May 30, 2023

The Parallel Lives of Two Jewish Orphans: Bessie Margolin and Her Biographer, Marlene Trestman

By Marlene Trestman –

Shultz letter_editedI was in my first year at Goucher College in Baltimore in 1974, a world away from my home in New Orleans, when Miss Bessie Margolin graciously invited me to her Arlington, Virginia apartment for a visit. Her invitation was prompted by a letter of introduction from my high school guidance counselor at the Isidore Newman School who thought that Miss Margolin and I would enjoy meeting in light of our common childhood experiences – even though separated by a half century. Miss Margolin was raised in New Orleans’ Jewish Orphans’ Home and graduated in 1925 from the nearby Isidore Newman School, which was founded to educate the Home’s wards. After the Home closed its doors as a residential facility in 1946, its successor, today known as the Jewish Children’s Regional Service (JCRS), began providing non-residential social services to needy children, which included me. Orphaned at age 11 in 1968, I was raised in foster care while receiving JCRS services and, like Miss Margolin, attended Newman on a full scholarship.

Having accepted Miss Margolin’s invitation, I found myself dining with her at what I then called a fancy restaurant before an evening of theatre at the Kennedy Center. Probably the last woman I ever called “Miss,” Miss Margolin was the most dignified and worldly woman I had ever met. As I recall, she wore a fine, well-tailored wool suit and her carefully coifed dark hair was laced with dramatic white streaks at her temples and forehead. It would be years before I understood that Miss Margolin’s elegant bearing resulted neither in spite of, nor as a late-in-life remedy to, an inferior and sad childhood; instead, she was the product of a nurturing and benevolent institution that relied on progressive ideals of social justice, self-government, and purposeful education to transform orphans and other dependent children into productive and patriotic American Jews capable of becoming, as the Home’s leaders envisioned, a “Social Force in the Social Construction of Society.”

After our first meeting, Miss Margolin and I continued to spend time together throughout my years in college and law school, and as I began my own career as a government lawyer in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office. But years passed before I fully understood how much more this legal trailblazer had accomplished than her stunning record of winning 21 of her 24 arguments at the United States Supreme Court. With rare law degrees from Tulane and Yale in the early 1930s, Bessie Margolin had used her brains, beauty and Southern charm to contribute to three of the most significant legal events of the twentieth century: she defended the constitutionality of the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority, drafted rules that established the American military tribunals that meted out justice to accused Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, and shepherded the national court enforcement of the child labor, minimum wage and overtime protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the rights later accorded by the Equal Pay Act.

Just as she had done for countless other young lawyers before me, Miss Margolin eagerly assisted my legal education and career, first lending me a stack of her Supreme Court briefs for a first year law school writing assignment, later arranging for me to meet Solicitor of Labor Carin Clauss, her protégé and the first woman to hold the politically appointed position, and then vouching for my character so I could practice law in Maryland and Washington, D.C. And, on more than one occasion, Miss Margolin shared with me a singularly important piece of advice that summed up her philosophy of life, love and her legal career: a woman must always remain financially independent. I cherished the attention and the kindness she showed to me, which I attributed to her seeing in me what she had once been — a little girl from New Orleans.

In the process of researching Margolin’s life to write her biography, I found details about my own life as a beneficiary of the Home’s noble work. In fact, she and I are part of the same story that I discovered in four oversized, consecutively paginated, leather-bound ledgers kept by the JCRS in Metairie, Louisiana. The “Biography of the Inmates of the Jewish Orphans Home” contains the entries for Bessie Margolin on page 1248. The entries about me are on page 1860. In another leather-bound book, the minutes from the JCRS’s April 1968 Board meeting describe its decision to apply to Newman School for a scholarship on my behalf.

The child for whom this application is requested is a 13 year-old girl who is a full orphan, who has passed the Newman tests and who made an outstanding record in these tests. . . . This child of course would be the ward of the Jewish Children’s Home if we were still operating a direct service program…. On motion made. . . , the Committee unanimously voted to make this application on her behalf.

The benevolent bureaucracy that enabled Bessie Margolin to become a “Social Force in the Social Construction of Society” was still faithfully discharging its sacred duty by looking after me more than 50 years later.

Marlene Trestman_editedDuring the 1980s, busy with a full-time law practice and a growing family, I fell out of contact with Miss Margolin. In the early 1990s, when I tried to reconnect, her declining health prevented me from sharing with her a prized moment: my 1993 admission to the Supreme Court bar, which took place on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s first day on the bench. I am sure Miss Margolin would have been thrilled to then witness two women on the bench before which she presented so many arguments. For the last decade of my 30 years in the Maryland Attorney General’s office, I served as Special Assistant to the Attorney General and in that capacity led the State’s public health efforts to protect youth from targeted marketing by tobacco and alcohol companies, and to promote Internet safety. I hope that Miss Margolin would be pleased that I, too, had dedicated my legal career to protect the public.

Bessie Margolin took ideals of social justice from the Jewish orphanage that raised her to the nation’s highest courts where she championed the wage and hour rights of millions of American working men and women. Her story – and mine — illustrate the value of hard work when coupled with opportunity. In writing Fair Labor Lawyer, the first biography of Bessie Margolin, this “little girl from New Orleans” hopes she has done justice to the other, and to the benevolent institutions that supported us both.

Marlene Trestman pic_editedWith research funding from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Supreme Court Historical Society, lawyer-turned-author Marlene Trestman, has written Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin (LSU Press, March 1, 2016). Trestman lives in Baltimore where she is currently working on a second book, inspired by her first, The History of the Jewish Orphans’ Home of New Orleans, 1855-1946. For more information, visit


  1. Thank you for your wonderful inspiring story.

  2. Fran says:

    I am beyond proud of my brilliant cousin who has inspired me in more ways then she’ll ever know.

  3. John Howes says:

    My son took me to Marlene’s lecture on Bessie Margolin at the Library of Congress yesterday. (My son interned with Marlene when she was with the Maryland Attorney General’s office.) I was very moved by Marlene’s talk yesterday. I didn’t know anything about Bessie Margolin, but the way Marlene brought her to life was extraordinary. What an incredible story about a one-of-a-kind human being. John Howes (June 9, 2016)

  4. Natalie Paymer Ellis says:

    Having worked in the Attorney General’s Office during some of the years that Marlene worked there I got to know her as a friendly and intelligent woman. Both of us had children at about the same time; both of us are Jewish; but the comparison ends there. I am fortunate that I had my parents throughout childhood into my life as an adult. The account of her first meeting with Bessie Margolin and the description of Bessie’s last years and Marlene’s accomplishments brought a tear to my eye.

    I know that Marlene is working on a second book–The History of the Jewish Orphans’ Home of New Orleans, 1855-1946–but feels that those are the only two stories in her. I think that Marlene’s own life, that of her childhood and the years that followed, would make a fascinating story for her to tell. Who better to write that story than Marlene herself?

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