Frances Perkins documentary


Many documentary films earn fireworks on their release, then disappear as fast as the pyrotechnics. Not so with “You May Call Her Madam Secretary,” Island filmmakers Marjory and Robert Potts’ charming and still relevant tribute to the nation’s first female Cabinet member, Frances Perkins (1880-1965).

The Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center will revive the award-winning film in a special screening on Thursday, August 19, at 7:30 pm to mark the 75th anniversary of the Social Security Act. The late Secretary of Labor, Ms. Perkins was as responsible as anyone for its creation, along with the end of child labor, the minimum wage, maximum work hours, and unemployment insurance, which all took place under her leadership.

Released in 1987, “You May Call Her Madam Secretary” strikes a chord today as much as then, in light of the nation’s political battles over health care. It stars stage and screen actor Frances Sternhagen and Robert Potts, who bring to life in reenactments the history-making Secretary of Labor and figures in her life.

Like current president Barack Obama, Ms. Perkins and her boss Franklin D. Roosevelt were labeled radicals and socialists. Dubbed “Madam Secretary” when legislators dithered over what to call their first female Cabinet member, Ms. Perkins broke ground not only for women, but also for many of the nation’s labor laws, which she believed would prove more effective than labor union strikes.

For filmmakers Robert and Marjory Potts, the Frances Perkins project was a match made in heaven. Their film company, Vineyard Video Productions, formed in 1982, focused primarily on educational videos, but already included a documentary, “Making Music,” on the Emerson String Quartet.

Ms. Potts, a freelance journalist as well as a filmmaker, was finishing a writing assignment on Junior League founder Mary Harriman Rumsey, a close friend of Ms. Perkins. Using the West Tisbury library, Ms. Potts borrowed a Frances Perkins biography in search of material for her article on Mrs. Rumsey.

Fascinated by the intrepid social worker’s career, Ms. Potts noticed that the only other library patron to withdraw the Perkins biography was the late Joseph Lash of Menemsha, historian and biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt. Ms. Potts asked his advice about how to proceed with a documentary on Ms. Perkins.

He directed her to Ms. Perkins’ daughter, Susannah Coggeshall of Maine, who controlled access to her mother’s papers and the oral history transcripts at Columbia University. As it happened, Ms. Coggeshall’s husband, the late abstract artist Calvert Coggeshall, was a long-ago friend of Mr. Potts from his salad days in New York City.

That connection helped persuade Ms. Coggeshall to provide the filmmakers with access to the research they needed for their Perkins film. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Massachusetts Council on the Humanities, they pored through thousands of pages of oral history transcripts and hired Ms. Sternhagen to act in the film’s reenactments. Mr. Potts has gone on to perform at the Vineyard Playhouse, as well as to found West Tisbury’s biweekly, “The Broadside.”

One of Ms. Perkins’s unfulfilled goals was to develop a national health care program, and as the debate over health care legislation heated up this winter and spring, Ms. Potts saw a parallel rise in purchases of “You May Call Me Madam Secretary.”

“With everything happening, I kept thinking of it,” Ms. Potts says. “Who among the Tea Partiers would give up their social security?” Even economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman referred to the late Labor Secretary in a recent essay.

It was a few quick steps to arranging the film’s revival at the M.V. Hebrew Center. As Ms. Potts points out, Frances Perkins is still not well known, even to educated Vineyarders.

“I love having it out there,” she says.

Film: “You May Call Her Madam Secretary: Frances Perkins” 7:30 pm, Thursday, Aug. 19, M.V. Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven. Q&A, reception follows. $10 suggested donation. 508-693-0745;

Brooks Robards is a regular contributor to The Times who divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Northampton.