LONG AFTER SHE HAD BECOME the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio, Dawn Steel championed a script that almost nobody else believed in. “No one could understand why the story of a Jamaican bobsled team was a good idea,” recalls friend Lucy Fisher, vice chairman of Columbia/TriStar pictures. “Dawn saw life as, if you want something and try really, really hard, you should be able to get it.” The script, of course, was Cool Runnings, which became a surprise hit in 1993.
Nobody ever accused Steel, who also produced such hits as Flashdance, Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II, of not trying hard—right up to the day she died at 51 on Dec. 20 after battling brain cancer for 20 months. “She worked harder on getting well than anybody I’ve ever seen,” recalls Amy Pascal, president of Columbia Pictures, one of many top women in Hollywood who marched through the door Steel held open. “At one point, President Clinton called and asked how she was doing, and she said, ‘I’m fine, but what are you doing calling me? Don’t you have a country to run?’ ”
Born on the very same day as Clinton, Steel was a major supporter, hosting a 1991 fund-raiser for him in her Hollywood Hills home. “She was a pioneer in the film industry,” says Clinton, “blazing a trail for a new generation of young women.” Steel, who traded openly on her sex appeal and earlier in her career saw other women as competition, did not set out to be a trailblazing feminist. “She didn’t even know the glass ceiling was there,” says her friend, producer Lynda Obst. “That’s why she was able to break it.” In Steel’s 1993 memoir, They Can Kill You But They Can’t Eat You, she advised women climbing the corporate ladder: “You can only sleep your way to the middle.”
That was never high enough for Steel. Born in The Bronx to Nat Steel (who died in 1994), a zipper salesman and semipro weight lifter who changed the family name from Spielberg, and Lillian, an electronics executive who died in 1992, Dawn grew up in a rundown neighborhood in Great Neck, N.Y. Her father suffered a nervous breakdown when she was 9. As a young woman, she dropped out of both Boston University (for lack of funds) and New York University (lack of interest) before taking a job as a secretary at Penthouse magazine, where she quickly became director of merchandising. In 1975 she began dating a young actor named Richard Gere. “He was broke and gorgeous,” she told PEOPLE in 1993. The relationship soured when Gere began seeing someone else while filming Yanks in England. Meanwhile, Steel had started her own merchandising company in 1975, hawking toilet paper emblazoned with the Gucci logo. Flushed with anger, the Gucci family sued, and later settled out of court.
Her 10-month first marriage to entrepreneur Ronald Rothstein ended not long after that, and in 1978, Steel headed to Hollywood for a job in merchandising at Paramount Pictures. Her bold imagination (she beamed the cast of Star Trek: The Motion Picture into a presentation for toy retailers) catapulted her to vice president of feature production. Her first film, 1983’s Flashdance, made Steel a hot property—on and off the lot. She began a yearlong romance with director Martin Scorsese—who had just divorced Isabella Rossellini—before she met producer Chuck Roven in 1984. They married the following year.
But with personal stability came professional turmoil. After crossing some of her Paramount colleagues, Steel got the boot in 1987—about the time she was giving birth to her only child, Rebecca. She then got a better job as president of Columbia Pictures, becoming the first woman ever to head both marketing and production at a studio. There, her abrasive style (“She could curse like a stevedore,” says Obst, one of four female pallbearers at Steel’s Dec. 23 funeral) made her the cover girl in California magazine’s 1988 Bosses from Hell issue. “I’m not Mary Poppins,” Steel once admitted, but her manic work habits in fact softened after Rebecca’s birth. “She didn’t find her career as rewarding as being a mom,” says DreamWorks SKG co-chief David Geffen. Steel left Columbia in 1991 for the slower pace of independent producing. She later told PEOPLE, “I’m one happy camper.”
That’s the Steel friends will likely remember. “She had such a big personality and was so vibrant,” says Top Gun producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “You couldn’t ignore her.”
LORENZO BENET and TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles