Working With Justice Ginsburg: “The mental buzz every editor experiences when encountering something he or she wants to publish.”

From a Paris Review article by David Ebershoff headlined “Editing Justice Ginsburg”:

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 Researching the topic with the help of the Library of Congress, Ginsburg and Brill came upon an unpublished memoir by Malvina Shanklin Harlan, the wife of Justice John Harlan, member of the court from 1877 until his death in 1911.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

“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. . . .

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 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. . . .

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. . . .

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.”. . .

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. . . .“Have you ever thought of writing a memoir?” I asked . . . .

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. . . .

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.

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