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

A new memoir by Christina Lewis Halpern explores the legacy of the pioneering African-American businessman

  • Author Christina Lewis Halpern with her father Reginald F. Lewis in the mid-1980s.
Author Christina Lewis Halpern with her father Reginald F.… (Courtesy of Christina Lewis…)
February 10, 2012|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

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'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."

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