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In memoriam: Carmen H. Warschaw, 95

by Susan Bell
Carmen Warschaw and her late husband, Louis, helped to create the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. (Photo/Courtesy of the Casden Institute)
Photo: Carmen Warschaw and her late husband, Louis, helped to create the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. (Photo/Courtesy of the Casden Institute)

USC Honorary Trustee and alumna Carmen H. Warschaw, a leading philanthropist, committed community activist and lifelong Democrat, has died. She was 95.

Warschaw died on Nov. 6 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from natural causes.

“Carmen Warschaw stood among USC’s most illustrious and long-standing supporters,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias.

In 1939, Warschaw earned her bachelor’s degree in social work and was elected an honorary trustee of the university in 2003.

“For decades, she provided outstanding guidance to USC’s leadership while generously supporting a range of programs,” Nikias said. “We will certainly miss her strong spirit and passionate leadership.”

A former member of the Democratic National Committee, Warschaw was a close friend and loyal supporter of Jesse M. Unruh, former California State Assembly speaker and state treasurer, who died in 1987. Warschaw and her late husband, Louis, helped to create the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, which opened at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 1989.

Warschaw was a formidable political force in her own right. Fiercely intelligent and politically shrewd, she helped forge the California Democratic Party, as well as the careers of many of its leaders. She attended every Democratic National Convention since 1948 except the last, served as a delegate at many and had also personally met every United States president since that date. She was present at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, the night Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot.

Tributes to Warschaw from political and civic leaders poured in following the announcement of her death.

“Carmen was a historical figure in the California Democratic Party and a passionate supporter of Jewish causes, equally generous financially and with advice and, when needed, criticism,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told the Jewish Journal. Yaroslavsky and his wife, Barbara, were lifelong friends of Warschaw and her husband, who died in 2000.

On Nov. 7, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adjourned its session in memory of Warschaw.

“Carmen Warschaw was a most unusual woman,” said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “Her curiosity and vibrancy never ceased during all her 95 years of life, and she made many significant contributions to her community.

“Carmen was a force in the Democratic Party, both in California and on the national stage, where she was a member of the Democratic National Committee,” Feinstein added. “Among her many notable roles, Carmen served on the first coastal commission in California, she was the first female chair of California’s Fair Employment Practices Commission and she was a very generous donor to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, as well as a member of its board of directors. Carmen left a legacy of social giving, and she will be sorely missed.”

Warschaw’s commitment to the Democratic Party and to her civic and philanthropic roles went hand-in-hand with her lifelong loyalty and generosity to her alma mater. In 2008, Warschaw pledged $3 million for the endowment of the Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics in USC Dornsife.

“One of USC Dornsife’s great benefactors, Carmen Warschaw’s generosity and support were an inspiration to us all,” said USC Dornsife Dean Steve A. Kay. “By establishing the Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics, her legacy lives on not only in creating the first named chair in the political science department but also in ensuring that our students will forever be inspired to become more civically active.”

Ten years earlier, the Warschaws helped found USC Dornsife’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, the first academic research center of its kind. The following year, in 1999, the couple established the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture Series, which attracted prominent nationally and locally elected officials, including Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Feinstein, who all came to speak to students about how their Jewish heritage influenced their emphasis in political life.

“She helped guide its program of teaching young people the practical side of politics,” Bill Boyarsky, veteran political journalist and former adjunct journalism professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, wrote in the Jewish Journal. “At meetings of the institute advisory committee at her home, she carefully watched over whether the institution was educating young people in politics so they would become hard-headed people committed to doing good.”

In the story announcing she had been elected a USC honorary trustee, Warschaw attributed her continued involvement with the university to her positive undergraduate experience.

“As a student, I very much liked going to USC,” she told USC Dornsife in 2004. “After that, I always enjoyed watching what was going on at the university, especially after President Sample began,” she added, referring to USC President Emeritus Steven B. Sample, who retired in 2010.

“Carmen was a leading light in the rebuilding of the relationship between USC and the Jewish community,” Sample said during an interview. “Her candor and sincerity made her a much-loved figure in the Trojan Family.”

Ann Crigler, professor of political science and former director of the Unruh Institute of Politics, paid tribute to Warschaw’s contribution to the Department of Political Science at USC Dornsife.

“She was very politically active and connected, and it was important to her to make sure that students were also able to make that connection to the political world,” Crigler said. “She wanted students to understand the utility of politics and how we need great people to get into politics.”

Crigler remembered Warschaw as “tough, no-nonsense, someone who didn’t suffer fools gladly and who was politically extremely shrewd.

“For USC she definitely brought the people she knew to campus, and she helped to make many connections,” Crigler continued. “Not only did she endow the chair, she was also very active in trying to help the Unruh Institute and students.”

One early contribution Warschaw made that stuck in Crigler’s memory was a donation to help students get summer internships.

“She just thought that was important to do,” Crigler said. “It really meant something to the students. They wrote letters thanking her, and she really appreciated that. She helped to bring politics alive for the students and for anyone who heard her. She will be sorely missed. She was a truly great benefactor.”

According to the Jewish Journal, “There was a certain symmetry to the ardent political partisan dying on Election Day.” Warschaw’s daughter, Hope Warschaw, of Santa Monica, Calif., said her mother “had made sure to send in her absentee ballot a week before.”

Warschaw’s daughter, Susan Warschaw Robertson ‘62 of Bel Air, Calif., who has a bachelor of arts degree in political science from USC Dornsife, said: “Politics played an important role in our household. Mother wanted us to be engaged citizens. We grew up meeting people from every walk of life — powerful and foot soldiers. She took us to every event possible and always made sure that we were part of the action.

“In 1968, she and I were both delegates to the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and my sister has continued the political activism,” she added. “Mother also took each of her grandchildren to a convention to continue the tradition of involvement.”

Robertson and her husband, Carl W. Robertson, funded the Susan W. and Carl W. Robertson Program for Outpatient Tumor Ablation, USC Institute of Urology, at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The daughter of Russian immigrants, Warschaw was born in Arcadia, Calif., and grew up in La Cañada Flintridge. She later attributed her lifelong passion for politics to the early influence of her parents’ enthusiasm for American democracy. Her political life began as an undergraduate when she joined what is now called the USC College Democrats. She and her husband of 63 years were teenage sweethearts who attended USC together and married while still undergrads.

“Louis lassoed my heart when I was 14,” Warschaw was fond of recounting to friends and colleagues. Louis Warschaw went on to become a prominent leader in banking, insurance and real estate.

Carmen Warschaw was active in many Democratic Party offices, both nationally and statewide, serving as national vice president of the Anti-Defamation League and helping to establish the league’s West Coast chapter.

Warschaw was also a prolific philanthropist and generous contributor to civic, cultural and political causes in Los Angeles. Along with her husband, she made numerous donations to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she endowed three research chairs and served on the board of directors. She was a member of the Truman Library Institute, the Music Center’s Blue Ribbon Committee and the Jewish Federal Council, where she served as chairman of the community relations committee.

In 1968, the Los Angeles Times honored Warschaw’s civic and community engagement by naming her its Woman of the Year. In 2008, Warschaw was recognized with an American Jewish Distinguished Service Award by the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion.

“She was a terrific tactician, a generous donor to politicians she supported, a steadfast friend to Unruh and those aligned with him — and a fearsome enemy to her foes, usually those who double-crossed her,” Boyarsky wrote in the Jewish Journal. “She was a bridge between the politics of today and a more colorful and more productive era of a half century ago.”

Susan Wilcox, associate dean for the USC Dornsife Office of Advancement and Warschaw’s close friend for 17 years, remembered a sophisticated and elegant woman with an indomitable spirit and a wonderful sense of humor.

“Carmen was an extremely analytical, skilled and astute interpreter of human interactions,” Wilcox said. “She understood people very quickly and very deeply.”

Warschaw is survived by daughters Hope and Susan, sons-in-law John Law and Carl Robertson, grandchildren Jack Harvey Larsen Law-Warschaw, Cara Robertson and Chip Robertson, and great-grandchildren Louis Harvey Robertson and Rose Frances Harvey Robertson.

A memorial service will be announced at a later date.

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