Marilyn Lewis, owner of Kate Mantilini, has played many roles: a restaurateur, couture designer, author and model. In 1950, Lewis founded the popular Hamburger Hamlet chain with her husband, Harry, a former actor. At Hamlet, Lewis was one of the first female chief executives of a multimillion-dollar company. The chain was still thriving when the Lewises sold it in 1987 and opened Kate Mantilini, which also became a hit among Hollywood's glitterati. John Travolta, Jodie Foster and Jennifer Aniston are among the cadre of A-listers that frequent the Beverly Hills restaurant. Famed director Michael Mann is such a big fan of the Lewises and their establishment, he chose Kate Mantilini as the setting for the seminal scene in "Heat" when Robert De Niro and Al Pacino shared the big screen for the first time. Billy Wilder frequented Kate Mantilini for his menu favorite: calf brains. The couple opened a second Kate Mantilini in Woodland Hills in 2003. She is especially proud of being a pioneer in hiring African-American waitresses. Lewis met recently with the Business Journal to discuss her years of experience.

Question: Who is Kate Mantilini and what's the legend behind this name?
Answer: Kate Mantilini was my Uncle Bob's mistress in the 1940s. Before my mother passed, she exclaimed, "How could you name this wonderful restaurant after such a terrible woman?"

Q: What did your husband think about the name?

A: He said, "No one will be able to spell it!"

Q: Your restaurants have always been celebrity favorites. How has the cult of celebrity changed over time?

A: We did not have the paparazzi the way we do now when I started up Hamlet. During the heydays of Hamlet, celebrities could be private but were also very personable and humble. They would always invite us to parties. Marilyn Monroe would place orders at Hamlet under the name Mrs. Smith. When John Travolta comes into Kate Mantilini he treats us like we are the celebrities.

Q: What prompted your passion for hiring and training African-American women for your restaurants?

A: What I did was from my heart. Back then, I had no understanding of activism. I had no understanding of the term "civil liberties." I did not know what it meant to be an advocate. Let's never get so intellectual about the words we use for motivation because sometimes what we do simply comes from the heart.

Q: How did it start?

A: As a teenager, I ran a modeling agency in Cleveland and had these absolutely gorgeous black models. When shops declined to use my black models I told them, "If they don't work the show, you don't have a show."

Q: Did you bring that same attitude to the issue when you opened Hamlets with African-American waitresses in Los Angeles?

A: Well there were some experiences that never left me. Before we opened Hamlet, Harry and I went to a restaurant called Chock Full o' Nuts Jackie Robinson was on the board. We sat down and I saw these signs on the wall that say "No Tipping Do Not Tip Our Waitresses." All the waitresses were colored girls, to use the vernacular at the time. I was appalled. "What is this?" I asked. I told our waitress we were going to leave her a dollar and she said, "Please don't."

Q: How did this experience affect how you chose to operate Hamburger Hamlet?

A: When we opened Hamburger Hamlet, we needed waitresses. I told Harry let's employ the sisters, wives, nieces and daughters of the African-American Pullman train waiters. At that time, most black women on this side of L.A. were working as laundresses or maids.

Q: But you did a lot a more than employ waitresses.

A: I told them I had a modeling school and that I am going to do that with them. I taught them elocution, diction, walking, posture and menu education. I taught them the history of food. For example, I explained the origins of French onion soup and how the French would drink so much wine, they thought the soup would help them recover from hangovers. Some of these women stayed with Hamlet for years and sent their kids to college on their wages and tips.

Q: How did the community respond when you opened your second Hamlet, which was in Westwood, in 1955?

A: At the time, Westwood was a tight little community and mostly white. The first day there, people had written terrible words on the windows, words I will not repeat. Also, that day we kept hearing: "Bang! Bang!" People were throwing tomatoes at the window.

Q: So what did you do?

A: I told the waitresses to hold their heads up high and that there will be no stooping over. "You practiced walking with a book on your head and you are going to carry yourself that way," I said. "And if anyone treats you poorly or makes you really upset, I am going to kick them out."

Q: What made you who you are?

A: Honestly, I don't know. I only had a high school education. I had a very bad childhood. My mother and father divorced when I was only 9 months old. I was raised by my mother who spent most of her time working for a dollar a day a dollar a day! We lived with my grandparents and had no money. Everyone was scraping for money and I had no one to talk to until Hattie came along.

Q: Who was Hattie?

A: Hattie was an African-American woman from Louisiana, who came to work for my grandmother for free room and board. Hattie became the love of my life. She called me Blondie and walked me to kindergarten. She was the one who would make my lunch for school. She bought me my first real Christmas gift.

Q: What happened to Hattie?

A: Hattie was an alcoholic who would disappear on binges and show up three and four days later. When I was 16, Hattie was hit by a taxi driver while she was on one of her binges and thrown 300 feet and killed.

Q: Did your relationship with Hattie played a role in your minority hiring practices?

A: I definitely think so. Hattie became my heart. She was like a mother, a friend, when I had no one.

Q: How else did Hattie influence you?

A: Before Hattie passed, she told me that my father was not in Italy as I had been told but lived nearby. I finally met my father when I was 12. He called me his "beautiful princess" and I ran away with him to California. He and his sister arranged for me to ride to California on produce trucks so he would not be caught by my mother as a kidnapper. Eventually my mother sent a probation officer to California to pick me up and bring me back. I would have to report to probation after that and would sit among prostitutes and robbers even though I was the farthest thing from a criminal. That experience made me determined to never lead that kind of life.

Q: Why did you come back to California?

A: I wanted to be a dress designer and at the time Hollywood, with all its glamour, was the place to be. I've always had an enormous sense of style.

Q: What do you want your legacy to be?

A: To have been a teacher, to seek out youth and talent, develop them and send them on their way. I want to equip people with the tools they need so they can take off.

Q: How do you stay so thin?

A: I don't watch what I eat but I eat very small meals throughout the day like six meals a day.

Q: Grazing! What else do you do?

A: I drink tons and tons of water. I would rather drink water than eat. My grandmother did not have a wrinkle on her face when she died at 92. I try to stay out of the sun. I stopped smoking in 1974. I went from five scotches a week to two martinis a week. But this is years ago. And truly, I am in bed by 8:30 or 9 p.m. It doesn't mean I am sleeping, but I am resting and I am not out there playing.

Q: Have you always been outspoken and articulate?

A: I never developed the social skills of talking out loud and opening up until my 50s.

Q: How did you balance marriage and work?

A: It wasn't easy. There were problems. But I love him to pieces isn't he handsome? It is very tough to balance marriage and work, and it has its days. But if you get it going in the right direction, and stay patient, it appears that it works, as best as it will.

Q: What is your advice for young women starting their own business or just struggling to get their career off the ground?

A: It's tough for men and women. But in the end I have this to say: Find where education is, work where you will learn, start at the bottom and learn every part of what you think is your dream.

Marilyn Lewis

Title: Founder and Owner

Company: Restaurants Kate Mantilini and Gardens on Glendon

Born: Cleveland

Education: High school

Most Influential People: Coco Chanel and Oprah Winfrey; also Hattie, from her childhood, whom Lewis describes as "the love of my life."

Hobbies: "Golf, when I can find the time"

Personal: Lives in a Wilshire Corridor
penthouse with her husband of 57 years, Harry Lewis

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