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Stage Presence: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Love of the Arts

Ruth Bader Ginsburg learned to love music and theater as a child in Brooklyn. Still a huge fan of the arts, the Supreme Court justice has become a fixture on Washington’s theater scene—even appearing on one of its most celebrated stages.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg likes to surround herself with art, including two Rothkos that hang in her judicial chambers. Art, she says, “makes life beautiful.” Photograph by Sean McCormick.

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.”

Ginsburg, left, at age 15 at a camp in upstate New York; above, with Sandra Day O’Connor (far left), Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael Kahn (second from left), and Stephen Breyer (far right) at a 1998 production of “Peer Gynt”; right, at age two. Photographs courtesy of the collection of the Supreme Court of the United States.

When Ginsburg was 11, her aunt took her to her first opera. Dean Dixon, a conductor who became known for putting on children’s concerts, was conducting an abbreviated version of the opera La Gioconda by Ponchielli. Between songs, Dixon explained the plot.

“I was fascinated by this,” says Ginsburg. “It was just this very dramatic story and this gorgeous music.”

Ginsburg says Dixon, who died in 1976, never got the respect he deserved: “He was African-American at a time when African-Americans were not conductors. One of the things he said was that in all of his conducting, no one ever called him maestro.”

Throughout high school, Ginsburg made frequent trips to Manhattan to see operas at the New York City Center, where she would sit in the last row of the highest balcony. When 21-year-old Ruth Bader married young Army lieutenant Martin Ginsburg in 1954, opera became a shared passion.

Shortly after their wedding, Martin was assigned to the Army base in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Even far removed from the cultural mecca of New York, the couple found ways to integrate opera into their life. They would check out records from the base’s library. The Metropolitan Opera traveled in those days, and when the tour stopped at the Dallas fairgrounds, the Ginsburgs would make the nearly four-hour trip to see it.

The couple returned to New York in 1958, after Martin graduated from Harvard Law and landed a job at the Manhattan firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Ruth, who was a year behind her husband in law school, transferred from Harvard to Columbia. Their daughter, Jane, was three at the time.

Ginsburg had been one of just nine women in her class of more than 500 at Harvard, and after her second year of law school, she was the only woman offered a summer-associate position at the prestigious firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York. (The firm infamously declined to hire her after she graduated.) Ginsburg was a trailblazer, but that didn’t stop her from feeling guilty about spending time away from her child.

To compensate for the hours she devoted to studying and working, says Ginsburg, “every Saturday and Sunday, we went to something culturally enriching.”

When Jane—now a law professor at Columbia—was four, Ginsburg took her to her first opera. “This four-year-old stands up, and she screams at the top of her lungs. That’s what the soprano sounded like to her,” says Ginsburg. “So I quickly ushered her out. I said, ‘Maybe I’m overdoing this.’ ”

By the time Ginsburg’s son, James, was born 10½ years after Jane, Ginsburg had relaxed considerably in her parenting. But James had a natural affinity for classical music.

“This child who was, I’d say lively—his teachers would say hyperactive—for music, was at rapt attention,” Ginsburg remembers. She began taking him to see the Little Orchestra Society at Hunter College and, when he was older, the New York Philharmonic.

Today James Ginsburg is founder and president of Cedille Records, a classical-music label in Chicago. He’s married to soprano Patrice Michaels.

Justice Ginsburg doesn’t take any credit for developing her son’s love of music: “I think it’s just innate.”

Martin and Ruth Ginsburg moved to Washington in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the federal court of appeals for the DC Circuit. Martin became a tax-law professor at Georgetown and joined the law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. They lived at the Watergate and would often walk to the Phillips Collection.

The couple’s love of art was evident in their home.

“There was always wonderful music playing,” says Dori Bernstein, who was both a colleague of Martin Ginsburg’s at Georgetown and a clerk for Ruth Ginsburg when she was an appellate judge. “There was a beautiful piano in their apartment. It was just a place filled with beauty. You could see that was an important part of their lives.”

Martin Ginsburg died of complications from metastatic cancer in 2010, days after the couple’s 56th anniversary. Justice Ginsburg arranged a celebration of his life replete with music. Opera star Denyce Graves was among the performers.

Even without Marty by her side, Ginsburg still attends nearly every production of the Washington National Opera.

Says the opera’s president, James Feldman: “We do consider her, informally, part of the family.”

Though lawyers’ night at Shakespeare Theatre Company is a thing of the past, Ginsburg graced the stage of the theater’s Sidney Harman Hall this past April for its annual mock trial.

In Washington, home to some 80,000 lawyers, the mock trial is a popular event. Each year a legal issue from a classic play is turned into a fictional court case. A panel of real judges listens as two of the city’s high-profile attorneys duke it out before an audience. For the past seven years, Ginsburg has served as the presiding judge.

This year the event featured the divorce proceedings of Count Claudio and Lady Hero from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Ginsburg peppered the attorneys—Washington divorce lawyer Sanford Ain represented Hero, and white-collar criminal defender Reid Weingarten advocated for Claudio—with questions that only someone well versed in the play’s complicated plot would think to ask.

Her sense of humor was on full display. After Weingarten described Lady Hero as manipulative and duplicitous, Ginsburg suggested that Hero sounded like “a ripe candidate for the study of law.”

The event came just a month after Ginsburg and her fellow justices had heard three days of oral arguments on the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care-reform law.

“It’s good to do something where I’m not thinking about this,” she says, referring to the work that surrounds her in her chambers, “because I go to sleep thinking about the issues at the court.”

And though her Albers painting isn’t due back anytime soon, it’s likely that art will remain part of Ginsburg’s life even beyond the court. For the Supreme Court justice, that means every day will have some beauty in it.

Shortly after writing this article, staff writer Marisa Kashino spotted Ginsburg at a performance of “The Normal Heart” at Arena Stage.

This article appears in the October 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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