Edie Windsor lived by two maxims: Keep it hot and don’t postpone joy.
With her signature pink scarf on the bimah of Manhattan’s spiritual, colorful and cavernous Temple Emanu-El, Edie Windsor was remembered and eulogized, today. She passed away this week at the age of 88, the week when the parsha discusses the death of Moses.
Rabbis Amy Ehrlich and Sharon Kleinbaum welcomed the mourners; the assembled included NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio; his First Lady; the Manhattan Borough President; U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler; and over a dozen other elected officials in the front pews. Former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also attended and delivered a eulogy.
Windsor will mostly be remembered by the History books as a gay-rights LGBTQA activist whose legal case led the U.S. Supreme Court to grant same-sex married couples federal recognition, immigration rights, and over 1,130 other benefits. Prior to this case, only married heterosexuals enjoyed these rights in the United States. Attorney Roberta Kaplan argued the case as one of equality, and not just one about benefits.
Windsor became the lead plaintiff in United States v. Windsor (570 U.S. (2013) (Docket No. 12-307)) when her partner of 44 years, Dr. Thea Spyer, passed away from MS, and the US sent Windsor an inheritance tax bill for $363,053.
Had Windsor’s partner been named “Theo” instead of “Thea,” there would have been no tax bill.
The United States Supreme Court held (5-4) that restricting the U.S. federal interpretation of “marriage” and “spouse” to apply only to opposite-sex unions, by Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), was unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. By striking down the act’s definition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman, the Supreme Court invalidated the entire law and for the first time granted same-sex marriage partners the recognition and benefits accorded married heterosexuals. The 2013 Windsor decision was limited to thirteen U.S. states and the District of Columbia. But within two years, four other cases, including Obergefell v. Hodges led to same-sex couples having a constitutional right to marry anywhere in the United States and its territories.
Ms. Windsor was born Edith Schlain in Philadelphia on 1929, the youngest of three children of James and Celia Schlain, Jewish immigrants from Russia. They operated a candy store and lived above it for several years, but they were quarantined and lost it after Edith and a brother contracted polio when she was 2. Edie was sheltered from the Great Depression. Her parents saved money to buy books, and little Edie read voraciously. (She retained in her apartment the 19-volume dictionary her father used to learn English.) Edie was not sheltered from anti-Semitism. Her mother taught her that if a boy called her “a dirty Jew,” she should pull his hair and run home. Later, the family moved to a middle-class neighborhood because her mother wanted her daughters to meet the right boys. Edie began high school during WWII and had dates with boys “every Saturday night of my life.” As WWII ended, Schlain enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia. Seeking a normal life, she became engaged to her brother’s friend, Saul Windsor, but ended the plan to marry him when she fell in love with a female classmate. Later, she reconciled with Saul, and married in 1950; but they divorced a year later. “It was wonderful and terrible,” she told Time magazine. “I said, ‘Honey, you deserve more,’ ” Ms. Windsor told The New York Times. ” ‘You deserve someone who feels you’re the most desirable person, and I need something else.’ And I was right. He married the right girl and had a lovely life.”
Edith kept the Windsor surname, moved to Manhattan, received a graduate degree in Mathematics from NYU, and became one of the few female computer programmers at IBM.
As Hillary Rodham Clinton reminded mourners at the funeral, this was at a time when the classified Help Wanted ads in newspapers (she joked that few people recall what newspapers are) were segmented by gender for Male job and Female job opportunities. “She helped change hearts and minds, including MINE, and WE are forever grateful to her for that,” Clinton said. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law under duress. (I am assuming the WE in her eulogy referred to Clinton and her husband)
Windsor worked on one of the few UNIVAC vacuum tube computers in the United States in the late 1950’s and had a ‘secret’ level of security clearance from the U.S. government for her work with the Atomic Energy Commission. She attained the highest level of technical status at IBM, unheard of for a woman at the times, and she was fond of showing off that she had THE first IBM personal computer ever delivered to a consumer in New York City. She kept it in the basement of her Summer home in Southhampton, NY.
On Tuesday, former U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement, “I had the privilege to speak with Edie a few days ago, and to tell her one more time what a difference she made to this country we love.” “Because people like Edie stood up,” he added, “my administration stopped defending the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in the courts.” Mr. Obama added that the day of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling was “a great day for America — a victory for human decency, equality, freedom and justice.”
In 1963, Windsor met Dr. Spyer at a Greenwich Village restaurant, Portofino, that catered to lesbians on Friday nights. Two years younger than Ms. Windsor, Dr. Spyer was an accomplished violinist, and clinical psychologist with many closeted lesbian patients. She was born to a Dutch Jewish family that fled the Netherlands before WWII.
Spyer and Windsor danced all night, and they saw each other at parties over the next two years. But it was not until 1965, after meeting again in the Hamptons, that they began dating. In 1967, Dr. Spyer proposed marriage, and they began what became a 40-year engagement, sealed with a diamond brooch — not a ring, which might have raised questions and given them away.
For this reason, the 2004 documentary on their life together was subtitled, “a very long engagement”
In 1977, Dr. Spyer learned she had multiple sclerosis, and Ms. Windsor cared for her around the clock. The continued to dance in the fce of illness. In 2007, when doctors said Dr. Spyer had only a year to live. she and Windsor traveled to Toronto and were married. It was recognized as a valid marriage by New York State. Dr. Spyer, then a quadriplegic, died in February 2009. Windosr found love again in Judith Kasen-Windsor, a banker in 2016
At Windsor’s funeral, mourners remembered her, a lifelong feerless activist, as a beacon of love and a confident inspiring mentor.
Perhaps, it was said, tens of thousands took selfies with her. Windsor collected friends; she had so many best friends, and those that she made to feel special. Many were surprised (or envious) to find that she had other besties in addition to themselves. Countless people saw her as an intoxicating mother figure and a person to emulate. Always a flirt, she had her fingernails done just a week before her passing, and seduced her doctors, nurses, and orderlies with her loving energy.
Dr. Rosanne M. Leipzig, Ph.D.*, one of Edie’s geriatricians, health advisers and physicians, led the congregation in the Mourners’ Kaddish with Dr. Nathan Goldstein. She shared that Edie Windsor was a stunning example of how to age well with wisdom, wit, and grace — meeting aging head-on, and adapting to changing circumstances, while remaining vitally engaged in life, and always learning, growing, exploring and teaching by example. In October, Windsor was scheduled to teach Mt. Sinai medical students about “Love and Sex in your Eighties.”
At the funeral, Rabbi Kleinbaum and Attorney Roberta Kaplan reminded mourners that it was three Jewish lesbians that overthrew DOMA.
When they first met, Edie had told Attorney Kaplan that she did not have long to live; she had several heart attacks and suffered from a broken heart, literally. Kaplan stressed that they needed the case decided quickly. Yet, Kaplan shared, that Edie was that type of person that one felt would never die. So even though she lived eight years after the case started, Kaplan is still shocked that Windsor passed away. Windsor had a will of steel and burned bright Kaplan also shared that she and Edie had a 64-person seder in the week prior to the supreme court case in Washington DC. The Mandarin hotel was asked to substitute matzo balls for the wontons. Kaplan added that like Moses, Edie brought people to the edge of a promised land, but it is her friends and followers that need to carry on her work. In the eyes of the mourners, Windsor understood that it was the work of institutions and volunteers and activists that would bring change, and that she, as a single person, could help inspire them and raise funds… but it was the work of countless others that would bring about a messianic era and a promised land.
Note: In the photo above, of Edie Windsor on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, with her arms outstretched and her pink scarf flying, she is actually not celebrating the case, but ecstatically welcoming and embracing her nephew Lewis Freeman and his children to the steps.
* Gerald and Mary Ellen Ritter Professor of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine