This is a love story for the ages, and a legacy of love that keeps on giving to a new generation, and more to come.
Edna Berger was a tough-talking receptionist/secretary at the Philadelphia Inquirer who was determined to rise above that station, where so many intelligent women were consigned in the 1940s, and many years thereafter.
Gerald Marks was a poor boy from Saginaw, Mich., whose musical talent led him to Tin Pan Alley, and a song catalog of 200 compositions, including the jazz standard, “All of Me,” which he wrote with Seymour Simons.
Berger found her voice in The Newspaper Guild (TNG), becoming a reporter and union activist before joining the Guild as an International Representative and the first woman organizer in the male-dominated profession.
Marks composed music for Shirley Temple and Al Jolson and befriended Lena Horne and Carl Sandberg, who wanted to learn how to turn his poems into songs. Berger, 15 years younger but so wise to the world, was his one true love.
They got married by proxy, since Berger was in jail for one of her periodic bouts of hell-raising, which were required in those days of union organizing against the establishment and its paid constabulary. A friend stood in for her and said the requisite “I Do’s.”
He continued writing songs and serving on the board of ASCAP for a decade, and she continued bringing in new members of the Newspaper Guild, organizing the Baltimore Sun papers, El Mundo and others, signing up Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post and building a legacy of white-collar unionism among the newspaper elite while also mentoring a generation of journalists.
Among those she mentored was Louise Walsh, who describes herself as “a playmate, colleague and co-conspirator.” Walsh met Berger in 1973 when she was moving from United Press International to the Wire Services Guild, which had its offices in the same building as TNG in New York City.
Walsh recalled that Berger “used her special talent for creative obscenity to terrify certain publishers who thought they could terrorize their workforce and get away with it. “
“When she retired from The Newspaper Guild, her tributes recognized her lifetime of mentoring and her quiet financial support of people she met on union organizing campaigns, people who were suffering and who needed a hand-up,” Walsh said. “She was a true champion for social justice, an outstanding union organizer.”
When Berger died in 1996, Walsh and a group of women influenced by her during their careers – including Linda Foley, then president of The Newspaper Guild – created a scholarship fund as a lasting tribute to their mentor.
Marks, then in his 90s, was so touched by the show of affection for his wife that he bequeathed his estate to what became the Berger-Marks Foundation – including the royalties from his song catalog. Given that “All of Me” has been recorded more than 2,000 times since he wrote it in 1931, the foundation has been able to fund hundreds of women union organizers and other worthy projects.
In 2011, the Berger-Marks Foundation created the Edna Award, with a $10,000 cash stipend, to go to women 35 years and younger who are already leading the fight for social justice in their communities.
This year’s winner, Veronica Avila, is the daughter of a working-class immigrant family in Chicago who went to college and then returned to her neighborhood to help organize restaurant workers – first with Local 1 of UNITE HERE and then building the Chicago chapter of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers, an organization that was created in New York City after the 9/11 attack to help survivors of the Windows on the World restaurant at the World Trade Center.
Thanking the foundation and its supporters at the National Press Club in Washington Nov. 14, Avila said the award encourages her to recommit her efforts to help restaurant workers in Chicago, where she is spearheading a campaign against the anti-union Darden Group (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, The Capital Grille) and to end the “tip penalty” in Illinois, so that restaurant owners have to pay a fair wage and workers are not dependent on tips to survive.
Three other young women received $1,000 “Awards of Note” and six other finalists were commended for their work in helping lead the fight for social justice in our nation. You can see a video of the awards program here, with Louise Walsh opening the program with a remembrance of Edna Berger and Gerald Marks:
At the end of the program, after Foundation President Linda Foley had thanked the judges and others who helped put the program together, Avila interrupted her to remind her not to forget to thank the wait staff.
Edna would have been so proud!
And so would Gerald Marks, to see the living treasure being created from his estate in memory of the love of his life. It promises to go on and on, much like this song, sung here by the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald: