Monday, March 24, 2008
Louis Nissen, Labor Attorney and ‘Eyewitness to History,’ Dies at 94
By SHERRI OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Louis A. Nissen, a well-known labor attorney, has died.
Nissen, who was 94, passed away March 15 after doctors were unable to control a virulent infection that developing from bronchitis, his son, Steven A. Nissen, an attorney at Manatt Phelps & Phillips and former executive director of the State Bar of California, said.
“He lived the better part of the 20th Century,” the younger Nissen said. “He witnessed many of the great events of that century and was often involved in them.”
Nissen’s legal career spanned the turbulent McCarthy era and the labor struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, his son noted.
Funeral services were held Wednesday.
Nissen was born in Chicago. As a child, he skipped five grades in school and began college at Northwestern University at the age of 15. He was a collegiate fencing champion who kept a foil and fencing gear in the garage and practiced throughout his life.
“He had the fastest wrists, even until the end,” his son said, “They were very effective for tickling me growing up.”
Nissen began law school in Chicago, but left to help in his father’s produce business. Nissen eventually obtained his law degree from Marquette University in Wisconsin in the 1930s.
He practiced law briefly in Chicago before heading west to California just before the onset of World War II. “He thought California was the land of opportunity,” his son said, “He felt stifled for opportunity in Chicago, and there was a lot of anti-Semitism.”
In 1942, the war economy was booming. Nissen found work at the Hodge Shipyard in Los Angeles as an engineer, even though he had no formal training in engineering.
“He was amazing,” Nissen’s son said. “He had formal education in the law, but he was self-taught in everything else.”
Nissen joined the Army in 1943, but sustained a permanent leg injury and was never sent overseas.
“That probably saved his life,” Steven Nissen reflected. “Almost all of his battalion was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.”
Nissen received an honorable medical discharge later that year and returned to practicing law. He was admitted to practice in January 1949, and formed a partnership with Robert Gilbert, another labor attorney, which became the Beverly Hills firm of Gilbert, Nissen & Irvin. The firm still survives today as Gilbert & Sackman.
Nissen and his firm represented the Sheet Metal Worker’s union, the Retail Clerks International Union, the Fisherman’s Protective Union, and most famously, the Screen Actors Guild and the Screen Extras Guild.
Trial in Jeffers v. Screen Extras Guild Inc. was “one of the most watched events in Hollywood” whe n it commenced on May 18, 1950, Nissen’s son said, because it pitted the union against an alleged member of the Communist Party.
“[My father] got threatening phone calls, and a rock was thrown through the window of the house.” Nissen’s son continued. “The case was “highly emotional,” and those emotions were later brought to a head during the McCarthy era.
Jeffers, a candidate for union leadership and one time state legislative candidate, sued the union for libel after its leaders sent out a letter accusing him of, among other things, being “part of the Commie-influenced Conference of Studio Unions which pulled two disastrous jurisdictional strikes in 1945 and 1946” and of wanting to “bring back open shop” and destroy the union from within.
The Nissen firm successfully defended the union through three trials and four appeals before the litigation finally ended in 1958.
“He was an incredible eyewitness to history,” Nissen’s son said, whose friends and acquaintances included former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey Jr., and former President Ronald Regan among his friends and acquaintances.
“He saw a lot, and because he witnessed so many extraordinary events over nearly a century, he was an incredible story teller,” Steven Nissen said. “He was incredibly gregarious, and loved to tell stories about cases he had worked on or the law.”
Nissen was also “stubbornly resistant to a lot of modern changes,” his son laughed. “The last great technology advance that he took part in was the mimeograph machine.”
Nissen retired from law in the early 1970s, escaping “before the invention of the fax,” as his son put it, and moved to Palm Springs. He did some consulting work before changing his bar status to inactive in 1989.
His son continued:
“He acknowledged that the world was changing, but he resisted it….We bought him a computer for his 80th birthday, and he put a bunch of pillowcases over it to protect it from dust… So the computer never got dusty, but it never got used either.”
His son credits Nissen’s remarkable longevity to “extraordinary genes” and an “active mind,” because “it sure wasn’t through healthy eating.”
Nissen was “known to enjoy a large and hearty meal,” his son said. “He thought that chocolate, hard salami, Planters mixed nuts, and kosher dogs were the major food groups.”
Nissen is survived by his wife of nearly 70 years, Frances Nissen; his two children Steven Nissen and Donna Hayostek; six grandchildren—Illinois attorney Damon Fisch, Laura Arteaga, Nicole Hayostek, Daniel Nissen, Matthew Nissen, and Teddy Nissen—and five great-grandchildren.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company