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The Metamorphosis Of Hedda Nussbaum: ‘Beyond Understanding’

November 16, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ The last time William and Emma Nussbaum tried to visit their daughter she opened her apartment door a crack and told them to go away. If you want to visit, she told them, you have to make an appointment.

That was four years ago, the elderly couple said, and they did not see their daughter Hedda again until two weeks ago, on television.

Ms. Nussbaum - eyes glazed, face puffy and pale, lips cut, nose flattened - was walking through the police station where she had been booked for murder in the beating death of her 6-year-old adopted daughter, Lisa.

The metamorphosis of Hedda Nussbaum, which seems to have begun the day 17 years ago she moved in with Joel Steinberg, was complete.

It was a metamorphosis in which a vital, successful author and editor of children’s books at a great publishing house was transformed into a pathetic, battered recluse, seemingly unable to protect herself or her child from the man she loved.

Although police said Steinberg killed Lisa, they also charged Ms. Nussbaum for failing to report the girl’s abuse. Still she admitted nothing, telling detectives that Lisa passed out after choking on food, that her own injuries came from a fall.

Ms. Nussbaum, 45, now lies in a hospital bed, her ribs, jaw and nose fractured, her right leg marked by ulcerous sores. Police guard the door. When she is well enough to be discharged, she will enter a psychiatric ward, according to her court-appointed attorney, Barry Scheck.

She has been denied permission to see Mitchell, the 16-month-old she and Steinberg also adopted, apparently outside legal channels.

″She’s literally a wreck, mentally and physically,″ said Scheck, adding he doubts she will be able to testify in the near future. ″It’s beyond ordinary imagination and understanding.″

Hedda Nussbaum grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, where her father owned a beauty salon. She majored in English at Hunter College, and taught elementary school in the mid-1960s.

She wrote several children’s books and in 1974 joined Random House, rising to senior editor of the publisher’s juvenile books division. The man who hired her describes her as ″nice, sweet and very talented.″

She had met Steinberg while sharing a summer house on Long Island. They began dating, and in 1970 she moved into his Greenwich Village townhouse, a building in which Mark Twain had lived.

This, apparently, is when her life took a violent turn for the worse. Neighbors say they repeatedly heard the sounds of domestic violence - screaming, cursing, weeping, banging, slamming - and called police many times.

At work, Ms. Nussbaum became increasingly erratic, former co-workers said. She frequently was absent, and often showed up with facial bruises that sunglasses and makeup could not disguise. She lost weight, and her hair turned prematurely gray. In 1982, she was fired.

Those who tried to call her at home say Steinberg would supervise her conversations, either by listening on an extension or by hanging over her as she talked.

″He kept controlling her,″ says her sister, Judy Liebman. ″He needed to have complete mind control over her. She would always deny it. She would always say, ’He loves me.‴

Despite neighbors’ claims, police insist the only time they were called to the Steinberg apartment was Oct. 8. They arrived at 8 a.m., and argued with Steinberg for 45 minutes before he opened the door.

Inside, Lisa was asleep on the couch, Mitchell in his playpen. Ms. Nussbaum at first refused to come out of another room. When she did, police saw that her lip was swollen - the result, Steinberg said, of ″a simple fight.″

On Monday morning, Nov. 2, Ms. Nussbaum called 911 to report that her daughter had choked on food and was not breathing. When police arrived, they found the unconscious girl in a filthy, cluttered, dark apartment. Mitchell was tethered to a playpen, surrounded by his own excrement, drinking spoiled milk, authorities said.

Three days later, when Lisa died, Ms. Nussbam got the news in her hospital room. The Daily News quoted an observer’s description of her reaction: ″I heard her crying. ... a quick yelp, tears, and it was over.″