Sue Fox recollects a memorable evening with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Karen Skinazi’s article on ‘bageling’ in connection with Mrs America was an eye-opener to this reader who watched the entire series hating Phyllis Schlafly. When evil Phyllis told the maid to collect her child from school, knowing said maid needed to collect her own child, she made me explode with venom. I took it for granted that Phyllis and her cohort must also be antisemitic.
I knew Betty, Bella and Gloria were landswomen, as they say in the movies, but was shocked at realising I had lived through the era and the ERA amendment – both of which seemed to have passed me by. Life, as they say, must have got in the way. My feminism, such as it was, amounted to (in no particular order) spending a day at Greenham Common, the Grosvenor Square march in 1964, reading Margaret Drabble and Fay Weldon whilst finishing up the kids’ fish fingers. (As Katherine Whitehorn once famously said, ‘Eating up your children’s fish fingers will not do the children of Biafra any good’, hence the fluctuating size 14-16.)
So bageling has never been part of my ‘They need to know’ strategy. And apologies for missing the reference to ‘schwitzing.’ But I cheered at the sight of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) both onscreen and in Karen’s article.
Fast forward to the late nineties and a hotel bedroom in New York where CSPAN was broadcasting a talk being given by RBG to the New York Women’s Bar Association. My husband and I were riveted. We watched until the end. I hadn’t a clue who Ruth Bader Ginsburg was, but she now had two fans. I said to dearly beloved that she was someone I would love to interview. I put RGB on my wish list and never did anything about it.
A few years later the Jewish Policy Review (JPR) organised an event in London. It was to follow a lecture given by Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Chatham House. She would be talking about Jewish justice in relation to the great American advocates such as Brandeis, Cordoza and Frankfurter. We accepted (and donated!) the invitation to the post-lecture reception in the Speaker’s Chambers in the House of Lords.
I put in a request to the man handling media enquiries for JPR for an interview with RBG. He replied that he would definitely arrange it. A few days before the event, he admitted he had been unable to secure a meeting with Justice Ginsburg. He advised that I should immediately fax her a request to Washington. He was sure it could be arranged. I told him that I was not in the habit of chasing anyone and would rather not. He insisted. Against my better judgement, I faxed a brief letter asking if, during her brief visit to London, she would have any time to talk. By return came a very polite but firm reply saying that (not unexpected) Justice Ginsburg tended not to give interviews. I was sorry to have bothered her even, if truth be told, a tiny bit relieved.
RBG’s lecture was mesmerising. This tiny woman had the room in the palm of her hands. It was packed with distinguished legal minds, including, I noticed, Cherie Blair. Justice Ginsburg’s opening remark was to ask us, ‘What is the difference between a book-keeper on the Lower East Side and a Supreme Court Judge?’ Everyone looked blank. ‘A generation,’ she said. ‘That was what my mother did when I was a child.’
We drove to the House of Lords, found a parking spot close by - remember when you could do that? – and went to the reception. RBG was standing at the reception line. I felt compelled to say ‘Hello, I’m Sue. It was a privilege to hear you. Thank you.’ 10 seconds max.
As it happens, there were many members of our synagogue at the do. We were then a community of highly qualified professionals – including many lawyers – it was impossible to rustle up tombola or raffle prizes in our shul. Somehow, a couple of hour’s free legal advice never quite ticked the right box.
We were about to leave – organising a ride home for a couple of friends - when the bird-like woman who is RBG came up to me and said quietly. ‘Marty is starving. Could we go out for dinner?’ (Marty was Ruth’s husband). It was getting on for 9.00pm – where would we go? Did dearly beloved have credit cards with him? Said husband had a word with a former Lord Chief Justice who suggested we go to Le Caprice which was near to the hotel where RBG and Marty were staying. I rang the restaurant to say I was from the Sunday Times and had a very urgent interview - could they fit us in? They could.
Having swiftly cancelled our friends, we left the reception with the Bader Ginsburgs - watching faces drop as the four of us squeezed into the lift. I would have gawped too. As it was around Rosh Hashana, my opening remarks to the cleverest woman I have ever met were these: ‘If we weren’t going out to dinner, I would have gone home to make chicken soup.’ No doubt thinking that she had agreed to eat with a mad woman, Mrs BG, in all earnestness asked, ‘Oh dear, Is one of your children sick?’
It was all slightly surreal, Marty in the front, we two women in the back of our small and embarrassingly ordinary car. At Le Caprice we were shown to a quiet table. The wine arrived and RBG said to me, ‘Now, what about this interview?’ ‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ I gulped. ‘I’ve given up the slot. There’s no way I would talk to you without being prepared, without a tape recorder, notebook and pen.’ ‘Oh, that’s much better’, she replied, ‘We can just have a social evening.’
What an evening. They were the best company. My husband is a tax accountant and Marty was a brilliant US lawyer specialising in tax. They had lots to talk about. We all had. It was as if we had known them for years. They were such easy company. I can’t remember what any of us ate – the conversation was much too fascinating. Ruth – by then we were on first name terms – was interested in all the musicians I had interviewed. (At one point I remember thinking that this wasn’t really happening and any minute I would wake up at my sink in my yellow Marigolds having had my hand up a chicken looking for giblets.)
The most memorable conversation stopper was when Marty asked my husband if he was a member of the Dennis Thatcher Society? Clueless, dearly beloved wondered if it was something to do with fine whiskey? ‘No’, Marty laughed. ‘It’s for men who are married to wives of great stature!’ We all laughed. The men swapped cards. ‘Come visit my office in Washington if you are there,’ Marty suggested. Turning to me he said simply. ‘You know where Ruth is!
We drove them to their hotel and went home. Forty-eight hours later a FedEx packet arrived addressed to me. Inside were some CDs and a letter. It was from James Ginsburg, an American music producer based in Chicago.
‘My parents said they had a lovely evening with you in London and my mom thought Sue would be interested in these recordings, and the work I do with Chicago musicians. James.’
Le Caprice has closed. Marty Ginsburg died in 2010. RBG is recovering from cancer again, working and fighting Trump, but how lucky we all are to have one of the brightest women in America still fighting.