An author going through Sandra Day O'Connor's papers found a letter in which the late Supreme Court chief justice William Rehnquist proposed marriage to her when she was still in law school. Not only did they never tell their friends or families, the two remained close friends for the rest of their lives, sometimes neighbors--and of course Supreme Court colleagues.

Imagine you've proposed to someone you love. She turns you down because she loves someone else. What do you do next? You might say "Let's stay friends," not really meaning it. But, whether or not William Rehnquist ever said those words to Sandra Day before or after her marriage to their Stanford Law classmate John O'Connor, he truly did mean them. Almost 30 years later, Rehnquist, then an associate justice on the Supreme Court, recommended her to President Ronald Reagan to fill the vacancy left open when Potter Stewart retired. O'Connor became the first female justice of the Supreme Court and the two happily remained colleagues and close friends for life. Neither apparently ever told their friends and families about the marriage proposal, although it was widely known that the two had been friends, study mates, and boyfriend and girlfriend for a time while at Stanford Law. 

The proposal came to light when author Evan Thomas was looking through O'Connor's papers as part of his research for First, a biography of O'Connor due out in March. By the time he proposed, Rehnquist had graduated early and gone off to work in Washington, D.C. He first wrote to Day to tell her he wanted to see her about "important things." In a subsequent letter he got to the point: "To be specific, Sandy, will you marry me this summer?"

40 dates in 40 days.

By then, Day had gone on 40 dates in 40 days with John O'Connor and the answer was a clear no. She and O'Connor would marry in 1952. After she turned him down, Rehnquist started dating Nan Cornell, whom he married in 1953, and who died in 1991. Thomas writes that shortly before his death in 2005, Rehnquist told a friend that Nan was the only woman he ever loved. O'Connor, who retired from the bench in 2006 and recently announced that she was leaving public life because she'd been diagnosed with dementia, has not commented to the media on the proposal.

It might seem strange to some that a rejected suitor would recommend his one-time love for one of the most important jobs in the world, and work happily side by side with her for 24 years. But it doesn't seem strange to me. The very best partnerships are built on shared values, shared history, shared goals, and the ability to work well together toward those goals. Because they aren't only about romance and sex--important as those things are--they can take many forms, and morph from one kind of relationship to another over the course of a lifetime. That's how it was for my parents, who split when I was 11, yet depended on each other for decades thereafter for emotional support, financial decision-making, and even help coping with household appliances (my father was singularly inept in this area). They both married other people but would have stayed close for life, except that my father's second wife was understandably uncomfortable with the friendship.

It's hard to know without seeing the rest of the letter, but my sense is that when Rehnquist popped the question, he was not chasing a romantic infatuation. "To be specific...will you marry me this summer?" just don't seem like the words of someone swept off his feet with ardor. It sounds to me like a level-headed young man proposing a lifetime partnership to young woman whose intellect and character he cherishes, and who believes she could be the ideal sounding board, support, companion and workmate for the rest of his life. And, in a different way, that's exactly what she was. 

Published on: Oct 31, 2018
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