"He was smitten pretty quickly," the justice's son, James, says of his father. "It might have taken my mother a little longer"

By Liz McNeil
December 19, 2018 07:20 PM
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Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

When Martin Ginsburg met Ruth Bader, a fellow Cornell University student, back in 1950, he first thought: “She’s awfully cute.”

But that wasn’t his only thought. “Then he noticed, she’s awfully smart,” says their son James Ginsburg, 53. “Mom said Dad was the only boy who dated her who cared that she had a brain.”

“He was smitten pretty quickly,” James recalls. “It might have taken my mother a little longer.”

But not too long. They married in 1955 and both enrolled in Harvard Law School. In an era when Ruth was one of nine females, out of 552 students, in her class, and who, upon graduation was unable to get a law firm job (“We hired a woman the last year, we don’t really need you,” she was told) their 56-year relationship, based on mutual adoration and respect, was an example of what equality of the sexes was all about.

The Ginsburgs
Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

Their love story, from their first blind date to Marty’s death due to cancer in 2010, is the subject of two films. The upcoming feature film, On The Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones as Ruth, and Armie Hammer as Marty, (written by Ruth’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman) and the highly acclaimed documentary, RBG, which includes stunning footage of the young couple. (The documentary has been shortlisted for an Oscar nomination, come January.)

Both films reveal a softer side of the Supreme Court Justice, whose brilliant legal mind made her one of the foremost experts in gender discrimination law and an unlikely pop culture icon, The Notorious RBG.

Through it all, Ruth has credited Marty, whom she calls “my best friend and biggest booster.” As she wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed in 2016, “I betray no secret in reporting that …without him, I would not have gained a seat on the Supreme Court.”

“My father really believed in her,” says their daughter Jane Ginsburg, 63, a Columbia Law School professor.

RELATED VIDEO: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Joins the #MeToo Movement with Story of Her Own Sexual Harassment

“They each understood what the other was all about,” says longtime friend Judge Harry Edwards. “Ruth gave to him the same way that he gave to her. They were unbelievably compatible.”

Their bond was cemented early on when Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer (and given a five percent chance of surviving.) Ruth, who cared for their baby daughter, Jane, after a day of classes, organized his friends to take class notes, which she typed up so he could study when he woke up after midnight. (At the time, he was undergoing radiation and slept much of the day and night.) At two in the morning, she would begin her own studies.

At home, they were equal partners. When James temporarily hijacked the elevator at his grade school, the headmaster called his mother. “She’d been up all night working on a Supreme Court briefing,” says James, a producer of classical music. “They said ‘You must come to school right away.’ And she said, ‘This child has two parents. You must alternate the calls from now on, starting with this one.’ ”

The Ginsburg family
Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

Marty’s take was different James says: “When they said your son has stolen the elevator, he said ‘How far could he have taken it?’ My behavior did not improve but calls to parents diminished greatly!”

As for cooking, Marty gladly took over. After they received the classic French Escoffier cookbook as a wedding present, he learned the recipes from front to back “for his own survival,” their son James says with a laugh.

“She was the kind of chef who had seven dishes for seven days of the week and all of them were bad,” says Daniel Stiepleman, including her tuna fish casserole which her family begged her not to make.

After she became a Supreme Court Justice in 1993, Marty’s support continued. From taking her clothes shopping for her confirmation hearings to joining the court’s “spouses club” and cooking for them when they got together.

The Ginsburgs
Ed Bailey/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“Marty was a caretaker for her,” says her childhood friend Harryette Gordon Helsel. “He made sure she ate three meals a day, or two meals a day, and he made sure she got a physical trainer after her bout with cancer.” (Ruth has survived both colon and pancreatic cancer and still works out with a trainer twice a week, plank exercises included.)

In turn, Ruth was at Marty’s side when a tumor was discovered near his spinal cord in 2009, and she became his caretaker once again, doing double duty, caring for him at night after a day on the bench.

For the full love story, pick up the current issue of PEOPLE, on stands this Friday.

On his deathbed, Marty left his wife note which read in part: “You are the only person I have loved in my life, setting aside a bit parents and kids and their kids, and I have admired and loved you since the day we first met at Cornell some 56 years ago.”

He died ten days later.

Friends and family say he’d be thrilled by the Notorious RBG phenomenon. “There is no doubt in my mind that without Marty, there would be no RBG, the RBG we have today,” says another childhood classmate Ann Kittner. “What a kick he’d be getting out of what has happened to her, becoming an icon. She’s amused by it but he would have been delighted by all the publicity and the bobbleheads! He would have been kvelling!”