Justin N. Feldman died peacefully at his home in Manhattan on Sept. 21, with his adoring wife of 25 years, Linda Fairstein, at his side. He was 92. This year marked Justin’s 50th Vineyard summer, and he was able to enjoy every day of his stay in Chilmark, surrounded by Island friends, summer visitors, and family members, until he returned to New York on Sept. 15.
Justin was born in Manhattan on May 25, 1919, graduated from Columbia College in 1940 and Columbia Law School in 1942, and then served from 1943-1946 in the United States Army Air Force as a trial judge advocate for courts-martial. In 1946, he became director of Veterans Affairs for the American Veterans Committee, supervising the establishment of a national legal assistance clinic for returning World War II veterans.
A liberal Democrat, Justin first entered reform politics in the late 1940s as a leader of the Fair Deal Democratic Club, with a goal of breaking the corrupt political influence of New York’s Tammany Hall. In a powerful article published in the National Municipal Review in 1950 titled “How Tammany Holds Power,” Justin’s observations prompted legislation requiring the direct election of Manhattan’s district leaders. In 1960, he managed the Congressional campaign of William F. Ryan to a stunning upset over the Tammany candidate in the influential Upper West Side district. Former Mayor Edward I. Koch remembered Mr. Feldman as “a brilliant” man who was a “reformer of Democratic politics before it became fashionable.”
From 1952-1955, he was an aide to Cong. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., with whom he later practiced law and developed a lifelong friendship. He was a founding member of the firm of Landis, Feldman, Reilly and Akins, which he formed with Dean James Landis, formerly of the Harvard Law School, who was the personal attorney for Joseph Kennedy. In 1982, he joined Kronish Lieb Weiner and Hellman as head of the litigation department. He remained of counsel to that firm — now Cooley LLP — until his retirement from the bar at the age of 90.
Mr. Feldman’s devotion to public service was extraordinary. He served on John Kennedy’s staff at the Democratic National Convention in 1960, and after the election helped draft proposals for the reorganization of the federal regulatory agencies. In that administration, he was a consultant to Secretary of Commerce Luther W. Hodges, and served on a special mission to Africa and the Middle East.
He was one of the New Yorkers who persuaded Robert Kennedy to run for the Senate in 1964, and accepted Kennedy’s offer to be the campaign scheduler and to supervise the advance teams for each stop around the state. They remained close professionally and personally, and Justin was a pallbearer at the Kennedy funeral service.
In the early 1960s, as chairman of the law committee of the Manhattan Democrats, Mr. Feldman challenged the constitutionality of the 1961 redistricting statute that redrew the borough’s four Congressional districts. Most shocking were the Upper East Side/Silk Stocking District of Congressman John Lindsay, which excluded 97 per cent of Manhattan’s nonwhite residents, and Cong. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s East Harlem turf, which excluded 99.5 per cent of its white residents.
Mr. Feldman argued the case — Wright vs. Rockefeller — in the United States Supreme Court in 1964, telling the jurists that redistricting “hurts the Negroes because it puts all their influence in one district and denies them the ability to influence Congressional elections in other districts.”
He was questioned by Justice John Marshall Harlan 2nd, who said: “If you started out to construct a segregated Congressional district, could you do a better job than this?” Mr. Feldman replied: “It would be absolutely impossible.” In February, 1964, the court ruled 7 to 2 that the plaintiffs failed to prove racial discrimination.
Mr. Feldman was also chairman of the City Bar Association’s Committee on the Judiciary, on which he served for 10 years, and by appointment of Governor Rockefeller on the board of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and by appointment of Mayor Koch a member of the 1983 New York City Charter Revision Commission.
In addition to his long record of public service and his distinguished career as a litigator and corporate lawyer, he had indomitable spirit and courage, great good humor, profound love of family, friends, the law, life and the Vineyard. There is no place in the world where he was happier than at his home in Chilmark. He thoroughly enjoyed swimming in the ocean at Black Point Beach, selecting his fish at Larsen’s, eating in Menemsha at The Bite and The Galley, and welcoming beloved friends and family for meals and visits. Justin had a great run, to the very last day of his long, full life.
Learning of his death, his longtime friend and Vineyarder Vernon Jordan said: “Justin Feldman taught me that friendship is the medicine of life. He was a dear friend and a great man.”
He received exquisite medical care on the Island from Drs. Jeffrey Zack and Sean Kelly of Lifeguard Medical Services, and from Drs. Tim Guiney and Rocco Monto. The superb Vineyard Nursing Association was his lifeline for the last three years, for which he was deeply grateful.
In addition to his wife Linda, he is survived by three children: Jane Feldman of Denver, Colo., Diane Feldman of Washington, D.C., and Geoffrey Feldman of Lowell; and by two grandsons, Matthew and Alexander Zavislan, also of Denver; and by his brother and sister in law, Guy and Marisa Fairstein, and their children and grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made in support of the Justin Feldman ’42 Public Service Fellowship and sent to Columbia Law School, 435 W. 116th Street, Box A2, New York, New York 10027.
A funeral on Abel’s Hill will be private, and a celebration of a long life well-lived will be announced at a later date.