Book Review

Publication year2020
CitationVol. 33 No. 4 Pg. 47
Book Review
Vol. 33 No. 4 Pg. 47
Utah Bar Journal
August, 2020

July, 2020

First: Sandra Day O’Connor An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice

By Evan Thomas

Reviewed by The Honorable Diana Hagen

First, Evan Thomas’s biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, is subtitled “An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice.” At times, the book was much too intimate for my liking. I should probably confess that I don’t care for biographies generally and abhor tell-all books about famous people. While First is certainly not an exposé, the author’s recounting of O’Connor’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood struck me as uncomfortably intrusive. In recounting her time as an undergraduate and law student at Stanford, for example, the book quotes extensively from O’Connor’s letters home to her parents. The letters are deeply personal and often show a young woman processing heartbreak and disappointment in real time. During her time at Stanford, O’Connor “was proposed to four times” and “was formally engaged twice,” and the author spends a significant amount of time detailing each of those relationships.

As has been widely reported, one of those relationships was with her law school classmate, William Rehnquist. For his part, Chief Justice Rehnquist played down the courtship, conceding only that they “dated some in the second year, and then we kind of went different ways.” Given Rehnquist’s reluctance to acknowledge the seriousness of the relationship, he would surely be mortified by the details revealed in the book. In fact, they began dating in the spring of 1950 and were a “steady couple” until December when O’Connor broke off the relationship. A year later, when Rehnquist graduated from law school a semester early, he took O’Connor “on one last date and blurted out that he was in love with her and had been for the past two years.” The author quotes cringe-worthy passages from Rehnquist’s love letters to O’Connor in which he confesses that he can’t live without her and ultimately asks her to marry him – a proposal that she did not immediately turn down despite the fact that, unbeknownst to Rehnquist, she was already dating her future husband, John O’Connor. Eventually, of course, she broke the news to Rehnquist, and, to his credit, their friendship continued and they both supported each other’s nominations to the Supreme Court.

Once past the more personal details of her early life, the author delves into...

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