Legal Law

Intrepid Melvin from Morningside Heights

Mel Wulf (courtesy of photo)

It is a dark, rainy afternoon on Riverside Drive when 93-year-old Melvin Wulf wakes up from his nap to declare the recent Amy Coney Barrett hearings a “right wing debacle” and the potential justice system a “crazy right winger”. “But the man is not just an old Kakker.

Once upon a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, Wulf was the legal director of the ACLU, arguing 10 cases before the Supreme Court, "more than 99 percent of the rest of the lawyers in this country," as he is quick to point out. Still, he knows the truth. As far as he is known, these are not his own achievements, but those of the young woman he brought to the ACLU 50 years ago: Barrett's predecessor – although it feels so wrong, call her that – Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Wulf met Ginsburg in the summer of 1944 when he was a 16-year-old waiter at Camp Che-Na-Wah, a Jewish girls' camp in the Adirondacks, and she, then known as Kiki Bader, was the niece of the camp's owner and part of the Group of 12 year old girls he served.

Not that Wulf had a vague memory of what she looked like when he said to me over the phone from his pre-war apartment: “I was interested in the older girls. The girls my age. "

And yet, when he and Ginsburg met again 26 years later in 1970, it quickly became clear that Ginsburg remembered not only Wulf as their camp waiter, but his starring role as Richard Dauntless in Che-Na-Wah's 1944 rendition of Ruddigore.

Just weeks later, she wrote to him asking for ACLU support for Moritz v Commissioner of Internal Revenue – a case which, like many Ginsburg would accept, involved discrimination against a man based on gender – and appealed seamlessly in the language of Wulf's character. Calling the lawsuit "as neat as one could find it to test constitutionally against gender discrimination," she vowed that she and her husband Marty would not only bring the case to Denver federal court, but "if." our performance is not matched There we shall make a valiant effort at the Supreme Court. "

Gilbert and Sullivan's flattery worked. Wulf gave Ginsburg the support of the A.C.L.U. and she became not only a co-founder of the women's rights project, but also General Counsel of the A.C.L.U. as well as member of its board of directors. (She won Moritz too.)

All of this pleased the intrepid Melvin until 1977 when he was on the wrong side of the internal A.C.L.U. Politics and suddenly needed its own institutional support. "I asked her to come to my defense and she told me it was not in her political interest," said Wulf. "She didn't say why." Perhaps he would have succeeded if instead he sang this line from Richard Dauntless to her: "Pray for him as if it were for your own father."

After the violation, the two never spoke to each other again – the case was closed in their relationship, or so it seemed – and Wulf went into private practice focusing on defamation defense under the First Amendment.

But then something very strange happened in 2017. Wulf received a call from his nephew in LA saying that he had just auditioned for a movie in which his uncle was a character. That movie would become the Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex, and in it, Justin Theroux's Wulf would be played with mustache for all his aggressive noise.

"This portrayal of me, my wife hates it," said Wulf. “Do you remember there was a moot court presentation to discuss the Moritz case, in which I was very tough on (Ruth)? It never happened. There was never a moot court like this. ”At this point I could hear Wulf's British wife in the background practically asking him for an opportunity to speak.

"I'm a little pissed off about the portrayal because I'm younger and he's older and more philosophical," explained Deirdre Wulf, who told me that she would have preferred Upper West Sider Mark Ruffalo to have played her husband. "Luckily Mel couldn't hear the dialogue because he is very deaf and there were no subtitles … To this day I don't want him to watch the movie on Netflix because they have subtitles and he can read the dialogue and it's demoralizing would. "

"You're telling her everything wrong!" shouted Mel.

Still, Deirdre continued. "Mel is right," she mused. "The past is the past and he's had a wonderful, interesting, and exciting career and that was just a small part of it. He never looked back or called her name or bragged about the connection. Never."

"Is not it!" Mel said and took the phone back. "This is misinformation! I have spoken many times over the years about my connection with Ruth and it was I who started it on her way to the Supreme Court. I did! People were amused."

Now, as Wulf watches Republicans begin to mine Ginsburg's legacy via Barrett's almost certain rate, he firmly believes that a political repayment is required. Republicans "deserve to be royally ripped off by a packed court," he says. "In a way, they're packing it right now."

According to Wulf, Barrett could turn out to be "worse than Scalia," but it's pretty hard to imagine anyone being worse than Scalia. Scalia was the worst right-wing judge ever to sit on the Supreme Court. "

Given his gloomy view of the judiciary, I can't help but ask Wulf what he made of the famously close, if unlikely, friendship between Scalia and Ginsburg. "I actually didn't find it admirable," he tells me. “Just because they liked opera? I don't know what went through Ruth's head. Maybe she was a lot more generous than me. "

Now the afternoon is getting darker and Wulf is waiting for a series of readings: The New York Review and The London Review, as well as some political non-fiction books he got from the recently reopened public library. Even so, Wulf tries to remember the word he used to describe Barrett's unemotional appearance as he and his wife watched their Senate confirmation hearings. "What is the word when people just sit there and don't move? D," he shouts. "How did I relate to the candidate, what her name is? I said "something-ic". "

"Something like" robot ", the always loyal Deirdre calls back immediately.

"But no," says Mel. "It was actually a very good word."

Five hours later I answer the phone and hear his voice: "The word is" catatonic "."

Johanna Berkman's work has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, New York Magazine, Airmail, Lit Hub, Glamor, and many other publications. She is writing a book called "Color Wars and Campfires: The Cult and Culture of American Camps". Her letter can be found on and you can find her on Twitter @johanna_berkman and Instagram @johannaberkman.

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