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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Elena Kagan and Me

One of the things I do for fun is to gather friends together for a playreading, which means we sit around and read a play aloud, typically with no one but me having seen it before. This is not high art, and alcohol is frequently involved so that some people get noticeably freer with their reading of the text as the evening progresses. These gatherings, which have been going on since I was in high school, have come to be known as the “Whaley Players.” Some of my friends, and particularly those in my chosen family, have done dozens (hundreds?) of these readings (and are fine actors to boot).

In the 1980s at the University of Texas, my good friend Jay Westbrook (see “How I Became a Law Professor” Jan. 27) teamed up with Professor Elizabeth Warren, also on the Texas faculty, for a series of projects, including a number of books about bankruptcy law, including their collaboration on the leading casebook used in this country to teach that subject. They also sponsored a yearly conference in Austin on bankruptcy law, and on two occasions I was one of the speakers. This led to me becoming friends with Liz Warren, who is an incredible person. Since those days she has gone on to work wonders, and is currently on the cover of Time Magazine because of her work as the Chair of TARP (the Troubled Assets Relief Program). In fact, she’s all over the place: on Oprah, in Michael Moore’s movie “Capitalism—A Love Story,” etc. She was one of the names prominently mentioned as a possible Supreme Court pick by President Obama.

In the school year 1999-2000 I was a Visiting Professor at Boston College. It was a great year for a number of reasons. Boston is a wonderful city, and I was living in a rented apartment in the Back Bay near the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue (“No, no!” one of the locals corrected. “It’s ‘Comm. Ave and Mass. Ave.’”) I made a number of good friends at Boston College, including some students I am still in touch with. There were troubles too, however. It was in the fall of 1999 that I first experienced atrial fibrillation (about which more in a future post—interesting story with, as you know, ultimately a happy ending).

In October of 1999 I met a man called Buck, an IT expert at a local company, and we began a romance that lasted almost two years (though for much of that he had to keep flying to Columbus). We had great times together. Buck was a determined eccentric, and fun to be with on many levels. He lived in the oldest house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and periodically had to absent himself while tours came through (he was one of the caretakers of this historic place). The house was amazing—in some rooms you had to stoop down because the ceiling was very low (people must have been shorter in the 1600s).

While in Boston I called Liz, and she invited me to Harvard to show me around the law school and have lunch. The tour was fun—I got to see Oliver Wendell Holmes’s lunch box, among other interesting things—and Liz is always a joy to be with. At one point she said to me, “Doug, if I’d have known you were interested in visiting Boston, we’d have asked you to visit at Harvard.” I laughed at that. “While I’ve written some articles and books I’m proud of,” I replied, “I’m not known as a scholar. My reputation is as a teacher.” Liz pooh-poohed that. “Boy, could I sell a visiting teacher to the faculty!” she said. “We’re forever inviting famous scholars who can’t teach and the students complain loudly.”

At some point I introduced her to Buck because, by a major coincidence, they lived across the street from each other. They had nodded in passing from time to time, but now knew each other’s names. After I explained to Buck how famous she was (arguably the leading expert in the United States on bankruptcy), he (like most of us) was in awe of her.

Then Liz invited Buck and me for an evening at her house, and I suggested making it a playreading. Intrigued, Liz consulted with her husband Bruce, and they agreed. I chose “Mary, Mary,” a favorite play because it only has five characters (three men, two women) and is very funny. Liz said she would find a woman friend to join us.

When the night arrived, we all came and were introduced to each other, and the playreading was fun (Liz, in addition to her other talents, can act). The Harvard faculty member that Liz had invited was fun too. When I told her that she would be playing the part of a young blond, intelligent, rich, beautiful socialite, she laughed and said it was type casting. Part of this professor’s story was that Bill Clinton had nominated her for a federal appellate court judgeship, but Congress, then in the control of the Republicans, was not acting on any of his judicial nominations, so hers looked dead in the water (that November would bring in the election of George Bush, ending the issue).

Flash forward to this past Thursday morning and I’m reading the newspaper. One of the letters to the editor mentioned that Elena Kagan (President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court) is being faulted for having no judicial experience, but that that was only because the Republicans wouldn’t confirm her when Bill Clinton nominated her (she was a White House advisor at the time of the nomination). Hmm.

I keep a diary (well, really just a journal of the day’s happenings with no editorial comment), so I dragged out the one for 2000 and scanned through it. The entry for April 16: “Buck and I go to Liz and Bruce’s home for playreading of ‘Mary, Mary’—Elena Kagan also there.”

So let history record: Elena Kagan is one of the Whaley Players. She should highlight that on her curriculum vitae.

The Younger Elena Kagan and Elizabeth Warren


PS:  On September 29, 2015, Elena Kagan came to the Ohio State Law School as a guest speaker at a reception on our 125th anniversary as a law school.  In the receiving line I shook her hand and reminded her of this meeting, 15 years in the past, and she laughed and said it had been fun.

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“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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