"Her marriage to Marty was the blood that ran through her veins," friend Nina Totenberg tells PEOPLE
“They loved each other. They also admired each other so much,” says Daniel Stieplman.
Stieplman is the Supreme Court justice’s nephew and wrote the screenplay of On the Basis of Sex, which hits theatres on Dec. 25. The film reveals how a young Ruth went on to fight for gender equality with the unwavering support of Marty, a highly successful tax lawyer.
“Ruth has two foundations in her life,” says longtime friend Nina Totenberg. “One is her family, and the other is the law. Her marriage to Marty was the blood that ran through her veins.”
Married for 56 years until Marty’s death in 2010, the couple raised two children, Jane, now 63, and James, now 53. Ruth, now 85, has become a cultural sensation (she’s known as the “Notorious RBG”) for her regular dissent in the majority-conservative Supreme Court. Before that she worked for decades changing laws that discriminated on the basis of gender — with Marty’s complete support.
Here are five secrets about their incredible partnership:
1. Marty was an “incredibly progressive dude.”
Armie Hammer plays Marty in the upcoming film and has deep admiration for the man, who was ahead of his time.
“They existed in a completely gender-equal relationship,” Armie told PEOPLE Editor-in-Chief Jess Cagle during SiriusXM’s Entertainment Weekly Radio Spotlight. “He was an incredibly progressive dude … He cooked, he cleaned, he took care of the house. He did whatever it took in order to facilitate his wife being able to achieve what she did.”
Marty maintained this support throughout their marriage, in part because of his own great self-assurance. Marty “was so confident that of course he should have the most beautiful, brilliant wife, and he wanted to celebrate her,” his nephew explains.
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2. He became the family chef in order to spare them from Ruth’s cooking.
After receiving a French cookbook as a gift, Marty worked his way through it. “Dad said it was for his own survival,” son James tells PEOPLE. “Mom’s cooking was that bad.” (Especially her tuna fish casserole, which the family begged her not to make.)
He continued to cook throughout their marriage. Marty even joined the Supreme Court’s “spouses club,” says Ruth’s childhood friend Ann Kittner, “because he wanted to cook when they all got together.”
3. No blushing here! Marty would have gotten a kick out of the movie’s sexier scenes.
During the New York City premiere of On the Basis of Sex, Ruth was asked how her husband would feel about the film’s sex scene. “My children would probably agree with me,” she said, “that their daddy would have loved it.”
4. They both took care of each other.
In 1955, when the couple was still attending Harvard Law School, Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer and told he had a five percent chance of living. Ruth helped him graduate, often typing up his class notes before starting her own work at 2 a.m., at the same time serving as the main caretaker for their 3-year-old daughter.
Their roles switched later in life when Ruth battled first colon and later pancreatic cancer. She became Marty’s caretaker again when he was diagnosed with the cancer that took his life in 2010. “She wouldn’t accept help,” says Totenberg. “She was doing double duty, caring for her dying husband and being a Supreme Court Justice.”
5. Marty’s encouragement of Ruth knew no bounds.
From campaigning for her nomination to the Supreme Court, to encouraging her during a round of golf, Marty was always Ruth’s biggest champion. Ruth has always been a very humble person, so it was Marty who campaigned on her behalf to make sure she was a top contender for the Supreme Court nomination. (Though it was Ruth’s meeting with President Clinton that won her the seat.)
“He was the one that had the connections and made sure that the right people knew about her,” says Ruth’s childhood friend Harryette Helsel. “He pushed her.” He even encouraged her when she was losing at golf. “We’d be on a 400-yard hold and Ruth would hit the ball maybe 20 yards,” Marty’s law school classmate Arthur Miller recalls. “Marty would say, ‘Sweetheart, that’s unbelievable. You’re going to make a birdie this hole?’ She would just start laughing.'”
For more about their love story, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.