Marriage equality crusader’s memoir shatters stereotypes

Edie Windsor’s new memoir, A Wild and Precious Life, shatters the stereotypes about older women as sexless and lesbians as suffering from bed death.

One might think that Edie Windsor’s memoir would be suffuse with anecdotes about the fight for marriage equality, culminating with her victorious Supreme Court cause, United States v. Windsor, that paved the way for a federal law allowing and protecting the civil right for same-sex couples.

Yet, Edie’s fight for marriage equality and against the tax penalty she suffered after her partner of more than 40 years, Thea Spyer, died in 2009 comprises a relatively modest section of the book. Instead, the book provides a luscious, and sometimes laugh-out-loud, account of Edie’s sexual awakening and adventures throughout the 20th century, beginning in the mid-1940s, when she seduced a female schoolmate, to her marriage to Judith Kasen-Windsor in September 2016, which lasted until her death at age 88 a year later, in September 2017.

“Don’t postpone joy!” is Edie’s maxim that appears throughout the memoir. Indeed, it serves as the answer to the full sentence from which the book’s title is taken, a line from Mary Oliver’s “A Summer’s Day” quoted by Hillary Clinton in her eulogy at Edie’s memorial service: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And it is through her life guided by this maxim that she upended stereotypes about older women and lesbians: that both are sexless and frigid, and that lesbians who are in committed partnerships are often nothing more than roommates — the phrase “lesbian bed death” encapsulating the stereotype.

While Edie did date men in her youth, and was married to a man for six months, she approached her relationships with men through what she describes as a kind of “scholarly detachment.” Heterosexuality was something she thought she had to do. Furthermore, she explains, “[t]he idea that anything physically intimate with a girl could happen simply did not exist.”

It was only through her attraction to her schoolmate Renee Kaplan, who she played tennis with during school hours, that she began to think about the possibility of sex with women. It was a realization made through seeing evidence of lesbianism existing in the world — until she saw it, the possibility of female sexual relations simply did not exist:

“As I grew more aware of this real physical attraction, I also started to pay closer attention to my fellow students in the hallways and outside the school. … Many of the female students still wore their Women’s Army Corps uniforms. Among them was a pair of Women’s Army Corps vets who were glued at the hip, and they always wore slacks. The two of them fascinated me — it was obvious by their body language that they were a couple, and while I only had the faintest idea at that point what the word lesbian meant, I knew that’s what they were.”

At the same time, Edie notes, she was “not looking for an identity.” For her, propositioning Renee was a matter of knowing what she wanted: “I felt secure with who I was, confident and intelligent, and somehow wise enough to know that if you want something to happen in your life, it’s absurd to sit around and wait. You have to make it happen yourself.” It was the fulfillment of desire, rather than an adoption of identity, that mattered to Edie — it is clear that she understood how identities were social roles enforced by society. She was more intent on living a joyful life, outside socially defined roles.

Hilariously, Edie recounts how she then accosted the two female vets who were “glued at the hips” and asked them “where two girls could be alone.” At first, the women scoffed at Edie’s perceptive reading of their sexuality. Only when they were certain that Edie wasn’t some kind of government informant did they agree to rent out their apartment to Edie and Renee by the hour — which the two girls took advantage of until Renee’s mother found Renee’s diary and the two were separated at school and were not allowed to see each other ever again.

It was only after she moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village in the early 1950s, after her divorce, that she found herself immersed in a world of artists, poets, and gay people, and her sexuality and sex life blossomed. As Abby, Edie’s former roommate and part-time lover, tells Joshua Lyon, the book’s coauthor who finished the book after Edie’s passing: “She went through so many women. She was full of life. She was a young woman who came to New York to seek her fortune.”

Lyon quips, “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. Much will remain a secret, but the main takeaway is that Edie was quite the heartbreaker.”

Lyon noted in an email exchange: “There were many stories about Edie’s love life that didn’t make the cut, but only because they were ones I heard from ex-lovers after she’d passed away, and she was no longer around to corroborate them or offer her side of the story. She was quite the heartbreaker before settling down with Thea. (And forever after, in terms of how many women continued to have crushes on her!)”

Edie writes about having sex, and feeling the electricity of desire, but stylistically she maintains a level of decorum throughout her memoir. For example, when she describes her sex life while she is a lovesick puppy for Thea, who was in another relationship for a full two years before they eventually hooked up: “I dated around, nothing serious. Enough to satisfy my needs, and let’s just leave it at that.”

The decorum, however, was less Edie’s personal style than, according to Lyon, an editorial decision about the book’s content: “I’d say another element that didn’t make the cut is that when talking about sex with me she was often quite detailed, but we didn’t feel specifics were appropriate for the book, so we wrote about sex in a more direct and loving manner.”

Edie and Thea’s sex life was stuff of legend, often spoken openly about — not just by them, but by their friends. Their friend Teddy tells Lyons: “‘They were very, very sexual,’ Teddy says, and they were also quite open about their amorous adventures. ‘They’d say, “Don’t call us on Tuesday between four and six. We have a sex date.”’”

Even after Thea’s diagnosis of progressive multiple sclerosis in 1977, Edie comments that their sex life remained vibrant, emphasizing that maintaining their “hot sex life” was a critical element of “keeping [their] love alive.” Refusing to sideline this part of their life, Edie and Thea even kept a roll of tickets for “rides” and other amusements for which they could utilize Thea’s wheelchair as sexual accoutrement. Edie also recounts how she curated a panel for SAGE on “Erotic Safer Sex for Lesbians With (and Without) Illness” to help others in a similar situation.

“We never let her worsened paralysis disrupt our sex life,” Edie writes, “and if you feel like you need more information about how that was possible, then you’re probably doing things wrong to begin with.”

A Wild and Precious Life is a delicious read, rich in Edie’s voice that shines through in her personal accounts of her storied life. Within the context of lesbian culture, it could be seen as a clever antidote to the mid-20th-century lesbian pulp novels that were replete with Sapphic content but which inevitably relegated the same-sex–loving women to a tragic ending — the books that Edie herself coveted at the time, as she reached for any and all representations of lesbianism in the world. In a way, then, Edie provides younger generations of lesbian and queer women with a real account of what lesbianism looked like in the 20th century for a middle-class Jewish woman who found sex in the city. Lesbianism wasn’t just a pulpy dream back then. It was real.

“I’m constantly shocked by how many people come up to me and say, ‘I can’t believe how much sex there is in the book!’ Lyons said in an email. “My reaction is always, ‘Of course there’s a lot of sex in there!’ It’s a book that details a woman’s entire life and her extremely passionate relationships. We weren’t about to neuter or gloss over those experiences just to make people comfortable. Sex is one of the most natural elements of the human experience, and Edie was all about breaking down stigma and shame around it.”

This article originally appeared in WMC on November 14, 2019.