When Robin Strasser auditioned for the role of Elizabeth Stern in the ABC miniseries Baby M, which airs Sunday and Monday, May 22-23, she had an unusual admission to make. “I have to tell you I’m a little shaky,” the Emmy-winning actress, 43, told the producers. “I’m very emotionally involved with this material.” In that, of course, she was not alone. The battle involving Melissa Stern, now 2, her surrogate mother, Mary Beth Whitehead, and her custodial parents, William and Elizabeth Stern, stirred the passions of virtually everyone who followed the case. For Strasser, however, the emotions went deeper. While the custody fight over Baby M made news in 1986 and 1987, the child custody fight over the young Robin Strasser—a case rife with racism and McCarthy-era suspicion—made news from 1948 to 1952.
“I had a feeling there was something wrong with me,” says Strasser, who until now has been best known for her long stints as the beautiful bad girls on Another World and One Life to Live. She concedes that without several years of therapy, she wouldn’t have been able to even talk about her childhood. “When I first read about the Baby M case, I got very immersed in the issue of a child being taken from its mother, because that was similar to my situation with my mother,” she says. “I missed my mother so terribly when she wasn’t with me and loved her so much. When she came to visit, it was like having a princess come down and see me and then go off again.”
The emotional upheavals of her childhood began with a wartime misalliance. Anne Strasser, Robin’s mother, was 19 when her daughter was born in 1945. Her marriage was already failing when she learned that her husband, Martin Strasser, had been discharged from the Army because of emotional problems. Afraid his paranoia would endanger her daughter, Anne sued for divorce. A year old when her parents split, Robin never again saw her father, who died in 1964.
Anne became a department store clerk, working in Manhattan, but she was unable to find suitable daycare for her child. Robin went to live in the Bronx with her maternal grandmother, Mollie Portnoy, for the next year. During that time Anne met and married Roy DeCarava, a noted photographer whose work is still on display in the Museum of Modern Art. Anne knew that Mollie objected to the marriage—DeCarava was black. “I expected unpleasantness,” says Anne, now a writer living in Orange County, N.Y., “but not the course of action she chose.”
Portnoy took her daughter to court and sued for custody of granddaughter Robin. According to the court papers, Portnoy contended that “it was against the best interests of the infant to permit her to be with her mother since…the mother is unable to properly maintain and support the child, that the mother is a Communist, without any regard for religious upbringing…and that she is married to a second husband who is of a race and religion different from that of the child.” Mollie and Anne exchanged bitter words. “These two women, mother and daughter, fought each other so hard,” says Robin. Anne denies ever being a Communist, but because of the political tenor of the time, she and Robin were stopped on the street by FBI agents during and after the hearings.
The first decision went in favor of Portnoy. Aided by the NAACP and the ACLU, Anne took the case to the New York Court of Appeals. People v. Strasser ended in 1952 with the court finding that Anne was a fit mother and ruling that the state had no right to interfere in the religious upbringing of a child.
A strong-willed woman whose memories often conflict with her daughter’s, Anne partly credits Robin’s happy demeanor with getting them through the ordeal. “She made it all seem like apple pie and ice cream,” Anne says now, “which made it easier for me.” Robin, though, says her girlish cheerfulness was just an act masking her inner turmoil: “Although I loved her, and still do, I was coached by my mother on how I was to appear in public and answer questions so I could stay with her. I bought the image of my grandmother [whom she continued to visit until Mollie’s death in 1973] as the wicked witch—a racist and bigot. I regret it now. She may have been what my mother said, but I came to realize later that, having helped raise me, she must have wanted me.”
The custody battle left other scars. “I still can’t get over being afraid to really love somebody,” says Robin, “because I’m always afraid people I love are going to be taken away from me. I know a lot of it comes from that early experience of being judged, of literally being on trial and being found different and unlovable, an outsider.”
The DeCaravas’ interracial marriage, which ended in 1956, didn’t help. “When you’re a [white] child with a black stepfather, you get some heavy duty rejection,” says Robin, whose mother married engineer and painter Eugene Kurakin in 1959 and divorced him five years later. “It would have been a help to know other kids in the same boat. But I had to handle it on my own, and it was easily channeled into acting.”
An actress in her fantasies since she was 3, Strasser graduated from the famed High School for the Performing Arts in 1962 and then won a scholarship to the Yale Drama School. Dropping out after a year, she eventually starred on Broadway (in The Country Girl, Chapter Two and The Shadow Box, among others), but on TV she played perhaps the most popular villainesses ever. From 1966 to 1971 she was Another World’s Rachel Davis on NBC, and from 1979 to 1987 she played One Life to Live’s Dorian Lord on ABC.
For most of those years she was married to actor Laurence Luckinbill, now 53, whom she had wed at age 20, shortly after she began her professional career. Their 13-year marriage produced two children, Nicholas, now 18, and Benjamin, 12. In 1978, while Strasser and Luckinbill were starring in Chapter Two, Neil Simon’s play about romantic perplexities, their marriage crumbled. “We grew very far apart over the years,” says Strasser. “But we had two swell kids. And we were awfully good in that play together.”
In 1980 Luckinbill married Lucie Arnaz, Lucille Ball’s daughter, and in 1983 Robin wed Richard Hogan, an ABC executive. Her second marriage lasted only two years, and Strasser is now dating David Beecroft, 32, an actor she first met on One Life to Live. Robin has left New York in search of nonsoap roles on the West Coast. She and her children live in a four-bedroom, two-story home on Los Angeles’ well-to-do west side. Luckinbill and Arnaz live 15 minutes away, and he spends a lot of time with the kids. “He’s a 100 percent kind of dad,” says Strasser. “Having been a child of several divorces and a lot of parental confusion, that’s been an important lesson for me.”
Strasser appears reasonably happy today, but the old wounds can be reopened. Shooting one scene in Baby M, which called for Elizabeth Stern and her husband (John Shea) to pick up the baby from Mary Beth Whitehead (JoBeth Williams), Strasser broke down in tears. “I was watching JoBeth crying, manipulating, begging to keep the child, and it was impossible to remain neutral.”
The movie, made without the cooperation of Whitehead or the Sterns, gives equal weight to both sides, says Strasser. “Elizabeth felt the child belonged to them,” says the actress, who studied for the role by watching tapes of the trial. “It’s easy to understand why she wanted to give this man a family, because his own family had been wiped out by the Holocaust. Yet I can also understand how a woman [like Whitehead] could change her mind about a contract, because a baby isn’t a bundle of goods.”
If Strasser is ambivalent about the adults in the case, she knows from experience what she wants for the child. “I hope when Melissa Stern is older, she’ll realize how much she was loved. Maybe their methods were lacking, but everyone involved in the case wanted her very badly.”