Her name is Bronwen Adams but everybody calls her Bronnie and for the last 40 years she was Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s interior decorator and all-round go-to person. A mutual friend told me Bronnie had some stories to share about RBG that those who only know her as an icon would get a kick out of.
Spoiler alert, there’s nothing here that will make you like Ginsburg less, or reveal a private self that she’d kept hidden. Everything Bronnie revealed in our phone conversation strikes me as totally in character with the woman who late in life achieved rap star status, and who is being mourned by millions.
Bronnie met Ginsburg when she was confirmed for a seat on the U.S. District Court in D.C. in 1980, and would be moving from New York to Washington. Bronnie and her then partner met with Ginsburg in New York to present what they thought the newly minted judge would like. “She said ‘how much, and when will it be ready?’ Bronnie recalls “She didn’t change one thing that we were proposing. The sofa there today is the one that was there when she moved in.” (It’s a large modular sofa, off-white, and the walls are blue for a contemporary look, which Ruth likes.)
As for Ruth’s husband, Marty, a tax attorney and a gourmet cook who passed away in 2010, “He was only concerned about the kitchen,” Bronnie says.
The apartment the Ginsburgs bought is on the first floor of the Watergate, the office and residential complex famed as the location where Nixon’s plumbers broke into the Democratic National Committee in June 1972. “When she came to Washington, she walked in with one suitcase,” Bronnie says, recalling she and Marty had no furniture to speak of except what they had at college. “She bought the apartment and hired me and my partner. We made sure everything was totally there, including toothpaste.”
“When I first started working for Ruth, I had no idea what she was doing,” Bronnie continues. “Her chambers (at the Court of Appeals) were very plain,” and Bronnie was honored when Ruth invited her to view President Reagan’s inaugural parade on Jan. 20, 1981 from her chambers at the D.C. court.
Fast forward to Aug. 10, 1993, and Ruth’s induction to the Supreme Court after her confirmation a week earlier on a 96-to-3 vote. “You know how little she is,” says Bronnie, “and she was escorted by two tall Marines in white, and she says, ‘what are we going to do about that carpet, I hate it’.” Bronnie says the Marines hurried her along.
The offending carpet was in the late Justice Thurgood Marshall’s chambers, which Ruth had been assigned. “The Supreme Court does not waste taxpayers’ money, and that office was not ready for redecoration,” Bronnie recounts. “She had to wait when her turn came.”
Opportunity struck in 2009 when Justice David Souter retired, and his office was gutted for asbestos. “Marty thinks I should go downstairs with my friends,” Ruth told Bronnie, her eye on Souter’s chambers which were next to Justice Antonin Scalia, her best pal on the court. Being right next door made for easy bantering, says Bronnie. Ruth said of Scalia, her ideological opposite, “He makes me laugh.”
The Scalias and the Ginsburgs typically spent New Year together. “When I would ask Ruth what Marty was cooking, she said, ‘Whatever Scalia shoots’.” (Justice Neil Gorsuch, who now occupies Scalia’s chambers, has kept the late justice’s moose or elk head, “I don’t know which,” says Bronnie.)
Souter’s office was a concrete shell when Ruth took it over. “She redesigned everything, but she was very respectful of tradition,” says Bronnie. “Bookcases line three of the walls, very traditional, but the furnishings are contemporary.”
“She never gave anything away that anybody gave her,” Bronnie continues. “The shelves are so loaded with every little award, I was hanging things on the vertical part of the bookcases.”
Asked if Ruth was open to de-cluttering, Bronnie replies, “Not an option.”
Bronnie attests to Ruth’s prodigious work habits. “She put in two full workdays in 24 hours. Marty would call her at 7 p.m. in her chambers and make her come home, and he’d make a beautiful dinner. Then she would work in the apartment at her desk until at least two or three in the morning. If she didn’t have to be in chambers, then she would sleep in. If she had to be in chambers, she’d always be there and on time.”
This tiny woman who looked so fragile somehow had great reserves of strength to draw from.
“I was a great help when Marty passed away,” Bronnie says. “He was a gourmet cook and he had a great collection of pots, pans and cookware— and a large collection of canned goods, and bags of flour, most of which had expired.”
The apartment needed a new refrigerator and she offered to send pictures to Ruth of what she might like. “I don’t care about a refrigerator,” Ruth replied, leaving it up to her now longtime friend.
After Marty died, Ruth’s daughter Jane came to the apartment once a month and cooked up a month’s worth of dinners, labeled them and put them in the freezer for her mother. “The only thing Ruth knew how to work in that apartment was the microwave,” says Bronnie.
There was the time when Ruth called to say her freezer wasn’t working. Bronnie offered to store the frozen dinners in her freezer. Then came the message, “Please thaw out a seafood medley.” In the meantime, Bronnie had left for Florida, so she called the front desk at the Watergate to have the meal delivered. “She didn’t realize I’d gone to Florida, and I didn’t tell her.”
The last several years have been especially challenging for Ginsburg. People wonder how she managed to keep working through surgery, radiation and chemo for various cancers. “She told me that her cases got her through surgery and chemo, that she would lie on the table thinking about the cases” that she was studying, and it would get her mind off her disease.
People marveled she was in court the day after Marty’s death. “That’s what he would have wanted,” Ruth said. It’s also what she wanted. What would she be doing if she wasn’t working? Her work was her life.
After Ginsburg had surgery for lung cancer in 2018, Bronnie went through the apartment to make sure the rugs were secure, so she wouldn’t slip and fall. Her doctor had also ordered grab bars placed in both bathrooms, and the first had been installed when Ginsburg came home from the hospital. “Get that out of here,” she said when she saw the grab bar.
Holes had been drilled for the installation, and when the offending bar was removed, a painter had to be called in to fill the holes and paint musical notes over the damage to match the Mozart wallpaper. “She never did have grab bars,” says Bronnie.
Ginsburg’s aversion to small talk was well known, and she wouldn’t dish on her colleagues on the court, so what was left? When people asked for advice, Bronnie suggested grandchildren and opera. “Marty liked opera but not like Ruth. She told me, ‘I love the opera because (when I’m listening) I can’t think of anything else.”
I had the opera experience up close when I sat next to Ginsburg at a dinner in 2017 at the Supreme Court honoring her and Justice Sotomayor. It was a sumptuous multi-course meal, and Ginsburg ate every morsel slowly and carefully like she was deciding a case. She was looking forward to an opera written about her and Scalia with arias using their own words from oral arguments.
In the opera, Scalia is imprisoned for “excessive dissenting,” and she comes to his rescue. Why? I asked. After all, he’s your opponent, “No, he’s my friend,” she responded.
When she had colorectal cancer, it was Sandra Day O’Connor who guided her through it. O’Connor had returned to the bench nine days after breast cancer surgery. “She told me to schedule chemo on Fridays, so I’d be ready for work on Monday,” Ginsburg said, repeating that evening what she said many times: that she would stay at the court as long as she could do the work full-tilt.
When the “Notorious RBG” became a meme, with T-shirts and mugs and young people celebrating her image, “I thought maybe she’d be mortified by that,” recalls Bronnie, but when asked about the rapper—The Notorious B.I.G.—she’d been paired with, Ginsburg didn’t miss a beat. “We have a lot in common,” she said. “We were both born and raised in Brooklyn.”
Ruth wrote Bronnie hundreds of notes over the years, and she shared with The Daily Beast one from a year ago, after Ruth was treated for pancreatic cancer at Mount Sinai hospital in New York City. It was written on a notepad that shows RBG sitting in a chair with the saying, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”
The handwritten note says, “It was so nice to come home and find everything in order. I so appreciate the transformation you conceived and implemented downstairs. I’m determined to live long enough to enjoy it years into the future.”