Edie Windsor died in 2017 but was working with Joshua Lyon to write her memoir. Because of her unexpected demise, the book is a hybrid of memoir and biography. It is a compelling read and perhaps made even better because Lyon can illuminate many of Edie’s stories with background information and diligent research through many interviews.
The title is a line from a Mary Oliver poem, which Hillary Clinton quoted at Edie’s funeral. “Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your own wild and precious life?” The answers are in this book. Simply put, Edie Windsor was a force.
Growing up in a non-observant Jewish family in Philadelphia, Edith Sclain showed the grit and determination that would be manifested throughout her life. Though she was brought up with love and kindness, the family faced the hardships of every other family, given the economic depravations of the Depression and World War II, plus the fact that anti-Semitic intolerance added to the hardships. A memorable story about the matriarch is when she tells her children, if asked, they should tell people they are Atheists. Edie remained very loyal to her family even if some of them were not as loving later on.
A memoir is often a “memory of a memory,” but Windsor was a meticulous cataloguer of everything in her life. Talk about making a biographer’s job easy! Perhaps this was a feature, or character trait, of someone who chooses to study math and venture into the burgeoning field of technology. You have to rely on facts and Edie kept all the receipts.
Edie told Lyon that she wanted the book to show “warts and all,” though as he stated, “there were no warts.” She is incredibly frank about the details of her life. How satisfying to read a memoir that doesn’t try to portray the subject in hagiographic light. I would say that she is one of the few who deserves it. To read about her escapades as a lesbian who wasn’t afraid to pursue whatever she wanted or desired, is refreshingly honest. Until the end of her life she was a sexual being and did not need to apologize or gloss over the fact.
The story of how she acquired her surname was news to me. A longtime family friend, Saul Weiner, proposed to Edie when they were both barely into adulthood. She eventually agreed but would not accept a proposal that would result in her becoming Edith Weiner. You can just imagine how she convinced Saul to change HIS name so that the marriage (when women always took their husband’s name) would result in a pair of Windsors. That marriage only lasted about 6 months. Saul reclaimed his given name after the divorce. Edie stuck with Windsor.
A documentary about Edie and Thea Speyer’s relationship was released in 2009. “A Very Long Engagement,” introduced the couple long before her lawsuit over DOMA ever materialized. Though they shared a privileged, adventurous life, the relationship had its share of heartbreak, especially after Thea’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The stories of how Edie juggled being a lesbian, a senior IBM employee, a lover of an equally dynamic woman, semi-secret friendships with other lesbians, and continually doing philanthropic work, fill the bulk of the book. Along the way, there are many personal revelations, twists, unexpected characters, and stories that fill you with joy or break your heart, sometimes in the same paragraph.
Having paid close attention to this woman throughout the last several years, I thought the book might be a mere recitation of events and the characters involved. It is so much more. I am still not sure whether the real-life Edie or the Edie portrayed in this memoir would be the most wonderful. It could just be an accurate portrayal of a woman who changed history and someone that we should have known would do so. As she was known for saying, “Don’t postpone joy!” Great advice.
A Wild and Precious Life A Wild and Precious Life: A Memoir Hardcover – October 8, 2019 by Edie Windsor and Joshua Lyon Published by St Martins Press
JOSHUA LYON (co-writer) is the author of Pill Head: The Secret Life of a Painkiller Addict and has ghostwritten several New York Times bestselling and award-winning LGBTQ memoirs. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
REVIEW: STEPHEN COY