When Erik and Lyle were nine and 12 years old and beginning to show some athletic prowess, their father told them they had to choose between tennis and soccer, because they couldn’t excel at both. Jose’s own preference was tennis, for its emphasis on individual achievement and, perhaps, for its status as a ritual of the upper class, as well.
The boys went along with Jose’s choice, as always; their father combined the traditional authority of a Latin parent with the steely drive of a modern C.E.O. And suddenly, tennis was not just a sport for them to play but part of a family destiny for them to fulfill, with private coaches hired at extravagant salaries to transform their amateurish game. Erik said Jose had insisted that everything he and his brother did should be perfect or not be done.
One of those coaches, Al Hollander, says the Menendez were “together, concerned about one another. Dad had a lot of intensity, but Mom had a softness and sweetness. It was a picture-book family. I didn’t see resistance or anger.”
Others saw Jose as a darker force, sometimes interfering with the coaches he had hired, barking out orders to the boys in the middle of a lesson. Sometimes, he humiliated his sons in front of friends, then sought to mitigate those hurts with a hug or a kiss. Although this father loved his children passionately, he battered them, if only psychically, with his raging need for his sons to be perfect. “We are prototypes of my father,” Erik explained two months after the murder. “He wanted us to be exactly like him.”
In 1986, RCA was bought by General Electric, and Menendez expected to be named president of the corporation. When he was not, he pulled the rip cord on his golden parachute, pocketed almost $1,000,000 and found more fertile fields in the West—a job with Carolco Pictures, the producers of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies. Jose was hired to reverse the sagging fortunes of International Video Entertainment Inc., a company that Carolco had acquired from a former porn distributor named Noel Bloom and later folded into Carolco’s LIVE Entertainment division.
The only drawback of Jose’s new position was that it meant uprooting the family. For Jose, picking up and moving thousands of miles away was not difficult. He rarely socialized outside work; on weekends, his parents, sisters and their children would spend at least one day visiting, cooking a big meal and watching sports on TV. His entire life was family and work, so there were few close friends to leave behind. But the prospect of moving was devastating for Kitty, who, over the course of their many years in New Jersey, had built her own world of friends, lunches and charity work she cared about deeply.
One evening, Jose suggested that Kitty stay in New Jersey with Lyle, who was planning to attend Princeton University. He would move to California with Erik, who still had two years of high school left, and commute on weekends. Kitty quickly said no to the proposal. Jose went back to Carolco and asked for what he considered a ridiculous amount of money, nearly $1,000,000 a year.
When his request was met, he took the job, regretting that he hadn’t asked for even more. Kitty and the boys dutifully moved with him to Los Angeles.
“If I wanted to have a marriage at all, if I wanted to save my marriage, I had to make the move and give it all I had,” Kitty told a friend in New Jersey.
Although she knew her marriage was troubled, Kitty sometimes chose to avoid that reality with pills and alcohol. She even spoke of suicide on occasion.
Part of the problem may have been Jose’s infidelity. Three years earlier, during business dealings in Los Angeles, he had crossed paths with an attractive executive in the entertainment industry, a woman who can be identified here only as Randy. Their first meeting, lunch at a cozy French restaurant in Hollywood, lasted four hours.
As a newcomer to show business, Jose needed a source with expertise. He was known for doing his homework, always cultivating experts in any new business he entered. The pair would spend hours on the phone, Jose soaking up everything he could about the industry.
Within months, the friendship had blossomed into a passionate romance. Since they worked in the same business and attended the same dinners and conventions, it was easy to arrange assignations. Jose could play committed husband and family man on the East Coast, while he and Randy enjoyed secret holidays all over the world. Randy remembers one European trip fondly, since they could walk the streets holding hands, without fear of bumping into someone they knew.
Jose was “intense and focused,” says Randy. “He would set a goal and then do whatever it took to achieve it. People either loved him or hated him.”
Kitty loomed only as a minor inconvenience in Randy’s mind. She assumed that his marriage was over, that he had outgrown the woman he had married when he was 19. But Lyle and Erik were another issue. There were too many occasions, complains Randy, when Jose felt compelled to shorten their intricately organized trysts, or he canceled at the last moment, because he had to see the boys or attend one of their tennis matches.
Although the affair continued after the move to California, Randy says she broke off the romance about a year before Jose’s death. “He would isolate everything in his life into little boxes. There was a box for me, a box for Kitty, a box for the boys and a box for work,” she says. “He always wanted to control me like he controlled everyone else in his life. We had a big fight about it and it was the last time we talked.”