Jewish Journal

Carmen Warschaw, Democratic activist, philanthropist, 95

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Nov. 7, 2012 at 4:03 pm


Carmen H. Warschaw, passionate political activist, strategist, financial backer and “Jewish mother” to generations of Democratic office holders, died — fittingly — on Election Day, Nov. 6, after watching the television prognostications on the presidential race. She was 95.

“A week before the election, she had sent in her absentee ballot,” daughter Hope Warschaw said. “She never had the slightest doubt that President Obama would be re-elected.”

Rep. Howard Berman recalled, “Carmen kept her sharp mind, political focus and sense of humor until the very end. I visited her at Cedars-Sinai a few days before her death, and when Barbara Yaroslavsky, who was sitting at her bedside, told her I was at the door, Carmen called out, ‘Tell him that everyone I know has already voted for him.’ ” (She was referring to a hard-fought race that Berman ultimately lost to fellow Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman.)

Warschaw was born in what was then the still-rustic town of Arcadia, 13 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, the daughter of Russian immigrants. Her father, Leo Harvey, founded an aluminum company bearing his name and passed on his liberal values and Democratic loyalty to his two daughters.

As a student at Pasadena City College, Carmen met and married Louis (Lou) Warschaw, and both later graduated from USC. According to friends and family,
the two remained sweethearts throughout their lives.

Lou Warschaw became a prominent business leader in banking, insurance and real estate, and the couple’s philanthropic gifts supported a wide range of medical, academic, artistic and politi-
cal causes, institutions and individuals.

Prominent among their beneficiaries was the Louis Warschaw Prostate Cancer Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, as well as The Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life at USC.

Another of the couple’s endowments was the USC Chair in Practical Politics. “Carmen believed that most academic studies of politics dealt with the theoretical side, but what was really needed was an understanding of how real nuts-and-bolts politics actually worked,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a longtime friend.

Carmen Warschaw held prominent lay leadership positions in many organizations, among them the Los Angeles Music Center, the Otis Art Institute, Truman Library Institute and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, serving as chair of its Community Relations Committee.

But Warschaw left her deepest imprint on politics and public service. She was a member of the Democratic National Committee, became the first woman to chair the California Fair Employment Practices Commission, and served on the boards of the state’s coastal and fair housing commissions.

In 1968, the Los Angeles Times selected her as Woman of the Year.

Warschaw’s oldest friends and allies in innumerable political battles, fundraisers, and during intimate dinners, were in close agreement on her chief characteristics: Intense loyalty to her friends, but no pardon to those who crossed, or, worse, double-crossed her.

In her private life, she shed her political armor and was a warm, gregarious friend, hostess and mensch.

Lawrence Fisher, who got to know Warschaw in the 1960s when he worked as press secretary for her close political ally, Jesse Unruh, and later when she headed the state’s Democratic Central Committee, recounted an illustrative incident.

“For many years, Carmen had an African-American housekeeper, Ossi Gray, who worked for her, but also became a friend and frequent companion,” he recalled. Eventually, Gray became ill and couldn’t work anymore.

At that point, Warschaw invited Gray to move in with her, saying, “I have a big home with lots of room. You took care of me for many years; now I’ll take care of you.”

An early civil rights advocate, Warschaw practiced at home what she preached outside, observed Grover McKean, who served as Unruh’s chief deputy.

“Carmen always gave these small, intimate dinners for one or a few couples, and often they included African-American friends,” he recalled of the 1960s era of civil rights tensions, when few trespassed the social barrier between blacks and whites. 

McKean, who became a Warschaw friend in the late 1970s while working for Unruh, remembered Warschaw from a much earlier encounter.

“When I was 11, my family lived in the Los Feliz area, and the Warschaw family was among our neighbors,” McKean said. In December, young Grover went from house to house selling Christmas tree ornaments.          

Although the Warschaws were not among the likely buyers for his wares, he knocked on the door; Carmen came out and bought his entire stock of decorations.

She also used her home to host large
fundraisers for her numerous causes, and she expected her wealthy friends to come across.

McKean attended one such event, and remembers Warschaw welcoming the assembled guests with the words, “You are all here because you gave to the cause — but you didn’t give enough.”

Whatever her other commitments, “She was always there for us, and she volunteered as room mother and Girl Scout Brownie leader,” daughter Susan Robertson said.

Grandchildren Cara and Chip Robertson remember how “Nanny” taught them to fish and ride bicycles, took them to political conventions and introduced them to important people.

Chip shared a particularly vivid memory: “When I was 10 years old, I really wanted to see the space shuttle land at Edwards Air Force Base, so my grandmother picked me up in her car, and we were on our way.”

Unfortunately, en route to the landing site, the car broke down. Undaunted, Warschaw got out and stood in the middle of the road, forcing a bus carrying VIPs to the event to come to a stop.

She explained to the bewildered bus driver that her grandson had to see the space shuttle landing, and then boarded the bus with Chip.

By heredity and conviction, Warschaw was a true-blue Democrat, but she was a centrist and pragmatist in her ideology and tactics.

Berman said he learned this after he had finished UCLA Law School and applied for a 10-month fellowship to work with the state legislature in Sacramento. Through an uncle, he was introduced to Warschaw, who promised to write a letter of recommendation to the selection committee.

She did so, but added a note to the effect that young Howard, an idealistic college student and product of the West Los Angeles milieu, might be a tad too liberal and could use a touch of reality.

So Berman, a lifelong city boy, was assigned to work for the Agriculture Committee. For the next 10 months, he learned a good deal about pink boll weevils, but, fortunately, the legislature soon became preoccupied with Cesar Chavez and the increasingly militant farm workers, and the ties Berman had established with labor leaders stood him in good stead later on.

Many of Warschaw’s battles have become the stuff of political legend. Some of the fiercest infighting was among different Democratic factions and personalities, pitting, for example, Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh against Gov. Pat Brown during the 1960s, with Warschaw siding with Unruh.

“Carmen loved a political fight,” said Douglas Jeffe, press director for the Democratic State Central Committee in the 1960s. At that time, Warschaw had high hopes of being named one of two California representatives to the Democratic National Committee, and she thought she had a firm commitment from Brown and party powerbroker Eugene “Gene” Wyman to get the appointment.

When Wyman took the post for himself, an enraged Warschaw confronted him, charging that he had promised in person that the post would go to her. According to Jeffe, Wyman replied, “But you didn’t get it in writing.”

That set Warschaw off. As a first step, she ordered thousands of buttons with the legend “Get It in Writing — Love Carmen.” She topped herself in 1964, during the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, when she hired a skywriter plane to spell out the same message to the delegates below.

Her opponents inside and outside the Democratic Party took to calling her “The Dragon Lady,” an epithet she wore as a badge of honor, naming a succession of yachts Dragon Lady I, II, III and IV. As she got into the role, she passed out fortune cookies, and at the next party national convention, pulled up in a rickshaw.

Warschaw reserved much of her energy for Jewish and Israeli causes, and at one Israel Bonds dinner, for instance, bought $1 million worth on the spot.

During her chairwomanship of The Federation’s Community Relations Committee, she displayed her characteristic “strong sense of direction — she always knew what she wanted to do,” said veteran Democratic activist Howard Welinsky.

In addition, he said, whenever Warschaw was asked to support a candidate, she would first check whether he or she supported Israel.

She was a passionate Jew, but, as in all other things, she insisted on her own definition.

“She was nonreligious and nonobservant, didn’t belong to a synagogue and didn’t keep the holidays,” said Harvey Schechter, the longtime regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “She was deeply Jewish, but chose her own brand.”

According to Schechter, Warschaw was also an enthusiastic Dodgers fan and regularly took her seat behind the Dodgers dugout.

Her interest in politics never flagged. During the last few months of her life, as Berman and rival Sherman engaged in one debate after another, Warschaw showed up, “not once, not twice, but three times,” Berman said, adding, “I wouldn’t have done that myself if I weren’t running for the office.”

Warschaw was also an ardent Obama supporter, and visitors to her home were greeted by two larger-than-life cutouts of two personalities — Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.

Journal columnist Bill Boyarsky, who has covered California politics for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, summed up Warschaw after their first meeting. “She was one of the most interesting, challenging people I had ever met,” he said, “an opinion that has not changed over the years.” 

On Nov. 7, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adjourned its session in memory of Carmen Warschaw.

She is survived by her daughters Hope (John Law) and Susan (Carl Robertson); grandchildren Jack Law-Warschaw, Cara Robertson and Chip Robertson; and great-grandchildren Louis Harvey Robertson and Rose Frances Harvey Robertson.

Memorial services are pending.

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