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)