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Nina Totenberg Fondly Remembers Dinners with Ruth

NPR's legal affairs correspondent writes of her late friend Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and also reflects on women's friendships

By Randi Mazzella

Have you ever been asked, "If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be?" When I have played with friends, the answers have ranged from the personal (relatives who have died), the popular (George Clooney or Madonna) to the political. A name that I have heard dropped often as a fascinating dinner guest is the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Nina Totenberg and Ruth Bader Ginsburg smiling together. Next Avenue, RBG Nina Totenberg book, dinners with ruth
"Friendship is a gift you have to appreciate," says Totenberg. "You are very lucky when you are the beneficiary of a friendship where you love one another and I had that with Ruth."  |  Credit: PBS

But for NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, 78, dinner with Ruth was not the answer to a game question but a real-life occurrence. 

Totenberg recalls in her new book. "Dinners with Ruth," "In the last year of her life, I had more dinners with Ruth than I think I ever have."

"The last time I saw Ruth, it was for supper."

As Totenberg tells Next Aveue, that last year was 2020, when the pandemic began, and when everyone in the world was staying home more, eating more meals at home and keeping their circle tight to avoid getting COVID. Totenberg says that Saturdays became "reserved for Ruth."

Totenberg writes, "The last time I saw Ruth, it was for supper."

When approached to write a book, Totenberg didn't think she had the time to pen a typical memoir. So she wrote about how her life has been defined by the power of friendships.

'We Just Wanted to Get Our Foot in the Door'

Totenberg, 78, began her journalism career at the Boston Record American (now the Boston Hearald) after dropping out of Boston University. She moved on to the National Observer and then New Times magazine. In 1975 she was hired to work at National Public Radio (NPR) and has been there ever since.

"When I first began working in journalism, there weren't many other women," explains Totenberg in a recent interview with Next Avenue. "There were so few of us that were in that world we had to stick together. We weren't looking to break glass ceilings. We just wanted to get our foot in the door."

With a lack of women in the industry, people might think there would be a lot of rivalry and competition. But Totenberg says that the women banded together and cared for one another in a collegial way.

"That doesn't mean we weren't competitive with one another; we were," she says. "But we were also friends. Women can be both competitive and friends."

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Along with Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer and the late Cokie Roberts, Totenberg is considered one of NPR's "Founding Mothers." She has won several journalism awards (including the George Foster Peabody Award) for her work. And yet, even with her vast experience and acknowledgments of success, Totenberg admits that she still had moments of insecurity about her craft.

"Women worry more than men that we will be exposed as frauds," she explains. "I remember working on pieces up to the deadline, haunted that I might have missed something."

While women have made strides in the workplace, there is more to do. "Even today, women tend to have more insecurities than men," says Totenberg. "Look at the studies. Men are much more inclined to ask for pay raises while women are likelier to not ask for enough money in salary negotiations."

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Her Friendship with Ruth

"Friendship is a gift you have to appreciate," says Totenberg. "You are very lucky when you are the beneficiary of a friendship where you love one another and I had that with Ruth."

In September 2020, after Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87, Totenberg wrote an obituary for NPR that discussed their 48-year-long friendship. After the piece was published, there was some criticism from members of the media who felt that Totenberg should have disclosed just how close the two were earlier, citing a conflict of interest.

Nina Totenberg smiling in her headshot. Next Avenue, RBG Nina Totenberg book, dinners with ruth
Nina Totenberg  |  Credit: Photograph © Allison Shelley/NPR

Totenberg says, "I knew Ruth for the majority of my life. Our friendship was not a secret. Just because we were friends does not mean I could not do my job."

In the book, Totenberg writes that her first remarkable conversation with Ginsburg was in 1971 regarding her argument in the Reed v Reed case.

The first time they finally met in person was at a legal conference in New York City. She doesn't know if they planned to meet there or if it was an accident. She writes, "For years, we could not agree on the topic of the conference ... or if it was held at Columbia University or NYU." What she does remember is that the conference was "unbelievably boring" and that the two hopped in a taxi and went shopping. 

Of Ginsburg's nomination to the Supreme Court, Totenberg writes, "I had no role to play except as a reporter. It would be inappropriate to celebrate the moment with her or advise her in any way."

Adds Totenberg in the interview, "Ruth and I both had our professional lines that we never crossed. We didn't have to divorce ourselves from one another to do our jobs."

Sharing Details with a Trusted Girlfriend

After fifteen years of marriage to first husband, Sen. Floyd Haskell, Totenberg became a widow. Only 54 at the time, Totenberg writes, "I knew I did not want to be alone for the rest of my life. But wanting and having were two very different things."

Totenberg met Dr. David Reines at a concert in Boston. He was recently widowed too. When the two started dating, Totenberg told Ginsburg that she had met someone. Totenberg writes, "She (Ruth) looked at me very intently and said, 'Details. I want details.'"

In 2000, Reines and Totenberg got married. Ginsburg presided over the wedding. Totenberg writes, "A little-known fact about Ruth is how much she loved to perform weddings."

Of that day, Totenberg writes, "I can honestly say I was never at a more joyous wedding. It was particularly joyous because we had both survived such difficult, long losses, and then we had somehow found each other."

Advice for the Next Generation

Book cover of "Dinners with Ruth". Next Avenue, RBG Nina Totenberg book

In "Dinners with Ruth," Totenberg writes that when Ginsburg sat at their dinner table, she never raised her voice, yet she turned out to have one of the strongest voices in the room.

Totenberg says now, "My best advice is to pick your battles. Ask yourself, 'Is this a hill you want to die on?' If it's a good fight to have, then fight it. If not, move on."

As for how she thinks Ginsburg would feel about the overturning of Roe v Wade, Totenberg prefers not to speak for her late friend. Instead, she says, "Regardless of my personal opinion, I believe the decision deserves to be treated with analytical respect."

She continues, "Many younger reporters think our job as journalists is to 'mold' peoples' opinions. But really, our role is to give people the facts and a diversity of opinions so that the public can figure it out for themselves."

Not Retiring Yet

Over the years, the media landscape that Totenberg first encountered has seen great change.

"When I started at NPR, it was mainly radio. Today, with all the different platforms, I have to write several different versions of a story, so it's very labor intensive and news moves quickly. So I have to cover just one beat and don't get to report on as wide a range of stories," she says.

Retirement isn't in the near future for Totenberg. She explains, "Maybe I'll ask for more vacation time, but I have no desire to slow down. I love what I do. I love reporting."

Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son.  Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. Read More
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