A Wild and Precious Life: A Memoir, by Edie Windsor with Joshua Lyon
I love the cover of this book. There stands Edie Windsor, very chic in a blonde coif and black suit, with a long strand of pearls and her engagement pin. She stares at us, confident and victorious.
Because of her Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor, which overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, I expected to read a lot of about legal wrangling, strategy, and all the inherent drama. But that’s not this story.
This is a story so familiar to people of my generation and the one before. A girl from a close-knit immigrant family (in this case Jewish) grows up expecting the post-war American dream: a middle-class life, a husband with a good job, and one or two kids. But there’s a kink in the plans: she’s a lesbian.
Edie’s raised in Philadelphia and spends her summers at the Jersey shore. She dates boys, mostly her brother’s friends. But while she finds these guys attractive, she also senses a stronger attraction to women. She does eventually marry but ends it quickly.
It’s the 1950s, so, like many closeted homosexuals, she makes her way to New York and begins to explore. She makes the rounds of the bars and gets connected to the lesbian scene of the day. She’s invited to private parties and meets many people. It’s during this time that she’s introduced to Thea Speyer, a psychologist. Edie’s more than smitten, but she’s told Thea’s known as a heartbreaker in their circles.
As time goes on, there are girlfriends and relationships. Edie loves her work at IBM, ultimately attaining the level of Senior Systems Programmer, the highest technical rank. But back in Philly and at work, she’s still in the closet.
Eventually, Edie and Thea do connect, and the attraction is absolute, to the point of being scary for Thea. It’s tough to commit, but she eventually does, and the result is a marriage in every way. They have a great time together, have great sex, and amass a group of close friends, women, and men. They acquire a west village apartment and a house in the Hamptons. They travel the world and enjoy life.
It’s all good, but then in the late 70s and early 80s, on a personal and public scale, life steps in. Thea is struck with Muscular Dystrophy, and the AIDS epidemic strikes the men in their lives.
Edie rearranges everything, from the furniture to various ways of getting Thea around, so that their social lives and private routines are as manageable as possible. Edie also volunteers for AIDS causes, for the new LGBT Center, and for SAGE. She and Thea give money and help to raise more.
But time marches on; friends and family begin to pass. When her mother dies, she feels loss and regret. Her mother’s love and pride were absolute, but they never did get to speak about her homosexuality. She’s devastated when her beloved brother Blackie dies but has mixed feelings about her sister Dolly’s death. And finally, there is Thea’s passing.
Heroes rise through happenstance; an incident occurs, and we react. Edie’s incident was the IRS wanting over $350,000 from her inheritance of Thea’s estate. Edie’s instinct is not to give it to them, because they didn’t deserve it; it’s not fair. So she wages war through the courts, and the results changed history.
This book is all about discovering Edie. The writing here and Edie’s recollections are light on details and introspection. But her co-author Joshua Lyon adds a coda at the end of each chapter, from interviews he’s had with Edie’s survivors. And these passages do add insight and illumination about who Edie was. And what emerges is a woman who lays out the facts, decides her position, and moves into action. I would have liked to meet her.
A Wild and Precious Life: A Memoir, by Edie Windsor with Joshua Lyon, St. Martin’s, 288 pages $27.99 ISBN 978-1-250-19513-5