By ALAN SMASON, EXCLUSIVE TO THE CCJN
With the wisdom gleaned from the experience of researching, writing and submitting to rounds of editing and academic reviews, Marlene Trestman can testify that it truly takes a village to publish a scholarly treatise. Trestman returned to her hometown of New Orleans to be recognized by the Jewish Children’s Regional Service (JCRS) at its annual gala on Saturday, March 5, and to help launch the concurrent release of “Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin” a detailed biography she wrote on the life of a woman who had a profound effect on her professionally and personally.
Published by LSU Press, the book is the result of years of painstaking research conducted by Trestman. While still employed as a special assistant to the state attorney general of Maryland, Trestman worked feverishly to finish the book. (See related CCJN story here.) She left that position in July of 2013 after 30 years in the attorney general’s office to concentrate on finishing the book.
“I loved my job,” she confessed in a phone interview with the CCJN. “It was a dream job.” But the deadline to submit a finished manuscript to LSU was looming large, she explained. After leaving her position, she threw herself into her work as an author.
“My job in the attorney general’s office was very self-driven anyway, so it wasn’t all that different,” she confided.
She joined several groups of like-minded authors including a biographers group that lent their support in her efforts. “I was invited to join a very small, but I believe a very prestigious group, of feminist legal biographers,” she continued. Trestman bounced ideas off of them and they reaffirmed how they felt she should be retelling Margolin’s story.
Their input and critiques were “crucial” to her finalizing the manuscript, the author said.
Trestman began sending out specific chapters detailing Margolin’s life to different specialists, who would fact check and provide their own unbiased comments to her as experts in their given fields. Meanwhile, she continued her research, seeking out photographs and determining if they were available to republish. She knew that Margolin wouldn’t expect any less from her.
“This wasn’t fiction; this was telling someone’s life,” Trestman added.
Trestman was in a unique position to take on the challenge of telling that story. Their personal history began more than four decades ago following Trestman’s graduation from Isidore Newman School. That was at a time when Margolin’s career as a woman attorney had already begun to wane and before Trestman’s had yet to begin.
But the two had quite a number of shared life experiences. Margolin was one of the last of the orphans and half-orphans who had received care at the Jewish Orphans Home (which later became JCRS), while Trestman had also received help from the agency when she and her sibling were orphaned. Both women had graduated Newman with scholarships maintained by the school since its founding as a manual school for Jewish foundlings. Both were keenly interested in the practice of law, a profession that even in Trestman’s era was largely male-dominated.
Through the years, Margolin befriended and mentored Trestman. They shared dinners and the veteran counselor freely gave advice to Trestman on how best to maneuver through her career as it was beginning to take shape.
As a successful Washington, D. C. attorney, Margolin had risen to the rank of associate solicitor of the Department of Labor and had argued, by her own count, 24 cases before the Supreme Court, putting her in a remarkable third place for women attorneys of the 20th century who had appeared in that capacity before the nation’s highest court. When she retired in 1972, the gala banquet was attended by numerous D.C. legal luminaries as well as recently-retired chief justice Earl Warren and associate justice Abe Fortas.
It was after her retirement that Margolin and Trestman began their remarkable friendship, which lasted for more than two decades. Margolin, who was an immaculate dresser, impressed her young charge with her perfectly coifed hairstyles and stylish dress. But more than that, she possessed an air of self-confidence and feminine sagacity that came from having lived and worked in a career where she had proved herself more than the equal of most men.
The two also shared a common love of New Orleans. “She wasn’t born in New Orleans, but it was clearly her hometown,” beamed Trestman. “I share that feeling – I’m a New Orleans girl too.”
Margolin’s journey to becoming a respected champion of labor began in Brooklyn, the place of her birth in 1909, according to the biography. Within two years her parents had moved to Memphis, TN, in search of better opportunities. A baby brother was born in 1911, but their young mother died the next year, the victim of Hodgkin’s disease and anemia. It was then her father Harry recognized he was unable to take care of Bessie and his two other small children. With help from a Memphis board member of the Jewish Orphans Home, the siblings were classified as “half-orphans.” Margolin spent her formative years at the home and eventually graduated from Newman in 1925 before accepting a scholarship to Newcomb College, transferring to Tulane University and graduating from the School of Law. She graduated second in her law class and was the very first woman elected to the Order of Coif, a prestigious honor society only open to top law school graduates.
Trestman relates in her book how Margolin moved to Yale Law School in New England as a research assistant and accepted a Sterling Fellowship at a time when female law instructors were almost non-existent. She established herself as a true pioneer for her gender and Trestman has claimed she had never met a woman attorney before she met Margolin.
She had desired a career in academia, but Trestman relates that “Margolin was fighting a losing battle; before 1950 only five women ever held positions as full-time, tenure or tenure-track law professors at accredited law schools.” Even when she was finally offered an opportunity to teach at American University in 1953, the champion of workers’ rights was assigned to teach a course in wills. She pressed on for but two semesters, eventually redoubling her efforts at the Labor Department to train and develop their own attorneys and opting to deliver an occasional lecture or two at places like her alma mater Yale.
But Margolin was a very private individual. She kept no journals or diaries. “Putting these pieces together was incredibly discreet and guarded.” Trestman called the investigative aspect of her work akin to “finding needles in other people’s haystacks.”
The author doesn’t shy away from acknowledging Margolin’s private love affairs with several men throughout her career. But being a scholarly work, it relies on papers, letters and, in one case, official F.B.I. investigations into Margolin’s loyalty during the anti-communist scare of the post World War II era.
Trestman acknowledged her research was helped immeasurably by access to Margolin’s personal papers maintained by her nephew in California. Through her intervention, the writer organized them and at her suggestion arranged for them to be donated to Tulane. “They will already be curated with a specific finding aid,” she noted.
Fair Labor Lawyer examines the many years Margolin became the first woman attorney working at the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Roosevelt administration as part of FDR’s “New Deal.” Its major focus is on her work at the Labor Department.
Trestman considers Margolin’s work on two major pieces of legislation – the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Equal Pay Act – as among the most important of her career. Following the end of World War II, Margolin was called upon to render her expertise to the prosecution of war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials. Lent by the Labor Department, it was Margolin who devised rules and procedures under which the Nazis were prosecuted in accordance with military code.
Margolin died 20 years ago in 1996 at the age of 87, yet her influence is still felt in those people and institutions she touched and by the rulings she fought so hard to win, Trestman asserted. Trestman began the project even while her own career blossomed. She conducted extensive research at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati as well as the archives at New Orleans institutions such as JCRS, Newman School and Tulane University.
While fleshing out the project, Trestman secured an agent to help her shop her work. Through the years she collected handfuls of rejection letters from publishers or turned down less-than-desirable offers from those that expressed some interest. In the back of her mind, she hoped to refine her work and that a major publishing house or university press would eventually express interest.
A turning point occurred when she prepared a short story on Margolin’s life for the Journal of Supreme Court History. Published in April of 2012, the article “Fair Labor: The Remarkable Life and Career of Bessie Margolin (1909-1986)” was selected as the winner of the 2013 Hughes-Gossett Prize for the best article published during the previous year. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito introduced Trestman at the Supreme Court’s Historical Society Gala Dinner, where she was given a $1,500 cash award and a piece of marble from the Supreme Court edifice.
That led to the acceptance of the contract between Trestman and LSU Press in which they agreed to receive the work and submit it to academic review for possible publication.
After the work was submitted to LSU for academic and scholarly review, it received a very high seal of approval from the faculty reviewer. That began the process of whether to accept the reviewer’s vote and later to determine if the title would be entered into the LSU Press catalog. Only then did the pages get proofed and copy edited, she explained.
The original title was edited for clarity and galleys were readied. Trestman described the process as “glacial.”
“Bessie was a significant contributor to 20th century history and I am pleased that she is being recognized that way,” Trestman opined. “The timing is perfect because March is Women’s History Month and 2016 is the 50th anniversary of N.O.W. (the National Organization for Women) and Bessie was a founding member.”
Partly because of the research she unearthed while working on the first book and her own life experience, Trestman has already set her sights on publication of her second work. With the working title of The History of New Orleans Jewish Orphans Home, 1855-1946, Trestman has been working feverishly to document the important influence of the precursor of JCRS. To support her in her research, the American Jewish Archives awarded her with the 2015-2016 Frankel Family Fellowship. Trestman also has presented a portion of her work at last fall’s Southern Jewish Historical Society’s annual conference in Nashville, TN.
The new book will document some of the lives of the 1700 children kept at the Jewish Orphans Home and concentrate on the troubling times during outbreaks of yellow fever and the turbulent times of the Civil War. She promises to add personal color to the stories of those who ran the home as well.
“I would be nowhere but for the amazing philanthropy of the Jewish Regional Children’s Service and other important Jewish institutions,” Trestman announced. “I feel like the JCRS has already given me so much in my life that being honored this year is really icing on the cake. I’m so indebted to all the generosity of so many people who had given me educational opportunities, camping and foster care opportunities. It is a privilege to be able to come back and I hope (my visit) generates and continues support for the institution.”
As she continues work on the second book, Trestman thought about her friend and mentor one last time. “The nice thing about the book is Bessie is a great example about what investment in single child’s life can mean,” she concluded. “Every child’s life reaps rewards over a lifetime.”
“Fair Labor Lawyer : The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin” was featured at a book signing at Isidore Newman School, 1903 Jefferson Avenue, at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, March 6. Trestman will also delivered a talk and signed books at Octavia Books, 513 Octavia Street yesterday, Wednesday, March 9 at 6:00 p.m. She will wrap up her promotional tour by speaking in the Tulane University Bookstore in the Lavin-Bernick Center today at 12:00 noon. For more information, go to Trestman’s website here.