ORAL HISTORY OF HARRIET SHAPIRO
May 23, 2012
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of the
Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is Judy Feigin, Esquire,
and the interviewee is Harriet Shapiro, Esquire. The interview took place at Harriet’s apartment
in Rockville, Maryland, on Wednesday, May 23, 2012. This is the fourth interview.
MS. FEIGIN: Good morning, Harriet.
MS. SHAPIRO: Good morning, Judy.
MS. FEIGIN: When we left you, you were in law school and you’d met Howie, and we
know you married. Tell us a little about that and how you juggled it all.
MS. SHAPIRO: We decided to get married, and Howie wrote a really sweet letter to my
parents, which I have a copy of, and got a wonderful letter back from my
father. I had told them, “He knows everything and he’s interested in
everything,” and Mother said, “Does he like fishing?” [laughter] That was
a rather peculiar question, but the answer was “no” [laughter]. He’s a
Chicago boy, he doesn’t do fishing.
MS. FEIGIN: Did your family?
MS. SHAPIRO: No [laughter]. So, we went to Jack Weinstein – he taught Evidence, and
he was somebody that we thought would know a judge who would marry
us, and in fact he did.
MS. FEIGIN: Jack Weinstein who went on to become a renowned district court judge in
the Eastern District of New York?
MS. SHAPIRO: Right. Black Jack. We said we wanted to get married. Howie was
absolutely adamantly opposed to any kind of a formal wedding ceremony.
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I said I thought it would be kind of neat to have him stamp on a glass. No,
that was not going to happen.
MS. FEIGIN: We should say that’s a Jewish custom, and I assume Howie is Jewish?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes, Howie is Jewish, but completely secular. If he had been religious, it
would have been a real problem. But anyway, we wanted to get married
by a judge, so we went and asked Professor Weinstein who we should go
to, and he recommended a New York Supreme Court judge named Henry
Clay Greenberg. We got in touch with Judge Henry Clay Greenberg, and
he said sure, he would do it. So we went down. ‘Becca and Donald
Lancefield, who I talked about before, came down to be witnesses, and the
judge said the important words, and we said the important words. I wish I
could redo what came next because then he said, “Would you like to come
to lunch with me?” We thought this was not an invitation exactly, it was
kind of a command performance, so we sent ‘Becca and Donald off, which
we really should not have done. That was bad. But anyway, we had lunch
with him, and then went off on our honeymoon. We were married on
Friday, June 25. I had just started as editor-in-chief, and we were working
on the first issue.
MS. FEIGIN: What year was this?
MS. SHAPIRO: 1954. So, I didn’t have any time off. Howie didn’t have any time off
either. He was working as a summer associate for RCA in the general
counsel’s office. So we took the weekend off and we went up to
Woods Hole, and Howie remembers with great pleasure the fact that we
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ran into some old family friends downtown in Woods Hole, and I
introduced him as Mr. Shapiro. He thought that was a little odd [laughter].
I guess it was a little odd. Anyway, we came back Sunday night and I
went back to struggling along on the Review and Howie went back to
MS. FEIGIN: Let me just ask one question before we get past that weekend. When you
say he wrote to your parents, was that an old-fashioned letter asking for
MS. SHAPIRO: Not exactly. Asking for their approval, I guess, but no, it was we have
decided, we have thought about it carefully, and we’re responsible adults,
and we’re going to do this.
MS. FEIGIN: Had your parents ever met him?
MS. SHAPIRO: Father had. Mother had not. Father was on some kind of a lecture thing
for Sigma Psi. They have distinguished scholars give lectures at various
universities, and he was doing that in 1953 so he was nearby. He came to
New York, and I met him. Howie was going to come and join us, and
Howie didn’t turn up, and he didn’t turn up, and he didn’t turn up. Then
he came, and he thought I had asked him to get a first day cover of a
stamp. I don’t know why he thought that [laughter], but he had been
waiting in line to get the first day cover. So when he turned up, he had the
first day cover [laughter]. They hit it off. Obviously they both had a
common interest (me). They really did hit it off.
I think Mother was perhaps a little bit troubled by the fact that
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Howie was Jewish, although for me it would have been an awful lot more
trouble if he had been Christian because I had been so indoctrinated
against Christianity. But ethnically and culturally, he’s Jewish. His full
name is Howard Eliot Shapiro, and ‘Becca suggested that maybe it would
be a good idea if he dropped his last name. Howie would absolutely not
do that. He’s Jewish, and he’s proud of it. And it hasn’t been a problem
at all, except (when the kids were little) for Christmas [laughter]. But
anyway, Mother hadn’t met him. But his Jewishness wasn’t the real
problem with Mother. Mother’s problem, it’s peculiar really, was that she
never thought any of her children’s spouses were worthy of us. And
what’s peculiar about it is that I think we were all kind of surprised at that
reaction – when we were kids, we knew she loved us because we were her
children but that she would think people wouldn’t be worthy of us, for
heaven sakes! But enough of this.
We came back from our honeymoon, and I moved into the apartment
instead of his former roommate, Leonard Sims. I don’t know how we
managed. We managed, of course. I thought I knew how to cook
[laughter], but I did not. I knew how to make mayonnaise [laughter]. I
learned how to make hamburger.
MS. FEIGIN: Did he cook?
MS. SHAPIRO: Howie? No [laughter]. He can when I go away. Particularly when the
kids were little on the rare occasions when I would go away, he would
cook for them. But that’s not something that he enjoys doing. Neither do
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I, particularly. I can put together a meal, but I’m not a fancy cook, and I
don’t particularly enjoy it. I don’t mind it. I don’t like planning for it and
getting the stuff in the house. Before we moved here, the planning and
cooking had to be done every darn day. It got a little tiresome. Other than
the cooking, I don’t know that life was that much more difficult than when
I was single. Howie certainly was very supportive and always has been.
We just did it.
During that time, Howie found his Uncle Herman. His father’s
younger brother was a very interesting character. He joined the Jewish
Legion that was supposed to be helping the British drive the Turks out of
Israel. I’m not exactly sure about the history of all of this, but at some
point, the British were using the Jewish Legion to fight the Russians.
Herman, who was a Socialist, decided that he didn’t sign up for that, and
he wasn’t going to do that, so he deserted. He was a stowaway on a
French boat that took him across the Black Sea. He eventually made his
way to Europe and then to Mexico, learning French and Spanish on the
way. Howie is very good at languages, and perhaps that’s genetic because
evidently Uncle Herman was too. And then Herman’s mother got him
into this country.
Howie doesn’t know what happened, but there was some kind of a
breakup in the family, and Herman went to New York. What Howie knew
was that Herman was teaching Spanish in the New York school system.
Howie is a great researcher. He found there was no Herman Shapiro in
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the New York school system, so he figured Herman changed his name. So
he looked for variations of Herman’s Jewish name in the school records
and Howie found him that way. Fortunately, Uncle Herman was really
pleased to be found. He was living in New York in a rent-controlled
apartment. He was a funny little man, he really was. With his wife,
Sunia, he kind of took us under his wing. When we moved down here,
Herman, who had a car in New York for reasons that aren’t quite clear to
me, drove us and what little stuff we had down here. We had come down
beforehand to look for a furnished apartment, and we found a place right
next to the zoo in Mt. Pleasant, which wasn’t a particularly lovely
neighborhood then, but it wasn’t dangerous. It was on the third floor of an
old row house. Uncle Herman and Sunia stayed the night. Herman said
he had a terrible time sleeping because it was so quiet outside. He
couldn’t bear the silence [laughter].
We took the standard D.C. bar exam review course with
Mr. Nacrelli and took the bar exam, all during a very hot June without air
conditioning. Howie was convinced that he had only barely sneaked
through, and I was convinced that I had done very well. As usual for us,
before the exam, I worried like anything about it, and after the exam,
Howie worried like anything about it [laughter]. But we both passed.
MS. FEIGIN: You came down because he had a position in the Honors Program at
Justice, right? Did you have a job lined up?
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MS. SHAPIRO: Yes. I had a job lined up with the Atomic Energy Commission, but I
couldn’t start work until I got my security clearance, which took a couple
of months. Howie started work at the Justice Department even before
passing the bar.
MS. FEIGIN: Anything particular about graduation from Columbia?
MS. SHAPIRO: I went back up to New York for our graduation. Howie didn’t go because
we couldn’t afford it. He was a GS-5, and he didn’t get paid until July I
think. But I went back up to receive the Jane Marks Murphy prize, which
at that time was for the top woman in the class. It was established in
honor of Ms. Murphy, a Columbia Law School graduate, by her widower.
I think it was just based on grades. Now the prize is not gender-specific. I
don’t remember much about graduation.
MS. FEIGIN: So all your possessions, Howie’s uncle and aunt, and you and Howie all fit
into one car?
MS. SHAPIRO: Oh yes, easily [laughter]. I think that was when Howie started saying, as
he has said at every move since, “When I was in the Army, I could put all
my possessions in a duffle bag, and what are we doing with all this stuff?”
MS. FEIGIN: I’d like to know a little bit about what it was like looking for a job. How
did you go about doing it? Did they come to law school? Who did you
interview with? What was it like?
MS. SHAPIRO: We decided we wanted to work in D.C., not New York. Howie got into
the Department of Justice Honors Program. I didn’t apply for it. I don’t
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know why I didn’t apply for it, but I didn’t. Recruiters for the federal
government did come to the law school. The recruiter for the Atomic
Energy Commission was Jimmy Morrison, a lawyer from the
Commission’s General Counsel’s office. He was enthusiastic about the
work in that office and persuaded me that it would be interesting to work
at a new agency where fundamental issues were being decided. It was.
MS. FEIGIN: When was the agency founded?
MS. SHAPIRO: It was created by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Though I didn’t
interview for any other jobs, I had a couple of personal problems. One,
Father, being a geneticist, was fighting with Strauss, who was the
chairman of the AEC at that time and Father believed was so ignorant that
he didn’t even know how to pronounce his own name (he pronounced it
Straws) [laughter]. Strauss maintained that a little radiation posed no
health threat; basically that fears of radiation were exaggerated. Father,
knowing that x-rays were one of the standard ways of inducing mutations
in experimental animals, disagreed. He was convinced that even low
doses of radiation were harmful. Such doses would not be fatal, but they
should be avoided. He wouldn’t let us use those machines they used to
have where you could see your feet in your shoes, and he believed that
you shouldn’t get your teeth x-rayed unless there’s some real reason to do
it. Even before the full health effects of non-lethal radiation exposure
were recognized, Father was convinced that the Atomic Energy
Commission was not being straight. He believed they should have known
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of the potential dangers, so their public reassurances were either due to
ignorance or intent to deceive.
Since Father was in this ongoing fight with the AEC, before I
accepted the job, I called him and said, “Would you have a problem with
this?” And he said no, he wouldn’t. After all, this was me and this was
MS. FEIGIN: Maybe he thought you would straighten them out [laughter].
MS. SHAPIRO: I don’t think so [laughter]. His reaction was typical of his conviction that
his children should make their own life choices.
My problem was, I guess I told you about Hope, her run-in with
the U.N., and I told Jimmy Morrison that I was kind of afraid that that
might mean that I couldn’t get cleared. He said that the FBI collected the
information and passed it on to the agency for decision regarding whether
to grant the clearance. He said that the people making the security
decisions at the AEC were more reasonable than at agencies where
security wasn’t as important, so he didn’t think it would be a problem.
I’m not entirely sure they ever found out about my relation to Hope. The
AEC security people only asked me about one thing: Father had written, I
don’t know how many letters or whether just one letter, to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee during the McCarthy Era objecting to
their activities. So the AEC security people asked me what Father’s views
on Communism were. I told them he had told me once that, despite their
very different theoretical differences, in practice, there was very little
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difference between fascism and communism. So anyway, they decided
that Father’s letter didn’t make me a security risk.
MS. FEIGIN: Was the AEC the only place you considered? Did you interview other
MS. SHAPIRO: I interviewed with Hogan & Hartson, and they sent me a letter.
MS. FEIGIN: A D.C. law firm.
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes. They sent me a letter saying that they had decided to hire, I don’t
remember who it was, but it was a law professor. They had one spot and
they had given it to somebody more qualified.
MS. FEIGIN: Did you have any sense at the time, obviously your academic credentials
were stellar, but that being a woman was a factor in any of the interview
MS. SHAPIRO: I didn’t really. Wechsler recommended me to Justice Clark, and he
interviewed but didn’t hire me. Howie is convinced it was because I was a
woman. I don’t think so.
MS. FEIGIN: How about in the law firm interview?
MS. SHAPIRO: No. I don’t think so. I didn’t have any sense of that at all. Obviously, the
professor they hired was more qualified than me. I told you, didn’t I,
about George Washington, only it wasn’t George Washington, it was
Judge Washington. After we came down here, I got this call. I thought he
said, “This is George Washington,” and Howie says it must have been
Judge Washington, and I think he is right, but fortunately I didn’t say,
“And I’m Martha” [laughter]. But anyway, the person he wanted to hire
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for his clerk had dropped out and he said would I be interested, and I said,
“Well, yes, I would be very interested but let me check with the AEC first
because I have accepted a job with them and they are in the process of
clearing me.” I checked with them, and they said no they really wouldn’t
be willing to release me from my commitment to them.
MS. FEIGIN: What kind of judge was he, federal?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes, a federal district judge. But he’s not George Washington, he’s Judge
MS. FEIGIN: Could be both. Could be Judge George Washington.
MS. SHAPIRO: No [laughter]. Howie told me what his name was but I forgot.
MS. FEIGIN: You don’t sound at all bitter about that experience.
MS. SHAPIRO: No. It seemed to me entire reasonable. The AEC had already put a
substantial amount of time and money into the clearance process. They
needed me, so okay. I had told them I would do it.
MS. FEIGIN: I’m sure in part because your record was so great you had no problem, but
there were twenty women in your class. Did you have the sense other
women were having problems?
MS. SHAPIRO: The only sense that I got was from a woman in the year after us. She was
a second-year student when we were third-year students. I think she must
have been looking for a summer job after her second year, so I was on my
way out. She went down and interviewed with one of the New York
white-shoe firms, and they asked her what her typing speed was, and she
was devastated, so I was kind of patting her head. That’s the only time I
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came across overt sex discrimination. I find it hard to understand how
Justice O’Connor had such a hard time – I mean she was the top of her
class at Stanford and apparently had an awful time getting a job. Perhaps
that was the West Coast, which strikes me as a little peculiar, but I mean
that was after my job-hunting experiences. I just never faced that. Of
course, my job search was largely limited to the government, not private
practice. I told you that there were a few remarks made in law school, and
this constant question of what are you doing in law school, but I never felt
real discrimination either in law school or after. The only other time that I
kind of got that impression was when I was telling the people in the
military that I was not recommending a case for the Supreme Court or that
I was not about to do what they wanted me to do.
MS. FEIGIN: This is when you were in the SG’s office?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes. And I kind of got from them every once in a while a feeling of what
does a mere woman know about military stuff. It was never explicit, and
it was never a problem because I was telling them and they were listening,
but they didn’t like it. Nobody liked to be told no, but that’s the only time
I felt that kind of resentment. Of course there was the secretary in the
SG’s office who wouldn’t work for a woman. But again, so what?
MS. FEIGIN: The secretary said, “I won’t,” and that was okay?
MS. SHAPIRO: They got me another secretary, and she worked for one of the men in the
office. I didn’t want her working for me if she had a problem with it, for
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heaven sakes. But I never had any real feeling that life was tough because
I was a woman.
MS. FEIGIN: Before we get to what life was like at the AEC, here we are in 1955. What
was D.C. like?
MS. SHAPIRO: Well, I guess it was a small town. We didn’t have a car. We were in
Mt. Pleasant, and there’s a hill. My geography is terrible, but on the 4th of
July, we used to go down and sit on the hill. Was it in Meridian Park?
Could have been. We watched the fireworks on the Mall. We got a good
view of the fireworks from there.
We didn’t go out to eat much. We decided we couldn’t afford
butter, so we didn’t get butter. We couldn’t afford coffee, so we had tea.
Once we went out to the Hot Shoppes nearby and didn’t have enough
money to pay for it [laughter], so Howie left me as security and went
home and borrowed some money from the landlord who was on the first
floor [laughter]. We were poor, but we knew it was temporary.
MS. FEIGIN: When you say you didn’t have a car, we should say for people who won’t
know this, D.C. didn’t have a metro system then.
MS. SHAPIRO: No, but D.C. had a trolley, and we used the trolley. The trolley would take
us from where we were in Mt. Pleasant down to Federal Triangle.
MS. FEIGIN: D.C. must have been quite segregated.
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes, it was. Mt. Pleasant, I guess now it’s mostly Hispanic and black, but
in those days, it certainly was not a wealthy neighborhood, but it was
mostly white, I think, as far as I remember. We didn’t have air
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conditioning. Howie went to work before he passed the bar. He went to
work in June, right after we took the bar exam. He wasn’t working when
we took the exam. Right after we took the bar exam, he started working at
Justice as a law clerk, as a GS-5, and I was still waiting around to get
cleared. When Howie went off to work, I would go down to the National
Gallery of Art and sit in their air conditioned waiting room and write
letters or read or whatever just to enjoy the air conditioning [laughter].
And then when he left work, we would come home together. It worked
out just fine. It was kind of a small town. Although it was segregated, I
wasn’t particularly aware of it.
MS. FEIGIN: Weren’t some of the stores, lunch counters, drugstores segregated?
MS. SHAPIRO: Probably, but I wasn’t particularly aware of what was going on. Later,
when I was working for the AEC in Germantown, one of the people in our
small group of four friends was black. One of the places that people went
for lunch was supposed to be segregated. So the four of us went to this
place for lunch, ready and waiting to be outraged, but it was fine. Nobody
said anything, and we were served without incident. But that’s all I really
remember about the segregation stuff. It makes me sound very kind of out
of it, but it really didn’t impact. I didn’t run up against it. I was busy with
what I was busy with without really being particularly conscious of what
was going on around me.
MS. FEIGIN: Did it feel like a Southern town?
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MS. SHAPIRO: No. Well, it clearly wasn’t as cosmopolitan as New York. The restaurants
had no idea what bagels were [laughter]. One of my favorite stories which
is later than this actually, it was after we moved to Bethesda. A friend of
mine came to town on a visit and while my older son was taking his drum
lesson, we wanted to find a place where we could sit and have a coffee,
just sit and talk. There wasn’t any place in Bethesda where you could do
that. Not one place.
MS. FEIGIN: And now there are thousands.
MS. SHAPIRO: Thousands. Yes. Absolutely. And that’s the other story. Howie went to
work, as I say, and I was sitting at home. He was in the Honors Program,
and there was I think one woman in the Honors Program, Helen Buckley,
and she said she couldn’t quite figure out this guy with a wedding ring.
He kept standing next to her, making conversation, and what was this all
about. And finally Howie said to her, “Would you come home and meet
my wife?” [laughter]. Howie had figured that I needed a friend.
MS. FEIGIN: That’s sweet.
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes, it was sweet. And it worked. We got together once a week in the
evening and sewed. She lived up in a slightly better neighborhood than
we did. And we’ve been friends ever since. She likes to remember, and I
like to remember, that Howie brought her home to me.
MS. FEIGIN: And last thing before we get to the AEC, just because you said he was in
the Honors Program at the Justice Department, any early DOJ stuff that
we should recount?
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MS. SHAPIRO: He started out in the Civil General Lit Section and went from there to
Civil Appellate, and then he went to Antitrust, and he ended up as Chief of
the Appellate Section in Antitrust, and the benefit of that for me was that I
never had to work on any antitrust stuff. I find it incredibly boring
MS. FEIGIN: Was Justice a very different place in the 1950s?
MS. SHAPIRO: I don’t know. I do know from talking to Alan [Rosenthal] that Civil
Appellate had a much smaller staff. Outside the government, Jews had a
fairly hard time. They were discriminated against in law firms ─ or I
guess there were Jewish law firms and non-Jewish law firms ─ so what
happened was that the Justice Department got these incredibly good
lawyers. Oscar Davis, for instance. He was absolutely my hero.
MS. FEIGIN: Why was he your hero?
MS. SHAPIRO: I guess I must have told you, he was the First Deputy in the Solicitor
MS. FEIGIN: You met with him when you came to D.C. in law school.
MS. SHAPIRO: Right. He sat us down and talked with us. That was the first time I met
him or knew anything about him. He was a wonderful man. Not only
incredibly bright, but really just a great man.
MS. FEIGIN: Did you get to know him?
MS. SHAPIRO: A little bit, yes. He left before I came to the Justice Department, of
course. The other person that was there who was also one of my heroes
was Bea Rosenberg who was in the Criminal Division. Oscar Davis and
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Bea Rosenberg were really good friends. Those are the two that come to
mind automatically, but there was a whole cadre of top-notch Jewish
lawyers in Justice, just because that was where they could get an
interesting job. And I think that perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent, that
was also true of women, perhaps somewhat later. You got these really
good women because they were accepted on an equal basis, and if they
were competing on an equal basis, they got the job.
MS. FEIGIN: So at some point your clearance came through. How long did that take?
MS. SHAPIRO: I don’t remember exactly. Some time in the late summer.
MS. FEIGIN: What was it like to be at a new agency? What position did you have?
MS. SHAPIRO: Interesting. The lawyers in the General Counsel’s Office were assigned to
particular divisions. I was a junior lawyer assigned to the Civilian
Applications Division working under Bob Lowenstein, the senior lawyer
for that Division.
MS. FEIGIN: What did that work involve?
MS. SHAPIRO: The Division of Civilian Applications was developing standards for the
licensing of nuclear reactors. There were lots of regulations to be written,
particularly safety regulations. We worked closely with the technical
people in developing those regulations.
MS. FEIGIN: You had no background in any of this, I suppose, right?
MS. SHAPIRO: None.
MS. FEIGIN: So you just immersed yourself or became immersed?
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MS. SHAPIRO: Yes, I did. What I found fairly quickly was that some of these experts
could explain things, and some of them just couldn’t talk in English
[laughter]. It’s true of my son, the computer expert. He can’t speak
English. I cannot understand any of the technical problems that excite
him. He tries to explain them, and he just can’t. That’s the number one
son. The number two son is pretty good at explaining the technical details
of his job. Anyway, at the AEC I found somebody who could talk in ways
that I could understand, and he kind of gave me some lessons.
MS. FEIGIN: Was there a sense of mission in this new field? What was it like?
MS. SHAPIRO: Oh yes, there was. Certainly there was the notion that atomic energy was
the wave of the future, and one of the things the technical people were
working on very hard, and they were always just on the point of finding,
was commercially useful fusion energy because it would not involve the
risks of splitting the atom. Instead, you would be getting energy out of
basically water. This was what was always just down the road and almost,
almost, we’re getting there, but it hasn’t happened yet.
MS. FEIGIN: What about things like the Rosenberg trial?
MS. SHAPIRO: That was before I came to the AEC. We published a controversial note in
the Law Review. Howie always said that the note should have started,
“Sss boom bah! went the atomic bomb” [laughter]. After criticizing
several aspects of the trial, we concluded, as I remember it, that the
Rosenbergs were innocent, but her brother was guilty. There was a whole
big uproar when the Law School administration learned of our proposed
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note. Dean Warren, the dean of the Law School, called me into his office
and explained carefully to me that we really ought to back off on this
because it would upset the alumni and interfere with the Law School’s
MS. FEIGIN: So did you back off?
MS. SHAPIRO: No. Of course not. We believed fiercely that one of the missions of the
Law Review was to shake things up [laughter]. We were kind of young
Turks. We certainly weren’t going to take any directions from the
administration; we were independent [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: I can’t imagine what it would be like at the dawn of a new field, writing
the rules that are going to govern it for all time you think.
MS. SHAPIRO: It was fun. I did enjoy it, but I don’t really remember having this feeling
of being a pathfinder. The only time I really got that feeling of “my god,
it’s just me doing this,” was in the SG’s office, when I was writing a
memo, an appeal recommendation on a First Amendment case, and I
realized that what I thought about the First Amendment really mattered!
Oh, how can that be? And that’s the only time I really remember feeling,
“wow.” Otherwise, you did your job.
MS. FEIGIN: How long were you there?
MS. SHAPIRO: I was at the AEC from the fall of 1955 until the agency headquarters
moved out to Germantown, Maryland, which I think was in 1957. I didn’t
want to drive all the way out there.
MS. FEIGIN: You were still living in Mt. Pleasant?
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MS. SHAPIRO: Either there, or in an unfurnished apartment near Catholic University, to
which we moved at about that same time. Charles was born in 1958, and
we were in the apartment. Anyway, I decided I wasn’t going to go all the
way out to Germantown, so I went to the Justice Department in the Office
of Legal Counsel.
MS. FEIGIN: This was after the baby was born?
MS. SHAPIRO: No, before. And I was there for about a year until Charles was born.
Then like a good 1950s mother, I believed that when you have a child, you
stay home with that child.
MS. FEIGIN: Was that an issue for you?
MS. SHAPIRO: No. There was no question in my mind; it was simply a given – of course
my job was now to be a stay-at-home mother. So I stayed home, and it
was okay. I sort of missed my job, but I was a new mother so that was
fine. Then the second child came [laughter]. I dearly love my children, I
really do love my children, but Charles was born in February 1958, Alfred
was born in March of 1960, so they are basically two years apart. Staying
home with the children was still reasonably doable until Alfred got on his
feet, and this poor kid, he was just kind of toddling around, and he would
interfere with something that Charles was doing, and Charles, being about
3 or 4 years old, would whop him. I spent the whole darn day trying to
persuade Charles that it was not all right to hit your brother [laughter]. It
was a struggle, it was a real struggle. And then Howie would come home,
and I would be just dying for adult conversation, and Howie had had a
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hard day at work. He was tired of talking; he wasn’t dying for adult
conversation. It was a struggle. It was a real struggle, until finally we
both decided that it really wasn’t doing the kids any particular good to
have me tear my hair out.
About that time, a friend who worked at the NIH told me that the
NIH wanted a compilation of state laws regarding property rights in dead
bodies. It was important for NIH to get body parts fresh, really fresh, so
they needed to know who had the authority to authorize the taking of parts
from a cadaver. That right was governed, of course, by state law, and so
they wanted a compilation of state laws regarding property rights in dead
bodies. That was a perfect project for me. We had moved up to
Glenbrook Village, which is right below Naval Medical and close to NIH,
when Charles was a year old. So I went over to the library for a few hours
a week. This was enough to give me a chance to use my head and to work
without the interruptions of caring for two young and very active children.
MS. FEIGIN: Let’s pick up on the part-time work for a second. Was that an unusual
thing, to be able to work part-time?
MS. SHAPIRO: I was like a contractor employee. I think they were paying for the product
rather than the hours, although I really don’t remember what the financial
arrangement was. Working part-time wasn’t a problem. NIH wanted a
specific product, and I wasn’t looking for a permanent position. It could
have been a problem when I went back to the AEC, but that’s another
story. I started the NIH project in the summer, so at first I had a babysitter
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who was a high school student on vacation, with her mother as an
unofficial backup. The following fall was the first time I hired an adult to
stay with the kids. I went to the state employment office, and the first
person I hired was awful. It’s hard interviewing somebody and trying to
figure out is this somebody you want to leave your kids with. I was just
right down the street, but still.
MS. FEIGIN: It’s a big responsibility.
MS. SHAPIRO: It’s a big responsibility, and it’s a big delegation that you’re making. I
guess probably by that time Alfred must have been about three, and
Charles was two years older. With my first child, I didn’t realize that you
had to make arrangements for pre-kindergarten early on, so by the time I
woke up to the fact that Charles was about to be ready to go to prekindergarten, there weren’t many options. Fortunately, there was still a
place at Green Acres School, so we sent him there. Do you know
MS. FEIGIN: I know of it.
MS. SHAPIRO: It was then, and I think it probably still is, quite a progressive place. Their
basic philosophy was that the students were delicate little blossoms that
had to be cherished, which was fine, especially in pre-kindergarten.
Charles really enjoyed going to school, and the bus came and picked him
up at the door and dropped him off after school, while I was busily
checking all the state laws and cases on disposing of dead bodies.
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MS. FEIGIN: We should say again for people down the road that there was no Lexis or
anything like that in those days, so this research was a major project. It
wasn’t just pushing a button.
MS. SHAPIRO: No, no. The way I learned to do research was that you get a book down
from the shelf and you read the case. That’s the way I know how to do
research. There were some wonderful old cases. One of the standard
ways that this issue came up was when descendants were fighting over
which cemetery the body should be put in. Many states had statutes that
are relevant, but a lot of them didn’t. Anyway, I kept at it. I did it.
MS. FEIGIN: It sounds like you found it interesting.
MS. SHAPIRO: Oh, I did find it fascinating, not simply because I could sit quietly and do
what I was supposed to be doing, using my head [laughter]. Then, as I
finished that project, Bob Lowenstein, with whom I had worked at the
AEC, called me up and said, “I understand you’re working part-time, how
about coming back and working at the AEC part-time?” By that time, of
course, we were halfway out to Germantown because instead of being in
downtown Washington, we were in Bethesda.
MS. FEIGIN: Halfway toward the new location?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes. And I guess we must have had two cars by then. Anyway, I said
sure, I would be interested. It was unusual then for women to be working
part-time, but by a piece of dumb luck, the wife of the General Counsel of
the AEC at that time was a doctor who worked part-time, so he was
perfectly comfortable with that idea
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MS. FEIGIN: What does part-time mean? How much did you work?
MS. SHAPIRO: My schedule was complicated, but it worked out to two full work days a
week, two part-time work days when I picked the boys up from school,
and one day a week, Friday, when I didn’t go to work. It worked out to a
little more than three days a week. By that time, both of the boys were at
Green Acres, and we were in a morning carpool. They still took the
school bus home. The way it worked was that I worked mornings when
they were in school, and then two days a week I picked them up from
school, one day a week they went home on the bus, and one day, Friday, I
didn’t work. So Friday mornings were my time to catch up on everything
more easily done without the distraction of the children, mainly grocery
shopping, and other errands.
MS. FEIGIN: When you went to the AEC, this was as an employee, not as a contractor?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes. A part-time employee. Actually, at first Alfred was still too young
for full-day school. By that time, we had a good caretaker for the boys
who was there when I wasn’t. Alfred would wake up in the morning and
know by whether I had on my “staying clothes” or “going clothes,” when
it was Friday. On Friday, he would say, “What are we going to do today
that’s special and fun?” [laughter]. Sometimes I could get away with
going to the food store being special and fun, but not very often. I think
we went bowling sometimes, but it was usually just something we did
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MS. FEIGIN: Were you a groundbreaker? Were you the first person in the agency to do
MS. SHAPIRO: I don’t know. Maybe.
MS. FEIGIN: Were there other women lawyers at the agency?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes. One of them, Katy Shea, was in the group I hung out with. So was
Bill Stewart, the black guy we desegregated the restaurant with. So there
was at least one other woman. They weren’t particularly common.
MS. FEIGIN: What were you doing this time at the AEC?
MS. SHAPIRO: This was the time that I was working with the Classification Division. We
spent a lot of time trying to avoid overclassification, trying to be sure that
only documents that actually merited it were classified and that they
merited the classification given. Again, that involved the careful drafting
of regulations. And certainly at this time everybody was still thinking
fusion was just coming down the road. Then John Palfrey, from Columbia
Law School, came down to be a commissioner at the AEC. Howie had
had him at Columbia, I hadn’t. He asked me to be his special assistant,
and that was what I did for several years.
MS. FEIGIN: What did that involve?
MS. SHAPIRO: Doing whatever it took to keep him up to speed. He was one of two
lawyer commissioners, so he was mainly interested in the legal issues. My
job was to act as a filter for him, identifying issues that deserved his
attention and making sure that he was on top of whatever legal issues there
were, and providing help as requested. Commissioner Palfrey had two
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secretaries, and I supervised them. I did once lose a top-secret document
and that was big . . . .
MS. FEIGIN: Did it get found?
MS. SHAPIRO: No, I don’t think so [laughter]. The top-secret documents periodically got
destroyed when they were no longer needed. The destruction process was
very complicated and required careful documentation of each top-secret
paper destroyed. I was responsible for signing the document certifying
destruction. The loss turned up in a regular top-secret document review
shortly after we’d destroyed a number of top-secret documents. I’m
convinced that what happened was that I just slipped up and didn’t sign
off on the certification document when that one got destroyed properly.
MS. FEIGIN: Was it a problem?
MS. SHAPIRO: Oh yes, it was a big problem. The security people came around, very
upset. “What do you remember about the circumstances, what was this,
and whoa, wow” [laughter]. They weren’t very confrontational, at least
they didn’t accuse me of intentional wrongdoing.
MS. FEIGIN: Any repercussions for you?
MS. SHAPIRO: No, though the incident probably went into my personnel file. It was a
top-secret document, but it wasn’t anything the Russians would be
particularly interested in as far as I could tell.
After several years in which, working part-time, I was
Commissioner Palfrey’s sole Special Assistant, he finally hired an
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additional assistant, a scientist. From then on, he had two of us, but for a
long time it was just me, and it worked.
MS. FEIGIN: Did you work on anything of note that you’d like to comment on?
MS. SHAPIRO: I don’t think so.
MS. FEIGIN: How long did you stay there?
MS. SHAPIRO: I stayed until the end of Palfrey’s term as commissioner. I don’t know
how long that term was, maybe five years, maybe seven. Then I went
back to the General Counsel’s office, and I was there for maybe two or
three years, until I went to the SG’s office. My father died while I was
still at the AEC General Counsel’s office.
MS. FEIGIN: We’ll probably get to the SG’s office the next time because that starts a
whole new chapter, so let me just ask about your father’s death. Was that
MS. SHAPIRO: No. He had cancer. He was a smoker, but his death was really traumatic
for me. As far as that goes, it’s the only time that I have ever suffered the
death of somebody who was really close. Until then, I hadn’t realized that
when somebody like that dies, a whole part of you dies. The part that was
me in relation to my father is just gone. It felt like a glacier losing a large
piece of itself. But no, it was not unexpected.
One very precious memory is when I went to California to take
care of him. Mother had an undiagnosed ruptured appendix and Father
was pretty clueless domestically. Our children were about 8 and 10 so
Howie could manage at home. I just picked up and left for however long
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it took for Mother to get home.
We had a wonderful time. My household chores were nothing
compared to my usual schedule. Father’s cancer was painful, but he was
still fully functional. He was in a reminiscent mood so I learned a lot
about his childhood. We were a great team at solving crossword puzzles.
It was just a nice time, though it was the last time I saw my father. He was
suffering, so it was a good thing that he finally managed to get out of it.
My mother and younger brother were there. He died in the night, and they
were there the night before. Helen Buckley was out there and had visited
him. She called me and said, “You better get out here.” So Bill and I
were on our way out to California when he died. These things happen.
MS. FEIGIN: When we start next time we’ll start with a happy period in your life and a
really productive period of your life which is of course the SG’s Office.
MS. SHAPIRO: I’m sure I’m going to have holes in my memory there.
MS. FEIGIN: We’ll fill them in. You’ll remember. Thank you so much, Harriet.
ORAL HISTORY OF HARRIET SHAPIRO