The following story was first published in the Chicago Tribune several years ago.
Pearl Hart was born in Traverse City, Mich., April 7, 1890, the fifth daughter and only American born child of David and Rebecca Harchovsky. A few years later the family moved to 1547 S. Kedzie in Chicago, where Hart's father served as a rabbi to a congregation on the Southwest Side.
At the age of 14, Hart left school to become a wage-earner, shortly afterwards attending evening classes at the John Marshall Law School, where she would later teach for 20 years, and be awarded an honorary doctorate shortly before her 80th birthday. She would often meet judges and other lawyers in court who had once been her students.
In 1914 she was admitted to the bar, and from 1915-1917 she served as the first public defender assigned to the Women's Court in Chicago, where she defended the rights of prostitutes, and contributed to the state statutes concerning the welfare of children.
It was the beginning of her long and distinguished career defending the civil rights of minorities. ... She was also a founding member of the Chicago Committee to Defend The Bill of Rights, the National Lawyer's Guild, and the Committee to Defend the Foreign Born.
During the red-baiting McCarthy years she defended 'foreigners' threatened with jail and deportation, after being wrongly accused of subversive activities—making her a controversial figure when appeared before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. She also gave her time freely to many causes, including the Episcopal Archdiocese of Chicago, and in 1943 she joined with three other women to form the Cancer Prevention Center of Chicago.
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Pearl Hart was an extraordinary woman and has a special place in the hearts of lesbians and gay men in Chicago. Over the years she defended hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of gay people in the courts, victims of entrapment and police harassment.
In the spring of 1965 she met with gay activists Bob Basker and Ira Jones, to discuss forming a local chapter of the early gay-rights group, the Mattachine Society. She spoke at the first public meeting of Mattachine Midwest at the Midland Hotel, 172 W. Adams, on July 27, 1965, and acted as the group's legal counsel up until her death in 1975.
Towards the end of her life she suffered from arthritis and heart problems, but she never gave up her work, sometimes driving 50 or 60 miles from her office at 54 W. Randolph to help in a gay person's defense.
Hart died on March 22, 1975 at Northwestern Hospital, at the age of 84, ending a legal career that spanned 61 years.
On April 13, 1975 a memorial meeting was held at the Midland Hotel, where her close friend, author and radio personality, Studs Terkel, said, 'Her mission was to defend the underdog—in a sense recognizing the illness of the overdog as well. Pearl Hart is certainly dead. She is dead because she first lived.'
I asked gay activist Bill Kelley about his impressions of lesbian attorney Pearl Hart, when he joined Mattachine Midwest back in the 1960s.
'I never had that much of a relationship with Pearl Hart. You're right: She never came out publicly as lesbian. However, her fairly mannish attire—not to mention her deep voice, bulldog build, and square, unmade-up face—must have given a lot of people ideas. She didn't wear trousers, of course, but her suits were most severe, she wore some kind of ribbon at her neck that was the equivalent of a tie, albeit with a stickpin (brooch), and her hair was done up in a tight coiffure.
I met her during my Mattachine Midwest years, but I never had a chance to get to know her well. While working for a lawyer at 1 N. LaSalle St. from about 1967 to 1977, I worked in an office that was across the street from Ms. Hart's office at 30 N. LaSalle. No doubt because Mattachine Midwest's Jim Bradford was forever bringing up her name (she served as his lawyer as well as providing him much consultation on MM matters), I went across the street a couple of times and visited with her briefly on some gay, or MM, related matter or another. She spared me her time graciously, but I tried not to take much of it.
My opinion of her consisted of admiration for a life spent not just on gay-related issues, which was courageous enough, but also on defense of leftists' civil rights. In fact, I heard of her in that left context while still a boy in Missouri, before ever coming to Chicago and finding that she had a gay-related career as well. During those McCarthy years, I sent off for some of the McCarthyite propaganda from congressional committees and other sources (I also sent off for pro-segregation propaganda and for Communist propaganda from Budapest and Moscow, too; I wanted to see it all for myself). From reading through that material, I had become familiar with the American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born, considered a Communist front, before ever coming to Chicago. Ms. Hart was its legal counsel or on its board, and I remembered her name.'