The girls were the only Jews at the exclusive Tower Hill School when they entered as preschoolers. As a teenager, Adrienne joined the student newspaper and social service club, and took shop. She left for Mount Holyoke College after junior year. “I knew I had seven more years of undergraduate and law school, and I was anxious to get started.”
“Adrienne was brilliant, and at first we thought it was arrogant to skip senior year for Holyoke,” recalls Ruthie Williams Cornelison, one of Alison’s classmates. Today, she has a different view. “Look, she left in 1959, when you were supposed to be engaged by junior year of college, married the week after graduation, have four kids and join the Junior League. It was hard to go against that, to break out, but she did.”
Arsht majored in economics and political science, and during sophomore year got a vivid lesson in parenting when her mother came to nurse her through measles instead of attending John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. It made Arsht think. “I knew I wanted a career, and I wanted to make a difference. Parenting is a commitment I just never thought I’d be good at.” She pauses, then deadpans: “I don’t do plants. I don’t do pets. I don’t do children or babies. I take them on when they’re 25.”
In 1963, Arsht entered Villanova Law School, and three years later her career began the new old-fashioned way: nepotism, as the first female lawyer in Daddy’s firm. Federal affirmative action soon took her to Trans World Airlines in Manhattan. “In those swashbuckling days, women were either stewardesses or in the legal department,” Arsht recalls. “I reviewed contracts negotiated by five guys. They would all go to lunch and not invite me. They said, ‘We may have to work with you, but we don’t have to eat with you.’ ”
While Adrienne waged gender battles, Alison joined the Cold War with the U.S. Information Agency. A gifted linguist, she was on a translating trip to Moscow in late 1969 when the KGB seized her for a night and a day, Adrienne says, and accused her of spying. Adrienne believes the incident gave her little sister post-traumatic stress disorder, from which she never recovered. Alison committed suicide in 1973 at age 29.