Something you might not know about Edie Windsor, the 5-foot-nothing, 100-pound woman whose landmark lawsuit brought down the Defense of Marriage Act, is that she was completely charming and lovable in person — rare of people we deify. You wouldn’t have to spend very long with her, just a few minutes at a press conference would have been enough. It’s said about a lot of people, but true of only a few: There was something eminently special about Edie.
When the Supreme Court ruled on United States v. Windsor in 2013, I was a local news reporter for Metro New York. I went to the LGBT Center in the West Village to see Windsor and her lawyers speak on their win. The organizers were very skittish about promising anyone face time with Windsor. She was elderly, 83 years old, they kept telling us. How could we be so demanding as to expect time with her? A cub reporter, I huffed showily, like a small, useless bird puffing out its chest to impress a murder of large crows who could not care less.
When I finally saw Windsor, I felt sheepish. She was elderly, and so petite. She wore a fuchsia silk shirt, her hair had a perfect Golden Girls bounce, and she had a huge smile. Despite her age and size, she didn’t seem frail; she had the air of a woman whose bones are shot through with iron. When her handlers tried to end the press conference, Edie insisted on reading the speech she prepared and then took questions. Her lawyers praised her tenacity, her courage, her determination. They said she made the country more American that day. She just smiled and turned right around and heaped praise back on them. “They made this old lady flourish,” she said.
Edie charmed the room with her answers.”I thought our arguments were sound and everyone else’s were insane,” she said. “I think ultimately it’s the end of suicide. It’s the end of teenagers falling in love and not knowing it’s okay,” she said. When someone asked how it feels to be compared to Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk, Edie was stunned into silence. The comparison had never occurred to her. She collected herself, cleared her throat, and in a newly gravelly voice, audibly choked up, said she felt proud and humbled.
Edie was a founding member of The Center, the LGBT organization that hosted that event. She was one of the first people to donate money to the Center to help them buy their building at 208 West. 13th St. in 1983. When they tried to repay her, she refused, concerned about being outed to her bank manager. She was also a tech pioneer long before her civil rights win: She donated her coding skills to the Center as well, helping modernize the technology they used. (The organization Lesbians Who Tech now has a scholarship in her name.)
Edie and her first wife, Thea Spyer, were engaged for 40 years before they finally married, two years before Spyer’s death from a heart condition. Spyer proposed in 1967, offering Windsor a diamond brooch instead of a ring, so no one at work would ask questions about the engagement. When Spyer died, Windsor had a heart attack. Heartbroken — emotionally and physically — 80-year-old Edie had to pay $363,053 in taxes because the U.S. government would not recognize the union of a couple who had been fiercely, devotedly in love for more than four decades. Spyer’s death is what compelled Windsor’s lawsuit. Asked at the Center’s press conference what Spyer would say that day, the day she beat bigotry and made the nation more American, Windsor broke into a huge grin. “‘You did it, baby!’” she exclaimed.
Windsor remarried in 2015 at the age of 86. She told the New York Times about her second wife, Judith Kasen, “I was empty and then this woman walked into my life. I didn’t think it would happen again and it did. She is it.” She also told the Times that if Donald Trump became president, she and Kasen planned to move to Barcelona for four years. It didn’t happen. Windsor died in Manhattan on Tuesday, at age 88.
1. “Thea Spyer and Edith Windsor” (New York Times wedding announcement, May 2007)
It’s not a particularly long read, but Spyer and Windsor’s wedding announcement includes an adorable account of Edie pleading with friends to let her strategically be somewhere she knew she’d run into Spyer, two years after the first night they met.
Adjourning to a friend’s apartment that night, Dr. Spyer and Ms. Windsor danced until the impromptu party ended, finally “dancing with our coats on, and other people standing at the door, annoyed, waiting for us,” Ms. Windsor recalled, adding, “She was smarter than hell, beautiful — and sexy.”
2. “The Perfect Wife” (Ariel Levy, The New Yorker, September 2013)
Levy’s profile of Windsor is famous for having one of the most perfect ledes in existence.
“Fuck the Supreme Court!” Edith Windsor said, one hideously hot morning in June, when she’d had just about enough. Then she sighed and mumbled, “Oh, I don’t mean that.” What she really meant was that she was hot, she was tired of waiting, and, most of all, she was tired of being told what to do. “I’m feeling very manhandled!” she said.
3. “Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer: ‘A Love Affair That Just Kept On and On and On’” (Adam Gabbatt, The Guardian, June 2013)
Gabbatt’s piece link to several great interviews with Windsor, and it also includes one of my favorite Edie quotes: “I really believe in the Supreme Court. First of all, I’m the youngest in my family and justice matters a lot — the littlest one gets pushed around a lot.”
4. “In the Fight for Marriage Equality, It’s Edith Windsor vs the United States of America” (Jill Hamburg Coplan, NYU Alumni Magazine, Fall 2011)
Windsor’s alma mater published a compelling profile when it was still unclear if she’d win her Supreme Court case. It’s rife with lovely personal details about Windsor and Spyer, including the fact that Spyer “was more experienced, having been expelled from Sarah Lawrence College for kissing an older woman.”
5. “Reveling in Her Supreme Court Moment” (Peter Applebome, The New York Times, December 2012)
Applebome’s article has so many good Edie quotes, from the lede (“‘I came to New York to let myself be gay”) to the confident kicker (“If it doesn’t happen this time, it will happen next time or the next. But it will happen.”) But my favorite quote might be Edie’s account of how she left her husband.
She described her husband as “a big, handsome guy, one of the sweetest men in the world.” Within a year, she knew that through no fault of either of them, it was not what she wanted.
“Who you are is who you are,” she said. “Finally, I said: ‘Honey, you deserve more. 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.”