The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is rightly being remembered as an American hero, an eloquent champion of women’s rights who in addition to being tough and brave was also known for her thoughtfulness, compassion and honesty. She was all of that, and more; among the lesser-remarked accolades for this rock star among jurists is that she will be missed as an ardent patron of the arts.
In a remembrance posted on September 19 entitled “RBG gave her life to the country and her heart to the performing arts,” Washington Post theatre critic Peter Marks reports that he often encountered the justice at the theatre and wondered how she had time to “sit on the Supreme Court all day and then schlep in the evening to see West Side Story.”
“She was the most faithful patron of the performing arts in the upper echelons of officialdom I have ever known,” Marks writes.
An obituary published in online newsletter Theatermania also reports that the justice was a consummate lover of the performing arts, particularly opera.
“Most of the time, even when I go to sleep, I’m thinking about legal problems; but when I go to the opera, I’m just lost in it. Loving it,” she told AARP magazine in 2015.
Justice Ginsburg attended her first opera when she was 11 years old, and while in high school started regularly attending the New York City Opera. She later appeared in several performances including a 1994 appearance in Strauss’s Ariadne and Naxos along with her friend and colleague Justice Antonin Scalia; that friendship became the subject of its own opera, Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsburg.
Making her official acting debut playing the comic Duchess of Krakenthorp in The Daughter of the Regiment at Washington’s National Opera, she wrote her own lines, humorously commenting on her own judicial opinions and decisions. But perhaps her most memorable onstage line was uttered in a 1996 Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Henry IV, Part II, when she said “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Justice Ginsburg’s passion for the arts led to warm relationships with many people who make art, and often found her officiating at their weddings and interacting in other meaningful ways. Deborah Rutter, president of the famed D.C. performing arts venue The Kennedy Center, tells of performance after-parties at which the justice reflected deeply on each production she saw, treating performers with the exuberance of a star-struck fan.
“Here she was, a superstar, and she approached each of the singers as though they were the superstars; they were dumbstruck,” she recalls.
After taking in a performance of Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me in which the playwright offers her interpretation of the Supreme Court case Castle Rock v. Gonzales, the venerable jurist requested a copy of the script. The playwright sent it, nervous about the recipient finding mistakes, and a week later got a marked-up copy of the court decision and two notes on the script.
“I took the notes,” Schreck sensibly states. One of the young actresses in Schreck’s play was invited to Washington to spend time with Justice Ginsburg, and consequently became inspired to pursue a career in law; Thursday Williams is now a sophomore in college majoring in public policy and law, and intends to attend Columbia Law School “because of her,” referring to her revered mentor.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is rightfully being lauded as a “prophet who imagined a world of greater equality and then worked to make it happen, insisting that our Constitution deliver on its promise that we the people include all of the people.” She can also be remembered as a passionate lover of the arts who derived comfort and inspiration from her arts experiences, a result which every arts lover can share.