Remembering Estelle Margolis

Estelle Margolis — an artist, political activist and longtime figure on the Post Road bridge, who was also energized by bringing her diverse Myrtle Avenue neighborhood together — died last week. She was 92.

In 2010, her then-17-year-old grandson Jonah Newman had an assignment for his American Protest Literature class in California: find people who had been politically active. He wrote about his grandmother Estelle, and her equally passionate husband Manny. He died in 2011, age 86. Here is part of what Jonah wrote:

As far back as I can remember, Emanuel and Estelle Margolis — my maternal grandparents — have been a part of my life. Every year my parents, my brothers and I join the rest of the Margolis clan at my grandparents’ home in Westport, Connecticut to celebrate Passover.

Emanuel Margolis and Estelle Thompson (“Papa” and “Buba” respectively) were both born in New York City in 1926. The house occupies a special place in my heart — like its own timeless world it remains the same every year, as comfortingly consistent as the presence of the two people who have lived there for five decades.

Perhaps it is because I have known my grandparents for my whole life that until recently, I had rarely thought about their rich backgrounds as political activists.  I discovered that my grandparents, who participated in many of the key social and political movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, are the very definition of living history.

Estelle Margolis was 87 during this 2014 protest on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge. (Photo/Robert Baldrich)

Buba was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. Her family was hit hard by the Great Depression; her father often had trouble finding jobs and making ends meet. She was artistic, participating in arts, theater, and music programs at school.

She never went to college but was admitted to the graduate School of Architecture at Yale and graduated in 1955. Her drawing talent was strong, and as a young woman she made a living out of art and architecture. Her political activism began when she was an adolescent and continued throughout her life.

Her career as an activist began much earlier than Papa’s. At 12 she picketed outside Alexander’s Department Store in the Bronx in an attempt to get people to boycott Japanese silk after the Japanese invaded Manchuria. Throughout her life, Buba has employed several diverse methods — including picketing, art and hands-on involvement — and has drawn from her innate empathy to protest war, discrimination and economic inequality.

Over many years since then, the anti-war message has been consistently important. She says: “It overwhelms me with the thought of the devastating damage that has been done…What sense are we making out of the policy that keeps throwing young kids to their deaths?”

Buba’s sympathy may stem from her maternal instincts (she has 5 children and 10 grandchildren), and shows the simple human compassion that motivates her continued struggle against war. She was active in her criticism of the Vietnam War during the 1960’s and 70’s, and has protested the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the late 1980s, Sen. Jesse Helms attacked the National Endowment for the Arts. Estelle Margolis responded with this painting.

Since 2005, Buba has helped lead a weekly vigil on a Westport bridge to protest the war in Iraq. Her signs at these present-day rallies say what they have said for decades: “Support The Troops, Bring Them Home.”

One of Buba’s natural skills has proved to be a lifelong tool for her activism. “I’ve been very lucky all my life because I know how to draw,” she says. Lucky is an understatement; in the late 1940’s Buba worked as an assistant to legendary artist Ben Shahn. In 1946, Buba and Shahn worked on an enormous collection of political leaflets and posters to support Democratic candidates across the country. “We created a leaflet for every single candidate,” she recalls.

But there are risks to political activism. In 1947, when she taught union organizing to black and white students at the desegregated Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, angry vigilantes drove by, shouting and shooting at the building.

Even the government was an occasional threat. Buba says the FBI planted spies in the meetings of activist organizations at the school.

In 1970, Buba and a group of women protesting the Vietnam War by picketing in the middle of a busy street were almost run over by an angry truck driver. The women were arrested for obstructing traffic, but Papa used his legal skills to keep them out of prison.

Driven by her human empathy and making full use of her artistic talents, Buba continues to be a potent voice of protest. Although both she and Papa believe the world needs changing, they also believe that the world is inherently beautiful.

Papa and Buba fervently believe America and the world are fundamentally good.  We just need to fight to keep them that way.

(Click here to read Jonah’s full story — including much more about his grandfather, Manny. And click here to read an “06880” story from 2014, about how Estelle brought her Myrtle Avenue neighborhood together. A graveside service is set for today, Monday, March 4, 1 p.m. at Willowbrook Cemetery. Hat tip: Larry Weisman)

Estelle Margolis (center), surrounded by Myrtle Avenue neighbors. (Photo/Rondi Charleston)

14 responses to “Remembering Estelle Margolis

  1. A great humanitarian, artist and person. If she was for you, you felt like the most special person in the world. But if she was against you, LOOK THE F OUT.

    Love and hugs to the family xx.

  2. Paula Koffsky

    Hello Dan,

    Am I reading this wrong, didn’t Manny die in 2011?


    Paula Koffsky


  3. Fred Cantor

    A life fully and well lived. And what a great anecdote about her having picketed outside Alexander’s at the age of 12.

  4. Ann Chernow

    Dan: I don’t have any of her children’ contacts, but they may not know that Estelle was one of the 50 artists in West’s documentary “Years in the Making. ” (which can be rented from the Westport Library. As well as being filmed in here studio, West did about an hour separate film archive (also available that the Library) CONCERNING ESTELLE’S LIFE, AND ALSO DID THEY FIND THE SHORT FILM WEST DID ABOUT MANNY WHEN HE DIED, ESTELLE COMMISSIONED THAT SO MAYBE THE CHILDREN HAVE THAT ALREADY. BUT PLEASE MAKE SURE THAT THEY KNOW ABOUT HER ARCHIVE. BEST, FROM ANN

  5. Jim Wheeler

    I am so sorry to hear of Estelle’s death. She was one of my most ardent and supportive “students” and a dear friend.. As only Estelle could, she talked her way into one of my summer school drawing classes and continued to study with me for years. My wife, Judy and I cherished Manny and Estelle’s friendship and the hours spent in the big house on Myrtle Ave discussing Art, politics and the way of the world.They were both one of a kind. I will miss her and our annual luncheon. My deepest sympathy and prayers go out to the Margolis family.

  6. Larry Weisman

    Thanks Dan for the remembrance of a life well lived.

  7. Morley Boyd

    We are so sorry to learn of Estelle’s passing. Her passion was a force of nature and her sense of humor wasn’t far behind.

    Pamela & Morley Boyd

  8. I am so sorry to learn this. Estelle was an awesome woman, and as nice as they come. She was an indefatigable activist for all the right causes. The Democratic Women of Westport were proud to award Estelle its Silver Donkey Award in 2013. The only reason we waited so long was that we thought she had received it many years prior.

    • The Silver Donkey Award is given annually to an outstanding Democratic woman. It has been awarded for about 45 years. The recipient does not have to live in Westport, but most of them have.

  9. Being in that house in elementary school opened my eyes to what activism was and has continued to be in my life. ❤️😎
    Love to Cathy and Abby

  10. So sorry to hear of her passing- Estelle was an exceptional woman and we will all miss seeing her on the bridge. She wanted to demonstrate how easy it was to buy a gun and brought a bb gun and ammo to an RTM meeting. Her actions alarmed those present, Estelle was arrested and the story made the NYT:

    A light has gone out but the fire remains. Right on, Estelle!

  11. Don Bergmann

    For years, Estelle, I and many, many others, assembled on Saturday mornings at the Ruth Steinkraus Bridge with our signs and invitations to the passing cars to “Honk for Peace”. As we know from Jonah’s lovely piece, those days were only brief a moment in time in the lifetime of commitment of Estelle Margolis. Yes, we would chat about politics, the war, the nation, the world, but the wealth of Estelle’s knowledge and interests approach Renaissance proportions. Much of what Jonah writes became familiar to me and I continue to relate some of her life’s stories to emphasize the importance of one person’s impact upon so many. I am especially pleased that Jonah’s words were set forth. Estelle loved and was devoted to her family. Many of us came to meet them and they too are a tribute to this wonderful lady.
    Don Bergmann

  12. I was blessed to get some quality time with Estelle in recent weeks. This is a very tragic loss!! What a light, what a soul!!! Your love, humor and passion for doing what’s right lives on, Dear Estelle. Much love to Sarah, Josh and the whole family. My life has been forever changed by this great woman’s presence. With deepest sympathy, Andy Weeks