An Interview with Helen Culiner

By Carol Ann Rogers

Helen B. Culiner was born in Quebec City. She fondly remembers walking along the boardwalk that borders the St. Lawrence River and then climbing the steep stairs of the old city, fascinated by its history.  “That was my great delight as a child.” She was raised bilingually and remembers how she used to love to tease the tourists who would ask her questions in fractured French and were then astonished to hear her respond in perfect English.

“I adored my father,” recalls Helen. “He must have been the first feminist that existed. He had complete confidence in my ability to do anything and everything. He liberated me before anyone ever thought of the word.”

A student at the University of  Toronto, she was studying psychology when she met her husband Norman and moved west with him and finished her studies at the University of California at Berkeley. “I really wanted to study mathematics, ” Helen recounts, “but my brother, whom I adored, convinced me that as a woman I would never find a job in that field. Frankly, I never really liked psychology because I found the thinking too loose for me. Mathematics was much more precise.”

Helen and Norman had two children, a daughter and a son. Tragedy struck when their 16 year old son contracted meningitis and died within a day.  It was after that time that Helen decided to enroll at Hastings School of Law. “I loved it the very first week. It was perfect for me because all of the professors were older, and I was older.” This was in the late 1960s and there were only two other women in her class, and only five in the entire school.

After graduating, Helen began the search for a job. Rather than opportunity she found many of the law firms asked to interview her out of curiosity. “Remember, this was after the Civil Rights legislation,”  she recalled. “The law firms were slow to catch onto that law.”  Eventually Helen was hired by Melvin Belli as a litigator. There she had to deal with her own personal experience with discrimination when she discovered she was being paid less than her male colleagues for the same work. After three years, she started her own practice, specializing in employment discrimination. More than two decades later she switched to arbitration and mediation which she found “a superior way to resolve conflict.”

“I was reading Herb Caen,” recounts Helen, ” and he talked about the pool, so I just came over to the Club and said I was interested in joining.”  Becoming a member in 1973, Helen swam daily. “It was really a lifesaver for me.” She had developed lupus while in law school and, not wanting to encounter the side effects of steroids, she began the discipline of lap swimming and the lupus went into remission permanently. “I also can’t tell you how many legal conclusions I came to while doing the backstroke.”

Asked by then President Penny Mallen to join the Athletic Committee, Helen started her involvement in the committee system, culminating in her serving as President of the Club in 1991.  During those years, the Club went through a difficult time over the issue of whether to adopt gender neutral bylaws. “The City – in fact the whole country – was gung-ho on the issue of private club discrimination,” recalls Helen.  “I was very conscious of the fact that so many members had limited incomes and that if we weren’t careful they would have to leave the Club, which could change the nature of the Club.”

Helen points to three strengths that she values at the Club. The first are the athletic facilities, which are unique. The second is the camaraderie among Members. “Once you become involved in the committees, you make friends who are very dear.” Third, Helen cites the convenience and the feeling of home. “You have an ownership interest and the pleasantness of the employees is really from an era gone by.”

“I am very lucky,” admits Helen. “I love certain people and I love that they love me back.”