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Barbara "Bobbie" Schlein Handman '49

Bobbie Handman, a behind-the-scenes force in Democratic politics, a theater preservationist and the first person to be awarded the National Medal of Arts for advocacy, died on Nov. 14, 2013, at her home in Manhattan. She was 85.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer's disease, her daughter Laura said.

Inspired as a teenager by the Roosevelts, both Franklin D. and Eleanor, Ms. Handman was, for decades, a fund-raiser for Democratic candidates and a lobbyist for Democratic causes, both in New York and nationally. She supported Adlai Stevenson for the presidency in the 1950s, Eugene McCarthy in the 1960s, Jimmy Carter in the 1970s and Michael Dukakis in the 1980s. In recognition of her defense of First Amendment rights for writers, painters and other artists, President Bill Clinton awarded her the arts medal in 1998.

Ms. Handman's signature issues were preservation and free expression. She was senior vice president and director of the New York office of the People for the American Way Foundation, a nonpartisan partner of the organization founded in the 1980s by the television producer Norman Lear and others. The foundation advocated freedom of expression, freedom of religion, voting rights and other issues. Married for more than six decades to Wynn Handman, an actor, teacher and the founder of the American Place Theater, an Off Broadway company, she often fused her early interest in politics with her acquired interest in the theater.

In 1993, when a Tucson high school canceled a student production of Michael Cristofer's play “The Shadow Box” because it depicted a homosexual relationship, Ms. Handman, working with People for the American Way, recruited professional actors, including Christopher Reeve and Mercedes Ruehl, to give a reading of the play in the same community.

In 1998, when “Corpus Christi,” a play by Terrence McNally that depicted Jesus Christ as a gay man living in modern-day Texas, drew demonstrations and violent threats against the playwright and was canceled and then reinstated by the Manhattan Theater Club, Ms. Handman organized a demonstration. Called “A Quiet Walk for the First Amendment,” the protest was meant to remind both sides that the Constitution guarantees artists the right to express their ideas and that no one has the right to silence the expression of others.

Perhaps most notably, Ms. Handman served on the community board in Manhattan that included the theater district around Times Square, and she was an especially prickly thorn in the side of theater owners who hoped to profit from development in the neighborhood.

In 1982, she was in the forefront of a group that lobbied against the bulldozing of three theaters to make room for a hotel. Though she and her fellow advocates lost that fight, they succeeded six years later in persuading the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate 28 Broadway theaters as landmarks.

“She was a significant force in issues of New York City landmarking and preservation, particularly as it related to the theater district, and as a result she had adversarial relationships with Broadway theater owners,” said Jeremy Gerard, a drama critic for Bloomberg News and the author of a new book about Mr. Handman, “Wynn Place Show,” which prominently features Ms. Handman as well. “If Broadway landlords had an enemies list, Bobbie was proudly at the top of it.”

Barbara Ann Schlein was born on March 11, 1928, in Philadelphia and grew up in nearby Elkins Park, Pa. Her father, Benjamin, was an engineer, and her mother, Sophie, was a homemaker. She attended Antioch College in Ohio, where she first became interested in political activism, and later graduated from Barnard, where she majored in philosophy. She met her husband, who was also a student, at a party; they married in 1950.

In addition to her husband and their daughter Laura, a lawyer who is married to Harold M. Ickes, a former adviser to President Clinton, she is survived by a brother, Philip Schlein, known as Spike; another daughter, Liza Handman; and two grandchildren.

“Bobbie was a lifelong lesson in perseverance,” Norman Lear said in a phone interview Thursday. “She made New York happen for People for the American Way. And she made everything grander. She dealt in grand.”