Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson
Trainer got personal with realtor to the stars
By Bonnie Rosenstock
When Morena Sáenz heard the news about the brutal slaying of Linda Stein on Oct. 30 of last year, she was shocked, upset and couldn’t sleep. To Sáenz, who was Stein’s personal trainer for the better part of 15 years, Stein was a dedicated student, a steadfast friend and her biggest art patron.
“To me, she was just Linda, who became my friend,” said Sáenz. “I never saw her as the ‘real estate broker to the stars.’”
Stein’s suspected killer was her personal assistant, Natavia Lowery, 26, who claimed that Stein, 62, for whom she had worked only a few months, was verbally abusive to her. For this reason, Lowery allegedly bludgeoned her to death on the back of her head with a 4-pound yoga stick.
Sáenz, in her mid-40s, an East Village artist, paints a different picture of the petite realtor and breast cancer survivor who, she says, treated her with great kindness.
Admittedly, they got off to a rocky start. They first met in the summer of 1989 in California. Sáenz was living there and Stein a former manager of the Ramones was vacationing during August with her two young daughters, Mandy and Samantha. A friend Sáenz was training at a gym referred Stein to her. At the first meeting, they worked out at Santa Monica Beach.
“We had a great workout on the sand, got our feet wet, ran, did jumping jacks and giggled like little girls,” recalled Sáenz. “She had a great sense of humor.”
Afterward, they had cappuccino and shared croissants.
Sáenz acknowledged that both of them had “loud voices.” Stein had used hers when they got stuck in traffic and she was nervous about missing an appointment. But Sáenz answered her in kind with, “Don’t yell at me. I am not your driver and this is not f---ing Manhattan!”
Over the next few days, Stein kept calling her for another session. Finally Sáenz gave in and returned her calls. Stein was contrite and according to Sáenz, said, “Morena, I am sorry. Can we start again?”
“The second time we met, we talked and laughed about the whole thing,” said Sáenz, and they worked together until Stein returned to New York.
Soon after, Sáenz moved to New York to pursue her art and became Stein’s personal trainer.
“At first, our main conversation was very professional,” Sáenz said. “She was a really good student. She liked for me to challenge her with more weights.”
But little by little, they talked about daily happenings as things came up, like their jobs, Stein’s daughters, their relationships.
“We talked like old girlfriends,” recalled Sáenz. “She felt really comfortable with me. We were loyal to each other. I would never reveal any personal stuff.”
In 1992, Sáenz called Stein to cancel their session because she and her two roommates had to move from their King St. apartment, and she needed to find another place to live. After listening to her plight, Stein offered Sáenz her upstairs spare room, where her daughters’ friends stayed over, in the tony Kenilworth, 151 Central Park West, where Stein lived at the time. (Stein was living at 965 Fifth Ave. at E. 78th St. at the time of her death.)
Stein would have the super take out the bunk beds. Sáenz would have to share the bathroom the doormen used, which was also on the top floor, but she could use Stein’s kitchen and bath downstairs.
“I asked how much,” related Sáenz. “She said ‘nothing.’ I told her I would give her workout sessions as a trade for rent, but I knew that all the workouts in the world couldn’t pay for the Central Park address and the awesome view from the rooftop,” she said.
While living there, Sáenz, a Mexican-American from El Paso, Texas, created one work, “Crossing Borders,” a brightly colored painting of running legs navigating mountains and water. A year later, she moved to her present studio in the East Village. Stein, who now was paying her again, also referred her to her rich lady friends, “and before you know it, I was so busy, I had very little time to paint,” stated Sáenz.
In the late 1990s, Sáenz decided it was time to focus on her artwork. She gave up her other clients and took a part-time job in a local gym, but continued to see Stein on weekends. Their workout consisted of yoga exercises, free weights and hikes around Stein’s favorite place to walk, the Central Park Reservoir.
“Linda was the only one I kept when I made the commitment to paint full-time,” said Sáenz. “I don’t know what it was just the chemistry we had.”
Their last workout was in the summer of 2004. She was painting late at night, getting up early for the gym and seeing Stein on weekends.
Finally the time came when Sáenz decided to drop her lone remaining client.
“She understood that I needed more time for my art,” Sáenz said.
“She became my friend, a patron to my art, because with all those workout sessions she paid for over so many years and the clients she gave me, I bought a sh--load of art supplies and created many paintings,” Sáenz said. “She made it possible for me to follow my dream. She had a heart bigger than Manhattan. She was a pretty cool señora. Everyone will miss her. I know I will.”