Editing Justice Ginsburg


Arts & Culture

An editor recalls the experience of working with Justice Ginsburg to bring an unpublished memoir to print. 

Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States. Photographer: Steve Petteway

“I would like to be helpful,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote me on February 1, 2002. “The problem is time.” She said she would be away from Washington for eight days. “We could discuss your request the following week.”

The “request” was that she write an introduction to a book I was publishing a few months later. I was a youngish editor at Random House, overseeing the Modern Library, our classics imprint. The book had come to me because of her. With her letter she enclosed two lectures she had written, one given three years earlier; the other she would deliver during her upcoming travels. “Perhaps a Random House editor could suggest a way to draw from the talks to compose an introduction.”

Of course I volunteered myself.

In 1999 Justice Ginsburg delivered the Supreme Court Historical Society’s annual lecture. “The rooms and halls of this stately building are filled with portraits and busts of great men,” she said, according to the prepared remarks she sent me. “Taking a cue from Abigail Adams, I decided, when asked to present this lecture, it was time to remember the ladies.”

Ginsburg focused her lecture on the wives of four supreme court justices from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an idea first proposed by a former law clerk, Laura Brill. Researching the topic with the help of the Library of Congress, Ginsburg and Brill came upon an unpublished memoir by Malvina Shanklin Harlan, the wife of Justice John Harlan, member of the court from 1877 until his death in 1911.

Justice Harlan, who came from a Kentucky family with a long history of enslavement, is now best remembered as the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision that codified the separate-but-equal doctrine that would undermine and terrorize the daily lives of Black Americans until the civil rights movement of the sixties. Malvina Harlan witnessed her husband as he deliberated over this and other momentous opinions, recording with keen observation these turning points in the life of her family and her nation. Her manuscript, completed in 1915, was about two hundred typescript pages, edited and annotated by hand, suggesting to Ginsburg that Malvina Harlan had hoped to find a publisher. She called her book Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911.

“Malvina’s memoirs are full of anecdotes and insights about contemporary politics and religion, the Supreme Court, and the Harlan family,” Ginsburg said in her lecture to the Historical Society. “They provide an informative first-hand account of the life of a judicial spouse in the closing decades of the 1800s. Sadly, no publishing house considered Malvina’s Memories fit to print.” Ginsburg would later write that she was drawn to the manuscript as a chronicle of the country before, during, and after the Civil War “as seen by a brave woman of the era.”

Like Malvina Harlan before her, Justice Ginsburg hoped to see Some Memories published. Ginsburg spent many months trying to find a publisher—“to no avail.” (I still wonder who rejected her.) She turned to the Supreme Court Historical Society’s Journal, circulation six thousand, which devoted its Summer 2001 issue to publishing the memoir in its entirety. Shortly after, Linda Greenhouse wrote about Malvina Harlan, and Justice Ginsburg’s efforts to bring attention to her life and writings, on the front page of the Sunday New York Times.

I was in my apartment in Manhattan when I read that story. I recall the mental buzz every editor experiences when encountering something he or she wants to publish. I rode my bike seventeen blocks north to the Random House office in an electrified state. Almost ninety years after Malvina Harlan had hoped to see her memoir in print, I wanted to be her publisher. I saw it as an opportunity not only to work with Justice Ginsburg, but to shed light on a historical figure who pressed as close to the seats of American power as her society and the laws of the time would allow. I’ve long been interested in the unjustly ignored or forgotten, those whose lives were so far ahead of their day that only the future could resurrect them. I hunted the internet for a fax number at the Supreme Court and wrote Justice Ginsburg. (Sending RBG a blind email seemed impossibly forward; as I would later learn, she didn’t use it.)

A few days later a medium-size cream envelope landed in my mail slot. On the back flap: “Chambers of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

“Glad to know of the Modern Library’s interest,” she wrote, putting me in touch with the Historical Society. Not long after, Random House acquired the publishing rights from Malvina Harlan’s descendants.

On a conference call with the justice to discuss the publication, I said how much I admired Harlan’s manuscript and her skills as a chronicler. “Yes,” she said. I commented on Justice Harlan’s unlikely evolution from a family of enslavers to the lone dissenter in Plessy. “Yes.” The more enthusiasm I expressed, the louder Justice Ginsburg’s silence. I turned to the schedule and other publication details. “Fine,” she said. “That should be fine.” I was still finding my way as a book editor—my own long career at Random House lay ahead of me. I wondered if I was making a fool of myself, or had said something to offend her. In fact, I was experiencing Justice Ginsburg’s intense, now famous, listening. At the end of the call she thanked me and said everything sounded fine. Later I would learn this was her adjective of appreciation.

Since Ginsburg’s death, like so many others I have reflected on her far-reaching impact—on women’s rights, American jurisprudence, and our society more broadly. I’ve also thought of another aspect of her legacy: her words. Yes, the words from the bench that have become familiar—her scathing line about “skim-milk marriage” when listening to arguments against marriage equality, for example. Or the must-reads of her dissents, such as in Ledbetter v. Goodyear. But I’m also thinking of the words she wrote outside the court that might give us a glimpse into how she viewed her own long life, set against the context of her era.

Justice Ginsburg crafted an introduction out of those two lectures. I gave her some notes, “suggesting a way,” but she had written her talks with such certainty of purpose that almost any editor would know what to do with the material. On the page her voice is the same as the one Americans came to know and revere, and that we now mourn: precise, concise, unyielding; fearless, factual, and so often focused on the marginalized. Justice Ginsburg used her voice to create opportunities for millions—this is one reason her death is painful for many of us. We reflect on those opportunities and are fearful some might close up as a result of her absence.

Justice Ginsburg also created opportunity for Malvina Harlan. Ginsburg viewed Harlan not merely as a spouse at the court’s periphery, but as someone whose own experiences and interpretations we should value, alongside but also separate from those of her husband. If not for Ginsburg, Malvina Harlan’s written work would remain all but unknown; the manuscript would be curling in the dim depths of the Library of Congress. It fascinated me that Justice Ginsburg sought to elevate Malvina Harlan’s life and recognize her contributions. It’s similar to much of Ginsburg’s legal career, both at the bar and on the bench—she never stopped trying to assign value to the lives American systems and institutions had long diminished.

In one of the lectures she sent me to edit, Justice Ginsburg tells us about Sarah Grimke, a South Carolina feminist and abolitionist who visited the Supreme Court in December 1853. The court wasn’t in session that day and Grimke boldly sat in the chief justice’s empty seat. “As I took the place,” Grimke recalls in a letter to a friend, “I involuntarily exclaimed: Who knows, but this chair may one day be occupied by a woman. The brethren laughed heartily[.] [N]evertheless, it may be a true prophecy.”

A prophecy, Ginsburg writes, “I believe will indeed prove true.”

Some Memories of a Long Life was published in May 2002, with Justice Ginsburg’s introduction. When I sent her the finished copies, she wrote in a fax, “Thank you for today’s special pleasure—the chance to spend some time with one of the first copies of Malvina Shanklin Harlan’s memoir.”

For writers and editors, it’s a profound, almost spiritual moment when you hold a new book for the first time. It is the physical manifestation of years of work and struggle, carrying with it many blows and scars. It’s also, in many cases, an artifact of a fight that has been won, or at least not lost. It is hope made tactile via ink and paper. I thought of the hope Malvina Harlan must have felt as she worked on her manuscript in her final years. I thought of the vast changes in society for women since her day, represented here in the words of the wife of a nineteenth-century Supreme Court justice, and in those of her introducer, our country’s second female justice.

Then every editor’s nightmare.

“I noticed a small slip,” Ginsburg continued, “which perhaps can be corrected in later copies. At page 209, 6 lines from the bottom, the second word should be ‘school’ not ‘firm.’”

We didn’t meet until the book party at the Supreme Court in honor of Some Memories and the spouses of the justices. Justice Scalia greeted folks at the reception door with a drink in his hand. I made my way over to Justice Ginsburg. She was wearing black lace gloves and I recall the webby feeling of lace as I shook her hand. You already know how small she was. How muted the voice. You already know how certain she was of herself, while also seeming to be shy.

I said I hoped many people would read Some Memories. She said she hoped they would, too. I said none of this was possible without her—a fact so obvious her only response was a humble nod. Then I said what I had wanted to say for many months, and that I assume many had said to her before and would say to her for years to come: I hoped one day she would write her own memoir.

Over the next days and weeks, months and years, many words about Justice Ginsburg will come forth, but the words I most want to read today are hers. She must have had many memories of a long and historic life, and I wish we could read them now in her own telling. The rigorous thinking, the exactness of language, the empathy, the humility, the sprinkles of irony and wit—I wish she had applied her linguistic gifts to her own story, just as Malvina Harlan had to hers.

“Have you ever thought of writing a memoir?” I asked clumsily at the party.

Justice Ginsburg didn’t answer directly. Instead, she smiled vaguely, but also coyly, with a flash in her eye. I’ve never forgotten that gleam. I’ve held onto it as a promise. Since then I have often wondered if another unpublished manuscript is waiting for us somewhere. If the typescript pages have been edited and annotated by hand, anticipating their moment. I hope so, as unlikely as it sounds. But if no memoir exists, Justice Ginsburg has already left us with what we want to know, perhaps not about her but about ourselves. History is made individually and collectively, she instructed, and even in this ill year the choice about our future remains ours.


David Ebershoff is a writer and editor. At Random House he edited books that won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, biography, and history. His novels include The Danish Girl, which was adapted into an Oscar-winning film, and the New York Times best seller The 19th Wife, which was adapted for television.