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THE AMAZING STORY OF LEONA STRAUS
Truth is stranger than fiction. This is illustrated in the story of a Jewish woman whose experiences read like something from a cheap novel. Her maiden name was Leona Kantor. She was born on March 12, 1913, into a rich Jewish family in New York City, and never drew her own bath or combed her own hair until her first wedding. Before, she had a personal maid who saw to all of her daily needs. Her father was fifty-seven years old when she was born and "his God was money," she later said. He married after being promised a large dowry from her mother's family. Leona was not brought up in religion, except on Jewish holidays when her father "dressed up and went to temple, showing off his wealth and sitting in the front seats" where he could be seen.
A Sordid, Sinful Past
Hers was a spoiled childhood, and because she was Jewish she received ill treatment while growing up. Leona attended the Benjamin School for Girls at 107th Street and Riverside Drive, to which she took a taxi every day. There she was introduced to expensive and addictive drugs. She began a roller coaster ride to ruin. When she was only eleven, she attempted to take her own life, hoping to get her fathers attention. Instead, he was angry, especially when he got the doctors bill for her treatment. "I hated this man," she confessed. "I was consumed with such hatred of him, but then I found out that I was a lot like him. I walked like him, talked like him, and even started to think like him." Her father was in the liquor business in New York, but he eventually went into real estate. Her hatred was so strong that although she could not put a gun to her fathers head, or a knife into his heart, she aborted children four times. Being his only child, Leona was determined that her father would never have any grandchildren.
She married when she was eighteen. It lasted only two and a half years. "We never spoke to each other except Friday nights when we had dinner with our parents," she said. Between separation and divorce, Leona got hooked on almost every drug one could name. Surprisingly, her arms did not show the marks of the many needles she had used. Her second husband, Leo Straus, was a nice, "but very weak man." He was a kind man, but Leona was unhappy just being a normal housewife. She tried suicide twice during her second marriage, but failed. "I did not want to live," she said. "I was so inadequate, such a phony." She committed herself to Central Islip State Hospital and got out after a minimum stay, but returned later for one year. After the second time, her physician suggested that she get into real estate. He advised her, "What you need is a business that will excite you and fascinate you. Real estate is for you."
Following in her father's footsteps, Leona became involved in many evil and illegal things. After her husband died in 1966, she moved to Northern Virginia. One of her customers had a problem building in Arlington and asked that she troubleshoot for him. She had money from her husbands life insurance and began investing in real estate. She met a young man who was thirty years her junior, an artist, who was going to be her interior designer. He introduced her to a new world. She became interested in art, and started collecting Oriental porcelains. Her lifestyle put her in touch with rich and powerful people. Twice she was invited to the White House (upstairs) and once was at the home of Mrs. Ethel Kennedy. Leona knew many of these people well, and it paid off financially.
After she had acquired a quarter of a million dollars, she met a young lover, whom she supported with the money. His extravagances reached an almost unbelievable level. By 1970, she started to run out of money. Afraid that she would lose the young man, she turned to crime. She knew all about real estate syndicates, the FHA and other governmental organizations, and how to impress clients. She invented a real estate scheme, a swindle which involved government funding. "They all knew that I had money. They saw my antiques, my jade collection, my jewelry and mink coats," she said of her victims. She took advantage of them.
She would call residents of her apartment, which she as manager filled with people who had money, and work business deals at night. "Guess what?" she would say. "I have just had a call from my attorney. Come down to my office." Then she would present them with what appeared to be a "sure thing, no-risk deal," and because people trusted her, they would turn over funds to her. She promised them great returns within ninety days 22 percent, 30 percent interest all depending on how desperate she was for money. One couple she duped gave her $10,000. She liked to get both husband and wife involved, and swindled more than forty people over a period of years. She kept herself in business "by borrowing from B to pay A and then from C to pay B." She took their money and invested it for them, knowing she had to pay them back with interest. Some were even ready to mortgage their homes to make a profit.
Bank cashiers even worked with her in the scheme. They would call and advise her that she had to have funds in the bank by the afternoon, or her checks would bounce. Eventually, she took money from individuals in Northern Virginia and it became her downfall. "When you start taking money from people who carry weight, they dont like being taken by a woman, especially a Jewish woman from New York." Leona did not feel that she had done anything wrong, but instead, blamed the "stupid people who gave me money."
Over the years, Leona tried to live a wild and lavish lifestyle in metropolitan Washington, D.C. However, her wild, jet set life of sin did not satisfy. In fact, she was miserable.
Leona later said that she was truly sorry for what she had done. "I broke the law, and I am sorry. I am sorry for my abortions. I'm sorry that I tried to play God, because there is only one God." But she had to pay for her crimes. She was a crooked swindler, and the swindles she pulled on her so-called friends led her to prison.
While in jail, a chaplain visited her. He recalled that Leona had hissed in anger, "I dont want to speak to you. I'm a Jew."
The chaplain responded kindly saying, "So was my Lord Jesus Christ." This so irritated Leona that she cursed him out of her cell. She wanted nothing to do with Christianity or God. She spent ninety days in the Southwestern Hospital, where she was judged to be sane. Once out on bond, she changed her name and got a job until time for her three-day trial in Arlington Circuit Court. It took the jury just twenty-two minutes to find her guilty of obtaining money under false pretenses, passing a bogus check for $17,200. The date was November 29, 1972. At the trial the prosecutor contended that Leona had bilked friends out of more than $under false pretenses, passing a bogus check for $17,200. The date was November 29, 1972. At the trial the prosecutor contended that Leona had bilked friends out of more than $150,000, according to a news report in the Washington Post. Leona later said that it was more like seven figures.
A Sentence To Prison
Leonas attorney appealed her case, but he lost the appeal. She said that he was good at real estate, but he made a poor criminal attorney. "Praise the Lord, he was a lousy criminal attorney, because that is how I got into Goochland Penitentiary." In the sixteen days before she began serving her sentence, Leona spent as much of the money as she could. She gave away many of her possessions, including a dining set to a moving man who commented that he like it. She expected to die in Goochland, and never get out. Acquaintances stored what was left of her jewelry and valuables, but later told her that the articles were stolen from a car. Some of the money also was missing from the bank account a friend was keeping for her.
Leona Straus went to Goochland Penitentiary on a Thursday. By Friday, she was miserable. On Saturday, right after lunch, the door of her room (where she spent her first three weeks) opened and a lady entered, with a smiling face, "Hello, Leona, I'm Marjorie Bailey. Im the prison chaplain," she said to the surprise of the lady in the cell. Leona remembered what she had said to the other chaplain. So she did not respond this time, and instead listened to what the chaplain had to say. "We talked for hours. I did a lot of crying, and she did a lot of listening."
When she walked out of the cell, she closed the door and stuck her head back inside and said, "Remember, Leona, Jesus loves you." Leona thought, "I am captive in this room now. I have nothing to do." So she opened up the little black book the lady had left since there was nothing else to read, and the words kept pounding in her head, "Jesus loves you." She thought, "Isn't that ridiculous?"
The only thing she had to read for those three weeks was a Bible. Leona then made a decision. "I'm going to read the New Testament and I'm going to show Miss Bailey. I am going to prove that Jesus was nothing but a charlatan." The lady chaplain returned the following day and Leona asked her questions which she felt would confound religious leaders in the Washington area, but she saw in the chaplains life and attitude, "a faith and a love and a beauty in this woman." As they continued to talk, Miss Bailey never lost patience with Leona.
One day, she made an amazing discovery. "My problem had been my heritage and I could not accept Christ as Lord, since He had always been a curse word in my life." But it dawned on her that Paul, the Apostle, never denied that he was a Jew, even though he believed in Christ. "Then I realized that I am what I am and dont have to deny it, and that I could have this joy and still be a Jew. And that's how easy it was." She received Christ as Savior and was baptized at the prison by Rev. Luther Thompson. A busload of church members went to the prison to witness the event.
Leona Straus was released from the Virginia Correctional Center for Women on July 20, 1976. She served two years and nine months of a ten-year sentence.
Being very sorry for her sins, she wrote to her victims asking for their forgiveness. "I could not ask my Lord to forgive me, unless I, at least, wrote to the people whose addresses I knew. Many of them were in the military and had moved out of the Washington area. She wrote to seven or eight, but "no one forgave me," she said, but she knew that the Lord had.
Final Years of Service
Leona Straus spent the rest of her life being a witness for Jesus Christ, her Messiah. She wore a necklace with a cross inside a Star of David and went into the shops which were Jewish-owned and Jewish-operated. Clerks would inquire about the necklace and ask what it meant. She would say, "This is my identity." They would say, "What do you mean, your identity? Youre a Jew." "Of course I am a Jew, totally, and completely, and my Lord and Savior is Jesus Christ," she would tell them. Such comments would either bring a spit in the face, or a question.
Leona Straus was, for the rest of her days on this earth, a genuine and sincere witness for the Lord. Hers was a testimony to the grace of God, and she enjoyed sharing it with people.
When Leona first went to the penitentiary, a counselor asked her, "Was it worth it?" She answered, "Yes." But, she later said, "It was money, phony money." The glitter and glamour of the jet set, that was my world. No, it was not worth it." Leona was thankful that she had been sent to prison, for there she found Jesus Christ, her Messiah.
Mrs. Leona Straus died on January 19, 1979, at the age of sixty-six. Shortly before she dies, she received a full pardon from the governor of Virginia. But she had already received one from the God of heaven. After years of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, however, she had developed emphysema and lived with only one lung. Eventually, she contracted cancer. Her funeral was conducted at the Clover Hill Baptist Church, Richmond, by her pastor, Rev. Calvin Eaves, who had also battled cancer. Her earthly remains were buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery. Leona is now with the Lord who forgave her, saved her, changed her and used her until He saw fit in His wisdom to call her home. One of her favorite Bible passages was, "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." (Isaiah 1:18) Leona Straus experienced this and loved to share it.
A Simple, Personal Invitation
Jewish friend, have you considered the claims of Jesus Christ? He is waiting to forgive you and save you if you will take Him. Bow your head right now, and pray this simple prayer: "Lord, I am a sinner. Jesus, I want to be saved. Please forgive me, and come into my heart and life. Thank you for saving my soul. In Jesus name, Amen." Write to tell us of your decision, please. And begin sharing with others what Christ has done for you.