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The Eliot Spitzer story begins on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where both his parents grew up. His father Bernard was reared in a tenement with no heat, sharing a bathroom in the hall with the neighbors. Bernard, whose father had been an officer in the Austrian army, was intensely driven. He qualified for an elite school in the city and managed to graduate from City College at 18. A civil engineer by training, he went into real estate and made his fortune. He has constructed about a dozen properties in Manhattan, among them several high-end buildings on the edge of Central Park, including the Fifth Avenue tower in which Eliot now lives with his wife and three daughters. Spitzer's mother Anne grew up in modest circumstances. She became an academic and teaches literature at Marymount Manhattan College in New York.
The Spitzer home in suburban Riverdale was comfortable but not showy. Spitzer was a top student and athlete (he captained Mann's tennis team), though his parents never focused on that. They recall attending just one soccer game, the last of the season in his senior year, arriving just as Eliot was called for a penalty. "Free kick, they lost," his father says with a laugh. The parents concentrated on their children's intellectual side--in ways that made their friends snicker. One of the kids--Spitzer is the youngest of three--would be made responsible for leading a dinner discussion on a topic of the day. When they traveled, they would test the kids on what they were seeing. The Spitzers also attempted to impart a sense of compassion. "We tried to teach them that it isn't enough just to make your own pile," says Bernard.
Spitzer took it to heart. While still an undergraduate at Princeton, he took off for the South one summer to work at menial jobs. He hit the day-labor agencies at dawn and took whatever was available--stacking fiber-glass insulation at a warehouse, operating a jackhammer, cleaning up a sewage overflow at a hotel. He also worked that summer as a migrant laborer in upstate New York, side by side with Mexicans picking tomatoes. "I'd had a comfortable upbringing," says Spitzer, "so I wanted to experience harder work, to see the world from a different perspective."
There was no rebellious stage in Spitzer's life, no long-hair days. But his competitiveness, especially in athletics, was directed as much at family as friends. In some well-to-do households, there is a rite of passage in which the son finally beats the father at tennis. As a teen, Spitzer found himself near that goal one day, closing in for the kill. When his father paused to catch his breath, Spitzer called out, "Mom, Dad is stalling!" The family still talks about the time Bernard cruelly whipped his son in Monopoly.
At Princeton, Spitzer entered the Wood-row Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He got good grades and listened to Bruce Springsteen (he just went to Albany with an ex-classmate to see the Boss for the fourth time). He was elected president of the student body in his sophomore year. Colleagues remember his taking on the university administration over divestiture from South Africa and (a student classic) higher wages for campus service workers.