A Wild and Precious Life: A Memoir by Edie Windsor
The life of a same-sex marriage hero sparkles in this collaborative memoir
Reviewed by Rosalind Faires, Fri., Jan. 10, 2020
As an avowed fan of the Old LGBTQ People Telling You About Their Lives literary genre, I have to confess that I came to A Wild and Precious Life biased in its favor. Edie Windsor's posthumously published memoir, written in collaboration with editor and sometimes ghostwriter Joshua Lyon, charts the rich and delightfully rambly history of the Jewish lesbian activist whose 2013 Supreme Court case, United States v. Windsor, overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and helped pave the way for marriage equality. It was that victory that propelled Windsor into the national spotlight (and made her runner-up to Pope Francis for Time's 2013 Person of the Year), but it was one won when she was 84. There was a lot of life in the lead-up.
A Wild and Precious Life, which takes its name from a widely beloved line in "The Summer Day" by the late lesbian poet Mary Oliver, is in no rush to get you to the steps of the Supreme Court. Rather, it wends its way through time, from Windsor's childhood to her realization that she was gay to her heartbreaker days in underground women's clubs to her career at IBM to her marriage(s) and beyond, with warmth and charming informality. Windsor, speaking in the first person, becomes, within three pages, your most stylish, looked-up-to aunt – the one who lives in the city, wears her hair just so, treats you like a grown-up (buying you a drink even though you're a few months shy of 21), and gives you a peek into her past. There's no distance or moralizing; rather, there's an ease, verve, and rhythm that makes it clear this is a person accustomed to storytelling and shaping how she's seen.
Windsor in her own words isn't without nuance, but she becomes doubly fascinating thanks to the notes that buttress each chapter. There, Lyon contextualizes Windsor's narrative with additional historical information and interviews conducted with people who knew Windsor throughout her life. Windsor is hardly unaware of her privilege as a white, middle-class, well-educated cis woman – she writes thoughtfully, in fact, about the way that anxieties about being outed and losing her relatively comfortable life led her to shy away from political action and conspicuously queer people as a young woman – but Lyon's notes on the haves and have-nots of the 1950s LGBTQ community and how the latter drove activism are deeply illuminating. So are the asides about the parts of Windsor's life that she seems content to skim over, like her regular casino visits and ability to count cards, which almost certainly account for the vacation house in the Hamptons that she bought for her longtime fiancée and eventual wife, Thea Spyer.
A Wild and Precious Life sparkles for so many reasons: the gaps in gay history that it fills in with first-person accounts; the glamour and romance it provide; the need to make change that it activates in you as Windsor moves from a youth defined by fear to a maturity driven by righteous anger at all the rules a homophobic society has built up around her. But most of all, it's Windsor's complicated humanity and her directive – "Don't postpone joy" – that leaves you yearning and hopeful. She's a fine companion to start the new year with.
A Wild and Precious Life: A Memoirby Edie Windsor, with Joshua Lyon
St. Martin’s Press, 288 pp., $27.99