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Arnie Lerma, the ex-Scientologist who became Scientology's fiercest criticNov. 15, 1950–March 16, 2018
Ever heard the story of Xenu, the genocidal alien dictator who, when faced with overpopulation troubles 75 million years ago, brought billions of his subjects to Earth to execute with a lethal combination of volcanoes and hydrogen bombs; their disembodied spirits to cling to humans and their removal can only be achieved through the teachings of the Church of Scientology? If so, you can thank Arnie Lerma.
Arnaldo Pagliarini Lerma was born in Washington, D.C., in 1950, to a mother who was an executive secretary to the Sudanese ambassador and a father who was a Mexican agriculture official – and who divorced months after his birth, according to Lerma's autobiography. His mother was a Scientology official in the D.C. church around 1968, about three decades after American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard published the first texts that would form the basis of his new religion, Scientology. By the time Lerma joined Scientology at 16 at the urging of his mother, the church had been banned in several Australian states and stripped of its tax-exempt status by the IRS, which deemed it a commercial operation for Hubbard's benefit – though a U.S. appeals court later recognized it as a religion in 1969.
Lerma signed a "billion-year contract" to serve in Scientology's elite Sea Org, a paramilitary force that some have described as a totalitarian organization, according to the Washington Post. But his status among fellow Scientologists changed when Lerma and Hubbard's daughter, Suzette, fell in love (a claim that has been strongly disputed by the church). Lerma's entanglement with Scientology ended after other Sea Org members allegedly threatened to mutilate him if he didn't cancel his elopement with Suzette Hubbard.
Exiled from the religion that had been his home for years, Lerma became one of Scientology's fiercest critics. By 1994, he was posting public court documents involving the church online in the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup that "included testimony from former church officials who describe Scientology as a dangerous cult that brainwashes and blackmails its member and harasses defectors and critics," which earned him intimidating visits from men in dark suits at his Arlington home, according to the Post. In 1995, Lerma was the first to post the "Fishman Affidavit" – documents submitted by ex-Scientologist Steven Fishman that included criticisms of the church as well as the doctrine of Xenu, which Scientology officials argued was copyrighted and a trade secret.
The church accused Lerma of copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation, leading to a raid of his home by federal marshals, Scientology attorneys and data technicians. The church's Religious Technology Center (RTC) sued Lerma, his internet service provider and Post reporters for quoting the affidavit. A federal judge found the reporters had not violated copyright for quoting a publicly available court document, but Lerma was held liable for a small number of non-willful copyright violations and ordered to pay a $2,500 penalty. The court, though, stated it was convinced "that the primary motivation of RTC in suing Lerma, DGS and The Post is to stifle criticism of Scientology in general and to harass its critics," according to the 1995 ruling.
Lerma continued his crusade against Scientology on his website, Lermanet, which became a resource for other critics, and gave interviews on the subject in print news stories, television and radio.
On March 16, Lerma, 67, shot his wife, Ginger Sugerman, in the face with a handgun at their Georgia home before killing himself, according to the local newspaper, the Sylvania Telephone. Sugerman, 58, survived and told Tony Ortega – the former Village Voice editor who runs The Underground Bunker, a site that keeps a sharp eye on the world of Scientology – that her husband was taking oxycodone in his last months to deal with back pain and that his paranoia had increased. Ortega last reported that Sugerman, also a former Scientologist, was raising funds for her continuing surgeries and for efforts to honor Lerma's work, despite his last atrocity. — Monivette Cordeiro
Judith Leiber, Holocaust survivor and designer
of extravagant handbags
Jan. 11, 1921–April 28, 2018
If you can't connect the dots between the words "handbag" and "art," you're probably not versed in the distinctive work of Judith Leiber, the late Hungarian designer who took a signature concept – whimsical metal clutches adorned with Swarovski crystals and semi-precious stones – and ran with it in vivid fashion for decades while carving her own niche in the fashion world.
Born Judit Petõ into a Jewish family in Budapest in 1921, she escaped the worst atrocities of the Holocaust – thanks in part to a Swiss letter of protection her father managed to obtain – and weathered World War II in a Budapest apartment in the Jewish ghetto reportedly shared by 26 people. Although aimed for a job in the cosmetics industry, she instead broke the mold and became the first woman to work at the Hungarian Handbag Guild, where she perfected design and fabrication skills from the ground up. In 1945, while selling her own handmade purses on the side, she met Gerson "Gus" Leiber, a Brooklyn-born Army sergeant and modernist painter stationed in Budapest. By 1947, they were married and living in New York City.
In New York, she worked for handbag manufacturers and hit an early career high in 1953 when First Lady Mamie Eisenhower arrived at the Inaugural Ball carrying a small, bedazzled clutch crafted by Leiber. Although the credit went to her employer (designer Nettie Rosenstein), this turn of events foreshadowed a trend of powerful women – from queens and movie stars to first ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush – clutching Leiber's shimmering creations at high-profile events.
In 1963, the couple officially dove into the luxury handbag business together via Judith Leiber Inc., with Gerson on the business end and Judith handling design, fabrication and marketing.
In the decades that followed Leiber took her playful, over-the-top aesthetic to the limit while challenging the confines of minaudières – decorated metal clutches only big enough to carry what she summed up as "a handkerchief, lipstick and a $100 bill." Collaborative efforts involving sculptors, painters, jewelers and artisans in the U.S. and Italy, Leiber's imaginative bags can take a year to complete and typically cost somewhere between $4,000 and $8,000, with made-to-order couture pieces ringing in closer to $20,000.
Beyond meticulous attention to detail and unapproachable price tags, one of the most remarkable aspects of Leiber's work is the juxtaposition of refined materials and techniques with nostalgic, child-like, even lowbrow themes and concepts. Nevertheless her unapologetically extravagant minaudières – which have taken shape in dazzling cupcakes, ladybugs, cameras, cell phones, bundles of asparagus, Tutankhamen-inspired monkeys, burgers, fries and cocktails – have long been slyly witty staples for A-list celebrities on often-humorless red carpets.
Although the Leibers sold their business in 1993 for a reported $16 million (Judith stayed on board as designer until 1997), the Judith Leiber brand is still intact and active, offering a reverent continuum of the 5,000-plus designs its co-founder created throughout her colorful career. In 2005, Judith and Gerson opened the Leiber Collection in Springs, New York, to "house their works of art and to chronicle their careers." While both are represented in major museum collections (he's in the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum, she's in the Smithsonian and the Met), the Leibers were thoughtfully showcased side-by-side in a trio of recent exhibitions while they were both in their 90s. After 72 years of marriage, Judith and Gerson died at home within hours of one another, both from heart attacks, on April 30, 2018.
As for the shimmering body of work she began building long before "bling" was even a blip on Merriam-Webster's radar, Judith Leiber presented her intricate evening bags as defiant status symbols, conceptual confections and wacky conversation pieces. All you need to enjoy one is a big bank account, a sense of humor sized to match and, as Leiber once suggested, an escort to carry the items that don't fit in your minaudière. — Bryan Rindfuss