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Reginald Lewis' daughter opens up about growing up with her famous father

When she was 12 years old, Christina Lewis Halpern was caught in the collision between great good fortune and terrible luck. And the suddenness and severity of the impact jolted her deeply, though it would take years for her to experience the full effects.

And yet, after the pioneering African-American businessman Reginald F. Lewis died of a brain tumor on Jan. 19, 1993, just seven weeks after the disease was diagnosed, his youngest daughter took pains to conceal her shock. She didn't cry. Instead, she reacted by becoming responsible and very quiet.

"At the time, I certainly felt like I was old enough to handle things. I buckled down. My grades, always good, became very good," Halpern writes in "Lonely at the Top," her new memoir.

"After Dad's death, I became serious. I was trying not to be too much of a bother. And I succeeded."

The Baltimore-born Lewis was the quintessential self-made man, possessed of unnerving intellect, self-confidence and drive. After growing up in humble circumstances, Lewis talked his way into Harvard Law School, winning admission even before he'd filled out a formal application. (He later repaid the university's faith in him with a $3 million bequest.)

As the owner and chief executive officer of Beatrice Foods, he became the first black American to own a billion-dollar company. Both Baltimore'sReginald F. Lewis Museumof Maryland African American History & Culture and Harvard's Lewis International Law Center are named in his honor, and members of his extended family, the Fugetts, continue to play prominent roles in the city. Reginald Lewis' five siblings include a former tight end for the Washington Redskins and several lawyers.

"A legacy can be a load," Halpern writes. "I have often found it to be more baggage than I wanted to carry."

In fact, Halpern, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, wrestled with whether to write a memoir at all. In an age of Occupy Wall Street and widespread resentment against the wealthy, she thought readers wouldn't care about the plight of a poor little rich girl.

"I was really ambivalent about publishing this manuscript," the 31-year-old author says over the phone from her New York home. "I felt that the word 'dilettante' was tattooed across my forehead, and I was afraid people would judge me. Money can be a touchy topic."

To Halpern's surprise, readers are responding to her story.

"Lonely at the Top" has been amongAmazon.com's best-selling Kindle Singles in the month since its release. At its peak of popularity, the memoir was the sixth-best-selling Single, and the 134th best-selling book overall in the Kindle store.

("Singles," which were introduced last year by the online book retailer, are stories or essays that are published online only and focus on one topic. They are about twice the length of the average feature in The New Yorker magazine.)

Family members realized that writing the memoir was a way for Christina to finally get to know her father in depth, so they did what they could to support her. For instance, Halpern's mother, Loida Lewis, was instrumental in persuading Harvard Law School to release Reginald Lewis' transcripts.

(Lewis' grades, which included B's, C's and D's, would have placed him roughly in the bottom quarter of his graduating class — a fact that shocked Halpern, who hadn't expected that her brilliant father, with his ferocious work ethic, would have struggled academically.)

"When she was little, I worried because Christina didn't cry after her father died," Loida Lewis says.

"I talked to a child psychiatrist and was told that Christina's reaction was a form of self-defense and that she might not mourn until much later. Writing this memoir has been cathartic for her. It's her way of grieving for her father. And I think Reggie would be thrilled."

The Lewises' eldest daughter, Leslie Lewis Sword, was 19 and a student at Harvard when her father died. Halpern says that Leslie's unwavering support — in the form of regular letters, visits and phone calls — reassured the 12-year-old that she hadn't been forgotten.

"Even though she was very young herself and was coping with her own loss, Leslie was there for me," Halpern says. "She's my hero."

Loida Lewis was aware that their father's death had an impact on both girls but says she was "astounded" at the depth of the insecurities revealed in the memoir.

In hindsight, it's easy to understand why a sensitive adolescent might fear she didn't fit in.

For instance, Halpern says she was an outsider racially. Classmates at her private school were predominantly white, while she's of mixed racial parentage — African-American on her father's side and Filipino on her mother's. It was a combination that at least one schoolmate termed "a Fulatto."

"I became a misfit again, floating between different social circles," she writes. "And so, flitting along the outskirts of each group, I would measure myself against each member and find myself lacking."

Nor did it help that she was the daughter of a man who never appeared to struggle with self-doubt. From the time he was a child, Reginald Lewis seemed to possess both a crystal-clear mental picture of the man he would eventually become and the determination to overcome all obstacles in his path.

Reginald Lewis' aunt, Beverly Cooper, clearly recalls her then-9-year-old nephew telling a cabdriver that he was going to be a lawyer one day, while others remember the youth predicting that he would be a millionaire.

Lots of kids dream of future glory. But not all read the stock pages daily, as Reginald did while attending Dunbar High School in the 1950s. His preferred ride over the unpaved street in front of his East Baltimore home was a 9-year-old cream-colored English convertible that he bought with savings from a string of part-time jobs.

Halpern's memoir goes into some detail about how the young man finessed his way into Harvard Law School through a special summer program created in the summer of 1965 to introduce talented minority students to legal thinking.

It didn't matter that the program was for juniors, while Lewis was a senior; that his grades at Virginia State University were good but not exemplary; or that administrators explicitly stated that program participants weren't eligible for admission into Harvard Law.

Lewis drafted a plan and put it into action. He secured unusually heartfelt personal recommendations and delivered a standout performance in a mock trial. It was enough to persuade the law school admissions staff to waive its own rules — even before the fledgling lawyer had submitted his college transcripts or an application essay.

Halpern says she came to realize that self-confidence doesn't spring from external accomplishments. Instead, it arises from internal certainties.

"I think my father was born confident," Halpern says. "He had abilities, and he made the most of them. One of the things I've come to realize from writing the memoir is that someone doesn't become confident. They find their confidence."

Loida Lewis thinks her husband's formidable drive sprung from the rupture of his parents' marriage when he was 5 years old.

"When he was older, his aunt told him that he and his mother had left his father because he wasn't ambitious enough," Loida Lewis says. "Reginald was determined that would never happen to him."

In addition, Lewis' mother, Carolyn Fugett, made it clear to everyone — including her second husband and five other children — that Reginald came first in her life. She told her eldest son daily how extraordinary he was.

"My other children know that I love them dearly and would do anything for them," Fugett says.

"But they also know that Reggie has always been the centerpiece of my life, and he always will be. He was my firstborn, and I lost him prematurely.

"It gives me great joy to say 'hello' to Reggie every morning when I say my prayers, and 'good night' when I go to sleep."

Nor does Lewis remain a force only in his extended family. Nineteen years after his death, he continues to be revered in Baltimore's black community.

Earlier this week, Rosalyn Fugett Wiley was eating lunch in a local restaurant. When the waiter learned that his customer was Lewis' sister, he hurried over to introduce himself.

"He sat down and gave me my brother's life story," Wiley says. "I sat there in amazement. He almost knew more about Reginald than I know. It's astonishing how many lives he continues to touch."

In the memoir, Halpern describes having a similar experience the first time she visited the Harvard Law School campus. She and her tour guides (who didn't realize that they were escorting the great man's daughter) happened to cut through the Lewis Center. The two young men began regaling their companion with stories about the building's remarkable donor.

Halpern told herself, "They know him, but they don't know you. Nobody knows who you are."

She writes: "I still remember how powerless I felt. I had failed, again."

By all accounts, Lewis adored his daughters. He went out of his way to support their interests (Halpern remembers a $10,000 donation to the public library where she habitually buried herself in books).

Cooper says that every time Christina or Leslie walked into the room, her nephew's face would light up from forehead to chin.

Wiley estimates that the girls' father worked at least 90 hours a week, though she says that Lewis made a concerted effort to spend more time with his family during the five years that they lived in Paris.

Though he spent six months of every year in New York, when Lewis was in France, he made it a point to come home every night for family dinners. These dinners were entertaining and educational, featuring mock trials and trivia questions, and they lasted for hours.

As Wiley puts it: "He gave his daughters everything. Work came first for him, really. But they were right up there."

It was in Lewis' nature to be intense, charismatic, exacting and, by his own account, mercurial. He determined the emotional weather in the house, and as a result, he wasn't always easy to live with.

"When he was happy, his laughter was large and infectious," Halpern writes.

"It would spread contagiously and everyone was happy with him. When he wasn't, everyone walked on eggshells. And when he was angry, I wanted to die."

Among his employees and business associates, Lewis' temper was legendary. At times, Loida Lewis says, her husband couldn't shake his bad mood upon leaving work, and blew up at home.

"He yelled and he cursed, and sometimes the girls didn't understand," she says.

"When he burst out, they thought he was being abusive. They didn't realize that as a black man in corporate America, he was slaying dragons every day. He had to vent, and where else could he do it? When it was over, it was over. I realized I couldn't take it personally."

Halpern's father might not have been perfect, but father and daughter loved one another deeply, and the Lewis women are made of stern stuff. Two recent developments have helped her lay claim to her heritage: writing the memoir and the birth of her first child.

Halpern wanted the baby, now 3 months old, to be strengthened by his family background without being burdened by unwieldy expectations. After thinking long and hard, she and her husband were inspired to name their son Calvin after a favorite writer, Calvin Trillin.

"She wants the baby to be his own person," Loida Lewis says.

"But when I heard my grandson's full name, I was surprised and very pleased. They're calling him Calvin Reginald Lewis Halpern."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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