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A 5-Decade-Long Friendship That Began With A Phone Call

Over a 50-year friendship, NPR's Nina Totenberg and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw each other through illness and loss, with laughter and many family dinners.
Rebecca Gibian
Over a 50-year friendship, NPR's Nina Totenberg and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw each other through illness and loss, with laughter and many family dinners.
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In 1971, newly assigned to cover the Supreme Court, I was reading a brief in what would ultimately be the landmark case of Reed v. Reed. It argued that the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause applied to women. I didn't understand some of the brief, so I flipped to the front to see who the author was, and I placed a call to Rutgers law professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

By the time I hung up an hour later, I was so full of information that I was like a goose whose innards were ready for foie gras. I soon began calling professor Ginsburg regularly, and eventually I met her in person at a conference in New York. We never did agree what the subject of that conference was, but take my word for it, it was boring. So boring that we ... well, we went shopping.

We would become professional friends and later, close friends after she moved to Washington to serve on the federal appeals court here and later, on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some of the stories that follow have little to do with her brilliance, hard work or devotion to the law, or even her pioneering role as the architect of the legal fight for women's rights in this country. Rather, they are examples of her extraordinary character, decency and commitment to friends, colleagues, law clerks — just about everyone whose lives she touched. I was lucky enough to be one of those people.

Friendship through hardship

She was still on the D.C. Circuit in 1988 when the Cosmos Club, after years of effort from many of its male members, finally voted to admit women. Against my better judgment, I agreed to be proposed as one of the first female members. But, as it turned out, I was blackballed. While I was happy not to have to pay the significant fees associated with membership, the truth is I was really hurt, and I must have told Ruth about it.

Some time later, RBG was invited to visit the club, and at the end of a tour of its lovely interior, her escort invited her to become a member. As the story was related to me, Ruth paused, and in that quiet, low voice of hers, said to her escort, "You know, I think that a club that is too good for Nina Totenberg is too good for me, too."

Journalist Nina Totenberg and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had an understanding about their apparently clashing careers: They each have a job, and it has to be done professionally, and without favor.
/ Image from Nina Totenberg
Image from Nina Totenberg
Journalist Nina Totenberg and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had an understanding about their apparently clashing careers: They each have a job, and it has to be done professionally, and without favor.

As floored as I was back then, I began to truly understand the measure of the woman when my husband, Floyd Haskell, fell on the ice and spent much of the next four years, in the hospital, struggling to recover. By then, Ruth was a Supreme Court justice, but periodically, she and her husband, Marty, would scoop me up, taking me with them for a night out, or dinner at their apartment with someone interesting, and once for a memorable and very small family birthday party for RBG at her cousin Beth's house. I always felt those evenings as a kind of embrace.

She continued these kindnesses after Floyd died, and then one night, when she had taken me to some event at Catholic University, we were walking down a hallway, and I said to her, "Ruth, I've started to date someone." In my mind's eye, I remember her stopping in her tracks, looking at me hard, and saying, "Details. I want details!"

Ruth always did love gossip! The more the better. And so I told her all about Dr. David Reines, a widower, a trauma surgeon and chairman of surgery at one of the Partners hospitals in Boston.

A woman of her word

In November 2000, she performed our wedding ceremony.

It was no small thing that she was there. Because of her colon cancer radiation treatments the year before, she had a blockage that had landed her in the hospital the night before the wedding. But as I would learn, a commitment from RBG was about as ironclad a thing as you could get. In typical fashion, she forbade Marty to call me or let me know in any way.

"This was your wedding eve, and I was not about to let you be worried," she told me later. In true fashion, she was there, stayed through the dinner, and quietly asked me if it would be OK if she left a little early.

In 2009 when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she could not deliver a planned speech at Rutgers, but as she flew to New York for her surgery, she was working on the final draft of her speech, which would be delivered by someone else.

She was still in considerable post-operative pain when she was released from the hospital, but less than 10 days later, she pulled herself together to attend President Obama's first State of the Union speech. And, truthfully, she looked like she had a grand time.

In 2018, when cancer again reared its head, she had to cancel a packed schedule, but tried to reschedule every canceled date the following year, even though she had just undergone extensive radiation treatments. The doctors told her judicial assistant, Kimberly McKenzie, to just cancel everything. McKenzie knew better.

Ruth could be stubborn. Oh my, stubborn. She knew how to play hurt better than most defensive ends. Broken ribs, radiation, chemo — she just soldiered on.

I really have no idea how many times I interviewed RBG over the years. Suffice to say dozens and dozens. My personal favorite was a long interview I did with her and Justice Antonin Scalia before an audience of about 1,500 in Washington. I loved it especially because these two ideological opposites were such good friends, and in that interview, they came to play.

Although they were on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, Justice Antonin Scalia (left) and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a professional respect for each other and a personal bond. Nina Totenberg, joined by intern Anthony Palmer, joined the two at a 2015 event.
/ Image from Nina Totenberg
Image from Nina Totenberg
Although they were on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, Justice Antonin Scalia (left) and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a professional respect for each other and a personal bond. Nina Totenberg, joined by intern Anthony Palmer, joined the two at a 2015 event.

They fought over ideology, respectfully, laughed lovingly about experiences shared, and let the audience see how two brilliant justices of different views could love each other despite those differences.

Some of the interviews I did with her were hilarious, or revealing, especially, when we chatted for a few minutes the day before, and I let her know what I was thinking of asking. Thus armed, she told me at the Sundance Film Festival about her first experience with sexual harassment, at Cornell, and she was so furious that she faced down her professor, telling him, "How dare you, how dare you!" Can you imagine? She was 18 years old, if that, and fearless even then.

Then too there was the interview I did with her for a group of doctors when I asked her to tell the story of her second pregnancy, 10 years after her first child was born. She had never expected to get pregnant again because of Marty's extensive radiation treatments for testicular cancer when they were in law school. So, not only was she surprised, but so was the doctor, because after telling her she was about to become a mother for a second time, he asked her, "May I know who the father is?" P.S. James Ginsburg looks exactly like Marty.

Some of the interviews I did with her, especially toward the end of her life, were mainly me asking her to retell the many stories I had heard from her over the years. I called them "Ruth's Greatest Hits." But I could never get over what a performer she was.

No matter how lousy she felt, she rose to the occasion. Whether the audience was a small gathering at an embassy or a music or opera group, or a packed arena filled with 16,000 spectators who gobbled up every ticket within hours of them being posted online in Little Rock, Ark., she was always the inimitable RBG.

An 85-pound gourmand

She loved her wine. Confined to one glass a day, she rebelled when my husband, David, brought her a giant glass filled halfway up at break-fast on Yom Kippur. "David," she instructed, "fill it up to the top."

She had a wonderful sense of humor. When she spiked a high fever in July and her doctor told her she just had to go to Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, right away, her response was: "Well, they have good crab cakes there."

Ruth loved food. She may have been 85 pounds soaking wet toward the end of her life, but she loved to eat. Slowly, very slowly. But God help you if you tried to take her plate way before she had eaten every last morsel of food on the plate.

Of course, she had been spoiled by the love of her life, her husband, Marty, the best of gourmet chefs. My husband, and her daughter, Jane, and granddaughter Clara tried to live up to that. But nobody was quite like Marty.

Anyone reading this will know from my pieces and from the documentary RBG about that last poignant letter Marty wrote to her at the end of their 56 years together. Before the movie, though, I asked her to bring the letter with her to an interview we were taping. It was the last thing I asked of her that day, to read the letter. It was the only time I ever saw her cry.

Heating instructions

Few know how hard she tried to take care of Marty, all by herself in the last year of his life. I called one day to ask if we could bring food. No, she said. But she sounded so down that I asked if she would like David to come over and examine Marty. "Oh yes," came the reply. I stayed in the living room while David went to the bedroom.

Ruth had not slept all night. She was trying to take care of her darling husband, who was considerably bigger than she was, help him to the bathroom, giving him sponge baths. David did what he could to make Marty comfortable and he discussed the situation with the two of them, finally telling her, "Ruth, I have Medicaid patients who have more help than you do."

There was one hilarious moment on that day, however. We had brought some food in an aluminum tin that she could heat up. My husband, David, ever knowledgeable about human behavior, said to her, as we were about to leave, "Ruth, do you know how to heat that up?" Yes, she assured him, just put it in the microwave. "NO," he said firmly, that will short out the electricity. "You need to heat it in the oven." There must have been something about the look in her eyes, because he quickly followed up, "Do you know how to use the oven?" After some hesitation, the venerable justice admitted she did not. And so, David gave Ruth Bader Ginsburg a lesson on how to use the oven in her apartment.

This was, of course, not the first time she pushed the envelope of her own endurance. She did the same for work too. And so it was that I learned early in our friendship not to call the Ginsburg household until after noon on the weekends. Ruth would come to dinner at our house or go to the opera or go to any of the many other events she enjoyed participating in, and when she got home, she would start to work again.

An inspiration

Ruth really did love being "the notorious RBG." At the opera, when her tiny figure, wrapped in a coat and babushka, would enter the Kennedy Center opera house from a side entrance, I don't know how, but people would see her, and the roar would begin, soon followed by a standing ovation, and loud cheering.

And amid COVID-19 pandemic, she took to wearing a mask, with her tiny face printed on it.

She was an inspiration to so many women, especially young women. She often would come to our twice-a-year big parties, attended by lots of doctor friends, journalists and lawyers. She always came late when she knew the crowd would have thinned to a relative few. But there almost always were a bunch of surgical residents and a few of my former interns still there. It was such an amazing thing to see how they stood back, in awe of her, as I chatted with her, and she ate, undisturbed by the fact that we had 15 or so listeners. Even then, she was, in a sense, a performer.

Her memory was so prodigious. At one party, we were talking about how she had met actor Martin Sheen — they were in the same natural child birth class —he with his wife, she with Marty, about 50 years or earlier. She recalled that he was in his first Broadway play back then, and she paused to remember the name, "The subject was roses." My husband couldn't believe it and Googled it on the spot. As usual, she was right.

Covering a friend

I sometimes was asked how I could remain such good friends with RBG at the same time that I covered her as a reporter.

The answer was really pretty simple. If you are lucky enough to be friends with someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you both understand that you each have a job and that it has to be done professionally, and without favor.

I think the only time that she told me anything she wasn't supposed to was a mistake. After the coronavirus outbreak and lockdown, our house was about the only safe place Ruth could go, and so from mid-March until the end of July, she came to us for dinner every Saturday night, except a few where we brought dinner to her. Periodically, she would get this evil grin on her face, and say something on the order of "You are going to be a very busy person this week." Translation: lots of big opinions for you to cover.

Then, one Sunday I called her about something else, and she said, "How did you like that Electoral College decision?" I couldn't believe my ears. My friend was human. She had, like the rest of us in these COVID-19 times, gotten her days mixed up. She thought it was Monday. I paused and said, gently, "Ruth, it's Sunday, not Monday."

She gasped. She was horrified. Beside herself at her indiscretion. Of course, she hadn't told me anything about what the court had decided, only that I would find out in about 12 hours. But still, she was lashing herself for her mistake. I couldn't help but laugh.

Truth be told, though, being her friend did get harder toward the end of her life. But even then, she understood.

At the end of 2018, she called on my husband David, to help her navigate the onset of lung cancer. For some six weeks, he knew what was going on, supervised her biopsy and talked with RBG and her family. But I knew nothing of what was transpiring. I was kept in the dark.

As it happened, the biopic about RBG, On the Basis of Sex,was premiering in December, and over the course of a couple of weeks, she was to make a bunch of appearances in Washington, and New York. I was the interviewer for all of these, and we ended up in New York, where unbeknownst to me, Ruth and my husband David were meeting at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center with an array of doctors and Ruth's daughter, Jane, to make plans for her surgery and treatment. At the last of these appearances, I remember cutting a short interview even shorter than planned because when I looked into her eyes, she looked so terribly tired.

The night before the surgery, David sat me down to tell me what was going to happen the next morning. I confess, I cried.

The next day, I followed her example and did my job, as the court announced the operation. When I finished for the day, I met David for dinner as I prepared to do a TV shot, and as we sat in the restaurant, at about 8 p.m. my cellphone rang. It was Ruth. She was "sitting up in a chair eating a consommé soup that is far better than I had any right to expect." She was calling me, she said, because she wanted me to know why she had forbidden David to breathe anything to me about what was going on.

As she memorably put it, "I just didn't want you to be trapped between your friendship for me and your obligations as a journalist."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.