Wives—and until 1981, they were always wives—of Supreme Court justices have historically had roles not unlike a gaggle of First Ladies: sitting for photographs in Good Housekeeping, sitting in a special reserved section of the court even after their husbands retired, gathering for lunch three times a year in what used to be called the Ladies Dining Room. When the second woman arrived on the court, it was conceded that this woman thing was probably not a fluke. In 1997, the room was finally renamed the Natalie Cornell Rehnquist Dining Room, after the chief justice’s late wife. (It was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s suggestion, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg sometimes pointed out that the Chief hated change, but could not say no to that one.)
John O’Connor was the sole first gentleman for over a dozen years. He and RBG’s husband Marty used to joke that they were members of the Dennis Thatcher Society, which Marty described as one’s wife having “a job which deep in your heart you wish you had.” Marty added, “Now let me just say that in my case it is not true. Only because I really don’t like work. She works like fury all the time. The country’s better off as it is.”
In later years, when John O’Connor was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Justice O’Connor retired, Marty was the only male member of the group. He didn’t care, said Cathleen Douglas Stone, widow of William O. Douglas. “Marty liked being a spouse,” she wrote in Chef Supreme, a cookbook of Marty’s greatest hits put out by the Supreme Court Historical Society. “I remember being surprised when I realized his dishes weren’t catered,” she added.
On each clerk’s birthday, Marty would bake a cake—almond or chocolate, sometimes ginger, lemon, or carrot. The justice would leave a to-the-point note: “It’s your birthday, so Marty baked a cake.” Sometimes the clerks would mull the day’s work over Marty’s biscotti.
“I was always in awe of her,” says former clerk Kate Andrias, “but there was something disarming about seeing her with a partner who adores her but also treats her like a human being.” Another clerk, Heather Elliott, wrote about one late night, after an event, when RBG was working in chambers while Marty read quietly. “I started to talk to her about the research I had done, and while I was talking, Marty got up and walked toward us. I started freaking out in my mind—‘Is what I am saying that stupid? What is he coming over here for?!’—only to watch him come up to RBG, fix her collar (which had somehow fallen into disarray), and then go back to his book. The comfortable intimacy of that moment was something I will always remember.”
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RBG told me, “Marty was always my best friend.”
Aug. 10, 1993: RBG takes the court oath from Chief Justice William Rehnquist during a ceremony at the White House. Martin Ginsburg holds the Bible.
That remarkable intimacy had survived Marty’s bout with cancer in law school, and RBG’s two diagnoses, a decade apart. Cancer had left them alone long enough to be together for the nearly sixty years they had been best friends. But it came back. In 2010, doctors said Marty had metastatic cancer.
“If my first memories are of Daddy cooking,” Jane said, “so are my last. Cooking for Mother even when he could not himself eat, nor stand in the kitchen without pain, because for him it was ever a joy to discuss the law over dinner with Mother while ensuring that she ate well and with pleasure.”
Before Marty’s last trip to the hospital, RBG found a letter that he had left for her on a yellow pad by the bed. It read:
My dearest Ruth—
You are the only person I have loved in my life, setting aside, a bit, parents and kids and their kids, and I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met at Cornell some 56 years ago. What a treat it has been to watch you progress to the very top of the legal world!!
I will be in JH Medical Center until Friday, June 25, I believe, and between then and now I shall think hard on my remaining health and life, and whether on balance the time has come for me to tough it out or to take leave of life because the loss of quality now simply overwhelms. I hope you will support where I come out, but I understand you may not. I will not love you a jot less.
Marty died on June 27, within a week of their wedding anniversary and of the day RBG’s mother had died. It was also the most important time of the Supreme Court calendar, the end of the term when all of the big decisions come down. The court was sitting the day after Marty’s death, and RBG had an opinion in a key case, which said that a Christian group at a public university could not bar gay students from attending meetings.
Jane and James told her she had to show up in court; after all, she had never missed a day. “My father would certainly not have wanted her to miss the last days on the bench on account of his death,” says Jane.
And so she sat there, very still, with a dark ribbon in her hair. As Chief Justice Roberts read a brief tribute to Marty, Scalia wept. Marty was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Not long afterward, the folded American flag from his burial sat on the windowsill of RBG’s chambers.
Reprinted with permission from Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, available today. Copyright © 2015 by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik.
Photos via the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, the AP.