Volume 74, Number 10 | July 7 - 13, 2004

Horror not forgotten on W. 10th

By Lincoln Anderson

It’s been a long time since November 1987, when little Lisa Steinberg was beaten to death by her adoptive father Joel Steinberg in a crime that was too sick and inhuman to even imagine. Yet the memories of the coked-up child killer; his lover, Hedda Nussbaum, whose battered face became the symbol of his insane savagery; and Lisa remain painfully vivid on the block where they lived — W. 10th St. between Fifth and Sixth Aves. in the heart of the Village.

In the days following Steinberg’s release from prison last Wednesday after serving 16 years, the legal minimum of two-thirds of his sentence for manslaughter, current and former residents of the block and others said they remembered the tragic family and how the story had stunned the city.

Today, the block of W. 10th St. seems a peaceful paradise. Many of the townhouses have well-tended, lush gardens. Several homes are undergoing renovations to their facades or stoops.

Donna Boguslav was watering her garden with a hose last Thursday afternoon, just across the street diagonally from where Steinberg once lived with Nussbaum, Lisa, who attended P.S. 41, and their other child, a younger boy, also adopted.

“They pretty much kept to themselves,” Boguslav said. “He wasn’t doing anything obviously outrageous walking around. But this is a fairly neighborhood block and they always pretty much kept to themselves.”

A baby sparrow on Boguslav’s doorstep had fallen out of a tall wisteria vine and the mother was chirping nearby and keeping a watch on it — as if an allegory in miniature of the basic compassion Lisa Steinberg sadly never knew.

To the left of the doorway at 14 W. 10th St. a bronze plaques tells passersby the building was once home to the great American writer Mark Twain. Two doors to the west another plaque announces that Emma Lazarus, the poet who wrote “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” was once a resident.

A woman in a housedress and slippers with keys around her neck on a chain came down the stairs taking the trash out in the building next door to No. 14.

“I think it’s terrible. I knew her very well,” she said of little Lisa. “There was no sign at all. They said that in school they saw bruises — I saw that child a day before and I saw no bruises whatsoever.”

Rather than a repugnant monster, the woman said she found Steinberg attractive.

“Absolutely. He’s a charming — just look at him — handsome man. Well she…I thought she was in an automobile accident.

“Well, it’s done,” said the woman, who declined to give her name, going back into the building and closing the door.

A couple of people going into No. 14 had little or nothing to say about the incident.

“I wasn’t here back then,” said a young man in a blue Oxford button-down shirt and khaki pants, before ducking inside.

Another woman, middle-aged, just flashed her pale, blue eyes when asked if she had anything to say about Steinberg getting out. Her two friends who were waiting outside confirmed that, yes, she had lived there in 1987.

At the venerable Marshall Chess Club across the street last Thursday, Tom Malloy, 45, and three friends were the only members present. Most of the rest were in Philadelphia for a tournament with big cash prizes.

Malloy said he remembered the debates that raged among club members at the time of Lisa’s murder and during the trial. Steinberg hadn’t been a member of the club.

“It was very shocking,” he recalled, sitting next to the table where Bobby Fischer played his famous “radio match” with a grand master in Cuba. “There were a lot of issues about whether Hedda should have been held. There were a lot of discussions. It was a monstrous case. You think about New York and how people you see, your next-door neighbor, could be suffering something terrible…or could be a genius, Einstein.”

Among the photos on the wall was one showing Marcel Duchamp as a member of the Marshall team of 1922.

Nussbaum avoided jail time by assisting the prosecution against Steinberg. In fact, Nussbaum actually returned to the block last Monday, according to Jamie Greaney, who lived on the block in the 1980s and tends many of its front-yard gardens. Greaney said he’s sure he saw her come by two days before Steinberg got out.

“Hedda was here Monday afternoon,” Greaney said. “From what I heard, she already fled New York. So she was maybe taking a last look.”

Steinberg’s now living Uptown on W. 145th St. in a halfway house for ex-convicts and can roam around the city during days but must check back in at night.

Greaney said he thought Steinberg was a “jerk.” He said Steinberg once kicked his dog, feeling it was blocking his way on the sidewalk. A seeming gentle giant, Greaney warned Steinberg angrily not to ever try it again.

“I said, ‘If you ever kick my dog again, I’ll rip off your arms and floss your teeth with them,’ ” he said, recalling his words verbatim. “He had issues with dogs…. You could just tell — angry, angry, angry.

“They were generally not pleasant people,” he said. “And she’s just as guilty as he is.”

Greaney said he recalled attorney Steinberg sitting at the bar at Knickerbocker’s on University Pl. and conducting business loudly with clients while Lisa was left to play on the bar’s floor.

He noted that the building whose front lawn he was tending last Friday morning was once home to Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. Across the street lives Bruce Davis of 1-800-LAWYERS.

And yet, Greaney said of Steinberg and Nussbaum, “They were not the two weirdest people on the block. There were two other couples that were fighting in that building. I had a friend who moved out of there because of it. There was a murder-suicide in that building in the early 1900s. There was a female poet who died there in the ’40s…. The street is beautiful, but it belies what goes on on it.”


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