Years ago, on a summer’s eve so hot that even the gulls whined, I bumped into Tony Lewis in a bookshop on Martha’s Vineyard. He was in his own little world, but he was always a gentleman and betrayed only equanimity when I barged into it.
“I’m looking for something for Margie,” he said, looking over his glasses, referring to his wife, Margaret Marshall.
“She needs something to read. Something . . . bracing.”
It was classic Tony Lewis. A perfect word, and his thoughts were not of himself, but his wife.
Lewis died the other day, and the tributes to him have rightfully focused on his sterling journalism career.
He won two Pulitzer Prizes, one at The New York Times for his unparalleled ability to distill the most complicated US Supreme Court decisions down to their essence and make them more understandable to non-lawyers.
His column in the Times was a staple for thoughtful people, and it rarely failed to impress.
He cast a cold eye on the most complex issues of our time with honesty and equal parts heart and smarts.
And yet, just days removed from his death, I find it hard to focus on Tony Lewis the journalist because I was so in awe of Tony Lewis the man. He was unfailingly polite and accommodating to his lessers, and I can imagine Tony admonishing me now: “How on earth can you refer to anyone as lessers?”
But we, the rest of us in this game, were his lessers.
He operated in a different realm, as did Koufax, as did Jackie Robinson, as did Martha Gellhorn, as does Breslin. There are some people who are simply better at things than others, and we insult their ability and our own intelligence by pretending otherwise.
Still, if you got to know Tony Lewis — and aside from the occasional dinner in Cambridge, the odd phone call and random meetings like that one on the Vineyard, I didn’t get to know him nearly as well as I wished — it was impossible not to be struck by how much his greatness had absolutely nothing to do with his impeccable journalistic credentials.
His greatness was measured by how much he loved his wife and, in return, how much she loved him back.
Like George Bailey, Tony Lewis was the richest man in town, and it had nothing to do with money.
On the day after he died, the Supreme Court began debating the legality of same-sex marriage.
Along with the great Linda Greenhouse, Tony Lewis knew the inner workings of the Supreme Court better than anyone. And the judicial author of marriage equality just happened to be his wife, retired chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who Tony Lewis knew quite well, once said he didn’t know how to define obscenity, but he knew it when he saw it.
Margie Marshall grew up in South Africa and if she couldn’t define inequality, she certainly knew it when she saw it. And so when she saw inequality in the marriage laws, she changed them.
It’s a poignant coincidence that Tony Lewis died just as the highest court in the land prepared to take up an issue pushed to society’s forefront in no small part by his wife.
But it’s even more poignant that Lewis and Marshall enjoyed a married life so fulfilling that they could not imagine denying it to anyone else.
If Margie Marshall’s stand on legalizing gay marriage in Massachusetts was her most historic decision, her decision to leave the bench to tend to her ill husband was her most profound.
I don’t know what they’ll put on Tony’s gravestone, but “Equal Treatment Under The Law” would be a good start.
He loved the 14th Amendment.
Almost as much as he loved his Margie.