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Sam and Pamela Goldstein: An unlikely love that’s lasted nearly 60 years

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Sam Goldstein encountered Pamela Elliott exiting the steps of Pompeii, he pulled out his best pickup line: “Are you lost?” Though she wasn’t the least bit lost, that seductive sentence would prove prescient.

“For the last 59 years, Sam always finds me, no matter where I am,” Pam says. “In every sense of the phrase. For me, there’s something about that. It’s a very wonderful thing.”

“I don’t let her get too far astray,” Sam replies.

Neither Sam nor Pam could have known, standing on those ancient stairs in 1961, that this moment would begin an eight-week whirlwind romance that would sweep them across Italy, throughout Greece, and into Israel. Neither knew a tumultuous two-year courtship lay beyond that, nor a tender 57-year marriage (and counting). All Pam knew as Sam stood before her – looking quintessentially American – was that he seemed like a man she could trust.

“He had a Michelin Guide, a Bloomingdale’s sweater, and a nice little haircut,” Pam says. And so she followed him.

sam and couple

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Pamela and Sam Goldstein in their Lagunita home

East meets west

When they met, Pam was living in New York, an ex-pat from her hometown of London. She worked for the famed Austrian filmmaker Otto Preminger, who directed 35 feature films after a five-decade career in the theater. Pam beat out over 200 applicants for the coveted job as Preminger’s personal secretary. 

“If you were an English secretary with an English accent, you had it made in those days,” Pam says.

Twice nominated for Academy Awards, Preminger was known for pushing Hollywood’s boundaries. He tackled addiction issues (The Man with the Golden Arm), homosexuality (Advise and Consent), and rape (Anatomy of a Murder). His famed film Exodus – about the founding of the state of Israel – premiered in 1961 when Pam and Sam first crossed paths. Neither of them knew this would soon play a role in their romance.

Pam had left another distinguished position, working with Laura Hobson (author of Gentleman’s Agreement), to accept Preminger’s offer.

“Otto had a reputation for being a ghastly man with a terrible temper,” Pam recalls. “But he really was very charming and paternal. And far better than working with Laura.” When Preminger’s well-known temper finally showed itself to Pam, she let him have it. Otto returned the next morning and said, “Darling, your performance yesterday was magnificent.”

Preminger granted Pam an extended European holiday while he shot a film in Los Angeles. At 31, she was making her way alone through Italy when she met 26-year-old Sam. “He was much too young for me,” Pam says. “I’m an early cougar.”

Sam lived in Los Angeles. He took a year off from the music industry, where he toured with Eddie Fisher, Frank Sinatra, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard. Sam was a self-taught drummer whose gigs ranged from Carol Channing’s one-woman Broadway show (which Pam called “dreadful”) to the house drummer for The Lucille Ball Show. His 24-year career, spanning from 1954 to 1978, also saw him perform with Desi Arnaz, Judy Garland, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. 

When he met Pam, Sam only suspected the fame that awaited him back home. But 1961 was Sam’s year to travel. He was eager to share his adventures, and charming enough to convince Pam to join him.

A whirlwind European romance

Soon the two were perched above the Amalfi coast, lunching in a closed restaurant that Sam convinced the owner to open. “Being who he is,” Pam says. 

Sometime during that magical lunch, Sam invited Pam to join him in Positano, which led to Naples, followed by Florence, and then onto Rome. What began as a simple invitation to lunch soon blossomed into an eight-week escapade. “This is Sam,” Pam says. “He doesn’t tell you anything in advance. He waits until the day before, or even the minute before, to announce his next plan. He’s a social animal beyond belief.” 

At some point, Pam had to return her rental car and gave all her possessions (including a full wardrobe of fashionable NYC couture) to Sam for easier transport. Soon she found herself lost on a Naples autostrada – circling around and around – unable to exit. “I’m a stupid woman,” she told herself. “I gave everything I own to a man I hardly know. I have no idea who he is, where he’s headed, or how to find him again.” As Pam orbited around, reflecting on her misfortune, she spotted Sam’s car in her rearview mirror, and Sam flashing his lights and honking. 

“I’d been chasing her around this damn autostrada,” said Sam. As promised, he’d found her. 

sam and queen

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The Laguna Health Club, where Pam has worked out for the past 37 years, calls her “The Queen.” They threw her a 90th birthday bash last November, complete with a queen’s crown.

The couple eventually made their way to Venice, where Pam placed another call to Preminger, who granted her more time. So the two traveled through Greece – hitting Piraeus, Cypress, and Rhodes – then caught a Greek freighter ship to Israel. Pam is quick to add: “Separate rooms, of course.”

In Rome, given their diverse budgetary constraints, they stayed in separate hotels – Pam in Rome’s finest establishment and Sam at a “flea bag.” Musicians on year-long holidays learn to exist on $5/day. Pam had no such need.

In Israel, Exodus was making its premiere. Once the organizers discovered Pamela was in the audience, they rolled out the red carpet for the couple. The opportunity even afforded them a few days living on a private kibbutz. “The whole experience was just fascinating and extraordinary,” Pam says. “Quite a cultural education.”

The rocky road to happily-ever-after

Every good fairytale suffers its setbacks. Pam and Sam’s romance was no exception. Preminger eventually called Pam home, threatening her job if she wasn’t at her desk by Monday. Sam continued his European journey solo for the next six months.

Over the course of his year abroad, Sam logged 60,000 miles on his Volkswagen, traveling from North Africa to Scandinavia and every country in between. As his adventures accumulated, his savings dwindled. “I grew more and more destitute,” he said. All the while, he wrote long letters to Pam – one that eventually asked her for money.

“Quit emphasizing that part,” Pam tells him during the interview. “It makes you look bad.”

Pam had a nice situation on Manhattan’s east side. “I had a wonderful apartment, good friends, an amazing job, and quite an extraordinary life,” she said. “Sam had no job, no money, no car, and no place to live.” Isn’t every woman warned to steer clear of musicians? Pam told Sam, “I don’t know musicians. I only know composers.”

She urged Sam pull his life together. “You don’t have anything, Sam,” she told him. “Let me know when things get better.” Within a week, Sam had found an apartment, a job, and purchased a convertible. “People call Sam a freight train,” Pam says. He’s unstoppable.

Sam pleaded with her to move to Los Angeles and marry him. Pam wouldn’t budge. 

Sam began touring, staying at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, when Pam called. She wanted to fly out. “It’s not going to happen,” he told her. “I want to marry you. If you don’t marry me in 10 days, we’re finished.” After 90 minutes of discussion, Sam’s ultimatum worked. The couple married in April of 1963. Pam began touring with him and they settled in Los Angeles, purchasing their dream Rudolph Schindler home in Studio City.

When Sam retired from the music industry and shifted his focus to commercial real estate investments in 1978, they made Laguna Beach their final home.

sam and family

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The Goldstein family portrait, circa 1970s. Sam and Pamela have two successful children. Serena followed in her father’s footsteps and pursued commercial real estate. She lives with her husband and 12-year-old son, Hayden, in North Laguna. Geoffrey lives with his wife, Chrissy, in Washington.

A foster child living under the fog of war

Pam possesses all the grace and sophistication of a British queen. Once you meet her, you can’t imagine her childhood as anything but decorous and chic. She gives the air of European finishing schools, an erudite upbringing, and a youth spent hobnobbing with New York’s social elite.

Pam is, after all, the woman who organized a charity auction for the Art Institute of Southern California at a Laguna Beach estate in the mid-1980s. True to her grandiose style, she hired a helicopter to hover over the event and spill 2,000 orchid and plumeria blossoms across the crowd.

“You know,” she said as the petals fell, “some parties smell simply terrible.” Imagine Pam’s silk Jacquard and chiffon gown, hand-painted by a local artist, in bold colors that matched the table linens. Imagine her Victoria Beach home filled with three original Don Bacardi portraits of Pam, punctuated with John Altoon paintings. Imagine the rest of the Goldstein’s substantial art collection and the stunning architecture designed to highlight it.

Now adjust your impression. Imagine, instead, a young Jewish girl born in London 10 years before the outbreak of World War II. Imagine her father dying of tuberculosis and her mother lacking the means to raise her. Imagine Pam entering foster care, enduring numerous evacuations as the war escalated while she came of age. Imagine the man her mother married refusing her entry back into her home, instead sending her across the Atlantic.

I can’t quite make out the word Pam uses to describe herself – a worrier or a warrior? “Both,” she says. “I’m a worrier. I’m very British in my thinking. I’m negative. I don’t know how I come across, but that’s how I feel.”

“Growing up without parents changes the landscape,” Sam says. “I’m very cognizant of that. I try to make Pam’s life as pleasant as possible.”

“He’s a healer,” Pam says. 

“I want to feed her soul. Maybe it’s Jewish guilt, but I want to give her chicken soup every day.”

How Sam struck gold

Sam, by contrast, is an optimist. “Beyond, beyond, beyond,” Pam says. “He’s a really good man. He’s honorable. He’s never done a mean thing – it’s quite remarkable. He’s rather a kind of Don Quixote figure.”

Perhaps Sam’s optimism allowed him to make the leap, in the late 1970s, from music to commercial real estate investing. “I have a mathematical mind,” Sam says. “Music is very mathematical.”

Sam began by buying two blocks of buildings across from CBS Studios and converting them into short-term rentals. His tenants became stars like Roseanne Barr, Gary Shandling, Larry Kasdan, and Mary Tyler Moore Productions. 

Laguna locals will recognize Sam as the owner of the historic 1930s Heisler Building that houses Skyloft and, until recently, Tommy Bahama. He’s also the co-founder of Laguna Beach Live!, and sits on the boards of several local nonprofits, primarily supporting the arts. 

sam and books

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Sam Goldstein, community activist, champion of the arts, co-founder of Laguna Beach Live!, owner of the Heisler Building, and devoted fan of his wife Pamela

His proudest accomplishment, Sam says, was helping pass the Business Improvement District tax in 2001, which includes a two percent hotel bed tax whose proceeds fund a number of artistic enterprises across our town, including the Playhouse, the art museum, and LCAD. The tax generates millions of dollars a year for the City.

Sam’s passionate nature runs deep. Both he and Pam have a keen eye for art and architecture, their home and its décor reflective of their fine taste. 

But it’s their taste for each other that’s withstood the test of time. Nearly 60 years, and the couple still seems smitten. “She’s 90, but she’s got the body of a 50-year old,” Sam says. 

“Write that down,” says Pam.

sam and smitten

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Sam and Pam, still smitten after 57 years of marriage

When I leave them, they’re already making plans for their evening together. Sam keeps a protective hand on his wife and, as I drive away, he guides her back inside. “There’s something about that,” I remember her saying. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

 

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

Lana Johnson, Editor - Lana@StuNewsLaguna.com

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