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Supreme Court justice and civil rights advocate

The Private Thurgood Marshall

The Private Thurgood Marshall

As the newly appointed Justice Marshall began his life at the Supreme Court in 1967, he got a pleasant reception from his allwhite colleagues, and he is very fond of them. William Brennan, who frequently votes with Marshall, is among his best friends. Marshall feels comfortable joking with any of the justices. In the middle of a boring tax case, former justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. remembers, Marshall leaned over to say, “You can have my vote on this for a future draft pick.”

“They’ve accepted us openly,” says Cecilia Marshall. “I never felt any coolness or reservations. We are like a family, actually. We have to be, you know. We’re here for life.”

It is a life Marshall cherishes, but one that has turned him inward toward his family and close friends and away from the public eye. He does not like to attend public events because too many people bother him. “With them it’s one shake; with me it’s a hundred,” he says with a scowl. A friend tells a story of seeing a man approach Marshall and ask, “You remember me, don’t you?” Marshall, without a pause or break in his stride, replied: “Of course I don’t.”

Now he rarely socializes outside a circle that includes his two sons, Thurgood Jr. and John, their wives and his grandchildren. In 1988, he created a stir among his associates when he agreed to attend an 80th birthday party. He doesn’t belong to any of the capital’s exclusive social clubs, and he doesn’t even like to go out to dinner. “He may be eating a sandwich or something,” his wife says, “and they’ll want to shake his hand.”

At 81, he has outlived most of his friends, including two he felt especially close to: Roy Wilkins and Wiley Branton. Some of the friends who are left think Marshall has soured on the lack of energy and direction in the civil rights movement, deriding the constant glorification of past activists. Asked his opinion of Jesse Jackson, Marshall shakes his head sadly and finally snaps: ‘No comment.” In speeches, though, he emphasizes the need to continue the struggle for rights: “Take it from me, we haven’t won it yet. We’ve got a long way to go.,

Marshall’s isolation is exacerbated by his age. He has never exercised much, and these days he no longer takes his ritual walks around the Supreme Court building, He usually has lunch heatedup Campbell soups alone at his desk, calling the quality of the soup in the Supreme Court cafeteria “uneven.” He is a Redskins fan, but he no longer goes to the games because his children are grown. He doesn’t go out to movies or plays. And he plays poker once his favorite pastime only with his wife, complaining that she doesn’t know how to bluff.

He gets his hair cut at work for $3.50. His doctor is across the street from the Supreme Court. He doesn’t even vote anymore, because after years of listening to Justice John Harlan argue that it was inappropriate for a Supreme Court justice to be involved with a political candidate, he recently decided that Harlan had been right.

He and his wife used to travel to her home state, Hawaii, for vacations, but lately they prefer to stay home. During the summer they spend a few days in Atlantic City, where Marshall enjoying a certain anonymity among bettors concentrating on their money places smalltime wagers on blackjack and roulette. He recently decided to increase his bets from $5 to $20: “It suddenly dawned on me what the hell’s the difference? You get the same card.” Last summer he lost $600.

He turns on the television in free moments at the office, and wherever he is outside the office. He doesn’t have a favorite show TV simply provides a soothing background. He once told his friend Justice Brennan that there was a “lot to be learned about life” from soap operas. He watches wrestling, news and talk shows, but usually reads newspapers, magazines and law books at the same time.

“He’ll watch anything,” his wife says, “because at times I know he’s not looking at it. His mind is working on some legal case.”

“You shouldn’t tell that,” Marshall interrupts.

In the 1979 bestseller The Brethren, by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, Marshall was portrayed as watching so much TV that it interfered with his legal work. Marshall, who says he never spoke with the authors, is angry about this, but says, “I don’t want to get down in the gutter” with them. Says Woodward: “There were many witnesses to Marshall’s television habits. It’s like George Bush trying to proclaim that he never plays horseshoes.”

Marshall’s relationship with his wife, whom he calls Cissy, is warm and romantic. After nearly 35 years of marriage, they still seem to be in love. “Isn’t she something?” he said once, interrupting an interview to comment on her good looks. He calls her his “handler,” and when it comes to travel, his “seeingeye dog.” They tease each other. She bothers him about not exercising, and he says that’s okay as long as he pays the bills. She grumbles back, and he says, “Don’t do you any favors, huh?”

When not at work or with his wife, Marshall can usually be found with one of his sons. Thurgood Jr. is a lawyer on Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Judiciary Committee staff; John, the younger son, is a Virginia state trooper. Both sons are married to white women (“So what?” says the justice when this fact is mentioned). At one point, when Thurgood Jr. was a prosecutor, his father pointed out this irony; The man who had long fought unfair treatment of blacks by the white law enforcement establishment had a prosecutor and a policeman as sons. J.W.