Every morning, her father, Robert, would take her to elementary school on the other side of Central Park and read The New York Times to her along the way.
"That was a powerful memory of her father and the way he cultivated her interest in reading, which is huge, and her interest in public affairs," said Sarah Walzer, Kagan's law school housemate, who was at the White House today to see her close friend nominated by President Barack Obama to fill the seat of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. Kagan's father, Walzer said, "was her hero."
Kagan, 50, whose current job as U.S. solicitor general is to argue the government's case before the Supreme Court, would be the fourth woman to serve on the high court if confirmed by the Senate this summer.
As she listened to Obama call her "one of the foremost legal minds" in the nation and "a trailblazing leader," her thoughts were on her parents.
"If this day has just a touch of sadness in it for me, it is because my parents aren't here to share it," she said in her noticeable New York accent. The lives and the memory of her father and schoolteacher mother -- the children of immigrants and the first in their families to go to college -- "remind me every day of the impact public service can have, and I pray every day that I live up to the example they set," she said.
The first woman to be dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan is a native New Yorker, as are the two women on the current court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. But their personal narratives are as different as the neighborhoods where they grew up -- and not just because of their baseball allegiances, which Obama alluded to in announcing his pick.
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Kagan's "appreciation for diverse views," he said, may "come in handy as a die-hard Mets fan serving alongside her new colleague-to-be, Yankees fan Justice Sotomayor, who I believe has ordered a pinstriped robe for the occasion."
Kagan was born April 28, 1960, the second of three children. Her father was a lawyer and community activist who stood up for tenants against the city's powerful landlords. Her mother, Gloria, taught for years at Hunter College High School, a highly selective public school where young Elena was a standout student.
Unlike Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice, Kagan didn't come up from the projects. Instead, her family lived in a third-floor apartment lined with books from floor to ceiling on 75th Street and West End Avenue, a short walk to Zabar's in a neighborhood straight out of a Woody Allen movie. Broadway theater and literature -- especially Jane Austen -- were her passions.
"It was a largely Jewish, intellectual population," said Jason Brown, who went to elementary school with Kagan and later became friends with her at Princeton and Harvard Law School. "It was a reasonably sophisticated environment to grow up in. Most of our parents were first-generation Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe."
Like many bright New York City kids in those days, Kagan skipped eighth grade. A photo in her 1977 high school yearbook shows the student government president wearing a judge's robe and holding a gavel, the eyes behind her aviator glasses apparently already set on her future course.
"Elena was very quiet and very reserved," recalled classmate Michelle Hardy. "But when you got to know her, she had a fierce sense of humor."
Years later, after her mother died in 2008, Kagan -- who is replacing the only Protestant on the court -- spoke movingly at the funeral and conveyed a "very strong sense of Jewish identity, a strong commitment to her history and her people and her background," said Rabbi Yael Ridberg of the Reconstructionist West End Synagogue, where Kagan's parents were active. "The family really valued education and the ability to make meaning out of the world and to understand it."
A Liberal Democrat
If the woman Obama lauded for "her openness to a broad array of viewpoints" has left few clues to her own political opinions in recent years, she was less guarded as a college student at Princeton University.
On election night in 1980, the 20-year-old Kagan stood in a crowded ballroom at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as she watched big-screen TVs report Ronald Reagan's presidential victory and the defeat of Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Holtzman, for whom she had worked as a deputy press secretary that summer. The Princetonian reported that Kagan got drunk on vodkas and tonic, and cried.
"She really cared about our country and our government," Holtzman said. "She's not someone who sits on the sidelines."
Later, Kagan wrote of the disappointing loss to "an ultraconservative machine politician," Republican Alfonse D'Amato. Where she grew up, she said, "nobody ever admitted to voting for Republicans," and she asked where were "the real Democrats -- not the closet Republicans that one sees so often these days."
A history major, Kagan traced the rise and fall of the Socialist Party in her hometown in a senior thesis titled "To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933." But her professor, Sean Wilentz, told the Princetonian her interest was strictly historical, adding that his star student was "the furthest thing from a socialist."
Kagan was also editorial chairman of the school newspaper and wrote unsigned editorials against reinstating draft registration for men and in favor of women's rights.
After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton, where she made lifelong friends with future New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith, Kagan studied at Oxford. There she spent her free time as a coxswain on the rowing team. Classmate Brown, whom Kagan introduced to his wife at Princeton, teased her. "How big a deal could it be to yell, 'Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!' " he recalled telling her. "She explained the intricacies. She insisted it was much more complicated than that."
Kagan's next stop was Harvard Law School. She made law review and graduated with honors, landing consecutive jobs as clerk for federal appeals court Judge Abner Mikva and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. At barely 5 feet 3 inches, she earned the nicknames "Shorty" and "Little Bits" from Marshall.
Despite her vertical challenges, Kagan was an enthusiastic participant in pickup basketball games in what the clerks dubbed the "highest court in the land," the top-floor gym at the Supreme Court. Harry Litman, a fellow clerk under both judges, recalled Kagan's fondness for Chinese food, Popeye's chicken and poker games.
Friends say Kagan's penchant for poker and opera could provide a bond with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who is close to Ginsburg despite their deep ideological differences. But, Mikva said, Kagan also is one who can call his bluff.
"She certainly will be persuasive in trying to reach out to some of them," he said, "and I hope she will take on Justice Scalia intellectually in a way he has not been taken on recently."
'A Good Joe'
After a short stint in private practice, the 31-year-old Kagan joined the University of Chicago Law School faculty. She fit in immediately at the law school's weekly round-table lunch discussions, said University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone.
"She was never shy about stating her views or about defending herself. Lots of people are daunted by that, but she was not," he said. "A good Joe" who took up Chicago-style softball in her new hometown, she came as a "moderate progressive. She is very pragmatic, not ideological."
Yet despite winning tenure at Chicago, Kagan couldn't resist the call of public service when Mikva, by then President Bill Clinton's White House counsel, recruited her as his deputy.
Toward the end of his term, Clinton chose Kagan for the federal bench, but Senate Republicans never let her nomination out of committee. She consoled herself with a visiting professorship at Harvard, which two years later named her the first female dean of its law school.
As dean, Kagan oversaw a $476 million capital fundraising campaign (including a raffle that brought in more than $1,000 for the chance to play her in poker). She modernized facilities, opened a skating rink, installed a volleyball court, reduced class sizes and offered free coffee and bagels to students.
Kagan, who prefers catering over cooking, often had faculty over for dinners in an effort to forge consensus on her plans, which included overhauling a century-old curriculum and, in her most noteworthy move, hiring more than 40 new faculty members who ranged from liberal to conservative.
"She figured out a way to bring people together. She built trust among a large enough group of the faculty that she could appoint people from a wide range of political perspectives," said Harvard law professor John Palfrey, one of those hired by Kagan. "In many circumstances, she was able to build a coalition of the willing."
Kagan also "showed a commitment to diversity in hiring and put students at the center and changed tone of the school," said Martha Minow, who succeeded Kagan as dean. "She's absolutely brilliant, someone who combines analytic brilliance with an ability to bring people together to find ways people who disagree can find common ground."
But Kagan also was controversial in some quarters. She briefly barred military recruiters from campus on the grounds that the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy violated Harvard's anti-discrimination policy. She later complied with a law that would have stripped federal funding from the school had she kept recruiters out, but the episode is certain to be central in confirmation hearings this summer.
So will her lack of judicial experience. In her confirmation as solicitor general last year, Kagan explained away that hole in her resume with brash New York confidence, saying she made up for it in other ways, including being "a famously excellent teacher."
A Private Person
Kagan has never been married and has no children, although she is a regular at birthday parties and bar mitzvahs of her friends' children.
When CBS News recently posted a blog about Kagan's sexual orientation, the White House went out of its way to shoot down what it called "false charges" and demanded the item be removed. But the question had been raised, prompting blogger Andrew Sullivan to ask, "So Is She Gay?"
When asked, Kagan's friends refused to speak on the record about her love life or said they didn't know if she had one.
"There's no indication of her having a commitment to anybody. She never brought people to faculty events," said Detlev Vagts, an emeritus law professor at Harvard who had a self-described "run-in" with Kagan over her decision to hire a conservative law professor. "She's quite enigmatic."
Others disagree. "She's warm and witty," Minow said. "She's a terrific listener, someone who never makes up her mind without canvassing every view."
That may serve her well on the court, where she is expected to use what Obama called her "skill as a consensus-builder."
Mikva said Kagan can do it.
"Having spent all this time in government, she understands the national breadth of the court and of the country," he said. "She's not a parochialist who's going to be looking at things through a New Yorker's eye."
Contributing in New York: Katie Drummond.