|Clarence Darrow in his natural habitat, a packed courtroom weighing life or death for two unpopular defendants, in this case rich teenage murderers Leopold and Loeb in 1924 Chicago.
|I recently had the honor of being asked by the new Washington Independent Review of Books to review the two new biographies of one of my unabashed favorites from American history, lawyer Clarence Darrow. It ran this week. Here’s what I came up with:
Clarence Darrow is a biographer’s gift. America’s premier lawyer, he lived a fantastic life, fraught with drama, epic achievements and stark character flaws ― all supported by a rich paper trail of letters, trial transcripts, speeches, memoirs and newspaper clips. He had an outgoing, sarcastic personality played by some of Hollywood’s best actors: Spencer Tracy (Inherit the Wind), Orson Welles (Compulsion) and Kevin Spacey (Darrow), among others.
Darrow is best remembered today for defending Tennessee high school teacher John T. Scopes in the 1925 “Monkey Trial,” in which Scopes was accused of violating a state law that barred the teaching of evolution in the classroom. Darrow turned the occasion into an epic clash of science against superstition (his view of religion) and got Scopes off with a $100 fine, later reversed on appeal. But this barely scratches the surface of Darrow’s career. Think of the dozen most important, high-profile legal contests in America’s last 150 years: Darrow appears in at least half of them.
How good was he?
By the time he defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb ― two wealthy Chicago teenagers facing execution in 1924 for murdering Bobby Frank, a younger friend, on a lark ― Darrow had defended more than 100 capital cases and lost only one client to the executioner. He repeatedly defended the most hated, vulnerable people in society, making a trademark of facing down stacked prosecutions and public prejudice. Yes, he also represented plenty of gangsters, politicians, bootleggers and socialites ― someone had to pay the rent ― but he made his mark as Attorney for the Damned.
Darrow is one of the truly interesting people in American history, and if anyone deserves a new biography today, it is him. Now, after a long drought, we suddenly have two very good ones: John A. Farrell’s Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned and Andrew E. Kersten’s Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast. As they say, when it rains, it pours (though I do think it a bit unfair to each of these fine books that they are being released so closely back to back).
As they should, Kersten and Farrell both inevitably build their stories around Darrow’s famous legal cases ― a series of irresistible dramas, which trace the country’s own emergence into the modern age. Darrow lectured prolifically about philosophy and religion ― his views were mostly cynical and atheistic ― but he spoke most eloquently through the clients he chose to defend. They started with labor leaders such as Eugene Debs (future four-time Socialist candidate for president, charged with conspiracy for leading the 1894 Pullman Strike) and William D. “Big Bill” Haywood (founder of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies”; accused, with two other defendants, in the 1905 murder of Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg following a labor dispute and found not guilty) ― this at a time when working men’s efforts to assert collective rights against unfettered Gilded Age capitalism was the cutting-edge human rights issue in America.
Darrow defended self-declared Communists at the height of the post-World War I Red Scare. He defended Leopold and Loeb, plus a political assassin named Patrick Eugene Prendergast (convicted of murdering Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, in 1893), on grounds of opposing capital punishment. And, at a time late in his career, when he could charge exorbitant fees, he chose instead to defend Ossian Sweet, a Detroit black man accused of murdering a white man he shot while defending his house. Darrow won him an outright acquittal from an all-white jury.
It is no exaggeration that many of these confrontations were life-and-death, win-at-all-costs, bare-knuckled, adrenaline-pumping affairs covered breathlessly by newspapers coast-to-coast. As a result, this gave Darrow a unique platform to shape modern attitudes toward free speech, civil liberties, racial equality, criminal psychology, the death penalty, fair play for minorities and unpopular defendants, and the legal profession itself.
His dark side
Neither Farrell nor Kersten spares Darrow a good flogging for his many character flaws. Darrow could be vain, self-absorbed and deceitful ― as in his womanizing and cheating on his second wife, Ruby, with young journalist Mary Field. He could be corrupt. After he defended the McNamara brothers, two union organizers, for the 1912 dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times building, which killed more than 20 people (he pled them both guilty to life sentences), prosecutors charged Darrow with jury tampering. He denied it and won an acquittal in his first trial but escaped jail only by a hung jury in the second. Afterward, with a cloud over his reputation, Darrow justified the tactics. “Do not the rich and powerful bribe jurors, intimidate and coerce judges,” he asked in a letter.
Darrow could also be personally cruel with people he disliked. Describing his sharp, embarrassing cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan ― the former presidential candidate who led the prosecution against John Scopes in the famous Monkey trial ― he admitted to a friend: “I made up my mind to show the country what an ignoramus he was and I succeeded.”
I particularly enjoyed John Farrell’s richly written and well-structured narrative. Farrell, a Washington-based political journalist (he recently joined the Center for Public Integrity as senior reporter) and biographer of former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, manages to cut through the complexity of Darrow’s legal cases to expose the human dynamic, the core conflicts and underhanded courtroom tricks, as well as the deeper national issues at stake.
Andrew Kersten, professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin and author of three books on labor history, brings a sharp academic eye to the story. His writing is clear and efficient, and he lets the story shine through. He, too, presents Darrow warts and all, though he occasionally seems a bit too eager to forgive Darrow for his shortcomings.
Happily, neither book falls into the trap of trying to decipher “what would Clarence Darrow do?” about modern issues like the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Patriot Act or other elements of today’s War on Terror. Darrow was far too idiosyncratic for that. In real life, he constantly confounded his friends. He managed to forget all about civil liberties during some of the most shameful World War I-era crackdowns on dissent, and F.D.R. himself lived to regret putting Darrow on a 1930s New Deal program review board only to have Darrow publicly blast the program as autocratic.
For my money, there cannot be enough biographies, movies, documentaries, speeches or memorabilia about Clarence Darrow. And as long as we keep Darrow’s profile high in the American consciousness, it keeps the country and our civil rights safer as a result.