everyone; everyone did not know Lee. Warm and generous in person, he was also reflexively private. On occasion, he might drop a revealing unexpected detail about an unknown past, but when asked, he could be counted on to change the subject. Even close friends were at a loss at how best to contact him.
In later life, Moldaver exhibited an almost spooky awareness of the health challenges being faced by many of Santa Barbara’s more prominent citizens. If you want to get in touch, he would say, now is the time. His information was typically precise. Sadly, for many of the people who came to know and care for Moldaver over the years, there was no Lee Moldaver to do the same for him. Prior to his death this Wednesday, this paper received several calls from people in the community wondering about Moldaver’s whereabouts. He died at an acute care facility, asphyxiating on food shortly after being fed a meal. He had just signed the legal papers instructing the facility he did not want to be resuscitated.
This story was revised and updated on August 2, 2021.