In West Philadelphia in the 1940s, a smart Jewish girl named Edith Schlain discovered that in addition to mathematics she also liked smoking, so she hid cigarettes in her pencil box and snuck out for a puff when possible.
The box had a small chalkboard on the lid, and when math whiz Edith finished a problem, she’d write the answer in chalk on the lid and turn the box so the less proficient students (which was everybody) in her class at West Philly High could see it.
That anecdote tells you a lot about the person who’d go on to become Edie Windsor, a brilliant woman who lived fearlessly and well, and shared her gifts and good fortune — her drive made her a key figure in the landmark 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and made same-sex marriage possible.
That aspect of her life is well known, but more obscure and delightful nuggets like the one above can be found in her memoir, A Wild and Precious Life, published posthumously by St. Martin’s Press (Windsor died in September 2017) and cowritten by Joshua Lyon.
Lyon will be in Philadelphia Tuesday, Oct. 29, for a book signing, along with Windsor’s surviving spouse, Judith Kasen-Windsor.
The 6 p.m. event will include a talk and a question-and-answer session at the William Way Community Center, 1315 Spruce St., where State Rep. Brian Sims and National LGBT Chamber of Commerce executive Jonathan Lovitz will be on hand.
A Wild and Precious Life is a lively read, covering Windsor’s trailblazing career as a coding whiz (and closeted lesbian) at IBM, and her extremely active personal life.
This is surely the only memoir that talks of “iterative schemes for elliptical equations” and segues quickly to an account of a sensuous dance: “We were both sweating, and the room soon filled with her sharp musk.'
The book is quite racy.
“We get that a lot," said Lyon, laughing. “But this is the story Edie wanted to tell.
“The Supreme Court story has been told,” he said. "There is the documentary [Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement]. It’s on her Wikipedia page. And she had such a full and amazing life outside of that, and Edie always wanted to get that story out there.”
She brought on Lyon as coauthor. He spent a great deal of time in Philadelphia walking the streets where she grew up (51st and Baltimore, then 62nd and Christian), getting a sense of neighborhoods where Windsor lived as a happy and bright young woman, initially boy-crazy (“What can I say,” she writes, “I liked the attention”), imitating what the other girls did, parking on lover’s lanes along Cobbs Creek.
Teenage Edie was a movie nut who saw hundreds of films at the Ambassador and Sherwood theaters near her home. The family vacationed in Atlantic City and held picnics in Fairmount Park.
Edie went on to attend Temple University, where her definitive attraction to women emerged. She knew she was gay, but didn’t see a way in midcentury America to live that life, so she married her older brother’s best friend, whose last name was Wiener. Since headstrong Edie refused to walk around with people calling her Edie Wiener, they both changed their names to Windsor.
The marriage ended predictably and quickly, and Windsor went to grad school at NYU, determined to live in New York “where the lesbians are.” She found them, dated many, and fell in love with Thea Spyer, an equally brilliant and beautiful psychologist and heiress with whom Edie lived with for 30 years. (They were married in Canada in 2007).
Theirs was a glamorous union, famous in the LGBTQ community, and a profoundly devoted one that continued as Spyer contracted multiple sclerosis and suffered a debilitating decline in health.
When Spyer died in 2009, Windsor was hit with more than $300,000 in inheritance taxes that as a legally married spouse she would not have had to pay, and in fighting it she (and attorney Roberta A. Kaplan) eventually overturned DOMA.
“But she never stopped fighting. Once she achieved marriage equality, literally the next day she turned right around and went back to fighting for all the organizations and commitments that had become such a part of her life,” said Kasen-Windsor, noting that Windsor had a particular zeal for advocating on behalf of LGBTQ individuals who were homeless or runaways.
She kept dating for a long time, too. She and Kasen-Windsor started their romance when Windsor was in her 80s.
We learn in the book that while at IBM and still (professionally) in the closet, she interceded ferociously on behalf of a gay man who was being harassed by coworkers, and nurtured his career until he became department head.
Readers also discover (through friends, as Edie herself was less forthcoming) that math ace Windsor was a card-counter, and supplemented her income winning with uncanny regularity at casinos around the world — once being politely escorted by security from a Vegas establishment after accumulating an anomalous sum.
Edie had envisioned her memoir as a “warts and all” look at her life, but as Lyon observes, there weren’t many warts.
Still, Kasen-Windsor said, the book strips some of the varnish from the idealized notions of the Spyer-Windsor union, which was a groundbreaking marriage but also a very real one.
“I think another thing people might learn in the book is that she and Thea’s relationship had its ups and down, like all marriages do. There were fights. They worked hard to get married, and worked hard to stay happily married,” said Kasen-Windsor, who led the fight for a plaque in Edie’s name at the corner of Locust and 13th Streets, designating it Edie Windsor Way.