Editing Justice Ginsburg

Editing Justice Ginsburg
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File

“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 Researching the topic with the help of the Library of Congress, Ginsburg and Brill came upon an unpublished memoir by Malvina Shanklin Harlan, the wife of Justice John Harlan, member of the court from 1877 until his death in 1911.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.

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