Jeanie Bernstein Dies at 88, a Practitioner of Protest

Jeanie Bernstein among the peace protestors at Main Beach in June 2006. Photo by Jennifer Welch
Jeanie Bernstein among the peace protestors at Main Beach in June 2006. Photo by Jennifer Welch

Friends of Jeanie Bernstein, considered the “mother” of the peace movement in Orange County for organizing a decades-long peace vigil at Laguna’s Main Beach, plan to remember her lifetime of work by joining the still on-going vigil this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Bernstein, 88, died Saturday, Oct. 22, of congestive heart failure at her home of 53 years in Laguna Beach.

The long-time activist, jailed and arrested multiple times, served as an articulate spokeswoman for causes she believed in and became a forceful socially conscious mentor for her children and scores of friends that continue in her footsteps.

She fought against nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons, chained herself to a bulldozer to protest the building of the toll road in Laguna Canyon, organized rallies that successfully forced an annual aerospace conference to decamp from Orange County, called for Richard Nixon’s impeachment, and protested against the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf and Iraq wars.

“For this environmental community, they have lost a wise elder and a cherished leader,” said Jolie Bernstein, one of her four children.

Jeanie Newman was born on Aug. 19, 1923, in Cincinnati. She moved to California as a child when her father’s poor health forced his retirement from a bronze casting business. Settling first in rural Santa Cruz, she experienced anti-Semitism firsthand. Ostracism led her to take solace in the natural world and the friendship of two Japanese girls. Identifying with the oppressed and love for nature were consistent threads that bound her activism.

“She fell in love with nature and the ocean; that stayed with her the rest of her life,” Jolie Bernstein said.

As a 17-year-old, she earned a suspension from UCLA for calling on Westwood Village barbers to cut the hair of black students in a Navy program. She met her future husband, Sanford Bernstein, at the university. They both were Communist Party members, a short-lived allegiance because the group proved too dour, longtime friend Marion Pack said.

The family settled in Laguna Beach in 1958 after a long visit with family friends, artist David Rosen and his wife. Bernstein divorced in 1960. Her activism gained new momentum after 1964 alongside a like-minded, common law husband, Peter Carr, a Cal State Long Beach professor who died in 1981.

After his death, Bernstein “was seriously moving and shaking, taking her seat again as a visionary, a dreamer, an activist,” Jolie Bernstein said.

People were lured to her “rock solid” commitment, said Pack, who relied on counsel from Bernstein, a founding member in Orange County of the anti-nuclear group Alliance for Survival. While Bernstein initially fought against big issues, she was equally outspoken on local ones, said Pack, the alliance’s executive director.

Bernstein argued for protections behind her Driftwood Drive neighborhood where endangered big leaved Crownbeard flourishes and for more public access during planning of what became the Montage resort.

“I knew her as one who seemed to show a limitless wonder of nature, was able to articulate so clearly why we should act to protect it and had an uncanny ability in conflict situations to express a solution that could garner agreement from those of many perspectives,” said Laguna resident Ginger Osborne. “She is a jewel who will be sorely missed.”

In a letter last year nominating Bernstein for the Woman’s Club woman of the year award, local landscape architect Ann Christoph described a candidate whose values contributed to the town’s quality of life. “I have admired her for her conscience, her activism, her persistence, and her kindness,” Christoph said. “I can’t speak for others, but for me they went to my heart and encouraged me to be a stronger person.”

Even in her last week, Bernstein took pleasure in learning about the protest movement Occupy Wall Street and their spin-offs around the country. “I know that’s something that nourished her soul,” Pack said.

Bernstein is survived by her children, Marc, of Laguna Beach; Jolie, of Colorado; Leyna of Albany, Calif.; and Shari Garn, of Graton, Calif; as well as four grandchildren.

The family plans a memorial service to honor Bernstein’s life next spring.


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