BROOKLINE — Boston loves its Red Sox and former General Manager Theo Nathan Epstein, who broke the team’s 86-year streak of bad luck in 2004 by bringing the World Series pennant back to Fenway Park.
His father, Leslie, is his biggest fan. “Theo is the smartest person I’ve ever known,” Leslie revealed in a phone interview with the Journal.
From the age of nine, Leslie knew his son was destined for a career in baseball. Theo interned with the Baltimore Orioles during his four undergraduate years at Yale University, where his organizational skills caught the eye of executive Larry Lucchino.
When Lucchino went to the San Diego Padres, he took Theo with him, eventually promoting him to director of operations. Later, when Lucchino became president and CEO of the Red Sox, he offered the then 28-year-old the general manager’s position, making him the youngest appointed GM in major league history. During his tenure, Theo hired top Sox players David Ortiz and Curt Schilling.
“Go around the diamond. He made lots of crucial moves, and they won the World Series in 2004,” Leslie said. (The Red Sox also won the 2007 World Series under his leadership.)
Theo became president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs in 2011. The Cubs are currently in last place. “He’s now with the worst team in baseball, but they won’t be the worst for long. He went to the Cubs for the challenge,” Leslie said, noting that the Cubs haven’t won the World Series for more than 100 years.
Theo and his wife, Marie Whitney, have a son Jack, and are expecting their second child in July, right around the time Theo will back in Boston for the Sox-Cubs series.
While Theo dominates sports news, the public is less familiar with his prestigious family.
Leslie, who lives in Brookline with his wife, Ilene, grew up in a cultural, star-studded environment. Born in Los Angeles, his father was film writer Philip Epstein. Philip and his identical twin brother, Julius, co-wrote several classic Warner Bros. films in the 1930s and 1940s, including “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Strawberry Blonde,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and the Oscar-winning “Casablanca.” They also scripted the then-controversial “Mr. Skeffington,” a film about a Jewish man and his non-Jewish wife. No movie mentioned Jews in those World War II years, but the Epstein brothers broke that barrier.
“I’m proud of that. They had a Jewish consciousness, and so do I,” Leslie said.
Leslie’s academic credentials include undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yale University, a Rhodes scholarship, and Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships. He is a professor and the longtime director of creative writing at Boston University. He authored 11 works of fiction, including “King of the Jews,” a classic of Holocaust fiction, which has been published in 11 languages. Huntington Theatre Company produced a stage adaptation in 2007, followed by the Olney Theatre of Maryland.
Leslie thinks his devotion to Jewish subjects is based on his secular childhood. He was 68 years old before he had a bar mitzvah. While addressing a Jewish group at Yale, he met a rabbi and lamented that he was never bar mitzvahed.
“The next thing I knew, I was saying all these Hebrew words and they were throwing candy at me,” he said.
“If I had been brought up Jewish, religiously, I [probably] would not be writing the books I do. I think this is filling a kind of spiritual vacuum for me,” he added. Leslie now belongs to a temple, and his grandchildren attend Hebrew school.
Ilene, Theo’s mother, is as busy as his father. She and her identical twin sister, Sandy Gradman, and a partner own the fashionable high-end Brookline store, The Studio.
Like her brother Theo and their father, Anya attended Yale University and, like her grandfather, writes for the screen. In Anya’s case, it is the television screen, and she has penned episodes of “In Treatment” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Her actor-writer husband, Daniel Futterman, played slain journalist Daniel Pearl in “The Mighty Heart,” starring opposite Angelina Jolie. The husband-wife team (they have two daughters) is at the helm of Fox TV’s new show, “Gracepoint.”
Theo, like his grandfather and his mother, is also a twin. Paul, his elder by 60 seconds, lives in Brookline with his wife, Saskia, and their son and daughter. Paul has worked as a social worker-counselor at his alma mater, Brookline High School, for 14 years. He and Saskia dreamed of having a teen center in Brookline, and raised the millions of dollars it took to make that dream come true. The Brookline Teen Center opened in September 2013, which is a separate after-school facility, offering everything from homework help to opportunities in the performing arts.
“I worked on it for the past eight years and it was my happiest day professionally to see it open,” Paul said.
Paul, a Wesleyan University graduate, has dedicated his whole career to working with youth. He has served as a Big Brother, and previously worked at the Home for Little Wanderers.
“I tell my students to find the job they love because if they do, they’ll never work a day in their lives,” Paul said.
Paul was thrilled when Theo was working in Boston. The brothers formed The Foundation to be Named Later (foundationtobenamedlater.org), which raises funds and awareness for the disadvantaged in and around Boston.
“It was surreal when Theo won the World Series. I knew we could capitalize on his newfound fame and raise money for important causes, which we‘ve done for the past nine years,” Paul shared.
Leslie Epstein is understandably delighted by his clan’s achievements, from parents to children to grandchildren. He is also humble and dismissive of his own impressive achievements.
“I’m in the middle,” he joked. “My father, then my kids. They’re illustrious, but I refer to myself as the only sandwich with the meat on the outside.”