At the opera with RBG: Memories of a Morris Museum curator

RBG vigil in Morristown, Sept. 20, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin


Legal analysts say the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an imposing figure on the bench.

But stories keep emerging about the Notorious RBG’s softer personal side. Brett Wellman Messenger, who had the somber task of announcing her death on Friday to an outdoor audience at the Morris Museum, has a few anecdotes of his own.

Ginsburg was an opera fanatic, and for many summers she brought her clan to the Santa Fe Opera, where Messenger worked.

“Justice Ginsburg ALWAYS went backstage, either during intermission, or after the performance to greet, congratulate, take selfies with, and discuss character development with the cast. There are very few American opera singers working today who do not have a picture with her,” recounted Messenger, now the curator of live events for the museum in Morris Township.

Ginsburg’s pre-show routine also made an impression.

“Rather than accepting invitations to have private space on the opera’s grounds to dine with her large family, she would always elect to instead purchase tickets to the public pre-opera dinner/lecture for all of them, and sit with the people,” Messenger said.

Brett Wellman Messenger, curatorial director of live arts, enjoys Tina Turner photo at ‘Bob Gruen: Rock Seen’ exhibit, Morris Museum, June 20, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

One night, he was charged with escorting Ginsburg from the pre-opera dinner to the Crosby Theater– a challenging 7,000-foot trek. Ginsberg, then in her 70s, chose to walk rather than take the shuttle or hitch a ride with her group.

“As a tall young fellow at the time, I was used to darting up the hill quite fast,”  said Messenger. Though sharing time with an icon was “stupendous,” he still found it  “quite anxiety-provoking to have to move at a much slower pace.”

About halfway up the hill, Messenger discreetly texted the stage manager, asking her to hold the house “for fear we would not enter before the conductor’s downbeat.”

The stage manager answered: “The Santa Fe Opera starts on time.”

To which Messenger responded: “RBG.”

The reply: “Held.”

Messenger saw Ginsburg again years later, at a fall 2017 roundtable he produced at Montclair State University. Ginsburg and two Shakespeare scholars discussed The Merchant of Venice.

He greeted the justice and her entourage on the loading dock of MSU’s new School of Communications.

“Her hand was clad in a lace glove, and I remember being afraid to grip it as it felt so much more frail than the hand I had shaken as an intern in 2008,” Messenger said.

Cashews were a favorite of Ginsburg’s, and Messenger made sure plenty were available in every room where she might be that night.

“She didn’t eat any of the cashews. As her security detail was escorting her backstage through the service elevator of the Alexander Kasser Theater, she asked them for some of the cashews.”

Messenger had just started unwinding when he got the urgent request. He sprinted to the waiting elevator with a dish of cashews.

“She was a woman of few –yet powerful– words. After I handed her the dish of nuts she took my hand and in her small but powerful voice thanked me. I don’t think I was able to respond.

“It was a routine pleasantry, but it seemed so absurd that she should be thanking me,” Messenger said. “We lost a towering figure of the 20th century. She held on as long as she could (against cancer), and I wish I could thank her.

Messenger led a moment of silence for the women’s rights pioneer on the museum’s chilly parking deck on Friday night.

The pandemic audience had just cheered an heroic one-woman performance by Tymisha Harris as the legendary Josephine Baker.  (Try doing 90 minutes in a 50-degree breeze wearing little more than pasties!)

It was a show about a Black burlesque star from the 1930s and ’40s who was adored in Paris… and spurned in New York, where the famous Stork Club infamously refused to serve her.

One couldn’t help thinking the Notorious RBG would have appreciated the story.



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