The answer is Floria V. Lasky — their lawyer.
One of the most powerful and respected figures in the world of theatre, Lasky, who died last September at age 84, also represented, over the course of six decades, many other big names of the stage, among them Frederick Loewe, Jule Styne, Carson McCullers, Burl Ives and Gypsy Rose Lee. After they died, she frequently became involved in their estates and helped run their foundations.
"She was a pioneer," says Christine Conrad, a longtime friend, former New York City film commissioner and author of a pictorial biography of Robbins, "Jerome Robbins: That Broadway Man." "When she began, there essentially were no female attorneys in the world of entertainment law. They just didn’t exist. She opened up the field." Lasky is remembered for the strength of her character, for the loyalty with which she represented her clients and for her glamour — her large and colorful hats and her cornucopia of jewelry, the multiple rings and necklaces. Her pulled-back dark hair, almond-shaped blue eyes and high cheekbones lent her a sense of drama. She was named for Floria Tosca of the Puccini opera, and the name seemed appropriate — she resembled in a way the opera star Maria Callas, for whom Tosca was a signature role.
The child of immigrants from Poland, Lasky was born in the Bronx in 1923, started Hunter College at age 14 and graduated first in her class from New York University Law School. She began work at a law firm — known when she died as Fitelson, Lasky, Aslan & Couture — and stayed for 62 years, eventually becoming a partner.
"She was a fierce attorney, and she managed to build up such an unbelievable roster of clients," Conrad says. "She was passionately loyal, including during their political difficulties." In 1999, when Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar, many entertainment people were upset because in 1952 he had given the House Committee on Un-American Activities the names of eight former theatre colleagues who, like him, had been Communist Party members. Demands were made that he apologize.
But Lasky would hear none of it. "Apologize? Recant? That's a good Stalinist word," she told The New York Times. "It seems to me he never said it was an easy decision."
She also had the force of character to persuade Robbins, who was known throughout the theatre and dance worlds as very demanding, that she was the right lawyer for him. "Bill Fitelson of the law firm had handled him," Conrad recalls. "Fitelson, an older man, had been more of a father figure. When she took over, she had a difficult time gaining his [Robbins'] trust. But she did. She would say herself that it was a bumpy road. But in the end she became the executor of his estate. He trusted her with his creations. That was her strength. She got what she wanted."
Lasky's other strength was her family. She was married to handsome and charming fashion advertising executive David R. Altman for 53 years, until his death in 2000. He reveled in her success and actually delighted in being called "Mr. Lasky" at all her openings. And she raised two daughters, both lawyers — Emily Altman, of Manhattan, now a managing director at JP Morgan, and Dara Altman, of Washington.
So perhaps the best way to conclude this Life in the Theatre tribute to a life well lived is with a quote from Lasky's daughter Dara, who is executive vice president for business and legal affairs at XM Satellite Radio. In a 2006 interview she told The Washington Post: "My parents gave me the gift of feeling I could do anything. They gave me the gift of unconditional love and a great education. But, even more than that, I had the gift in my mother, Floria Lasky, of the woman that I wanted to become. She is an entertainment lawyer and a legend in her field, and even more importantly, a great mother. And she filled our house with amazing people like Jerome Robbins, Elia Kazan and Carson McCullers. So I knew I wanted to find a way to be a lawyer in the entertainment business and to be engaged and involved as she has been."