Man For Some Seasons
me, and many of my contemporaries, Clarence Darrow was more legend than
fact, more myth than man. He was a composite of actors, like Paul Muni,
Spencer Tracy, Orson Welles, and Henry Fonda, all of whom brought him to
the screen and stage. Our idea of him came from reading his own words in
The Story of My Life; the matchless orations compiled in Attorney for the
Damned; and Irving Stone's powerful, iconographic account, Clarence Darrow
for the Defense. We knew him as one of America's greatest orators, whose
arguments still resonate in speech classes around the country.
in rural Ohio in 1857, Darrow practiced small-town law until 1887, when
he moved to Chicago, inspired by big-city life and the controversy surrounding
the Haymarket bombing. With the help of his benefactor, Illinois governor
John Peter Altgeld, Darrow gained a job with the Chicago and North Western
Railway. He abandoned his lucrative post in the company's law department
in 1894 - changing sides in the great Pullman workers strike, where he
represented Eugene Debs, the labor organizer who later became the leader
of the Socialist Party.
years that followed his defection from the railroad were crammed with achievement.
Early in the century, Darrow represented the anthracite coal workers, many
of them children, before a special seven-member commission named by President
Theodore Roosevelt. A few years later, in a sensational trial, he won the
acquittal of William "Big Bill" Haywood and his codefendants, who had been
accused of killing the former governor of Idaho (in a tale later captured
by J. Anthony Lukas in Big Trouble). In the twenties, he outwitted William
Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial (thinly fictionalized in Inherit the
Wind). While he didn't win the actual case, his oratory won the hearts
of H. L. Mencken and eastern sophisticates. Darrow capped his career as
a steadfast opponent of capital punishment by persuading a court in Chicago
to spare the lives of Leopold and Loeb (their murder of a 14-year-old boy
being the basis for the novel and the movie Compulsion). The facts and
legend of Darrow's life inspired generations of young idealists, like myself,
to go to law school and to specialize in civil rights, civil liberties,
labor law, or criminal defense.
years ago, still dazzled by the Darrow myth, I began a quest to unravel
one of the central mysteries of his life. In 1911 Darrow moved to Los Angeles
to defend two brothers, Jim and J.J. McNamara, accused of killing 21 men
in the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building. Trumpeted as the "Trial
of the Century," the case took a strange turn when the police caught one
of Darrow's associates bribing a juror on a L.A. street corner in broad
daylight. Disillusioning his admirers, Darrow promptly pleaded his clients
guilty. Despite the plea, he was charged with instigating the bribery of
two jurors. The next two years were the worst period of Darrow's life.
He was humiliated, abandoned, and vilified by friends - and he faced bankruptcy
and prison. Darrow's autobiography and Stone's masterful saga depict a
man unjustly accused and quite possibly framed by the city's corporate
leadership in the pervasive quasi-war between "capital" and "labor" that
dominated much of America as it was being transformed by the Industrial
Revolution. I was determined to find the truth, after all those years,
and clear Darrow's name.
my surprise, I soon came to know a Darrow who was very different from his
popular image. He might have been idealistic and heroic in the late nineteenth
century, but by 1911, in his mid-fifties, Darrow had become cynical and,
in the view of many friends and former admirers, greedy and corrupt. While
he still handled an occasional case for the underdog, Darrow spent most
of his time representing corporate clients, often against the poor and
helpless. Reading manuscripts of the era, including the private correspondence
of scores of Darrow's "friends," I learned that by the time he moved to
Los Angeles, long before the bribery charges, most of these friends - including
the poet Edgar Lee Masters, who had been Darrow's law partner, and Hamlin
Garland, the novelist - had turned away from him. Offended by the man he
had become, they complained, for example, that in personal injury cases
he regularly represented corporations that had injured workers and pedestrians.
On the day that AFL chief Samuel Gompers and others asked him to represent
the McNamara brothers, Darrow was defending a company in a suit brought
by small investors who had been deliberately defrauded. Darrow excused
the deceptive practices of his client, the Kankakee Manufacturing Company,
arguing that the investors should have conducted their own research. (In
finding against the company, the judge held that the company and its lawyers
should have been a bit more concerned about "the Golden Rule.") Darrow
reluctantly went on to represent the McNamara brothers only when Gompers
offered him a huge fee and warned that, if he refused, labor would never
hire him again.
who knew his tactics in other cases, including the defense of Big Bill
Haywood in Idaho in 1907, were confident that he had bribed witnesses and
jurors in the past. So in 1912, when he was charged with jury tampering
in the McNamara case, they were convinced, on the basis of substantial
evidence, that he was guilty. Worse, from their perspective, they felt
that he had forced the brothers to plead guilty in a desperate, if unsuccessful,
effort to save his own skin, thus betraying the cause of labor, socialism,
and the left. In anger, Gompers joined Debs in lifelong condemnation of
his onetime friend.
familiar with Darrow's personal life were also outraged by his treatment
of his wife, Ruby (whom he betrayed during a long affair with a young socialist
reporter named Mary Field), and by his behavior toward Field (whom he abandoned
to return to his wife). Waiting for his own case to come to trial, feeling
their scorn, and fearing a life in prison, Darrow became suicidal.
as the jury tampering trials wore on, Darrow gradually came back to life,
taking charge of his own defense, admitting some of his failings and, in
a magnificent closing argument, promising to be a better man. He learned
from his time in purgatory. When he won his freedom with an acquittal in
one trial and a hung jury in the second in 1913, he began to redeem himself,
to resemble the man he once had been - the Attorney for the Damned. Though
he never again represented labor, Darrow resumed his career as an orator,
won back the friendship (if not the admiration) of some former friends,
and handled what today stand as his most important cases: Scopes and Leopold
and Loeb. By the time of his death in 1938, the myth had begun to eclipse
measure of that myth is the fact that many people today believe that Darrow
won the Scopes case, when, in fact, he lost it. Moreover, as Gary Wills
describes at length in his book Under God, the Scopes case mobilized a
previously inert movement of Bible Belt conservatives. By humiliating their
generally progressive patron saint, William Jennings Bryan (whose opposition
to the teaching of Darwin was based, in large part, on his fear that social
Darwinism was being and would be used by the ruling elites to discriminate
against the common man), and by ridiculing what he called their "fool religion,"
Darrow actually may have inflicted untold damage on the progressive cause
in the South.
some respects, it was disappointing to see through the mythic stature of
a man I had so admired and who had proved such an inspiration to so many
outstanding members of the bar. In a new introduction to Darrow's The Story
of My Life, Alan Dershowitz cites my research into Darrow's almost certain
guilt, and concludes, "If Darrow did indeed resort to bribery - regardless
of the perceived provocation - he disqualifies himself as a role model
for lawyers." But perhaps the recognition of Darrow's myriad faults, and
of his efforts to overcome them, has helped to make Darrow more human,
and an even more credible object for study by today's lawyers, who live
in an era in which we are more public, and perhaps more realistic, about
the pervasiveness of human frailty.
Cowan is the Dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication. He is
the author of The People v. Clarence Darrow.
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