Wednesday, July 7, 2010

He Was the Very Martin of the Bader Ginsburg Marital

Martin Ginsburg


His marriage to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had just begun its 57th year when he died last week from cancer. They met on a blind date, as undergraduates at Cornell in the early 50s. They both became lawyers of note, with Marty's specialty tax law. He practiced with several firms in New York and DC, and became a professor at Georgetown University when his wife was appointed to the DC appeals court by Jimmy Carter. The Ginsburgs were one of DC's most visible couples, and Martin, though well-known in tax law circles, had no problem with the spotlight being turned so much more often on his wife.

He had a smart, self-deprecating sense of humor, about both himself and his wife. His story of her first attempt at tuna casserole has become legend. Seeing the two of them together was pretty precious. I should know, as I met, and performed for them, twice.

(You don't mind if this obit wanders off into Me-land, do you?) The first time was just a few years after I arrived in DC. I was a member of a musical revue which presented satirical songs of a political nature, called Mrs. Foggybottom and Friends (Foggy Bottom is the high-class neighborhood which houses the Watergate, as well as the Kennedy Center and George Washington University). Our little troop performed for various corporate functions, and were occasionally hired to provide entertainment at private parties.

One such event actually happened in one of the swanky Watergate Apartments, and the Ginsburgs were guests (they lived in the building for years). It was the first time I had performed our very political material for such high-level politicos, but the show went off well, and we were congratulated by Madam Justice and her husband. (I remember being surprised that Justice Antonin Scalia was also at the party; I would learn later that, though Ruth and Tony were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they enjoyed each others' company and the Ginsburgs and Scalias saw each other often socially).

I wouldn't be able to spend an evening with that right winger, so I give kudos to the Ginsburgs.

Several years later, the Ginsburgs were responsible for one of the most memorable evenings I have ever spent as a performer. Back in early 2001, I was asked to participate in an evening's entertainment being planned for Martin Ginsburg's birthday party. Interact Theatre Co., with whom I had done Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush the previous holiday season, was hired by Ruth Bader Ginsburg to provide the entertainment at a lavish birthday party she was throwing for her husband. At the Supreme Court. Yep, the members of the Supreme Court have access to various large banquet-type halls in the building, and Ruth was using one for Dinner and a Show.

Martin was a huge fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, and Interact Theatre was an expert at presenting those operettas, so it was a natural fit. All the songs were to come from the G&S canon, and Justice Ginsburg had one very specific request: that one of the numbers include her husband's favorite phrase in all of G&S, originally uttered (or sung) by the Major General in Pirates of Penzance. In the show, the phrase, "Yes, but you DON'T go!" is issued in frustrated response to the policemen's exaggerated protestations of their own bravery, and their willingness to hunt the pirates. "Yes, but you DON'T go" had become a catchphrase the Ginsburgs used throughout their marriage. I was entrusted with that very important lyric.

There must have been about 8 of us performing that night, and we had rehearsed only a day or two in advance. I was new to Gilbert and Sullivan, so I struggled with the patter lyrics of some of the songs, but was confident that all would be well.

The dinner, as I said, was actually held at the Supreme Court, which is walking distance from my house. We gathered late in the afternoon, and were ushered through the security set up for the building. Though this was prior to 9/11, there was still a security check on all of us who were to be up-close-and-personal with the Supremes, and a physical patdown as we entered the building, too. You haven't lived until you've been frisked by the Secret Service.

It must have been a Saturday or Sunday night, and the building was closed to tourists at the time. Our ushers took us on an intimate tour of the inner sanctum, into rooms where your average tourist is not allowed. I was particularly impressed, and surprised, by the justice's deliberation chamber, or whatever they call it. It is a simple room, with a long table around which the Supremes sit, like a normal conference room. The walls are lined with books, but who knows if the judges ever use them. We were told that, during their discussions, clerks sit poised outside the door, ready to be dispatched to locate any precedent case which a justice may require.

I still get a kick out of the mental image of the nine Supreme Court Justices sitting around that conference table arguing, like opposing attorneys in a divorce case. We were also told that any notes which the justices may make while they are deliberating are burned.

After our tour, and running through our routine in the banquet hall, we were released, as the best of DC society began to arrive. We were the "entertainment", so we were not invited to the dinner portion of the evening, but Mrs. Ginsburg had arranged for us to have dinner around the corner at one of DC's nicest, quaintest restaurants. We trooped over to Two Quail, resplendent in our evening wear, and had a delicious meal courtesy of Ruth. (I was too nervous to eat much, so I took most of my filet mignon as a doggy bag, which the Secret Service searched when we returned to the Supreme's building).

The show went very well, no horror stories to tell, and the Ginsburgs were particularly grateful for our efforts. The whole room howled when I sang "Yes, but you DON'T go," I suppose because all of Marty's friends had heard this phrase from him over the years. We received a very nice, hand-written note from Justice Ginsburg a few days later, thanking us for our part in providing a life-long memory to her husband. (The note is in my scrapbook, yes, I'm that guy).

I bet just about everybody who met the Ginsburgs were impressed with their relationship. Martin came from a generation of men who was not used to being in their wives' shadows, but he didn't seem to resent his wife's higher profile. In fact, he enabled much of her success, and when she returned to the bench only 24 hours after his death last week, she did so because "Marty would want me to." He had many accomplishments in his own field of tax law, but I'll always think of Martin Ginsburg as the Prince Phillip of the Supreme Court.