It’s hard to know where to start with Loreen Arbus—not least because of the joyous, dizzying whirl of the apartment in which she lives. She started her career as a television executive under an assumed identity, dropping her last name in favor of her grandmother’s maiden name. As the daughter of the Chairman of ABC, Leonard H. Goldenson, she didn’t “want to ride on his coattails”. Eventually she had to come clean but by then she was already on her way, working her way up to become the first woman to head programming at a national network. Along the way she worked as a story analyst, a writer, a producer … and a celebrated Argentine tango teacher, performer and choreographer. You may have not seen that one coming.
The list of the awards she has received and the boards and charities with which she has been involved, is simply too long to include here but her focus is especially driven by her commitment towards improving the lives of disabled people, having had a sister, Genise, who was born with cerebral palsy. “Being different is the most terrifying thing to most people,” she says “And people are so afraid of that which is different.”
She was extraordinarily open with us about her childhood and family, as she is in other interviews, but quite private about herself personally—we had to push a bit to find out her favorite TV show. Read on to find out what it is.
So you’ve packed a lot in to your life! When I read about you, it kind of made my head spin. You think, “Oh my God, this woman does everything!”
Oh my goodness!
But you have also talked about being marginalized as a little girl and maybe as an adolescent. Did you feel that you were perceived as a little rich girl in school?
Well going to school in Greenwich, Connecticut, that was the least of anything that would stand out quite honestly—and my family was so conservative. I mean my parents both drove Chevrolets that were six or seven years old. We called them lemons and they were.
So it was being Jewish?
That was it. In Greenwich—oh my goodness! I hated being in school there! It was an Episcopalian school and there was one other set of Jewish sisters. And this is the ironic part—I was so embarrassed by my classmate’s mother—I’m Jewish so I can say this. She was so Jewish. She had bleached blonde hair, wore much too much make up. She was brassy and tough and her daughter was the first one in the class to develop. We censored her for that. She wanted to be friends with me … and I wanted to be as far away from her as I could. I feel very badly still.
Do you find it quite fascinating about how those things stay with us so many years later and inform other parts of our adult lives?
Ohhh yes. I wanted to blend in. I don’t want to be the same … you go to a black tie event in this town or the opening of an art gallery and everyone’s dressed in black. I hate that.
But now about the last thing you seem to want to do is blend.
I never did blend—ever. I always had kind of weird taste. Actually I’m using the word ‘blend’ and that’s the wrong word. I wanted to be accepted. A big difference. And I never was.
And of course you grew up with a sister who had cerebral palsy, so you also knew about how disabled people are marginalized. How did people treat her?
People don’t know where to put their eyes. People talk louder around disabled people even though my sister had perfect hearing. The mothers of the girls in my class told them that they didn’t want them coming to our home.
Would that sort of thing happen today do you think?
Well there was a more complicated reason. My mother was mentally unstable, to put it mildly. In much later years she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. And she was very violent, a very, very angry person.
What effect did that have on you?
Oh … just depressed. I was just depressed throughout my entire childhood. I cried a lot. I’ve been an insomniac since the day I was born. When I read the book Mommy Dearest, I said to myself, “That’s nothing. What’s the big deal here?” Because what Joan [Crawford] did to her daughter was mild compared to my mother, who would come in the middle of the night screaming. I’d be sleeping and she’d scream, “Did you leave this here?” or “You go down and clean that up!” So I think I was afraid to go to sleep. I think I was tired all the time. I still am. People always think of me as high energy but I put on a great act. I summon it up.
So what does drive you?
Wanting to be accepted still. Wanting to be liked. I mean women have this as a disease.
But it strikes me, looking around at all your color and the way you love tango, that you’re very life-loving.
Absolutely. I’m living the childhood that I didn’t have in my adult years. When people come in and say, “It’s like walking in to Alice in Wonderland!” it’s like “Yay!” I want to make people happy. I don’t want people to be uncomfortable but I want them to be shaken out of their safe place.
I often find depressive people the most interesting people in the room—they can actually be the most joyful but also the most unflinching about reality.
I’m not cynical though. But I’m not trusting … people have to prove themselves. I’ve been really very vulnerable with people I did trust and it was a terrible mistake. It’s been hard all my life because people have an agenda and they want something from me, and what they think I can deliver.
You worked in television—was that what you really wanted to do or did you fall into it because of your father?
What I really wanted to do was to be a journalist. I didn’t want to ride on my Dad’s coattails. I changed my name when I was about twelve. And when my father was in the building in L.A., I’d go and hide. I didn’t want to be seen with him. I really was successful in maintaining my secret identity.
But you can’t be the head of programming somewhere without being able to do the work, surely?
Yes, but no one was going to take that chance with me because I was going to turn them in. I had the line straight up. I campaigned very hard for the job at ABC [When I got it]—I had to say to the [boss Wally Weltman], “Wally, I need to tell you something. I’m the daughter of the Chairman of the Board.” And he said to me, “I can’t say that it doesn’t make a difference. It does. And I don’t know that I can honor the offer I made. I need to have a [working] relationship where it’s open, where I can say anything about anyone and you can say anything about anyone and it stops there.” He went on quite a bit more, very articulately. It turned out to be the greatest working relationship—wonderful—but he was right. I could have said anything to anyone if I had wanted to.
What was your relationship with your Dad like?
It was really good. But distant. He was a person who didn’t have an interior life. He just was in the present given the circumstances that the present offered.
We were always close but it was “business close”. When I go to someone’s home for dinner it’s such an alien experience to me. When I see a well-adjusted family situation—a loving man, a loving woman, children who are loved and who love each other. This is another country.
What do you mean by that?
I don’t know how to relate to it. We sat there at the dinner table. My father came home quite late … if he was coming home. And we sat there at the dining table and we were served by the housekeeper. My sister and I just wanted to get away from the table. It was so formal. The room was so quiet. Invariably my mother would ring the bell and then Vera would come in with another serving. Let’s get done already!
And yet your mother was this pioneer of all these changes in the laws to help people with disabilities.
Absolutely. I will spend the rest of my life paying homage to both my parents.
What strengths do you think you brought to your career?
I would spend a lot of time talking to people to find out how they process things. I got a memo one day at my first job at Viacom saying, “Please do not hand in a memo like this again.” Basically it was saying that nobody had the time or the interest to read my flowery prose. So I learned and started looking more closely at other people’s memos.
So we thought you were going to be this hard-driving career woman with loud opinions but you’re actually very soft-spoken—almost shy—and you’re very thoughtful.
Oh thank you. Actually one of the people I just admire endlessly is Sherry Lansing [former CEO of Paramount Pictures] Such a nice human being. I can’t imagine her raising her voice. And she listens to people. She really cares.
I wouldn’t think someone like you would make to the top of nasty business like broadcast television.
Well Sherry made it to the top. I would say like many women I worked too hard in a way. I had no life. And because I had certain learning disabilities—I’m dyslexic—it took longer to get anything right. I mean Showtime when I came to it was a movie-buying service. I introduced original programming.
Can you tell us about your love of tango? How did you discover it?
Argentine tango—big difference. I heard that music [at a small club in L.A. oftentimes frequented late at night by major movie stars] and my heart was just jumping out of my chest …
Were you a dancer as a child?
This is going to sound very immodest but I’ve checked with other people. I was the best dancer in my class and actually at my school, but Mrs. Petrie put me in the back row nears the wings—always. [Note to Mrs. Petrie: Loreen ended up performing Argentine tango all over the world]
So what do you think of this current “Golden Age of Television”?
Television is now at an all time high. Fabulous. I feel like I watch TV all the time. I love reality shows … I’m embarrassed to admit it. I don’t think you should watch the ones I would recommend!
I like watching the Housewives shows …
Oh I would have thought that show was the last thing on earth that you would have liked watching. They’re so horrible to each other!
I think it’s like putting characteristics under the microscope. People are not that different from the Housewives in terms of jealousy, in terms of coveting what someone else has. It’s exaggerated. It’s like going to a drag show. Do you know what? Unconsciously, probably the biggest reason for my watching is that I’m able to say to myself all the time, “There but for the grace of my good judgment go I.”