ORAL HISTORY OF HARRIET SHAPIRO
October 10, 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, October 10, 2012. This is the seventh interview.
MS. FEIGIN: Good morning, Harriet.
MS. SHAPIRO: Good morning, Judy.
MS. FEIGIN: We basically have covered your career, and what I want to ask you before
we move on to the more personal part of your life is when you retired,
what was the precipitating event and how did it come to be?
MS. SHAPIRO: I could tell you my cover story [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: [Laughter] Okay, we’ll start with that.
MS. SHAPIRO: I had said before the Bush/Gore election that if Bush won, I was quitting.
I had been through several Republican administrations. I just didn’t
particularly want to go through another one. So when Gore lost, I
submitted my resignation.
I made something of a mistake. I told Seth Waxman that I would
stay on until he left, so that meant that by the time I got the document that
you get when you leave, instead of it being signed by Janet Reno, it was
signed by her successor, John Ashcroft. And I would have loved to have
had one signed by Janet Reno.
My cover story was partly true; that was the precipitating event,
but by that time, I was beginning to feel kind of tired, ready to have a little
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more time to myself, and also I felt that I was getting beyond my peak,
that it was really time for me to cash it in.
MS. FEIGIN: How many years had you been there at that point?
MS. SHAPIRO: I started in 1971, and that was 2001, and that was long enough. It really
was fun. I enjoyed it. But when you get through, you get through.
MS. FEIGIN: Do you miss it?
MS. SHAPIRO: I miss the people. I miss the wonderful feeling when – there’s a time
when you’re doing a brief, revising a brief that really doesn’t work, and
you look at it and you kind of punch it a little bit and think about it, and all
of a sudden – mostly – there comes a time when you think, Oh, that’s the
way to approach it, or that’s the way I want to do it. And that’s a
wonderful feeling. I miss the people, most of them. It was time to quit. It
was clearly time to quit.
I don’t regret quitting. I kind of regret – well, I think that it’s very
important, and I think this is what Howie is worried about too, you need
not to just quit. You need to go on to something else, go on to something
new that is intellectually engaging, and I really didn’t do that. I just
stopped. I was really very surprised at how uncomfortable it was after I
stopped to realize that if I didn’t do something today, I could do it
tomorrow. It didn’t really make any difference in the larger sense of
things whether I did anything at all. This feeling that you’re no longer
contributing to society. I don’t know, that sounds a little bit high flown,
but it’s a very unhappy, uncomfortable feeling. Maybe it’s just my
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New England ancestry, but it took quite a long time for me to adjust my
self-image to, okay, I’ve done what I’m going to do in life and just relax
and enjoy the rest of it. I still, every once in a while, have this dream in
which I am trying to decide what I’m going to do in life, and what is it that
I really want to do. It’s not a happy dream. I have to figure out what I’m
going to do. So I guess that’s sort of the same feeling at the beginning as
at the end of a career.
MS. FEIGIN: I do know that you’ve done things since you retired that contribute to
MS. SHAPIRO: Well, yes, but it took me quite a long time to figure out what I wanted to
do. I really was tired, so for a while, okay, you just kind of sit there and
pant. But you can’t go on like that for very long. I think I have pretty
well adjusted now. Good God, I better have [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: What is it that you do that contributes?
MS. SHAPIRO: What I’ve recently been doing, for the past year or so, is working with the
Montgomery County Literacy Council. I’ve got a student I’m tutoring in
English and literacy. That’s fun. She’s bright, she’s very enthusiastic.
She wants to learn, which is the whole secret of the process. We get
together two hours a week. She’s going through a workbook provided by
the Literacy Council. The Council gives its tutors a lot of support. It’s
satisfying. It’s useful work. That’s the main thing I’m doing. I did
Reading for the Blind when we were down in Chevy Chase and the place
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was fairly near. I went over an hour a week and read textbooks and that
kind of thing.
MS. FEIGIN: For recordings?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes, recordings. I also do a little volunteer work upstairs on the 7th floor
where they have the assisted living. I go up there and read poetry for half
an hour a week, which is fun. I get a very positive reaction from a small
group of regulars.
MS. FEIGIN: Is poetry one of your passions?
MS. SHAPIRO: It hasn’t been until lately. They wanted volunteers to read, and I tried
reading short stories, and that didn’t work at all.
MS. FEIGIN: Why not?
MS. SHAPIRO: Because I think their attention span is a little too short, maybe. Up there,
there are all kinds of people, either physically or mentally sort of beyond
it. I don’t know, maybe the short stories I picked weren’t right for them. I
finally started out with Ogden Nash, and that was good. That worked, and
we moved on. Are you a Garrison Keillor fan?
MS. FEIGIN: No, I am not, except that I love The Writer’s Almanac.
MS. SHAPIRO: Precisely. I usually check The Writer’s Almanac, and often they have a
poem that I think, okay, that’s a good one. They’re not high-flown. I
don’t go in for high-flown poems, for these people or for me either. We
do Robert Frost, which I suppose can be high-flown, but he doesn’t have
to be. Billy Collins is one of my absolute favorites. I bring a bunch of
poems, and I read two or three, and then other people up there read too,
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which took quite a while to develop, but they’re doing it now, and I think
that’s a large part of what we should be doing, trying to encourage
participation, and to provide a little entertainment in their lives. So that’s
been useful. And the other thing that I’ve done is work with the library
committee. People donate books when they move from their houses, and
we go through them and decide whether we want to give them shelf space.
MS. FEIGIN: The library here at Ingleside?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes, the library here at Ingleside, and I have primary responsibility for the
library on the 7th floor. There isn’t much effort in it, but I like books.
MS. FEIGIN: What are you reading right now?
MS. SHAPIRO: I just finished this one, which I’m not sure I like. It’s Julian Barnes, On
the Sense of an Ending. It’s a very New Yorker-ish kind of story.
MS. FEIGIN: Are you a fiction or non-fiction reader?
MS. SHAPIRO: Mostly fiction. Historical fiction sometimes. Judy, I’m not basically an
intellectual [laughter]. Really, I’m not.
MS. FEIGIN: I think you probably are, but whether or not you are, you obviously have
varied interests, and reading is not limited to intellectuals [laughter]. I
know there’s another part of you that you haven’t shared with us. I
learned from your friend Helen that you have a secret life as a hooker.
MS. SHAPIRO: [Laughter]. Yes. I started hooking a good many years ago, in about 1963
when we moved into our new house. We had a big living room. We
never had had a big living room before, and I just didn’t know how to deal
with it, so a friend of mine who was an interior decorator said she would
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help. When we got to the end of the process, she said that we should put
either an Oriental rug or a hooked rug in front of the fireplace.
MS. FEIGIN: I can see how the decision was made [laughter].
MS. SHAPIRO: Exactly so. I figured I’m not going to buy an Oriental rug. So I went to
an adult education class on rug hooking in Chevy Chase, D.C., and
hooking turned out to be something that I really enjoy doing. It’s simple.
All you do is pull up loops of wool through backing. I can’t draw for
beans, but with rug hooking, you either buy a pattern or you can draw a
pattern or make geometric designs. Anyway, you put a pattern on a
backing and then you hook into it to make the design. You copy the
pattern in the wool. A large part of the process is working out the colors
MS. FEIGIN: Do you design your own?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes, mostly. I get the images off of Google if I’m going to use images.
The one out there now is a series of shapes developed after I went to a
St. Louis rug camp.
MS. FEIGIN: “Out there” being on a shelf in the hallway.
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes. I go to a lot of rug camps, the most recent one was with a bunch of
friends in St. Louis, and I asked each of them to draw me a shape. So I
collected about 18 shapes, and I put them all on the mat. The shelf out
there is 30” by 12”, so I put them as overlapping shapes on the backing
and hooked them in different colors. To me, anyway, it’s a memento of
the St. Louis hookers [laughter].
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MS. FEIGIN: So you’re a rug rat [laughter].
MS. SHAPIRO: I’m a rug rat [laughter]. Originally, one of the things that was so great
about the rug camps was that when I was working, I was in a largely male
environment with deadlines and intellectual rigor, and it was really very
nice to go off for a week with a bunch of women with whom I didn’t have
anything much in common except this one interest, which was enough.
You’d sit there and you would be hooking along, which doesn’t take all
that much thought, so the conversation would flow, and these were
women, middle-aged and beyond, and the interesting lives these people
had had would come out, and it was a very relaxed kind of female
environment. It was lovely.
MS. FEIGIN: And you still do it.
MS. SHAPIRO: I still do it, yes. It isn’t the change of pace that it was then, but by now,
these people, a lot of them, are my friends that I’ve known forever. We
are different, but in a lot of ways we’re the same. Anyway, it’s a very
broadening and enriching kind of experience, and I really enjoy it.
MS. FEIGIN: Tell us a little bit about your family, because we haven’t really heard
much about the children.
MS. SHAPIRO: My children are absolutely perfect. As are everybody’s, I suppose.
MS. FEIGIN: In Lake Wobegon.
MS. SHAPIRO: Right. Charles was born in 1958. He’s 54. Charles has always been an
original. I’ll tell you his hobbies, and you can see. He juggles. He also
rides a unicycle while juggling. He did that in the Chicago Thanksgiving
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parade last year. He fences. He uses a bullwhip. More conventionally, he
gardens (vegetables, not flowers), makes beer, and plays the recorder. I
hate to say he’s just a computer programmer because he’s a computer
programmer who supervises other computer programmers. He’s very
enthusiastic about his work. Our problem is that neither Howie nor I can
understand what the heck he’s talking about when he starts enthusing
about something concerning his work. It’s just a complete foreign
He’s finally got the job that is absolutely ideal for him, I think. It’s
a small company, and what they’re doing is rationalizing, consolidating
the addresses in various cities. They’re looking at a big job now in the
Virgin Islands. Apparently in the Virgin Islands the first house on the
block to be built is number one, the second house, no matter where it is, is
number two, the third house is number three, so the address doesn’t
indicate the location of the house. I was kind of startled to know that
that’s also the case here in the United States – the street address may not
give you the location – and multiple maps (e.g., of various utilities and
city functions) may not agree. But once Charles’ company gets through
with rationalizing your system, everything correlates, and addresses are
accurately located. So if you fall off the roof and you call 911 and give
them the address, emergency responders can go there immediately without
any delay in trying to find you. Creating a single accurate map city-bycity is an interesting computer challenge. It may even be possible, Charles
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thinks (if I understand him), for him to develop a generally applicable
Charles is married. His wife Judy is a financial planner; she
mostly does tax work. She and I are both sewers – she makes elegant
quilts. His step-daughter was, and I guess she still is, a pilot, though she
sold her airplane. She’s in St. Louis working for the Defense Mapping
Agency. As I say, Charles is and always has been unconventional
[laughter], which is fine with his family. He thinks for himself. I don’t
always agree with the conclusions he reaches. He’s got distinct libertarian
tendencies, which slightly bugs his parents [laughter]. Maybe that’s what
it’s designed to do.
Then there’s Alfred, who is in Richmond. He is not married. He
is a TV cameraman, particularly interested in lighting. Charles is in
Atlanta, and he’s very busy. Alfred is in Richmond, much closer, and he
is self-employed so he comes up here regularly. I get into a tangle with
our computer, and Alfred comes and straightens me out. Charles says, “I
don’t do Windows.” He hates Windows, but Alfred patiently helps me
MS. FEIGIN: You’re talking to a woman whose daughter-in-law works for Microsoft.
Those are fighting words to me [laughter].
MS. SHAPIRO: Charles would be happy to fight [laughter]. He does all these other
languages, whatever they are. Linux, I think. Lexis is the law one and
Linux is the computer language, open source.
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Alfred went to Reed College and majored in English and drama,
and when he got back home he was in Little Theatre for a while. He’s got
a good eye. When he was about 10 or 11, he said that what he wanted for
Christmas was a good camera and that’s all he wanted. So I took him at
his word, and after Christmas, we went down to the camera store
downtown, and Alfred got into a serious discussion with the salesman
about what kind of a used camera he wanted. He had researched it, and he
knew just what kind of a camera he wanted. So he got a really good
camera. He made himself a darkroom in the basement and started playing
with photography. It was kind of a natural development from there. He
got himself a video camera when he got out of college. He went around
for a while shooting weddings and making videos for his friends who had
bands. He would shoot a tape of the band that they could take around and
show to people. Eventually he went off to North Carolina and got a job at
a TV studio. I thought well, okay, he’s all safely settled, and it turned out
his first day there, they said that somebody’s been holding hostages and go
and shoot it. Alfred drove over, hoping that the cops got there first
[laughter]. They did. But he’s never had a desk job. He has always been
out shooting. Alfred is also the one who is the caretaker of the Sturtevant
summer house in Woods Hole, on Cape Cod.
I should tell you the two most important things I did for my
children. Charles was dyslexic. He had a rough childhood. He was a
bright boy and very verbal, so he hit first grade with great enthusiasm, but
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he couldn’t learn to read. He saw all these other kids getting it, and he
didn’t get it, and the psychological effect was terrible. I tried teaching
him, and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the patience. “Damn it, child, you
know that word!” He couldn’t tell time. He had a terrible time tying his
shoelaces. His grandfather looked at him once and said, “You know, that
child is nonbidextrous.” And he was [laughter]. Finally one summer, we
were down at Nags Head, and Howie spent half an hour every day with
him, and Charles finally cracked the code. He was going to Green Acres,
a local private school, and they did not let him sit in the back, which he
would have gladly done, just sit in the back and dream. But he finally
cracked the code. Shortly thereafter, we visited friends of ours in a hotel,
and as we were going down the hall in the hotel, Charles stopped to read
the instructions on the fire extinguisher. Anything. Any written language,
Charles was right there reading it.
MS. FEIGIN: I imagine dyslexia, when he was a young boy, was not a readily diagnosed
MS. SHAPIRO: No. Charles wrote a letter to his grandmother once, before we really had
realized how bad his problem was, and he brought me this letter and told
me to put it in an envelope. So I put it in an envelope without looking at it
and sent it off to her. She wrote me back, “Do something about that
child!” [Laughter] His b’s and d’s were absolutely confused. He’d rub
things out because he knew they were wrong, but he still couldn’t get them
right even when he wore a hole in the paper. His words kind of went this
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way and that way, just totally illegible. It was perfectly clear that there
was something wrong. He did eventually figure it out. But his
handwriting has always been awful.
The best thing I did for that child was I decided he had to learn to
use the typewriter, and I also decided I was not going to nag him about it.
What he most wanted in the world was a metal detector, so I told him in
the beginning of the summer, when he was about 12: “Okay, if you learn
to type well enough so you’re a competent typist, I will get you a metal
detector.” That was when I really realized he had iron in his soul because
that whole damn summer – I don’t think we had air conditioning then
either – I would hear this tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. He was sitting upstairs
working on the typewriter. I didn’t have to say a thing to him. I think he
knew that he needed to learn how to use it, but also, he wanted that metal
detector. And he got the metal detector.
MS. FEIGIN: Good! [Laughter.]
MS. SHAPIRO: The advantage of that was that it meant that he could submit his written
work so that his teachers could read it. He had a terrible time with math
because he couldn’t get the lines straight, and if you can’t get the lines
straight, you can’t do addition, you can’t do subtraction, you can’t do
multiplication or division. All these things just were a closed book,
although he does have a good mathematical sense. When I was trying to
help him with his homework, I could see that he understood the concepts.
For example, he understood positive and negative numbers without any
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trouble. The concepts weren’t the problem, it was just the mechanics of it.
When he went to college, computers were just coming in. Carlton had a
computer room where they had a few computers for the students. Charles
knew how to type, so the keyboard was not a hurdle, and he understood
what was going on. When he said how much he enjoyed the computer, I
said, “But Charles, you have trouble with math,” and he said to me,
“Mother, you don’t need to know how to run in order to drive a car,” and
that was exactly what it was. He finally had the car that he could drive,
and so this whole world opened up to him, and that was what I did for
MS. FEIGIN: And for Alfred?
MS. SHAPIRO: For Alfred, when he got out of college, he came home and got himself a
TV camera and was using it to record events for his friends. I saw in one
of these throw-away magazines they have in the drugstores about free
classes that there was a class on how to commercialize your TV
experience. That class taught him a lot. They had a darkroom he could
use. They taught him how to edit and told him that what he needed was to
have a demonstration tape to take around to show to potential employers.
So that course really opened up to him the way to make a living out of the
video camera. So that’s what I did for my kids.
MS. FEIGIN: That’s terrific. We’ve heard about Howie during the course of your
career. Is there anything you want to add to that discussion?
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MS. SHAPIRO: Howie is absolutely the mainstay of my life, and he has always been. His
support is something I’ve always known I can count on. Howie’s line is
that he is the cute one, and I am the smart one [laughter], which is
absolutely absurd. He certainly is cute [laughter], but he is at least as
smart as I am.
MS. FEIGIN: Howie is still working, correct?
MS. SHAPIRO: He is still working and only partly because he doesn’t know what he wants
to do when he retires. It’s really because he enjoys working. He’s good at
it, and he really gets a kick out of solving interesting legal problems. I
think that he is very valuable to his firm.
Howie started out in the Justice Department, and first he was in
General Litigation and then he was in Civil Appellate, then he went to
Antitrust Appellate where he spent most of his career at the Justice
Department. For a short time, he went up to the Solicitor General’s Office
while I was there. He had been Assistant Chief in Antitrust Appellate, and
it really didn’t sit too well with him to be an Indian in the Solicitor
General’s Office after that. He did perfectly fine, but he wanted to be a
boss again, and so he went over to the Federal Energy Commission as
Solicitor, which meant he was in charge of the agency’s litigation. He
then went to the Federal Trade Commission as Deputy General Counsel,
where he stayed until he got a general counsel he didn’t get along with.
So Howie retired from the government and went to work for Van Ness
Feldman, which is a small energy firm in Washington, where he has been
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very happy. It’s been a very good fit, and I think that he is particularly
useful to them. Obviously he’s a very good lawyer, but he’s particularly
useful to them because he has a depth of antitrust experience which other
people in the firm really don’t have. Most of them have a variety of
environmental and regulatory specialties. There are antitrust problems
lurking around in energy work, and if Howie hadn’t worked on the
controlling case, he certainly knows about it, and he can find it. The other
thing about Howie is that he is, and always has been from the time we
were in law school, an ace researcher. He has carried that over from when
we were in law school paging through books to now. If it’s there, he’ll
find it, which is a useful talent. He’s also good at supervising less
MS. FEIGIN: The other thing I hear about Howie is he’s a physical fitness guy.
MS. SHAPIRO: Oh yes, he’s a physical fitness guy, which is great. It’s a tremendous
stress release for him. If he can’t exercise, why his mood goes right down
the tubes. And of course he quite correctly keeps telling me that I should
exercise more. I get kind of tired of hearing that, but he’s right so I can’t
object too much [laughter]. I don’t know what I would do without Howie.
MS. FEIGIN: Before we end this session, your career has spanned a long time and
you’ve seen enormous changes, especially for women, and I wonder what
advice you would give a young woman starting out today.
MS. SHAPIRO: My first piece of advice would be to be starting out at least 30 years
earlier. The field now is so crowded. The other advice, which would also
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be too late to give, is to go to the very best law school you possibly can get
into, and by best, I mean most prestigious. Particularly if you want to
work in New York, Washington, Philadelphia probably, anywhere along
the Northeast Coast, you really need to go to one of the top law schools to
have much of a chance of getting a good position after you graduate. And
the other thing, again, which would also be too late, is once you get into
the best law school you can get into, work as hard as you possibly can the
first year because that is the basis on which you begin to make your
record. I think getting onto a law review is very important for getting your
first job. Or I suppose, this isn’t my experience, but I guess if you can do
moot courts and do very well in moot courts, or otherwise do something to
make yourself stand out in law school, it would also help in getting that
first job. In order to do that, I think, you have to build a very firm
foundation, which, dammit, means get good grades in the first year.
Second year, sure, you work hard. Third year, not so much.
I guess the other piece of advice I would have is probably
outdated – again, all this is based on my experience – but I think a U.S.
Attorneys’ Office is the best place to start, particularly if you’re interested
in litigation, because there you will get experience. You aren’t going to be
just a briefcase carrier, which you are liable to be, I think, in the large
private firms. And I would recommend working for the government. I
found that a significant part of the compensation there is the feeling that
you are working for the general good. Politics aside, I’d rather be a
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prosecutor than a defense attorney. I found it very rewarding to know that
I wasn’t working for whoever was willing to pay me, I was working for
the government, which should stand for justice, and that’s important.
I don’t know that it’s still true, perhaps less than it used to be, but
the opportunities for a woman in the federal government, or in any
government, are better than they are in private practice. I suspect that’s no
longer true. I don’t know. And, of course, the other piece of advice is
find the right partner because it takes two, especially if you’re going to
raise a family, it takes two that are pulling absolutely in harness. There
were a few times when Howie and I each had Supreme Court arguments in
the same week.
You have to share the burden, there’s no other way to get through
it. I’ve always believed that picking the right partner is in significant
portion just good luck, because at the time you are making these decisions,
you don’t know what you’re going to turn out to be like, and still less do
you know what he is going to turn out to be like. You take your chances,
and if you’re lucky, it works. And I guess if you work at it, but mostly it’s
MS. FEIGIN: Well, thank you. I’m glad your life was graced with luck, and I am very
grateful that you shared it with us.
MS. SHAPIRO: It has been a pleasure.
ORAL HISTORY OF HARRIET SHAPIRO