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A Decades-Long Friendship With The Late RBG

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is clear that an intense political battle is coming in Washington. But we want to focus much of the next hour on Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legacy as a critical legal strategist in the fight for equal rights for women and as an unlikely cultural icon. And we begin now with a remembrance from someone who knew her particularly well, NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 1971, newly assigned to cover the Supreme Court, I was reading a brief in what would ultimately be the landmark case of Reed v. Reed. The brief argued that the post-Civil War 14th Amendment guaranteed to equal protection of the law applied to women - a notion that, candidly, I didn't really understand. So I placed a call to the brief's author, Rutgers law professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Nina called me and said, I'd like to ask you a question. I thought the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment is about race.

TOTENBERG: By the time I hung up, I was so full of information that I was like a goose who was ready for foie gras. I soon began calling professor Ginsburg regularly, and eventually, I met her in person at a conference in New York. We never did agree what the subject of that conference was. But take my word for it - it was boring - so boring that we - well, we went shopping. We would become professional friends and later close friends after she moved to Washington to become a judge and then a Supreme Court justice.

Some of the stories that follow have little to do with her brilliance or even her pioneering role as the architect of the legal fight for women's rights. Rather, they're examples of her extraordinary character, decency and commitment to friends, colleagues, law clerks - just about everyone whose life she touched. I was lucky enough to be one of those people.

She was still on the federal appeals court in 1988 when the Cosmos Club, after years of effort from many of its male members, finally voted to admit women. Against my better judgment, I agreed to be proposed as one of the first female members. But as it turned out, I was literally blackballed. While I was happy not to have to pay the significant fees associated with membership, the truth is that I was really hurt, and I must have told Ruth about it.

Sometime later, RBG was invited to visit the club. And at the end of a tour of its lovely interior, her escort invited her to become a member. As the story was related to me, Ruth paused and in that quiet, low voice of hers said to her escort, you know, I think that a club that's too good for Nina Totenberg is too good for me, too.

As floored as I was back then, I began to truly understand the measure of the woman when my late husband, Floyd Haskell, fell on the ice and spent much of the next four years - a good deal of it - in the hospital, struggling to recover from a head injury.

By then, Ruth was a Supreme Court justice. But periodically, she and her husband, Marty, would scoop me up, taking me with them for a night out or dinner at their apartment with someone interesting - and once for a memorable and very small family birthday party for RBG at her cousin's house. I always felt those evenings as a kind of embrace. She continued these kindnesses after Floyd died.

And then one night, when she'd taken me to some event, we were walking down a hallway, and I said to her, Ruth, I've started to date someone. In my mind's eye, I remember her stopping in her tracks, looking at me very hard and saying, details. I want details. Ruth always did love gossip - the more the better. And so I told her about Dr. David Reines, a widower, a trauma surgeon and chairman of surgery at one of the Partners hospitals in Boston.

About a year and a half later, she performed our wedding ceremony. It was no small thing that she was there. Because of her colon cancer radiation treatments the year before, she had a blockage that had landed her in the hospital the night before our wedding. But as I would learn, a commitment from RBG is about as ironclad a thing as you can get. In typical fashion, she forbade Marty to call me or let me know in any way. As she put it later, this was your wedding eve. I was not about to let you be worried. In true fashion, she was there, stayed through the dinner and quietly asked me if it would be OK if she left a little early. Over the years, I would hear literally hundreds of stories like this. Cancer, broken ribs, even shingles - she soldiered on, often like an athlete playing hurt.

I really have no idea how many times I interviewed RBG over the years - suffice to say dozens and dozens. My personal favorite was a long interview I did with her in the late Justice Antonin Scalia before an audience of about 1,500 in Washington. I loved it especially because these two ideological opposites were such good friends. And in that interview, they came to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

ANTONIN SCALIA: Besides which, she's a very nice person. She likes opera. You know, what's not to like?

(LAUGHTER)

SCALIA: Except her views of the law, of course.

TOTENBERG: They fought over ideology respectfully, laughed lovingly about experiences shared and let the audience see how two justices of very different views could love each other despite those differences.

Few know how hard she tried to take care of her husband all by herself in the last year of his life. I called one day to ask if we could bring food. No, she said. But she sounded so down that I asked if she'd like David to come over and examine Marty. Oh, yes, came the reply. I stayed in the living room while David went to the bedroom.

Ruth had not slept all night. She was trying to take care of her darling husband, who was way bigger than she was - help him to the bathroom, give him sponge baths - all that kind of thing. David did what he could to make Marty comfortable, and then he discussed the situation with the two of them, finally telling her, Ruth, I have Medicaid patients who have more help than you do.

I sometimes was asked how I could remain such good friends with RBG at the same time that I covered her as a reporter. The answer was really pretty simple. If you're lucky enough to be friends with someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, starting when both of you were young, you understand that each of you has a job, and it has to be done professionally and without favor. In fact, I never got a decent tip from her - not ever - though being her friend did get harder towards the end of her life. Even then, though, she seemed to understand.

At the end of 2018, she called on my husband, David, to help her navigate the onset of lung cancer. For some six weeks, he knew what was going on, supervised her biopsy and talked with RBG and her family. But I knew nothing of what was transpiring. I was kept in the dark. As it happened, the biopic about RBG, "On The Basis Of Sex," was premiering in December, and over the course of a couple of weeks, she was to make a bunch of appearances. I was the interviewer for all of these, as in this exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOTENBERG: Fairly early on in the movie, there's a sex scene. I wonder what you thought of the sex scene.

GINSBURG: Well, what I thought of it was that Marty would have loved it.

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: We ended up in New York, where, unbeknownst to me, Ruth, her daughter Jane and my husband David were meeting at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center with an array of doctors to make plans for her surgery and treatment. At the last of our interviews, I remember cutting it short because as I looked into her eyes, I thought how terribly tired she looked.

The night before the surgery, David sat me down to tell me what was going to happen the next morning. I confess I cried. Just hours later, she was in the operating room. And that night, as I prepared to do a TV shot, David and I met for a quick dinner. At about 8:00 p.m., my cellphone rang. It was Ruth. She was, as she put it, sitting up in a chair eating a consomme soup that is far better than I had any right to expect.

She was calling me, she said, because she wanted me to know why she had forbidden David to say anything to me about what was going on. I can still hear her memorable words. I just didn't want you to be trapped between your friendship for me and your obligations as a journalist.

This is Nina Totenberg in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALICE COLTRANE'S "TURIYA AND RAMAKRISHNA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.