Photography

Esther Lipsen Coopersmith

January 18, 1930 ~ March 26, 2024 (age 94) 94 Years Old
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Esther Coopersmith Obituary

Esther Lipsen Coopersmith, 94, a Wisconsin farm girl who moved to Washington at 22, and became a Capitol Hill lobbyist, Democratic fundraiser, philanthropist, UNESCO goodwill ambassador, citizen diplomat, champion of women's causes, wife, mother and grandmother, died on March 26 at home of cancer.

For seven decades, Coopersmith practiced the politics of bringing people together by organizing hundreds of gatherings from folksy backyard barbecues to grand formal dinners, from presidential fundraisers to a fundraiser for survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami with the future King of Thailand

Dining at Esther's was never about the food, and always about the chance to meet an eclectic mix of lawmakers, journalists, academics, artists, actors, visiting royals, neighbors, relatives, and diplomats, some of them sworn adversaries.  “There are no boundaries, no protocol for her guest list,” former Israeli ambassador Meir Rosenne told the New York Times, citing “an orthodox Jew who wouldn’t touch anything that is not strictly kosher sitting next to an ambassador of an Arab country that has no diplomatic relations with Israel.”

Her rationale was simple: ''People need a place out of the public spotlight to meet and talk,’’ and her home was avowedly neutral turf. First-time and regular invitees alike marveled at her brief, effusive introductions of as many as 120 guests by name, job and good deeds. Though a champion of bipartisan comity and cooperation, she overwhelmingly backed Democrats from the Maryland Statehouse to Capitol Hill to the White House.

Practicing soft diplomacy, she organized trips to the Middle East, Soviet Union, Asia, and Africa for Senate and Cabinet wives in the 1980s and ‘90s. In Washington, she invited women ambassadors to meet quietly together so they could learn from and support each other.

Born Jan. 18, 1930, in Des Moines, Iowa, Esther was one of five children of Eastern European immigrants, cattle dealer Morris Lipsen and his homemaker wife, Pauline. They were the only Jewish family in tiny Mazomanie, Wisconsin. Esther became interested in politics at age 8 listening to President Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats on radio. At 12 she announced she’d run for office in Alaska because there were not many other people there.

She made her debut in national politics in 1952 at the University of Wisconsin, subbing for the male chair at an event featuring liberal Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, who launched his White House bid when President Truman declined to run. Esther was the lone woman present that day and went on to help Kefauver win the state primary. He sent her to Chicago to open a campaign office at the Democratic convention. Having no clue how to do this, she asked a rival candidate’s top male aides for advice. They "took pity on my ignorance and gave me some typewriters and paper and showed me how to set up an office. We’ve been friends ever since,” she told the Washington Star. When Kefauver lost, Esther helped coordinate the national Young Democrats campaign clubs for nominee Adlai Stevenson.

Recognizing her drive, Kefauver invited her to come to DC, which, to his surprise, she did. He did not hire her, but Esther soon became a lobbyist for the Federation for Railway Progress, a rare job for a woman. 

At an Adas Israel synagogue tea dance, she met Washington native Jack Coopersmith, a real estate entrepreneur. They wed in 1954 and had four children within eight years.

In 1964, with Jack holding down the home front in Chevy Chase, Esther hit the road for President Johnson, staging Texas-style barbecues starring his daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci, across the country. She also served as one of the first female advance staffers for the White House.   

Growing up in a small town, she had a keen eye for talented people from small states.  Esther was one of the first establishment Democrats to support Joe Biden when he was a renegade challenger for the U.S. Senate in 1972. One of her last fundraisers at her house in 2023 was also for him.  She took Bill Clinton to Moscow in 1991 early in his White House run to bolster her favorite candidate’s foreign policy knowledge, remaining close to him and Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom she also backed for president.  

Combining international and local civic activism, she worked with such Washington non-profits as the civic opera and Capital Children’s Museum, where she served as a board member, and Meridian House to introduce foreign visitors to America – and to each other.  In 1979 Esther arranged for Aliza Begin and Jehan Sadat to spend time together at the Children’s Museum.

During the 1978 Camp David talks with President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Esther hosted a party for the press corps. The journalists did not mingle until one female Israeli walked up to an Egyptian counterpart and loudly asked, “So tell me, how’s the shopping in Cairo?” The ice was broken.

A year later, Carter appointed her a Representative in the US delegation to the United Nations, a post that thrilled her because her role model, Eleanor Roosevelt, had earlier held it. It was her first paying job since her 1950s lobbying days, Esther quipped to Washington Dossier. On weekends she went home, often with a UN envoy in tow, who was shown the city by her husband.

She was awarded the UN Peace Prize in 1984, only the second women to be so honored.  Ronald Reagan appointed her an advisor to the UN Status of Women Commission in Vienna, Austria as well as an American delegate to the 1985 UN Conference for Women in Nairobi, Kenya. In 2009, UNESCO named Coopersmith a Goodwill Ambassador “in light of her outstanding contribution to strengthening mutual understanding between peoples and her unfailing commitment to fostering intercultural dialogue.”  Her last trip abroad in 2023 was to celebrate the U.S. reentry into UNESCO alongside First Lady Jill Biden, a cause she worked tirelessly to achieve.

"We often think of diplomacy as the art of building and maintaining relationships between nations, which is true. But at its core those relationships are forged person-to-person. And when it comes to exercising that kind of intimate personal diplomacy few of our nation’s citizens has ever done it better than the indomitable doyenne of Washington,” recalled Hillary Clinton.  

Moving back to DC after Jack’s 1991 death, Esther soon turned a derelict Kalorama house into an elegant party venue. The first-floor peach-hued dining room and scarlet study boasted a legendary collection of inscribed photos and mementoes from admiring world leaders, royalty, and US notables.  As Rep. Elissa Slotkin--one of the five Democratic Women Warriors with military or intelligence backgrounds running for Congress in 2018--stated: “Esther knew that everyone has their role to play in shoring up our democracy, and she played her role to the hilt. Amid health struggles later in life, when most people would quietly retreat from view, she never stopped sharing her wisdom. Every time she invited someone into her home, she reaffirmed her commitment to helping the next generation of women--often 50 years her junior--come forward.”

Often wearing a vivid Thai silk jacket, hot pink lipstick and a signature headband, Esther’s demeanor over seven decades remained unchanged: Part "Midwestern nice,” part Democratic den mother who knew she couldn't get into trouble by holding her tongue, all grounded in a genuine interest in people as individuals. As she told the New York Times nearly 40 years ago, "You meet the same people going up as you do going down so be kind to everybody because the wheel keeps turning around.”

She is survived by her four children: Jonathan of Washington; Connie of Miami; Jeffrey of Seattle and Ronald of Russia; eight grandchildren; sister Rita Rabinowitz of Bossier City, LA., and several nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by her parents and brothers Charles, Zelly and Hymie.

Services private. A ceremony honoring her life will be held later.  In lieu of flowers, donations gratefully accepted to Clinton Global Initiative (clintonfoundation.org), Seeds of Peace (seedsofpeace.org), or St. Mary’s College of Maryland (www.smcm.edu/give).  

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January 18, 1930-March 26, 2024




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January 18, 1930-March 26, 2024




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