News & Politics

Opera Star Denyce Graves on Her Decades-Long Friendship With Ruth Bader Ginsburg

From the first time they met backstage to a final encounter when the Supreme Court justice was ill.

Graves and Ginsburg, an opera lover, at an event during their 30-year friendship. Photograph courtesy of Denyce Graves.

“It was 1991. She had come to a performance of Rigoletto, and I was singing the role of Maddalena. Martin Feinstein [then director of the Washington National Opera] brought her backstage to meet the artists. It was my birthday, and she was so kind. It wasn’t until much later, when President Clinton was nominating her to the Supreme Court, that I said, ‘Oh, I think that’s the woman I met.’ She was always at the opera—I always encountered her there. She was always at the galas for the operas or other organizations like Wolf Trap. I [came to] consider her a personal friend.

“Something funny happened once at the Washington National Opera. We were doing Massenet’s Don Quixote. I was singing the role of Dulcinea, and they had the character in a very Lucille Ball red wig. There was one performance where I came into my dressing room and they brought in a different wig. I said, ‘Where’s the red wig?’ They said Justice Ginsburg was in the theater last night and she said, ‘I hate that wig—take that thing off of her head.’ I called her to thank her, to tell her I didn’t like it, either. That was one of the moments where our relationship began to shift.

“There’s another moment. We were at a hotel for a private event, and I was seated next to her. She had a piece of spinach stuck in her teeth. I whispered, ‘Justice Ginsburg, you might want to go to the ladies’ room. There’s a piece of spinach stuck in your teeth.’ She said, ‘Oh, thank you for telling me.’

“When she was ill this last time, [my husband and I] had taken a train from Baltimore to New York, and when we arrived, I went left and a policeman said, ‘You can’t come this way.’ I thought he was telling me it was a dead end. Then I heard this voice say, ‘Denyce,’ and I looked and it was Justice Ginsburg. She was surrounded with an entourage. She said, ‘Nobody knows this, but the cancer has returned and I’m secretly going in for treatments.’ My husband and I knew in that moment it was the grace of God, and perhaps one of the last moments we would see her in fine form. She looked angelic. Her skin was so pure and so beautiful. She hugged and kissed us, then they took her out to her car. It was a beautiful moment of grace, unplanned.”

As told to Marisa M. Kashino.
This article appears in the March 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.