Marlene Trestman calls herself a reluctant biographer. The New Orleans-born lawyer spent more than a decade trying to convince historical and legal organizations to honor Bessie Margolin, a pioneering lawyer who argued in front of the Supreme Court more than two dozen times, drafted rules for the American military tribunals in Nuremberg, and provided — in the words of former Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren — the “flesh and sinews” around the “bare bones” of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Margolin’s accomplishments are a towering example regardless of the circumstances of her birth, but as a Southern woman raised in New Orleans’ Jewish Orphans’ Home, they’re all the more remarkable.
Trestman returns to New Orleans next week for a trio of appearances to promote her new book, “Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin.”
The volume of Margolin’s experience arguing in front of the Supreme Court was especially notable. Trestman explained, “So much of what was going on is, it was just this sort of quirk to the Fair Labor Standards Act, because Congress had left so many things without sufficient detail. ... She really was in the right place at the right time with the right law to gain this kind of experience.”
Trestman and Margolin met in 1974. Both were alumnae of Isidore Newman School, but they had more than that in common. Trestman was a ward of Jewish Children’s Regional Service, the organization that superseded the Jewish Orphans’ Home after the orphanage closed in 1946.
The two forged a friendship, with Margolin inviting Trestman out to dinners, ballet and theater, and offering the younger woman tips on professionalism, etiquette and business sense.
“I was all of 18 when I first met her,” Trestman said. “I was in awe of her. … The one thing I wish is that I’d had a tape recorder every time I met her.”
Trestman delivered a presentation on Margolin’s life and legacy for Newman’s 90th anniversary celebration in 1993, three years before Margolin’s death. As Trestman compiled more research, she began nominating Margolin as a worthy subject to various historical and cultural organizations, which invariably responded that Margolin sounded fascinating — if Trestman wished to write about her.
Trestman wasn’t sold on the idea: “I was full-time working, with two small children. I am a lawyer-turned-author, and I’m holding on to that title with dear life. Author to me is such an elevated status.”
It’s a status Trestman will have to get used to, as she has started work on a second book, which focuses on the history of New Orleans’ Jewish Orphans’ Home. The organization that preceded the Orphans’ Home, the Association for Relief of Jewish Widows and Orphans, was founded in 1855. The Orphans’ Home moved to the current site of the Jewish Community Center on St. Charles Avenue in 1887, and operated there until 1946 — not to mention the fact that the home also founded the Newman School in 1903.
“Knowing I could be described as an orphan, it fascinated me,” Trestman said. “What it would have been like if I had come along 20 years earlier than I did, and my same situation had occurred … I am sure I would have been admitted to the home.”
Trestman’s research about Margolin’s early life only fed this fascination. “When I was writing Bessie’s first chapter, I was so just enthralled with the history, the rich history. … You’ve got this whole Jewish life and Jewish history in New Orleans, going back to 1855 and the yellow fever and the Civil War.”
Trestman expressed gratitude for the generosity of the community and Jewish Children’s Regional Services. Like Margolin, Trestman was taught that great accomplishments were within reach: “Never once was I in any way told to minimize my expectations. That to me is perhaps the most incredible generosity. … There was every incentive for me to reach even higher.”