Published September 2022 by Simon and Schuster
Four years before Nina Totenberg was hired at NPR, where she cemented her legacy as a prizewinning reporter, and nearly twenty-two years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court, Nina called Ruth. A reporter for The National Observer, Nina was curious about Ruth’s legal brief, asking the Supreme Court to do something revolutionary: declare a law that discriminated “on the basis of sex” to be unconstitutional. In a time when women were fired for becoming pregnant, often could not apply for credit cards or get a mortgage in their own names, Ruth patiently explained her argument. That call launched a remarkable, nearly fifty-year friendship.
Dinners with Ruth is an extraordinary account of two women who paved the way for future generations by tearing down professional and legal barriers. It is also an intimate memoir of the power of friendships as women began to pry open career doors and transform the workplace. At the story’s heart is one, special relationship: Ruth and Nina saw each other not only through personal joys, but also illness, loss, and widowhood. During the devastating illness and eventual death of Nina’s first husband, Ruth drew her out of grief; twelve years later, Nina would reciprocate when Ruth’s beloved husband died. They shared not only a love of opera, but also of shopping, as they instinctively understood that clothes were armor for women who wanted to be taken seriously in a workplace dominated by men. During Ruth’s last year, they shared so many small dinners that Saturdays were “reserved for Ruth” in Nina’s house.
Dinners with Ruth also weaves together compelling, personal portraits of other fascinating women and men from Nina’s life, including her cherished NPR colleagues Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer; her beloved husbands; her friendships with multiple Supreme Court Justices, including Lewis Powell, William Brennan, and Antonin Scalia, and Nina’s own family—her father, the legendary violinist Roman Totenberg, and her “best friends,” her sisters. Inspiring and revelatory, Dinners with Ruth is a moving story of the joy and true meaning of friendship.
I can't begin to tell you how excited I was to pick up this book...well, you know because you are fully aware that I've kept from returning it two extra weeks just so I could finish it. But I suppose that sentence tells you something about how I felt about the book as I read it, as well. I mean, it took me an extra two weeks to read it. Let's be honest, nonfiction takes longer to read than most fiction; it just does. But this book was only about 280 pages, not counting the notes at the end of the book. I should easier have been able to finish it in the allotted two weeks.
So why didn't I?
Well, because I was looking for a book that was mostly those first two paragraphs of the publisher's summary. But, honestly, there was at least as much involving that last paragraph and Nina's own life. That doesn't necessarily make this a bad book; it just makes it a different book from the one I thought I was picking up. The two other drawbacks of the book, for me, where quite a bit of repetition (yes, I heard you the first time, Justice Antonin Scalia's nickname was "Nino") and a whole lot of name dropping. If you don't know all of the players in Washington, then there are bound to be a lot of people Totenberg talks about of whom you've never heard.
I've read about Ruth Bader Ginsberg's life before so some of the background Totenberg shares here was not entirely new to me. I knew Ginsberg had to push to get everything she got when it came to the law and I knew that she was one of the first women to do many of the things she accomplished. Thought I've long been a huge fan of all things NPR and Nina Totenberg is a name as familiar to me as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, I wasn't aware that she, too, was among the first females in her chosen field of journalism. I knew from listening to her for many decades now, that Totenberg was a first-rate reporter but I didn't realize what a bada** she was until I read about how she'd had to push her way into rooms that hadn't previously been open to women and, often, break new ground. What I wouldn't have given to be at one of the dinner parties that Totenberg describes, where these two women, surrounded by other remarkable women (and, yeah, some pretty terrific sounding guys as well) spent the evenings in intellectual conversation, friendly chit-chat, some gossip, and a whole lot of laughter.
Totenberg is upfront in saying that she had to learn to be a friend and you can, as she writes it, really see her develop as a better friend and her relationships grow deeper, through long battles with cancer, the deaths of spouses, and defending those friendships. Through travels and shopping and movie nights, one on one or as groups. And through those dinners, where Totenberg befriended so many Supreme Court justices while never seeming to lose her ability to remain impartial. Oh, to have been lucky enough to be at one of those dinners.
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