THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Woman Warrior : She’s known as a relentless and uncompromising activist for liberal causes--and as a workaholic. But Margery Tabankin is about to change jobs and take a vacation.
She was sprayed with tear gas during a college Vietnam War protest, has met with Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, and headed a 200-member political action committee of heavy hitters in the entertainment industry.
So it’s a tad odd to find teddy bears among the Ralph Lauren linens in Margery Tabankin’s bedroom.
“When people get to know me really well, they know I’m incredibly vulnerable and a complete marshmallow on the inside,” Tabankin says, trailing off into a from-the-gut laugh. “To the outside world, I think I present a forceful, sort of assertive presence.”
The teddy bears must be the yin to her yang. An uncompromising, driven career activist for liberal political causes and human rights issues, Tabankin is a political force in Washington, Los Angeles and points in between. The college anti-war campaigns were a preamble to a career that has zigzagged from government jobs to foundation work.
In 1988, she moved west and became executive director of the Streisand Foundation (as in Barbra), parceling out $7 million over several years to groups supporting the environment and human rights, among other causes.
She was soon juggling an additional job as executive director of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee (HWPC), a 10-year-old group made up of studio executives, producers, writers, actresses and directors that supports liberal candidates, human and civil rights issues, environmental causes and campaign-finance reform.
Although Tabankin says she feels fortunate to have had a string of high-profile jobs, the downside has been far worse than mere burnout. About seven years ago, she came down with chronic fatigue syndrome, known generically as the “yuppie flu.” Only in the last year has she begun to pull out of it, thanks to mega-vitamin drips from holistically minded doctors.
Her illness was also the catalyst for a major reality check in which she realized that working oneself into a stupor isn’t the best way to live. And that, yes, you can love watching bad TV with your teddy bears and still be passionate about your work.
Tabankin’s recovery has come just in time for another job switch. She’ll soon become executive director of the Oscar Schindler Foundation, Steven Spielberg’s new philanthropic venture. All of the director’s profits from “Schindler’s List” will be funneled into the organization when it starts up this fall. Tabankin expects it to “emerge as a major source of philanthropy about Jewish life and Jewish values.”
Even with Uber -director Spielberg beckoning, it was a difficult decision, she says.
“The offer presented itself out of the clear blue sky, and I think this is a great thing for the world that is being done,” she says. “But I was in this tough bind because I was doing work that I loved.”
Actor Mike Farrell, a longtime friend and fellow activist, sums up the move this way: “She’s been on a personal journey for the years I’ve known her, and the moves she’s made have always been for the good--not just for her, but for the good of the people.”
Tabankin first felt her political calling as a young child. In her 46 years, friends say, she has maintained--without so much as a hairline fracture--the idealistic creeds that all people deserve equal rights and that one person can make a difference.
“I feel like I was born with it,” she says, sitting in a cushy floral brocade chair in her West Los Angeles HWPC office. “I don’t ever remember a time in my conscious memory where it didn’t absorb me. Even as a little kid, I remembered how clearly the black kids in my class in Newark (N.J.) were treated differently from the white kids.”
Her father, a salesman, and her mother, a teacher and school administrator, weren’t “particularly political at all,” Tabankin says.
But their daughter recalls watching TV and being drawn to the plight of the farm workers.
“It wasn’t like I had this epiphany because I’d met Cesar Chavez. It was like, ‘Oh my God, here are these farm workers and look how they’re treated and we’ve got to boycott these things.’ ”
Tabankin says her passion for wanting to help the oppressed never made her an outsider among her peers--just different.
“They never thought about those things. They thought about ‘Who’s going to ask me out?’ and ‘Are my parents going to buy me a car?’ But they were nice kids.”
Anyway, she had more to deal with than friends who didn’t understand her. She had a brother who was hit by a truck and killed, at age 8, before she was born.
“It was a big deal in the psychology and the drama of my family,” she explains.
Throughout her youth, no one would acknowledge or discuss the brother, although a huge oil portrait of him hung in the living room. “He was the essence of the house, but he was never mentioned. It was the weirdest thing in the world,” Tabankin says.
“When I was about 9 or 10, my cousins took me up into the attic. And they told me that the person in the picture had been my brother and what his name was and how he died.”
Although she never lacked for material things or felt overprotected, Tabankin says the fallout from her brother’s death was “growing up with parents who weren’t very functional in a way that made an impression on me.”
She forged a strong tie with her Aunt Hattie, her “surrogate mother” and disciplinarian, who lived with the family until Tabankin went to college.
One other incident put an indelible mark on a 15-year-old Tabankin: hearing state Sen. Tom Hayden speak when he was based in Newark as a community organizer and agitator.
“It is such a stark moment for me . . . because it was the embodiment of somebody doing something for a living that I could put myself into and say, ‘Oh, you can do this!’ . . . I didn’t have to be a nurse, or a doctor or a teacher. I could be that. And that’s what I wanted to be.”
Tabankin’s mother hoped her daughter would go to Vassar or Radcliffe (then return home, get married, have kids and do volunteer work), but Tabankin had something less ivy-covered in mind. Her older cousin Larry, with whom she was very close, had gone to the University of Wisconsin. Plus, the campus was fast becoming a magnet for students fond of activism and not fond of the war. She was going to Madison or she wasn’t going to college at all .
Guess who won that skirmish.
A political science major, Tabankin became student body vice president and says she spent “most of my four years in the streets, fighting against the war in Vietnam.” It was exhilarating, she says.
“The exhilaration was that you were participating and doing something about something. There is an exhilaration that comes with acting in concert with your beliefs. There is a sort of cleanness to truth.”
After finishing school, Tabankin studied the art of community organizing at Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago before returning home to care for her mother, who was dying of breast cancer. Her father died of Alzheimer’s disease 11 years ago.
Her Washington career started when she became the first female president of the National Student Assn. She then became director of the Youth Project, which raised grant money to help young peoples’ community projects.
She was appointed head of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) during the Carter Administration, which she calls “baptism by fire. . . . I went from being a hippie with wire-rimmed glasses and cowboy boots to gray suits and pearls. I was 29 years old. It was the critical management experience of my life.”
Then it was back into foundation work, this time to head up the Washington, D.C.-based Arca Foundation, which concentrates on economic and political policy issues in Central America. During her time there, Tabankin consulted part time for the Streisand Foundation, whose causes include civil liberties, AIDS issues, and women’s and children’s causes.
Tabankin married Tom Asher, a fellow activist who is now a Massachusetts attorney, in 1974. After a “brutal” divorce in 1980, they eventually became good friends again. She remains close with her stepdaughter, Lauren, now 28, who remembers that Tabankin’s bedtime stories re-created scenes of being tear-gassed in college.
“When she told it, it wasn’t that it was funny,” recalls Asher, a staffer in the women’s bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. “It was about a part of her I didn’t know. She would tell me, ‘This is what happened and we thought what they were doing was bad, so we decided to demonstrate.’ It was part of her narrative, and I think I liked it because she survived. But I don’t think I ever understood what she experienced until I was older.”
Tabankin could have also recounted her stories of a wartime journey to North Vietnam when she was 22, at the invitation of that country’s government.
Although she doesn’t regret the decision, Tabankin acknowledges that she and others have felt lasting consequences from the controversy surrounding the trip.
The North Vietnamese “were fighting a liberation struggle--that didn’t mean they had a right to torture prisoners,” she says. “I, as a human rights activist, can’t accept that. It’s not just OK if it’s from the left and not from the right.”
Tabankin reconciled her feelings by working for Vietnam vets’ causes: “That’s my way of sort of dealing with my anti-war world. I’ve helped raise a lot of money over the years for Vietnam veterans.”
During her tenure at VISTA, some conservative members of Congress called for an investigation of Tabankin and other liberal Carter Administration members. After an “incredibly horrible experience” that lasted for more than a year, Tabankin believes she “came away completely clean.” Still, she wonders if she would ever be considered for a job in certain government branches. “I think they’d be nervous about me. I don’t think they need to be because I think I learned a very good lesson from that.”
The Vietnam experience may have left scars, but it didn’t make her controversy-shy.
In 1989 she went to the West Bank and met with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in a trip supported by the Arca Foundation.
“This one was a huge dilemma for me as a Jew. . . . I became a Jewish woman who (believed) that the survival of Israel meant hearing out a peaceful solution to the situation as opposed to taking a rigid view of don’t negotiate, don’t be flexible.”
After years in Washington, burnout turned to meltdown. With her chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms looming, she decided to quit Arca and come west.
“I came to this very apartment and I never left,” she says of her condo on the beach in Santa Monica. “For the first two years I was living with rented furniture, thinking clearly I was just here visiting. After my second year I sent all the rented stuff back and bought furniture.”
Eventually, she succumbed to the California lifestyle.
“It can be reported,” she says, laughing, “that I have become completely California. I get acupuncture once a week, I have a chiropractor and I get massages. I’m still political but I’ve definitely been California-ized.”
Tabankin came to the HWPC at the recommendation of some Streisand Foundation board members and found the Hollywood community, unfettered by the rigidity of Washington, amazingly refreshing.
And in the HWPC she found women who shared her personal and political views, including support of abortion rights, gay rights and campaign-finance reform, an issue that consumes her. The membership is a who’s who of talent and powerbrokers: producer Paula Weinstein; actresses Cybill Shepherd, Jane Fonda and Geena Davis; songwriter Marilyn Bergman, and studio exec Lisa Henson, among others.
“They could be sitting behind their gates, but they choose to do this,” Tabankin says. “And it’s not a networking group. Nobody would dare pitch something to somebody. It would be so uncool. . . . There is no way that would work if there were men in the group.”
What Tabankin brings to the group is a “sophisticated sense of how the political and entertainment communities can work together,” says her friend Danny Goldberg, president of Atlantic Records. “She’s uniquely effective in terms of maximizing the relationship.”
Bergman, a co-founder of the group, knew of Tabankin’s political reputation long before she played matchmaker to her, Streisand and the HWPC.
“She was kind of legendary,” she recalls, “during the ‘60s and the Carter Administration. When I heard she was thinking of making this move (to Los Angeles), light bulbs went off in my head.”
If Tabankin’s working style is tough, Bergman says, “it’s a kind of tough that comes from somebody who is so principled that they can’t be compromised. And she’s not intimidated or impressed by celebrities.”
Tabankin remembers her initial meeting with Streisand this way: “When I walked away from it, I thought, she’s really thin and little, and she knows all this stuff about the environment. How is that possible? I didn’t know any Hollywood people, really, so that was my first impression.”
But Tabankin acknowledges that one of the challenges in her HWPC position has been defending the why-should-we-take-stars-seriously-as-activists issue.
“They don’t have to give up their American passports just because they work in this industry,” she explains.
On a warm Friday afternoon, Tabankin sits in a recliner with an intravenous drip in her arm. It’s her standing weekly appointment for her mega-vitamin cocktail (20,000-plus milligrams of Vitamin C and other vitamin boosters), the only treatment that has helped yank her out of the debilitating, flu-like symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.
Once downplayed as possibly psychosomatic, the ailment is now recognized as a legitimate medical problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health are looking for causes and cures.
Tabankin likens the illness to “ ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ when you feel like the pods have moved in and taken over your life, or that you’re fighting your way through these clouds.”
Now, the clouds have lifted.
“I actually went out to dinner the other night with friends, stayed out really late, came home, went to bed and came to work the next day. I thought I was never going to climb out of this. And it’s like I’ve been given this incredible blessing right now.”
But having the illness also guaranteed that Tabankin could no longer be the poster child for workaholism.
“It was a very big growing experience for me,” she says. “What’s important to you becomes very clear. You have X amount of energy, so what are your real priorities?”
She’s found that slowing down has its rewards: indulging in spy novels, going to movies alone, staying home watching stupid TV shows and ignoring the phone.
“My escape and enjoyment,” she says, “is to be taken away on a great adventure in a novel or spy story and I think people are really shocked by that. I say, ‘What do you think, that I just read the Economist? . . . I’m not this academic-policy egghead who’s consumed with notions of democracy from the minute I wake up.”
Tabankin wasn’t always so guilt-free about allowing herself quality private time. Years of therapy, begun during her marriage, helped with the transformation, she says.
“I used to run around, I think, to avoid being alone,” she says. “Part of what I did politically was to fill up all the time and all the space so I wouldn’t have to be alone. But the older I got, and the more secure I got, the better I felt about myself. I really ended up loving being alone or with good friends. And that was, like, so fun.”
She won’t rule out getting married again, although she’s not in a serious relationship. “I do have wonderful men that I share a lot of time with until I meet the right person,” she says.
Tabankin is eager to enter a more thoughtful phase in her life, which should fit in perfectly with her Schindler Foundation work.
“Doing creative philanthropy you really need to have a strategy and you need to be able to step back and use that part of your brain that says, ‘What is this going to lead to? Where is it going to go?’ ”
And where is Tabankin going to go?
Probably not into politics, although friends have urged her for years to run for office.
“I’d much rather help pick the people who get elected,” she explains. “But I’ve thought about it. Right after I left government, I almost ran for Congress. . . . (But) I think you have so little personal privacy, and I really, really value my private time.”
Right now, Tabankin is hoarding a cache of books--the new Sue Grafton mystery and the best-selling thriller “The Day After Tomorrow"--to take on vacation.
After she returns, she’ll jump into another project, a grass-roots organization in South-Central L.A. called Common Ground that urges kids to stay in school. Tabankin works as a volunteer to raise money and awareness.
“I don’t understand people who operate in a bubble,” she says, “as if there’s nothing going on in the world around them. . . . That is so not in my fiber of being. . . . Do one thing. Tutor one kid and all of a sudden you’ll realize the connections everything has.”
Native: No. Born in Newark, N.J., lives in Santa Monica.
Passions: Politics, human and civil rights issues, campaign-finance reform, mystery novels, staying home and ignoring the telephone.
On working for the Streisand Foundation: “It’s been an extraordinary experience for me, in that it has enabled me to keep my fingers in the policy world of issues that I really care about. . . . It’s a skill to give money away well. People don’t understand the value and the role that creative philanthropy can play in the world.”
On delegating authority: “I love doing that. The more you find good people and trust them, the more you can accomplish. In no way do I feel threatened by anybody else. With more competent people around me, I only look better and can do more.”
On negotiating: “I am a terrible negotiator if I’m asked to negotiate something I don’t believe in. I am incredibly transparent. If something turns me on or off you can see it in my eyes immediately, and it’s one characteristic that I’ve benefited from and suffered from my whole life.”
On life in Southern California: “My friends in Washington, D.C., think I’ve gone over the deep end and I might as well be nesting in the Pacific Ocean right now. They think I went Hollywood and I’m doing acupuncture and getting massages and taking drives to the country, and here I was this intense political activist who was always on the Hill screaming about a bill, and what’s happened to me? But I think I’m much more balanced than I ever have been in my life.”