A Wild And Precious Life: Edie Windsor

eddie windsor
Judith Kasen-Windsor and Edie Windsor’s

An attractive, vibrant blonde still in her 50s, Judith Kasen-Windsor is a grieving widow nonetheless, mourning one of the most important lesbian figures in LGBTQ history, her late wife, Edie Windsor.

Edie Windsor was the lead plaintiff in the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor, which overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, leading to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2015.

“Widow” seems a word out of another era. Yet when I sat down to talk with Judith about Edie’s memoir, which Judith has shepherded to completion, we were reminded of all that the word means, including the fact that, in a previous time it was considered a title. Widows have a place of honor in society, left as they are to carry on living their own lives while preserving the memory of a partner who has died.

Judith Kasen-Windsor is doing just that— carrying on without the love of her life, while keeping Edie’s memory vividly alive. She was, Judith says, “the best thing that ever happened to me.” In photographs of the couple, Edie looks at Judith with love and tenderness. They look happy. “I love talking about her,” Judith says.

Of their marriage, Judith says, “When I come home, it’s difficult. She was so full of love. We squeezed ten years into two.”

An activist in her own right, Judith has devoted the time since Edie died to defining her wife’s legacy. It’s a prodigious and never-ending task, yet one that Judith is deeply invested in because of its crucial importance to LGBTQ history. “She did so much,” Judith says. “There are so many stories to tell.”

For over a year Judith has spent many of her days working with Josh Lyon, the writer who helped complete Edie’s memoir, A Wild and Precious Life (St. Martin’s Press), which was left unfinished when she died. The source material has been taken from over 80 hours of Edie’s own audio tapes as well as interviews with dozens of people who knew her and her work. Judith has also traveled the country to speak about Edie, appearing on panels and officiating at ceremonies and events where Edie Windsor’s name has been enshrined in memoriam.

Judith is putting Edie’s name up across the country. On awards. On buildings. There is now an office with Edie’s name on it at the Hetrick Martin Institute, the country’s largest LGBTQ youth services organisation. There is a coffee shop at the New York City LGBTQ center named for Edie and her first wife, Thea Spyer. There’s the Edie Windsor Center at the Southampton Hospital. Judith got the center named for Edie and got the services at Southampton expanded to include care for people with HIV/AIDS.

Judith makes a point of noting how important the issues of HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ youth and trans people were to Edie, and how important they are to her. She says she’s not just there to write the checks, but to ascertain where Edie’s name belongs.

Judith reveals that she keeps alive the flame for Thea Spyer as well, recognising Thea’s role in Edie’s life and history. She explains this as if anyone would do it, but it seems remarkable in its selflessness.

Yet at the end of these days filled with activism and history, days filled with Edie, when Judith returns home alone the familiar sense of loss sets in. And she is reminded again that she is a widow.

Judith says, quite simply, emotion welling in her voice, “Well, I loved her, so it’s hard.”

Judith speaks quickly and animatedly, in much the same way that her late wife did. She has a lot to say and she talks in a rush, as if she might forget some vital detail if she doesn’t get the words out as fast as possible. It’s a disarming quality, as is the way her voice lilts and lifts when she talks about Edie.

Judith is excited about the memoir, which Edie spent the last year of her life working on.

“This book is happy and positive,” Judith says. “This book—there is so much bad in the world, in our world under Trump—this is a ray of sunshine. Edie was a ray of sunshine.”

Judith wants everyone to read Edie’s memoir. “Did you like it?” she wants to know. “Tell me what you think.” She laughs a little. “I don’t come in till near the end.”

Completing the memoir of this woman she describes as “charming and tough” is just a beginning to Judith. “I don’t have low expectations about this book—I have the highest expectations,” she explains. “I want it to be a No. 1 best seller. I think it will be great for women, great for the Jewish community, great for older LGBTQ people, great for everyone. It’s such a good story.” She

also wants the story to be a film, and even a TV series. It’s easy to imagine both. It’s easy to envision Judith making it happen. When it comes to Edie, Judith is driven.

A Wild and Precious Life is, as Judith says, a good story—compelling and engaging. It’s a page-turner full of history, a vivid read about a woman whose life spanned nearly a century and who, as she traversed so many decades, created change as she went. Judith tells a story of how, when the couple went to see the film Hidden Figures, Edie jumped up in the theatre and gave a mini-lecture on the subject from her own vantage point, having been one of the first women computer engineers and programmers at IBM. She had top-level clearance, worked with physicists and with UNIVAC, the world’s first commercially produced computer. She worked with the Atomic Energy Commission.

“We have all the documents from IBM,” Judith says. “NYU [New York University] has all her papers, and you can see, right there in red ink, ‘request denied,’ where she tried to put Thea’s name down as her beneficiary on her life insurance.”

Thea Spyer and Edie were partnered for 44 years, until Thea’s death in 2009.

How Judith and Edie got together is a charming love story. “I chased that woman for five to six years,” Judith laughs. “I had to wear her down. It took a long time. And then from our first date, we were together.” Judith was, she says, in love with Edie from the start.

But Edie was “very sad, very lonely, like any movie star—surrounded by people but on her own. I get it now. I come home alone. I can really relate, now—all this notoriety, but it’s still just you, by yourself.”

Judith’s glad she was able to give Edie a second chance at love. “I told her, if anyone has the right to get married, it’s you.” Judith said she was glad Edie could “benefit from the right to marry, from all she fought for.”

There are stories that are heartbreaking, too. Judith says Edie was recognised wherever they went, so people were al-ways coming up to the couple on the street. “People would cry and break into tears and tell her how much what she did meant to them, for them,” she says.

But the woman who fought so hard and so publicly to change the lives of millions of lesbians and gay men carried the weight of her past with her—a past filled with homophobic reprisals.

Judith says, “We would be walking down the street holding hands, and we’d see people coming toward us, and she would slowly let go of my hand. She carried that fear her entire life.”

She continues, “Edie and Thea never walked down the street holding hands. I’d come home and go to kiss her and if the shades were open—she’d put the shades down. She was literally frightened of me kissing her in front of the open window.”

Of all she hopes to accomplish in Edie’s memory, Judith is most fierce about Edie Windsor getting her due as a historic figure. “Do I maintain Edie’s legacy? Yes—with a vengeance. I’m not sure what would’ve happened if I hadn’t been here to make sure her name is known,” Judith says.

Edie had wanted her papers to stay in New York, even though the Smithsonian wanted them. But Judith had to fight to be sure that NYU would share access with the LGBTQ center. The university finally acquiesced to her demand.

Judith details how at a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) gala after Edie’s death, HRC President Chad Griffin spoke about the historic nature of the same-sex marriage decisions, but referred obliquely to “a lesbian from New York City,” who made it all happen. Judith was livid. She confronted Griffin: “I grabbed him by the tie—well, not literally—and got in his face and said, ‘You have to say her name. Don’t you ever call my wife ‘a lesbian from New York City.’ Her name is Edie Windsor and she changed history. She’s not just some lady from New York City.”

A year later at a different event Griffin came up to Judith and apologised, saying he now understood why she was so adamant about naming Edie.

Judith says, “I will go anywhere and do anything [to promote Edie’s memory]. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for her.”

And that includes maintaining Thea Spyer’s legacy, as well as Edie’s. Judith has made sure that there have been namings for Thea, a renowned psychologist, as well. “She was the go-to therapist for the whole gay community,” Judith says. “It should be recognised. I am just protective of them both. I want to honor them both.”

Her love for Edie runs that deep. Judith says, “I came home one day and Edie had removed some of the photos of Thea—to make me feel better—and I said, ‘You were with her for 44 years.

How could I not love her as much as I love you?’ ”

Judith wants people to know that Edie was dedicated and meticulous, that she was tireless, that she was a fighter to the end of her life, and that she was funny. “She was really, really funny.”

As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke at the memorial for Edie Windsor, said in her eulogy, “She refused to give up on the promise of America. . . We really owe it to her, to ensure that gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights, now and forever. . .She pushed us all to be better, to stand taller, to dream bigger.”

Edie’s widow, Judith, the keeper of her flame, says, “She is the rainbow in our clouds.”