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Gay rights icon Edie Windsor’s sheer force carries ‘A Wild and Precious Life’

It’s a pleasure to hear from the late lesbian trailblazer, whose landmark case set the stage for marriage equality nationwide. | Book review

Seventeen and new to college, Edie Windsor, then Schlain, signed up for tennis classes held on the roof of her old high school. A trigonometry whiz and breaker of hearts, the yearbook editors had labeled her. All true, but she was after something bigger.

At first, she was just bad at the sport, slicing balls into the chain-link fence, diving for hits and distracted by all of the bare legs. Then Windsor started botching serves, so she’d stumble and maybe brush a classmate’s arm. And the classmate, Renee, knocking Edie’s elbow with her racket, seemed to be mirroring the dance.

“Do that again, and I’ll kiss you on the mouth,” Windsor said under her breath one afternoon. After class, Renee asked, “Did you mean it?”

To be a lesbian in midcentury America seemed “impossible to fathom,” Windsor recalls in A Wild and Precious Life. Such so-called deviance was too uncharted, too risky. Yet Windsor felt the rush of something, and said yes.

Edie Windsor's posthumous memoir, "A Wild and Precious Life" with Joshua Lyon [ Courtesy of St. Martin's Press ]

Flashes of Windsor’s daring light up the pages of her posthumous memoir and biography, a project completed by co-writer Joshua Lyon after Windsor died in 2017, at 88. Those early moments of essential Edie imbue her later fame with a sense of inevitability: Of course it was Edie who took on the Supreme Court to demand the nation recognize her marriage to a woman. Of course it was Edie, ice-blond hair perfectly coiffed, who won.

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But as her memoir shows in period-piece detail, she had no reason to envision any such ending. Again and again, she intuited it was better to tamp down her desires, or hide them: That first clumsy fling with Renee ended in questioning by a concerned dean. With her first love, Caroline, Windsor maintained a boyfriend for plausible deniability. Any sweetness or sex — and there is a lot of sex in this book — was on stolen time. To marry a man was inevitable: “There was simply no other choice, no other available reality.”

In fits and starts, fearful of being discovered, Windsor found her way in New York’s gay underground. Her rich narration, drawn from long interviews and meticulous daybooks, sketches out her evolving roles: reluctant wife, guilty divorcee, anxious reader of pulp paperbacks, rookie at the gay bar, eventual pro.

“Tell me your name,” she’d say, exhaling smoke. “I’m Edie Windsor, and I’m new here.”

As Lyon writes: “Many interviews with Edie’s ex-lovers and friends who knew her back then tended to unravel into a midcentury version of The L Word.”

And then, in 1963, she met Thea Spyer.

Edie Windsor talks about a trip she had with wife Thea Spyer, pictured from that time at left, during an interview Dec. 12, 2012, in her New York City apartment. Spyer's death in 2009 prompted Windsor to sue the federal government. [ RICHARD DREW | AP ]

“How to describe her face?” Windsor writes. Spyer stood regal with black hair and dark eyes. She was a psychologist, a wealthy expat from the Netherlands, from which she and her Jewish family had fled the Nazis. They danced until Windsor had holes in the bottom of her tights.

Whatever sense of unfairness Windsor felt before paled in comparison to her pining (which strikes this reader as a classically lesbian plot twist). And even when the women finally came together in their rocky, legendary, inevitable romance, Windsor’s broader bitterness grew.

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Outside of their wealthy circle of closeted friends, Windsor couldn’t tell the stories of the times Spyer saved her life, or what it felt like to move in together. She couldn’t explain what it meant that Spyer proposed with a circular pin of 22 diamonds, a hidden ring for the borrowed language of engagement.

“We told ourselves that it didn’t matter if there was no word to cement our reality,” Windsor writes. “We were the ones that made it real. And yet, the sense of otherness loomed.”

On Dec. 12, 2012, Edie Windsor holds the circular pin of 22 diamonds that Thea Spyer used to propose to her, a hidden ring for the borrowed language of engagement. The pair met in 1963. [ RICHARD DREW | AP ]

Reading her story, it’s impossible not to wonder what Windsor could have done had she been able to live without fear. Imagine reclaiming the time she burned on psychology classes to try to understand — and learn to stop — her desires. Take back the perfunctory dates with male co-workers at IBM and the mental space obsessed with keeping curtains drawn.

For years, Windsor distanced herself from drag queens and out-loud gayness that would threaten her pearls-and-perm safety at work and among her family. White, upwardly mobile, straight-passing women were her safe zone, the only way she felt like she could architect the life she desired. But with Spyer, she grew bolder, gazing at Stonewall’s aftermath and deciding never to miss another Pride. And when Spyer died after years of illness, Windsor swapped caretaking for righteous grief.

They’d had fewer than two years of marriage, after a ceremony in Canada.

The great pleasure of this book is in spending time with Windsor’s voice. She’s a logician and a romantic, with a penchant for gossip. She was a beauty and knew it. She loved women’s bodies and wrote about it. When provoked, she fumed. I first heard that voice in a now-classic profile of Windsor in the New Yorker, as writer Ariel Levy embedded with Windsor and her attorney Roberta Kaplan. Spyer’s death left Windsor with an insulting estate tax bill no straight couple would have had to pay, so she fought it. The profile begins, memorably, with Windsor’s voice: “F--k the Supreme Court!”

Honoree Edie Windsor hugs community leader Rose Walton at Equality Florida's Greater St. Petersburg Gala in 2014 at the Mahaffey Theater. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

I became a student of the profile and of Windsor, in documentaries and aphorisms. “Don’t postpone joy,” she liked to say. (She also liked to say, “Keep it hot!”) She was a hero in a hot pink scarf who refused to smother a part of herself any longer. Because Windsor laid the groundwork, I got to write about the first day of same-sex marriages in Pasco County, where two women who had been together for 17 years exchanged rings in a patch of courthouse grass.

It’s here the vivid memoir grows thinner, blurring into a whirlwind of gay-org acronyms, as Windsor’s tough charm makes her a star of the speaking circuit. Lyon spends little time in court, perhaps because the saga was so well-documented, and perhaps because Windsor’s death left their interviews unfinished. The story wraps up too fast, with occasional treacle.

One of Lyon’s strengths lies in interludes of historical detail, rooting Windsor’s memories in the larger struggle for gay rights and acting as a necessary correction to her well-to-do world. He also unveils parts of Windsor’s life she preferred to cruise past, including her casino card-counting and penchant for glossing over painful familial rifts. He manages to capture, in large part, the sheer force of her.

The book’s title comes from a Mary Oliver poem, a nod to Windsor’s love of poetry. In the years she felt most alone, she scanned W.H. Auden poems for coded queerness and returned to them often for kinship. When I read Windsor and Spyer’s vows, they struck me, too, as a kind of poetry, and a reclamation: “With this ring, I thee wed . . . from this moment forward, as in days past.”

A Wild and Precious Life

By Edie Windsor with Joshua Lyon

St. Martin’s Press, 288 pages, $27.99

Elizabeth Beier holds a painting of plaintiff Edith "Edie" Windsor, right, and her wife, Thea Spyer, outside the U.S. Supreme Court after hearing that justices struck down the Defense of Marriage Act on June 26, 2013, in Washington, D.C. [ PETE MAROVICH | Pete Marovich/MCT ]