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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.

July 31, 1994|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 \o7 Uber\f7 -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."

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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 \o7 can\f7 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."

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