By LIBBY CUDMORE• Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – One summer, while visiting Cooperstown, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader
Ginsberg had a request for her friend, Kay Pierro.
“She wanted to go waterskiing!” Pierro said.
“So I asked around for a friend who had a boat to take her on, but (federal marshals) needed to follow in a second boat, so I had to ask around for another.
“She tried so hard to get up, but the skis we had were too long for her.”
Ginsburg, 87, who has starred in an “Opera & Law” presentation every summer since 2013 (except this one) at the Glimmerglass Festival, died Friday, Sept 18, from pancreatic cancer.
Pierro first met Ginsburg when Jane Forbes Clark hired her to cook for the justice and her husband, Marty, who were staying in Miss Clark’s guest house for the weekend in 2004.
“My husband always called it ‘the improbable friendship,’” Pierro said. “She was a Supreme Court justice and I was just a cook, but she was the kindest, warmest, most gentle person I have ever known.”
They stayed in contact for years, and Ginsburg frequently invited her to events, including to the Supreme Court itself and to the unveiling of her portrait at the New England School of Law in Boston. “My son graduated from there, and when she found out, she invited us both to the ceremony,” said Pierro. “She would bring me gifts back from Europe, and we would write to each other.”
Glimmerglass’ music & general director, Francesca Zambello, had struck up a friendship with Ginsburg after she directed Beethoven’s “Fidelio” at the National Opera House in 2003.
“She wrote me a letter and said it was her favorite production of ‘Fidelio’ that she had ever seen,” Zambello said.
“I saw her at the Washington National Opera right before the pandemic,” she continued. “And she had her tickets reserved for this year’s Glimmerglass Festival. We’re all mourning her passing.”
When Zambello became head of the Festival in 2010, she invited Ginsburg and her family to attend the shows. “She had visited when Paul Kellogg was director, but we began talking about doing a program about opera and the law, since so many of them involve contracts and wrong-doing,” she said.
“And I thought, how wonderful it would be if I could engage her in our love of opera together in a way the public could appreciate.”
The program started in 2013 and was a sell-out every summer. “It was one of our most successful programs,” she said.
In 2017, the Festival produced “Scalia/Ginsburg,”
a comic opera about the friendship between Ginsburg and fellow Justice Antonin Scalia.
“After one performance, she came and spoke about him, which was great,” said Zambello. “He never visited Glimmerglass, but I would see him at the National Opera, and they would sit on opposite sides of the aisle. They disagreed all day, but at night they would share this passion for opera.”
Following the news of her death, a vigil was held on the steps of the Otsego County Courthouse, where Village Trustee Richard Sternberg and Dave Pearlman, retired CCS high school principal, led the gathering in Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning.
“People were very moved,” said Sternberg.
Sternberg had met Ginsburg several times; his cousin was a protégée and student of her husband, Marty Ginsburg, at Columbia Law School. “When my nephew was born, I found myself standing next to a short, very slight lady at his bris,” Sternberg said. “She was introduced to me as Judge Ginsburg, but I didn’t think much of it.”
He saw her at several other events, including his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. “She was a Supreme Court justice then, and I made the connection,” he said. “I didn’t say much, which was unusual for me.”
At his niece’s Bat Mitzvah, he overheard another woman ask about the famous lace on her collar. “She told the story that she and Sandra Day O’Connor thought that since Judge (William) Rehnquist put gold stripes on his robes, that they would put lace on theirs as a response,” he said.
Though he often saw Ginsburg at the Festival, he declined to introduce himself again. “I was intimidated, plus she had bodyguards,” he said.
Zambello said the Festival is beginning to look at ways to honor her legacy during next year’s season.
“She loved the Festival and was very proud of what we were doing with social justice,” she said. “But she also loved a good ‘La Boheme.’ She really was our greatest spokesperson.”
“We had a wonderful relationship,” said Pierro. “She was a real treasure.”