An Intellectual retreat on the Housatonic
On sabbatical from New York Law School, Nadine Strossen finds her place to write, in the light-filled living area with a view of the Housatonic River flowing outside. Leading to the master bedroom, a long row of bookcases faces a set of sliding glass patio doors. Part of Noam’s vast collection of owl figurines also occupy the shelves.
Photograghs by John Kane & Wendy Carlson
A few handmade signs caution visitors to drive slowly down the steep, winding driveway to Nadine Strossen and Eli Noam’s island house on the Housatonic River in New Milford. Leading over a one-lane, steel-girder bridge, the road ends at Spruce Island, their wooded spit of land that divides the river. Just above the cluster of spruce trees, a stream of cars whizzes endlessly on Route 7, but all that can be heard below is the swoosh and swirl of rushing water that flows past the front steps.
The house, in fact, is so isolated that Strossen and Noam feel lucky to have stumbled upon it when it was up for sale in 2008. The couple spend most of their free time writing and researching, so they were looking for a tranquil place near the water and close to an airport where Noam could land his Cessna 182.
So in the dead of winter, in the midst of a snowstorm, a realtor showed them this one-of-a-kind, 3,000-square-foot contemporary perched on concrete pillars. The realtor promptly got his car stuck in the driveway and had to have it towed the following day, which might have been a cautionary tale for Strossen and Noam. But by the following June, they had moved in and have never regretted it.
The house, with its “industrially aggressive appearance,” didn’t have a lot of curb appeal, says Strossen, but inside the floor plan was open and modern. Floor-to-ceiling windows in both the master bedroom and extensive living room allow the couple to watch the ebb and flow of the river year-round. The quiet location proved to be a perfect retreat for the pair of academic authors. The huge double desk they share in their study was actually the dinner table the couple “inherited” from violinist Itzhak Perlman, whose Putnam County home they previously inhabited.
In a way, the river home has become much like a mini–think tank for the two intellectual movers and shakers. Strossen was the first woman and youngest person to serve as president of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). During her tenure, from 1991 to 2008, she led the organization, advocating on a number of polarizing issues, including Internet free speech, women’s reproductive rights, and reforming the racially-biased criminal justice system.
After retiring as president in 2008, Strossen continued teaching law at New York Law School, where she has been a professor since 1988. In December, she began a six-month sabbatical from teaching to work on her second book, Hate: How to Combat It Through Free Speech and No Censorship, and to spend time with Noam, a professor of finance and economics at the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. Noam is author of more than 30 books.
Strossen grew up in rural Minnesota, which is why she loves being close to the water and mountains in Litchfield County. Noam was born in Jerusalem, and first came to the United States as an exchange student. The two met while they were studying at Harvard earning advanced degrees. Noam went on to teach at Columbia, where he founded and currently leads the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, which focuses on strategy, management, and policy issues in telecommunications, computing, and electronic mass media.
Strossen’s family background greatly influenced her to pursue a career in civil liberties. Her father was a Holocaust survivor, and her grandfather was arrested for violating conscription service during World War I after immigrating to the U.S. from Croatia. “His sentence for being a conscientious objector was to be forced to stand against the courthouse with his hands against the wall so that passers-by could spit on him,” Strossen says.
As ACLU president, she was especially proud of her defense against Internet censorship. “I’m very proud that we won,” she says, referring to ACLU vs. Reno in 1997, the first major Supreme Court ruling on the Internet regulation. “All nine Justices of the Supreme Court struck down the anti-indecency provisions of the Communications Decency Act because they violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.”
Speaking of the current usage of social media, Strossen—who herself eschews social media—says: “The discipline imposed by Twitter is positive. We should be able to condense even complex ideas in a brief phrase that is simple but not simplistic.”
So, as a civil libertarian, what message would she Tweet? Simply this: “We need to galvanize people to cherish their personal freedom and to work for it.”