by Marie J. Kuda

In 1987 journalist Kathleen O'Malley, writing about the Gerber/Hart Library in Windy City Times, bemoaned the lack of information about Pearl M. Hart and wondered why the library bore her name. The then-recent deaths of founder Greg Sprague and librarian Joe Gregg because of complications from HIV/AIDS surely contributed to that ignorance. But in large part, Pearl Hart's own reticence about her sexuality and personal affairs may have kept the average gay person in the dark. Her reputation as a pioneer woman lawyer, civil libertarian and social activist was well known in other communities.

Hart was born in Michigan April 7, 1890, as Pearl Minnie Harchovsky, first American-born and youngest of five daughters of Russian immigrant parents. Four years later her rabbi father moved his family to Chicago. Pearl graduated from high school, worked in a law office to help support the family and “read” law at night. She changed her name to “Hart,” graduated from John Marshall Law School and passed the Illinois bar in 1914. She worked with Jane Addams of Hull House and was considered one of the foremost authorities on juvenile law in the United States; she drafted Illinois children's adoption laws and related statutes. She began teaching commercial law in the early 1920s.

According to lesbian novelist Valerie Taylor, Hart's first experience with lesbians came while defending “ladies of the evening” in Chicago's Morals Court (later Women's Court). Hart served as the first public defender appointed to Women's Court. A 1971 Chicago Tribune article noted that at one time Hart was the only woman lawyer in Chicago specializing in criminal law. In the interview, Hart remarked: “When I went into that court none of the women had defense attorneys and 90 percent of the accused were found guilty. When I left four years later, the statistics were reversed and 90 percent went free.”

Later, with the support of Addams, Hart ran but was defeated for Municipal Court judge. In 1937 Hart was a founding member of the National Lawyers Guild, a leftist alternative to the American Bar Association. She ran again in 1948 as a Progressive Party candidate for judge, besides running on the party's ticket for a Chicago City Council seat in 1947 and 1951.

In the 1920s Hart met Blossom Churan, an attractive actress some years her junior. Hart would live with Churan in a fluctuating relationship (kept secret from her family) for more than 40 years.

In the 1940s Churan took as a lover a prominent Chicago physician, Bertha Isaacs. Rather than let Churan go, Hart took the new lover into their home on North Pine Grove Avenue, and, according to Taylor, the three lived “a rather gothic existence” until Churan's death in 1969. Taylor wrote: “Neighbors saw three aging women, two with successful careers, one who stayed at home. Out-of-town relatives or friends stayed in nearby hotels. They kept their lives compartmentalized.” As Churan became more frail, she was less interested in sex and “leaned on Pearl as she had in the beginning.”

At the 1992 National Lawyers Guild annual convention in Chicago, the Women's Luncheon was held as a tribute to Hart. Among those eulogizing her, in addition to a lesbian speaker, were the children of immigrants she had defended in deportation and denaturalization cases arising out of cases involving the House Un-American Activities Committee, the McCarran-Walter Act, the Smith Act and the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s.

Hart was probably the first lesbian to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court, in her appeal connected with the deportation case of Chicago printer George Witkovich, decided April 29, 1957. Her advice to her client—to refuse to answer questions, not on Fifth Amendment (self-incrimination) but on First Amendment (right-to-privacy) grounds—was upheld by the court when it held that the questions fell outside the scope of immigration authorities' statutory power to seek information relevant to determining an alien's continued availability for deportation. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the court's opinion (353 U.S. 194), which also acknowledged that construing the statute to permit broader immigration questioning might implicate the constitutional issues Hart raised. A strict constitutionalist, she was also one of the attorneys in the Smith Act case of an Illinois Communist Party leader, Claude Lightfoot.

Hart was president of the Women's Bar Association of Illinois. In 1960 she became a founding board member of the Midwest Committee for Protection of Foreign Born.

In the early 1960s, Valerie Taylor was a guest speaker at a public meeting of the Mattachine Society, the second incarnation of a failed Chicago chapter of the West Coast gay rights organization. She met Hart, who would become “the love of my life.” She took an apartment on West Surf Street, around the corner from Hart, accepting the “neurotic situation” at the Pine Grove house. Taylor was about 50 and Hart was 73. Taylor later became a charter member of a wholly new corporation, Mattachine Midwest, founded in 1965 with Hart's assistance.

Hart taught at John Marshall Law School for years until just weeks before her death. In 1971, Hart joined her protégé, the attorney Renee Hanover, in formation of a Women's Law Center after they had to surrender separate offices in Louis Sullivan's Stock Exchange Building at 30 N. LaSalle St. prior to its destruction.

During her lifetime, Hart was lionized by those she served across Chicago's various persecuted communities. Major events honored her 60th and 80th birthdays; dozens whom she had defended spoke; recordings and memorial booklets testify to her legal prowess and compassion. John Marshall Law School awarded her an honorary doctorate, noting her as a “pioneer and exemplar … an imperturbable trial advocate and a scholar of ingenuity as well as intellect” for half a century.

Taylor was refused entry to Hart's hospital room during Hart's final days. Hospital policy, she was told, permitted family members only. Hanover, acting on her behalf, finally obtained permission. By then, Hart was in a coma. She died March 22, 1975.

In 1991 Pearl Hart was among the first inductees inaugurated into the city of Chicago's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. The city Department of Cultural Affairs also erected a memorial sign to honor Hart at 2821 N. Pine Grove Ave., one of 20 houses so marked for Chicago movers and shakers who made “an important positive contribution” to the city. There is a major entry on Hart in Women Building Chicago 1790—1990: A Biographical Dictionary (2001), and most of Hart's papers are in the Chicago History Museum.

Copyright 2008 by Marie J. Kuda


The last poem Val Taylor wrote for Pearl Hart:

March 22

I light yahrzeit candles,

dust your photograph

that watches over my bed

and remember your touch.

You are an institution now,

a library,

a scholarship for women lawyers.

As long as I breathe

you are a living woman

moving through my mind.

—Valerie Taylor (1991)

From Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, Surrey Books, 2008.

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