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Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships

Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships PDF

Author: Nina Totenberg

Publisher: Simon & Schuster


Publish Date: September 13, 2022

ISBN-10: 1982188081

Pages: 320

File Type: EPub, PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface


With Ruth, I always thought that there would be a next time.

For more than twenty years, she had defied not one but three bouts of cancer, not to mention other medical complications from bowel obstructions to shingles. And after each hospital stay, she had always come home. Her endurance, her will to live, even her plain old-fashioned grit, were unmatched. After one surgery, when most of us would be pushing the nursing station call button, she drafted a major speech. She even participated in Supreme Court oral arguments from her hospital bed.

But it was so much more than her repeated resurgence in the face of illness. For nearly fifty years, Ruth and I had knit ourselves ever more tightly into the fabric of each other’s lives. Aside from my two sisters and my National Public Radio sisters, she was my longest-serving friend. She was loyal, clear-eyed, and deadpan funny. Although she enjoyed becoming an icon in her eighties, she enjoyed far more watching other people perform.

Still, she and I performed well together; I’ve lost count of all the times that I interviewed her onstage.

It helped that we were personal friends long before our professional lives propelled us into the spotlight. We first met over the phone in 1971. Ruth was a law professor in New Jersey; I was a print reporter. National Public Radio was in my future, but I would not be hired there for another four years, and nearly twenty-two years would pass before Ruth was appointed to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Through everything, we could—and did—keep our boundaries. The irony is that while work introduced us, and work has defined each of us, in her own way, our friendship was never about work. I can recall only one time when Ruth pleaded with me not to ask her a question on a particular topic. In reply, I told her, “I’m sorry. I have to. It’s my job.” And, conversely, only one time when I said in frustration, “But, Ruth, why didn’t you tell me that when I asked? It’s news.”

Instead, our friendship worked because we held each other in the highest regard. From the start, we sensed just how hard the other had fought to climb the ladder to get to where she was. We shared a passion for music, opera, shopping (I more than she), and food, especially food prepared by far better cooks than we were. And a steady stream of good stories, jokes, and bits of gossip. We were both eager questioners, although with slightly different ends: I like asking questions to get information; Ruth liked asking questions to place an answer in a different light.

These traits were the easy parts. The bedrock of true, solid friendship is being there for the hard things. And there, our foundational rocks were sure and strong. Each of us saw the other through great personal joys and also deep personal sadness, through illness, loss, and widowhood.

During the long and devastating illness and eventual death of my first husband, Ruth was there to draw me out of my isolation and grief; twelve years later, I would, sadly, be able to reciprocate her kindness when her beloved husband, Marty, died.

When I remarried, she was the one who officiated at my second wedding to my husband, David, overseeing a joyous ceremony that she scripted down to the “spontaneous” jokes. She never let on until the end of dinner that she had been in the hospital the day before; she had “forbidden” Marty to tell me.

Throughout her final years, David and I were able to wine and dine her to keep her spirits up, particularly after Covid-19 struck. We shared so many small dinners together that Saturdays became “reserved for Ruth.” Bouillabaisse, the light French fish stew, was her favorite, and David made it magnificently, adapting his version from Julia Child’s recipe.

The last time I saw Ruth, it was for supper.

Ruth didn’t teach me everything about friendship. I’ve had other wonderful teachers, expected and unexpected. All of them have taught me that friendship is precious, that it involves showing up, that it involves supporting and helping, that it is not always about the grand gesture, but rather about the small one. It is about extending the invitation, making space at the table, picking up the phone, and also remembering. Friendship is what cushions life’s worst blows and what rejoices in life’s hoped-for blessings. It can sometimes be as simple as a hug when the hug matters most.

Ruth’s husband died at the very end of the Supreme Court term on June 27, 2010, and in the middle of Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Ruth was incredibly stoic through it all. She appeared on the bench with her colleagues the next day to announce an opinion she had written. When Chief Justice John Roberts opened the session by announcing Marty’s passing, her eyes stayed dry. It was Justice Antonin Scalia, a close friend of both Ginsburgs, who wiped away tears.

Marty was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and afterward there was a reception at the Supreme Court. The memorial events were, for me, scheduled at the worst possible time. I couldn’t go to the funeral because I had to cover the Elena Kagan confirmation hearings. But then, almost miraculously, as the reception began, the Senate Judiciary Committee proceedings paused for a series of votes. I dashed across First Street to the Court building and raced into the conference room where everyone had gathered.

I can still see Ruth’s face as I arrived, breathless. She looked up, saw me across the room, as I was searching for her, and her face lit up. “You made it! How did you make it?” she exclaimed. After we embraced, I told her, “I had to come over and give you a hug.”

You made it. Not exactly magisterial, Shakespearean prose, but words to live by, from beginning to end.

This book was written in large part as a tribute to friendship. Ruth and I never indulged in gossipy conversations about her colleagues on the Court. I never got a scoop from her, and she never volunteered any top-secret anything. Nor did we endlessly dissect cases or attorneys or debate what might become of Roe v. Wade. Mercifully, in fact, we did not have to talk shop when we were together in private. And Ruth, if you knew her, was perfectly willing to say in public what she was thinking, or as much as she would ever share with me. That same ethos applies to me.

We aren’t from a particularly confessional generation. What we shared was the special warmth and closeness of longtime friendship. We were present in each other’s lives, especially when it mattered most. We showed up.

What that meant and how it enriched and transformed our lives is perhaps even more meaningful in an age when people text rather than simply “pick up the phone.” To me, video-gaming alone in a chair is a poor substitute for sitting in a darkened movie theater or concert hall among friends—no matter how many others may be playing in your alternative online world. And you just aren’t going to convince me otherwise. My hope is that you might, after you read this book, open an actual door, make a phone call to hear someone’s voice, write a paper note, set a table, or simply be there for a friend. Shakespeare did get it right when he wrote in Richard II, “I count myself in nothing else so happy, / As in a soul remembering my good friends.”

Table of Contents


Prologue: Bouillabaisse for Ruth

Chapter One: The First Stirrings of Friendship

Chapter Two: Making Friends and a Few Enemies

Chapter Three: Unexpected Friends

Chapter Four: Friends and Love

Chapter Five: Friends in Need

Chapter Six: Friends of the Court

Chapter Seven: Friends and Confidences

Chapter Eight: Supreme Friends

Chapter Nine: Male Friends

Chapter Ten: Friends in Joy

Chapter Eleven: Nourishing Friendships

Chapter Twelve: Friendship and Hardships

Chapter Thirteen: Fame and Friendship

Chapter Fourteen: Friendship Is a Choice

Chapter Fifteen: Losing Friends

Chapter Sixteen: Finding My Father’s Long-Lost Friend

Chapter Seventeen: Farewell to My Friend




About the Author



Photo Credits


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