“Hold back the dawn”

By T. Rebecca Hansen

A signed copy of a 1946 political cartoon hangs in the book-filled corner office of Margery Cahn’s spacious Santa Rosa home. In the picture two old men hang onto the edge of the sun in a futile effort to keep it from rising, digging in their heels, shadows stretching long behind them.

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The cartoon, drawn by Herb Block and published in The Washington Post, is titled “Joint Committee to Hold Back the Dawn.” The old men are Senate committees and the sun is the Senate atomic energy bill. An inscription in the margin is addressed to Cahn’s late husband, with regards from the artist.

Cahn is the sort of woman you would expect to find in a nursing home. She shuffles, hunched nearly double, dependent on a walker or a sturdy cane to get around. Her thick-knit green sweater is exactly like your great-grandmother’s; so is her spice-laden perfume. The blue china plates, dozens of them in different designs hanging all around her kitchen, certainly add to the impression. But that is where the similarities end.

Cahn, born Margery Stern on Dec. 28, 1919 in West Hartford Conn., comes from old stock. Her parents, and their parents, and theirs before that, were New Englanders. The family was well to do; well enough to do that her mother neither worked nor kept house.

“I grew up in a house with a maid and a cook,” says Cahn. “I don’t even know if my mother knew how to cook. I suppose she did, know how I mean, but she didn’t ever [do it].”

Cahn’s childhood memories include sledding and skating during the long Connecticut winters, Christmas balls in the country club clubhouse and tennis lessons starting at age 12. The family lived at 45 Beverly Road in a home they had built after World War I. Every house on the block had children in it; Cahn never did anything alone.

After she went to college, though, she never really went back.

At the University of Chicago she studied art and archeology. At the university also, when she was 23 years old, she met her husband, Albert S. Cahn. He was a physicist working on the Manhattan Project – the development of the atomic bomb. They were married within the year.

After the war, the Cahns moved to Washington D.C. to join a group of scientists lobbying for the atomic energy bill. They rubbed shoulders on a daily basis with congressional members.

“It was a semi-social affair,” says Cahn, sitting in her living room, surrounded by abstract line art and paintings of the human figure. “You always went in as a friendly face.”

She chuckles.

“I’m 96 years old now. I don’t do those things anymore.”

According to the ladies in Cahn’s bridge group, those 96 years haven’t hurt her mind at all.

“She still wins nearly every month,” says Nancy Hansen, chuckling ruefully. Hansen, Cahn and six other women gather every month to play bridge, eat sandwiches and pickles and catch up. They’ve been at it for decades.

These sorts of mental pursuits have largely replaced Cahn’s former active lifestyle – not, she insists, due to her age, but rather her broken back. Where she used to play tennis and golf and swim, she now plays card games and reads books.

She is also a business woman. After the atomic energy bill passed, Cahn and her husband moved to Copenhagen, Denmark for three years before finally settling in Los Angeles with their two children. There she worked in the print department of the Art Institute. Somewhere along the way she became the owner of a Los Angeles restaurant and bar, Hacienda Del Ray. She still runs it.

“It pays the bills,” she says. “I’ve had the same people managing it for 20 years. It works well.”

Asked for the secret to her sharp mind, Cahn is adamant.

“I use it. I read and write a lot,” she says. On her coffee table sits a tablet reader loaded with the fiction book of the month from the clubhouse book club. Her favorite magazine is The New Yorker; she keeps up with local newspapers and always reads the Sunday edition of The New York Times.

As far as writing goes, she’s working on her memoirs.

“I get off on lots of tangents,” she says sheepishly.

“I also write checks.”

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