The grandness of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s chambers makes the Supreme Court justice appear even smaller than usual.
Rich wood paneling reaches from the floor to the ceiling. A massive desk anchors the space. The air is heavy with floral perfume. The justice wears an elegant black knit dress, her hair pulled back in her signature style.
Ginsburg moved to these chambers in 2009, and newly confirmed justice Sonia Sotomayor took over her former space. The occasion was a happy one for Ginsburg, not only because of the office upgrade but because she had long hoped for more women to join her on the high-court bench. Ginsburg had been the sole woman since Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement in 2006.
Including the court’s newest member, Elena Kagan, Ginsburg is now one of three female justices—just one of many things that have changed since President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court in 1993. During her nearly 20 years there, she has been a stalwart of the court’s liberal wing and a pioneer for women jurists. She has survived cancer twice and coped with the death of her husband, Martin Ginsburg.
But there has been one constant. The now 79-year-old Ginsburg is surrounded by art, as she has been since childhood. A small Bose stereo fills her chambers with opera music—one of her lifelong loves and an appropriate soundtrack for such a regal setting. Her walls boast works on loan from the Smithsonian, including two original Rothkos, a painting by Max Weber, and one by Josef Albers. (Another Albers painting, which usually hangs in her chambers, is currently part of a traveling exhibit. Ginsburg vows that she won’t retire until it returns.) Her shelves hold photographs of her with local theater icons such as Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn and opera stars from Mirella Freni to Denyce Graves.
Ginsburg speaks so softly that she can be difficult to hear. She chooses her words carefully, allowing long silences to pass before offering her next thought. But when talking about art—whether visual, theater, or opera—she smiles often and easily recalls decades-old memories of plays and concerts.
Art, says Ginsburg, “makes life beautiful.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, Ruth Bader began playing the piano at age eight and the cello in high school; she never progressed beyond the last row of cellists, but that was fine with her: “I just wanted to be in the orchestra.”
Her mother introduced her to theater at the nation’s oldest performing-arts center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music—as Ginsburg remembers it, “my dream place as a child.” The academy held children’s performances on Saturdays, and Ginsburg’s mother, Celia, bought a subscription to all of the shows. She would take Ruth and her cousin, who lived with them for a time, every weekend.
“I remember Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch—that was one of my favorite plays,” says Ginsburg.
She saw her first Laurence Olivier film, Henry V, at the academy. The experience stuck with her, though it wasn’t until high school that she developed a serious interest in Shakespeare, when her English class read Hamlet. Afterward, the class took a field trip to see the movie version, also starring Olivier.
In Washington, Ginsburg is a regular on opening night of Shakespeare Theatre Company productions. The theater has documented her attendance at 28 shows, but she has been to many more. She frequents other Washington theaters, too. Arena Stage reports that Ginsburg has attended 42 of its shows since 1999.
And she doesn’t let the weight of her job distract her. “Her posture is not what it used to be—she hunches over a little bit,” says Ed Zakreski, chief development officer of Shakespeare Theatre Company. “I think you could look at her during a performance and think she’s not paying attention. But she doesn’t miss a word.”
Ginsburg is such a familiar presence at Shakespeare Theatre that artistic director Michael Kahn refers to her simply as Ruth. The justice often joins Kahn at pre-show dinners held at the theater on opening night. She also occasionally writes him letters giving feedback on performances. Once, over dinner, Kahn pointed out that while Ginsburg had seen much of his work, he had never seen any of hers.
“So she invited me to the court for a pretty important case, and she said, ‘We’ll have lunch later,’ ” Kahn recalls. “I only wished my mother was alive so I could tell her.”
The two ate in the justices’ dining room, and Kahn says he was “flabbergasted” that nearly all of the justices attended—Antonin Scalia was the only one missing. “They asked me lots of questions about how I got started and what the theater is like.”
In her chambers, Ginsburg stands after a while to explain some of the photos on her shelves. Her involvement with Shakespeare Theatre Company goes beyond attending plays. She has appeared on its stages many times—and has pictures to prove it.
The theater used to have a tradition of allowing high-profile jurists to appear in minor roles for one night—lawyers’ night—during a show’s run. Ginsburg gestures to a picture of herself in a troll costume sporting a long tail. She’s flanked by Justice Stephen Breyer, now-retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and DC federal judge Gladys Kessler. The photo was taken during the 1998 production of Peer Gynt. Ginsburg says it was her husband’s idea that she play a troll.
She reaches for another photo, this one taken during Henry VI. Ginsburg requested the role of the butcher because she wanted to say this famous line: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
“I asked Michael Kahn if I could ad-lib,” Ginsburg says, smiling. The line she added? “Then the reporters.”