Parents have an immeasurable impact on their children’s lives either as a source of inspiration, a trauma one has to overcome, or a combination of the two. At some point in all children’s lives, they realize their parents are simply normal, imperfect humans with their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. Most kids don’t take their family’s private lives and use it as a source for a major feature film, unless of course you are Steven Spielberg. His newest movie, The Fabelmans, tells the story of his own personal coming of age, his parent’s painful divorce, his experiences with antisemitism, and how filmmaking helped him through it all. This intimate autobiography of sorts reveals Spielberg’s real life parents, Leah Adler and Arnold Spielberg.
Leah Adler was born Leah Frances Posner on Jan. 12, 1920, in Cincinnati, Ohio. She came of age in the roaring ’20s and great depression. She learned to play piano at the age of 5 and studied at the local music conservatory. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Cincinnati in home economics. She was an accomplished pianist and painter.
Arnold Spielberg was born on Feb. 6, 1917, in Cincinnati, Ohio. From a young age, he was fascinated with learning how things worked. At 6 years old, he turned the family attic into a lab in which he created his inventions. He loved learning about other people’s lives, and the radio helped him do just this. Arnold enlisted in the army in December 1941. He would serve as a sergeant radio operator and head of communications for the 490th Bomb Squadron.
Arnold and Leah married in 1945, and their first child, Steven, was born one year later. They moved from Cincinnati to Haddenfield, New Jersey. Steven, or Steve as he was known then, would be joined by three sisters, Anne, Sue and Nancy. The family would move again to Phoenix, Arizona in 1957.
Leah was the artistic, more bohemian parent. Besides her talent for the piano, she was also an accomplished painter. She owned The Village Shop in Scottsdale, Arizona, and displayed local artist’s work. Macosko Krieger, Steven’s longtime producer, stated, “Leah was fun and really gushy with her kids. Not a typical parent. She was just her own independently fierce spirit.” Steven recalled, “My mom didn’t parent us as much as she sort of big-sistered us. She was Peter Pan. She refused to grow up.”
Arnold was an engineer. He worked for RCA and developed the RCA BIZMAC, one of the first business computers. He went on to work for General Electric and was instrumental in designing the GE-200 series of mainframe computers. “Arnold was methodical, very sweet, very quiet,” Krieger stated.
“I missed my dad a lot growing up, even though we were together as a family. My dad was really a workaholic. And he was always working,” Steven recalled.
The Spielbergs would eventually move to California. In 1966, his parents divorced. Steven would live with his father in Los Angeles while his sisters would live with his mother in Arizona. Leah fell in love with Arnold’s best friend, Bernie Adler, and the pair married in 1967.
Spielberg did not take his parent’s divorce well and blamed his father. “It’s still a mystery to me, but even though my mother was like an older sister to me, I kind of put her up on a pedestal,” Spielberg said in a 60 Minute interview. “And my dad was much more terrestrial, much more grounded, much more salt of the Earth. And for some reason, it was easier for me to blame him than it was to someone who I was already—exalted.”
Because of this Steven and Arnold would go through a period of estrangement. “One of the worst things that happened to me was my voluntary fallout with my father, and then the greatest thing that ever happened to me was when I finally saw the light and realized I needed to love him in a way that he could love me back,” recalled Steven.
Although there were many painful and heavy years, Leah, Arnold, and Steven would all eventually find peace and reconciliation. Arnold remarried, tying the knot with Bernice Colner Spielberg. He organized and recorded Holocaust testimonials. Leah eventually moved to Los Angeles and opened a kosher deli called The Milky Way. The two were able to become good friends.
Leah and Arnold have both passed away. Leah died in 2017 at the age of 97 years old. Arnold died in 2020 at the age of 103. Krieger states they were and continue to be “the brain and the heart, married inside of Steven.” They wanted their story to be told. “They were actually nagging me, ‘When are you going to tell that story about our family, Steve?’ And so this was something they were very enthusiastic about,” the famed director stated.
He went on to say, “My life with my mom and dad taught me a lesson, which I hope this film in a small way imparts, which is, when does a young person in a family start to see his parents as human beings? In my case, because of what happened between the ages of 7 and 18, I started to appreciate my mom and dad not as parents, but as real people.”