NEW YORK — People move to New York for many complicated reasons — personal, professional, spiritual, gravitational — some quite clear, some unknowable. Edith Windsor came 60 years ago for a very simple one.
“I came to New York to let myself be gay," said Windsor, 83 and regal in a pink silk blouse, black slacks, flowing blond hair and the pearls she wore on her wedding day in Canada five years ago.
That her decision to move to New York would eventually take her to the U.S. Supreme Court would have seemed as unlikely at the time as the idea of two women stepping into a courtroom to get married. But on Friday, the court agreed to hear her federal suit challenging the law that requires the federal government to deny marital benefits to gay and lesbian couples who live in states that allow such unions.
A math and computer whiz in a field dominated by men, who married her partner, Thea Spyer, in 2007 after a 40-year engagement; a woman who was ready to accept her own death after a heart attack three years ago, Windsor has had a life with far more than its share of twists and turns.
She is reveling in the latest one, the court’s decision to hear her case, a challenge to the 1996 law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the Internal Revenue Service from treating her as a surviving spouse after Spyer’s death in 2009, costing her more than $600,000 in state and federal estate taxes.
“It’s thrilling for me to be in this position," she said at the eighth-floor apartment on Fifth Avenue just north of Washington Square that she and Spyer shared for three decades. “It’s almost a deliriously joyous thing for an old lady."
She was not the most obvious candidate to get to the court. Other challenges had been filed earlier and more than a dozen are pending. Gay rights legal groups often prefer to put together a broad group of plaintiffs to reflect a broader range of issues and impacts. To her dismay, her case was turned down by a major gay rights organization.
She was then referred to Roberta Kaplan, at the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, who had unsuccessfully argued the case challenging the inability of same-sex couples to marry in New York before the New York Court of Appeals in 2006.
“When I heard her story, it took me about five seconds, maybe less," said Kaplan, who is joined in Windsor’s case by the American Civil Liberties Union.
And legal experts said that her age, the length and depth of her relationship, the way it can be viewed as a case about an unfair tax level as much as a case about gay rights, make it one with mainstream appeal — including, perhaps, to the middle-aged and older justices on the court.
“When you’re dealing with a 40-year-relationship and an 83-year-old woman, whatever unfortunate stereotypes that often attend this issue are hard to apply," said Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at New York University.
Windsor grew up Edith Schlain, the youngest of three children, whose father lost his candy and ice cream store in Philadelphia and then his house in the Depression. She was smart, vivacious and sexy. Immediately after graduating from Temple University, she married Saul Windsor, a friend of her brother. She described her husband as “a big, handsome guy, one of the sweetest men in the world." Within a year, she knew that through no fault of either of them, it was not what she wanted.
“Who you are is who you are," she said. “Finally, I said: ‘Honey, you deserve more. You deserve someone who feels you’re the most desirable person, and I need something else.’ And I was right. He married the right girl and had a lovely life."
But when she moved to New York, the only place she could imagine where it might be possible to find a satisfying life as a gay woman, the paths to that life seemed utterly opaque.
Eventually, she asked a female friend: “If you know where the lesbians go, please take me."
One of them was Portofino in the West Village, which on Friday nights was a hangout for gay women. One night in 1963, she met Spyer, a psychologist and accomplished violinist. They hit it off and ran into each other casually over two years. Finally, Windsor followed Spyer, who had just ended a relationship, to her house in the Hamptons.
“Is your dance card filled?" Windsor asked.
“It is now," was the reply.
Two years later they began what turned out to be a very long engagement.
Their goal had always been marriage, but by 2007 it began to look as if they were running out of time for same-sex marriage to be legalized in New York (it became legal last year). When Spyer was given a grim prognosis — roughly a year to live — they went to Toronto with two best men and four best women and were married in May 2007, with Windsor sitting on the arm of Spyer’s wheelchair. Spyer died Feb. 5, 2009.
Spyer’s death brought home with crushing force the legal realities, when Windsor was hit with a $363,000 federal estate tax bill, and more than $600,000 overall, because she was not considered a spouse who could inherit the couple’s apartment in New York and modest cottage in the Hamptons tax free.
In October, in a 2-1 ruling, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled in her favor. The Supreme Court will most likely hear the case in late March, with a decision expected by June.