Fair Labor Lawyer

The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin

By Marlene Trestman | Louisiana State University Press Southern Biography Series | $39.95 | 208 pages | 2016

Bessie Margolin may not be a household name, but, it turns out, we live with her legacy every day in our everyday doings. For more than five decades, between the 1930s and the 1970s, her consummate lawyering shaped much of labor policy and labor law as we know it today and modeled the way to success for women attorneys.

This biography was born of serendipity. Marlene Trestman met Bessie Margolin through the auspices of the high school they both attended — 50 years apart. Margolin had been nurtured and educated in New Orleans in the Jewish Orphans’ Home and then graduated from the Isidore Newman School in 1925. Trestman, a Jewish orphan, was a student at the Newman School in 1974 when the school asked its distinguished and loyal alumna, Bessie Margolin, to meet and mentor Trestman. Thus began a 10-year friendship between the two women, one a retired attorney, the other an aspiring attorney.

When Bessie Margolin died in 1996, Marlene Trestman conceived of writing the story of her mentor’s remarkable life to shine some well-deserved light on Margolin’s prodigious career. We can rejoice that the concept has come to fruition in the new book Fair Labor Lawyer, the first Bessie Margolin biography. It is an inspiring, instructive and compelling story. As one would expect from a top-flight lawyer, this consequential story is meticulously researched, well documented and skillfully told.  And there are Tennessee ties: Bessie lived briefly in Memphis as a child and later in Knoxville as an attorney for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

Margolin’s early education imbued her with the values of hard work, self-reliance and personal responsibility, and steeped her in the tradition of social justice and public service that is central to Reform Judaism. That early education was the bedrock on which she built her distinguished career as an advocate for social justice.

Margolin excelled as a law student at Tulane, and then as a Sterling Fellow at Yale, where she encountered “a profound yet genteel anti-Semistism.” Despite social exclusion at Yale, she was able to cultivate some fulfilling relationships with, for example, Abe Fortas (from Memphis and editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal), Henry “Joe” Fowler (a fellow student and later President Johnson’s secretary of the Treasury), and William O. Douglas (one of Margolin’s professors at Yale). Those relationships deepened over the years.

As a Jew and a woman, no matter her excellent education and her highly respected intelligence, Margolin was “virtually unemployable” in the 1930s in the private legal sector. Federal government service offered at least some opportunities. So Margolin began her legal career as the first woman attorney with the New Deal’s newly created TVA. For six years she defended its constitutionality.

She moved on to work in the Labor Department, where, as associate labor solicitor, she passionately and tenaciously enforced the minimum wage and overtime protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act and later the Equal Pay Act.  In that capacity, she argued countless appeals in all the U.S. Circuit Courts and twenty-seven cases in the U.S. Supreme Court. She won all but three of those 27 cases. Her advice to other appellate advocates: “Be respectful but don’t be afraid.” 

Bessie Margolin was not all work, and in her personal life, too, she was unafraid. She played poker. She enjoyed a cocktail and a party. She had many friends, many interests, and not a few affairs with married men. She was glamorous; Glamour magazine featured her in its January 1948 issue. And she was charming. Not even Supreme Court justices were immune to the “deft use of her feminine charms.” The details of her personal life make for especially fascinating reading not just because they are piquant, but because they provide often stunning enlightenment (or, for some of us, jolting reminders) about the not-so-progressive social and political norms of the supposedly socially reformist New Deal era.

ANDRÉE SOPHIA BLUMSTEIN is the solicitor general for the State of Tennessee. During 2012-2014 she served as chief justice of the Special Supreme Court appointed by the governor to hear Hooker v. Haslam. As a member of Sherrard & Roe PLC (1993-2014) she focused her practice on appellate litigation. She is the recipient of the 2012 Justice Joseph W. Henry Award for Outstanding Legal Writing and has chaired the Editorial Board of the Tennessee Bar Journal since 2003.  

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