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For Seniors : 100 Candles and Counting, Social Agenda Still Intact

November 20, 1994|LINDA FELDMAN

"Don't write anything about me as if I have answers. I don't. I have a lot of questions." So says Beatrice Oppenheimer on the occasion of her 100th birthday.

The last thing Oppenheimer wants people to think is that her longevity is attributable to some special magic or that her opinions are any more valuable than anyone else's. She's right, of course, but being in the presence of someone with her perspective, active mind and background, it's only natural to want to know what she thinks about things.

So we start with Election Day, 1994. Oppenheimer has voted in every election since women gained the right in 1920. She was influenced early on by her father, Abraham Bisno, who, at the beginning of this century, was a well-known labor leader in the women's garment industry of Chicago.

Oppenheimer remembers her father bringing her to a meeting at which Clarence Darrow spoke. She remembers Sunday gatherings where literature was discussed along with the political issues of the day. So what's a girl to think who was brought up to believe that the worker was entitled to economic security, decent treatment on the job, satisfactory working conditions and an acceptable standard of living?

"I'm in the dumps over the election. My father and Clarence Darrow would have felt the whole world had gone to hell," she said from her apartment in Santa Monica. In the next breath, she adds, "but they also would have wanted to change it."

Oppenheimer grew up in a time when the organized working class fought to set the social agenda. "The villains were on top then. They owned the railroads and the big manufacturing concerns and everyone else were slaves to them," she said.

Oppenheimer remembers a time when workers received no pensions, no paid vacations, no overtime pay and no unemployment compensation. By the 1950s, not only did the workers have extensive job security, but they had political power. Her father was a part of making that happen.

Today, she admits, organized labor is sliding downward and with that slide goes a source of information for workers (although unionized workers actually account for less than one-fifth of America's work force). Oppenheimer thinks the average citizen today is not sufficiently educated to be helpful to himself or others.

"I hate to say it, but the prevailing instinct is self-preservation--very selfish. (It's) not a bad thing, but when people are only guided by what's good for them it's exactly that--me, me, me," she said.

When Beatrice Oppenheimer was 13 years old, she performed the lead in the operetta "H.M.S. Pinafore," and decided to become a singer. But her father insisted that she was going to learn something so that she could become economically self-sufficient and told her to forget being an opera singer.

As a result, she went to Lewis Institute in Chicago, became a stenographer and continued her education in New York City, later becoming the office manager for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. She resigned to spend three years writing "Tomorrow's Bread," a human interest story about immigrant tailors.

When the book was published in 1938, Oppenheimer was quoted as saying: "If it takes nine tailors to make a man, it has taken an entire industry to make an American woman. This is the story of the needle and the industry it created. These humble tailors constitute a brilliant motif in the complicated fabric of American life, and possess, in my opinion, the same literary significance as the wheat farmers of the Middle West, the share croppers of the Deep South, or the shop girls and their bosses in the East."

After she finished the book, she went abroad and documented labor conditions in Europe. She returned to Chicago to create and direct the 18,000-member Labor Relations Department.

Today, she lives in a senior housing complex with her helper, Flora, and is the only surviving member of her family.

"If it was up to me, it would have been a different decision. Enough is enough. I'm losing my sight, I can't hear very well. I call myself a fallen woman--I broke both of my hips. Thank God I didn't have a third one to break."

"Having less of yourself is no fun. There's no sense in saying how great it is to live forever--it's a lot of bull," she said.

She provides no good news about living a long time, but, she clearly does not feel her life has been wasted. "There's a big problem about our lives, not only why we're here, but what are we going to do in our lives," Oppenheimer said. "I guess everyone wants to feel they have some kind of purpose, and that's a good feeling at any stage in one's life--a reason for our existence that was somehow fulfilled. Somehow."

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