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A Radical Move : Margery Tabankin Has Fled the Center of Power for the Center of Status, but Without Missing an Activist Beat

August 13, 1989|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

Inside the elegant house nestled into the bucolic hills of Brentwood, a slide show is just finishing. Seventy-five well-dressed, well-heeled guests, their glasses of wine and Perrier within arm's reach, their beepers turned temporarily to "off," sit transfixed as China expert Orville Schell shows them the massacre in Tian An Men Square.

Sitting in a prime location on a chintz-covered sofa is Margery Tabankin. As the pictures flash onto the screen, her face registers an equally fleeting spectrum of emotions--wistfulness to outrage, pain to resignation.

But when the lights come on again, her composure is complete, her charm in force, her cheerfulness ready for the next half-hour of networking as befits the newly installed executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, which is co-hosting the lecture. Holding court in a corner of the living room, she smiles as a group of people vie for her attention, including a producer known for his movies on liberal causes.

"I keep hearing about you," he says approvingly.

"We have to get together," Tabankin nods warmly.

With that, Tabankin turns to the journalist at her side and whispers, half-jokingly, half-seriously, "I think I'm having a nervous breakdown."

She's not. But the reason she thinks so is because of the tumultuous events of recent months. The Exxon oil spill in March. Her trip to Palestinian refugee camps in May. The tragedy in China in June. The Supreme Court decision on abortion last month.

They are all new material for the slide show that runs every night in her dreamscape.

"I still see pictures in my mind of the children I saw in orphanages in Honduras. I will never forget the sight of mass graves I saw in El Salvador. I think of the mine workers I've seen suffering from black lung disease. I remember the kids in college I put through the underground railroad to get hopefully safe abortions," she explains.

"It's real hard to put the brakes on things like that. It's real easy to just think about living near the beach and making a nice income and putting on a fund-raiser or two. But not when you go to sleep and see real pictures of real life in your brain."

The fact is that her newly acquired California tan and laid-back manner aren't fooling anyone. Clearly, Tabankin is as possessed by political activism as the day she fled Washington six months ago--sick, out of sorts and starved for a change. And she is now bringing that passion to the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, which needed an infusion of credibility from a credentialed liberal like Tabankin.

Her resume reads like a textbook of major leftist causes from the early 1960s to the present. She is included in such chronicles of social change as Stanley Sheinbaum's anthology of activism, "New Perspectives," and Myra McPherson's book, "Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation." Barbra Streisand calls her "one of the smartest women I know." Jane Fonda describes her as "a national treasure." Peter Yarrow refers to her as the "fourth" member of Peter, Paul and Mary.

But Tabankin would be obsessed by current events no matter which side of the issues she was on--pro-war or anti-war, anti-abortion or pro-choice, pro-Contra or anti-Contra. And, like other activists, she is motivated to spend her life in an endless series of campaigns--some winnable, more not--because she feels the issues more passionately than others and therefore can't be content with only part-time caring. As lifelong friend Tom Hayden reflects almost enviously, "Marge is part of a whole group of people that tried to invent activism as a permanent way of life. And she's succeeded."

But it's also taken a heavy personal toll. For Tabankin, the price she has paid for her participation on the front lines of social change has been her health.

It began as a common cold that October, 1987, when Tabankin was one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes women in leftist politics in this country. A one-time nationally known campus radical during the '60s, first woman president of the National Student Assn., and head of VISTA during the Carter Administration, she was directing two high-profile progressive philanthropies--the ARCA Foundation, which relied on the R. J. Reynolds family fortune, and the Barbra Streisand Foundation, which the singer created in 1986.

But she also was shuttling between Washington and Los Angeles, divorced, 40, living alone, working 16- and 18-hour days ("whatever it took to get something done right--the way I decided was right"), eating badly, and worrying about all the causes in the world except the one closest to home--herself.

"I remember waking up that morning with a cold, getting on an airplane for Los Angeles for a meeting of the Streisand Foundation's advisory board, and staying sick for almost a year," she says. She had never had any major illnesses before. Suddenly, she had a sore throat, swollen glands, achy muscles, borderline fever and overwhelming, all-consuming exhaustion.

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