Elinor Guggenheimer, 96, Consumer Advocate
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A joyful warrior for consumers, women, and the disadvantaged, Elinor Guggenheimer founded day care centers, women’s organizations, and served on the New York City Planning Commission.
As commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, Guggenheimer, who died yesterday at 96, operated at a frenetic pace to protect the city’s citizens from gas stations that gouged, delis that sold short-weight salamis, and fly-by-night lawyers who promised overnight divorces. Boasting “ten immediate goals” when she took office in 1974, she was fueled by an estimated 14 cups of java a day. The guzzling ended when high prices inspired her to lead a national coffee boycott in 1977, but Guggenheimer never lost her edge. She founded new crusades into 1980s.
A veteran social worker who was on the faculty of the New School for Social Research, Guggenheimer considered herself a paragon of traditional values even while pushing for reforms. In a 1961 interview, she announced to the New York Times that in her family, the men become lawyers and the women work on committees. “My three-month-old grandson might want to be a nuclear scientist, but he’ll be a lawyer,” she predicted. (He went on to work in finance.)
Born April 11, 1912, Guggenheimer was the daughter of prominent banker Nathan Coleman. She was educated at Horace Mann, Vassar, and in 1932 graduated from Barnard College, shortly after marrying Randolph Guggenheimer, a recent graduate of Harvard Law School. Randolph Guggenheimer’s family were well-known philanthropists. He later led creation of North General Hospital, which opened its doors in Harlem in 1991 as the only black-operated hospital in New York State.
As a social worker in settlement houses, Elinor Guggenheimer made day care her first great cause and in 1948 founded the Day Care Council of New York, which fought for state-funded day care and protested high milk prices. Active in many other charitable causes, including the Community Service Society, she was named the first female member of the city Planning Commission in 1961. She was so busy, she told the Times, that people scheduled meetings with her during her visits to the supermarket. She was sometimes introduced as “The Den Mother of the Democratic Party.”
In 1969, she was a Democratic candidate for City Council President. Mayor Beame tapped her as Consumer Affairs commissioner in 1974; she proved an adroit follower of her predecessors in office, Bess Myerson and Betty Furness.
“I’d rather make a mistake than do nothing,” she said, shortly before taking office.
On behalf of New York’s consumers, she harried auction houses for declining to reveal reserve prices; criticized restaurants for adding surcharges during an era of high inflation, and helped crack down on tourist shops in Times Square.
A veteran interviewer who had been a correspondent on WORTV’s “Straight Talk” women’s show in the early 1970s, she went on as commissioner to host “Consumer Alert,” a one-minute daily news feature on WCBS radio that spotlighted consumer woes, such as a leaky scuba dive mask or shoe stores whose wares bled dye on socks. The show was canceled in 1977 after she conceded “we may have embellished some of the spots to make them more interesting.” She left office in 1978 after Mayor Koch announced he was replacing her with Bruce Ratner.
Guggenheimer was scarcely through. She had organized the New York Women’s Forum, a mentorship and networking group, in 1973. She expanded it in 1981 with the National Women’s Forum, then in 1983 the International Women’s Forum, and in 1992 the New York Women’s Agenda.
Her husband died in 1999. She leaves behind two sons, Charles and Randolph, three grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.