Many of the courtroom antics employed by America's most famous defense lawyer Clarence Darrow would be impossible today. Rules of evidence, judicial procedure, and ethical standards have all been tightened and reformed since Darrow's heyday.
But as a masterful new biography by longtime Washington journalist John A. Farrell makes clear, Darrow's role in the growing class warfare of the time is remarkably topical today, nearly 75 years after his death.
Born in Ohio four years before the start of the Civil War, Darrow is celebrated these days mainly for his scathing oratory and impassioned closing arguments and legal maneuvering that kept dozens of murderous clients from the gallows.
His most famous capital case came after the May 1924 murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The defendants were wealthy, privileged, and brilliant college graduates who shocked the world for showing not a scintilla of remorse. "I did it because I wanted to," Loeb famously said.
This "crime of the century," as a ravenous news media called it, produced even more shock when Darrow early on declared his clients' guilt and begged the court for mercy and their lives.
He was fighting to upend powerful public opinion that demanded to see the killers dead. But ever the showman and lifelong opponent of capital punishment, Darrow cast the issue in heroic terms of tempering "justice with mercy, to overcome hate with love." He eventually won over many of his fellow Chicagoans and more importantly the judge presiding in the non-jury trial.
"I am pleading for the future," the 67-year-old lawyer said during his day-long closing that brought tears to many in the crowded courtroom—including the judge's wife and sister.
"I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving and that mercy is the highest attribute of man."
Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life in prison. Darrow's formidable reputation, which would rise and fall several times as he took on one unpopular cause after another and led a messy and sometimes scandalous personal life, assumed an even more mythic stature.
Biographer Farrell expertly presents all the drama and passion of this and other famous Darrow crusades, including the notorious "Monkey Trial" when he took on silver-tongued Williams Jennings Bryan over the right to teach evolution in the Tennessee public schools. Darrow lost the case but won the spectacle in a drama that lives on today in the magnificent Spencer Tracy film Inherit the Wind.
But the material that might stand out the most for today's readers is Darrow's eloquent and angry defense of ordinary laborers. He toiled in the early days of union organizing, when company bosses and government forces united to beat down angry mobs of downtrodden workers organizing and fighting for a small piece of dignity and the American Dream.
As the gap between rich and poor haunts us still, 100 years later, it's hard not to feel the passion and urgency in some of Darrow's most eloquent commentary on the battle at hand.
"With the land and possessions of America rapidly passing into the hands of a favored few," Darrow wrote, "with thousands of men and women in idleness and want; with wages constantly tending to a lower level . . . with the knowledge that the servants of the people are bought and sold in legislative halls at the bidding of corporations and individuals: with all these notorious evils sapping the foundations of popular government and destroying personal liberty; some rude awakening must come.
"And if it shall come, when you look abroad over the ruin and desolation, remember the long years in which the storm was rising and do not blame the thunderbolt."
Darrow was many things in his illustrious life lived in the headlines. A railroad lawyer who defended his corporate bosses in numerous cases filed by pedestrians maimed at unsafe railroad crossings, he went on to become "labor's lawyer." He extracted more than a pound of flesh from some of the most powerful business interests of the day.
He was an atheist, free love advocate, and notorious womanizer. A fierce liberal and defender of civil liberties who helped found the NAACP and ACLU. A towering intellect and man of the people and great principle. Yet he regularly defended murderers, bootleggers and mobsters. He was not above bribing members of a jury in his ends justify the means view of class warfare and a legal system he believed was stacked mightily against the little guy.
Darrow had as much of an impact on the time he lived as anyone who ever practiced law or any other profession, for that matter. There is much to admire and much to scorn in his legacy and actions. Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned is a riveting piece of work and certain to be one of the most fascinating biographies of this or any other year.
—Gary Delsohn, Contributor
If You See Something, Write Something
It’s hard to find a mention of Pete Hamill that doesn’t include his association with the City of New York. Over his long career, the man has come to symbolize the grittier level of the world of New York letters; while Capote and Mailer were throwing martinis across ballrooms at each other, Hamill, newspaperman to the core, was on the street, with the common man, getting human stories for the Post or the Daily News. In his latest novel, entitled Tabloid City, he offers of a picture of the city as he sees it today, told from the vantage points of a host of characters that could have been pulled straight from the pages of one of his tabloids, all lonely, all at the end of their rope, all entirely New York.
The main action of the plot, which can be a bit difficult to follow at times, centers around violence committed by the disaffected, including a broken Iraq War vet and an African-American jihadi. The heart of the story, though, lies in the characters that aren’t even aware that they’re in danger. Sam Briscoe, the novel’s most compelling figure despite the fact that he does little to drive the plot, is clearly Hamill’s fictive avatar; graying editor-in-chief obviated when his young, nepotistic publisher moves to strictly digital distribution of his newspaper, he constantly eulogizes the ways things used to be, and, as you might imagine, finds himself spiritually undernourished by the sterile modern world.
Although the threat of a suicide bombing is gripping enough to keep the pages turning, this novel is really about the city itself, and how even though it may be in flux, it’s still the best place in the world to be lonely. Hamill writes touchingly on loneliness, especially that of his older characters at the end of their run, but he also shows how even for the young, a city of millions can be a paradoxically isolating place. Presenting his characters to us kaleidoscopically, he puts to the page a feeling that many city dwellers may be familiar with; namely that there is real comfort for the lonely in being surrounded by a sea of others in the same condition, even if they never meet.
Hamill’s prose is that of a man who has dedicated his life to humanizing rote information. Although for the most part he is interested mainly in conveying a scene and getting on with it, he can still slide deftly down into the thoughts of his characters, so that even though the reader doesn’t spend a lot of time with any of them, we still have reason to hope they come out OK. At times, the book can come across as a bit unrealistically noir, but one comes to realize that this is the real New York for Hamill; where everyone is running from something, where death is just one simple twist of fate away, and where everyone has a story. As one character says, regarding an If you see something, say something sign: “Nah, if I see something, I write something. I’m a reporter, man.”
—Nicholas Mancusi, Contributor
What Makes a Best Friend?
Best friends can often describe the moment when they platonically fell in love with each other. Marissa Rogers and Julia Ferrar, the heroines in Camille Noe Pagán’s The Art of Forgetting, experienced that spark when Marissa was at her lowest. Lonely, insecure, shy and self-deprecating, the teenaged Marissa was also everything that Julia was not. “Julia was a live wire, and everything she touched became electrified—including me. I felt like she had woken me up after years of deep sleep,” Pagán writes. “How could I not have known that my life had been so boring? And yet we seemed to be in such different stratospheres that I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a charity case.”
Forgetting takes place in a sequence of young adult flashback-vignettes and present day scenarios. Currently in their thirties, living in New York City—Marissa as an editor at health magazine Svelte, and Julia as a ballerina turned publicist for the NYC Ballet—the routine of their relationship, built from day one, remains the same. They love each other, yes. But both women are complicit in an unhealthy dynamic. Marissa, even as an adult, allows the dominant, charismatic Julia to manipulate her into making big decisions differently than she’d like, continuing to feel as though her friend is merely taking pity on her. Julia, though the stronger personality, is hopelessly co-dependent, relying on Marissa to “talk her off the ledge” again and again.
Pagán’s debut novel would be just another chronicle of the splendor and bitterness that comes with a strong female friendship, if not for the accident that she opens with: We’re barely introduced to the ladies before Julia is struck by a cab, suffering a traumatic brain injury that instantly and completely alters her personality. So not only is this friendship saturated with the day-to-day histrionics typical of any close bond, it’s tainted by a question: Is your best friend still your best friend if she becomes someone else? Many of Julia’s characteristics, qualities that make her who she is, have changed, including her voice: “It is high and light, like a middle school girl talking to the boy she has a crush on.”
The shared history between two close friends tends to be a tie robust enough to gloss over the fact that, as time does its work, one might secretly not like the person the other has become. But here, it happens immediately, unadorned by the compassion that comes with years passing. It’s this idea that Pagan explores most eloquently—and one that is rarely brought to the surface in novels about the relationships between women. Marissa and Julia both lead complicated, New York City lives, fraught with goals just out of reach and men that don’t love them the way they want to be loved. But when Julia faces death and comes back a very different person, the endlessly forgiving, overly acquiescing Marissa is compelled to acknowledge who Julia was—and what she never really liked about her best friend.
Marissa’s memories of her past with Julia; her memories of Nathan, a man she loved deeply, who Julia forced her to dump because she felt he threatened their friendship, and Julia’s own memories, which are relayed to Marissa in unfiltered, harsh bursts, a consequence of the brain trauma, are examined and reexamined by Marissa, and eventually lead to a series of predictable revelations. We get snippets of research on brain health, and the ways in which recollection is affected by other factors, like how someone feels about what occurred, and what other people say about it. The problem here isn’t the story, which is gripping. It’s the lack of an emotional center. Julia’s pain goes mostly unexamined, and Pagán writes breezily of Marissa’s transformation, as she flits from flashbacks about Nathan, who pushes his way back into her life, and an uncertainty over Dave, her current flame.
Marissa’s eventual conclusions about love and friendship, and things “working out the way they’re supposed to” are uncomfortably simplistic—not only given what she’s endured, but for anyone coming to terms with loss and larger questions of how our pasts continue to shape who we are. While Pagán only chafes at the surface of Marissa’s internal struggle with memory, she nevertheless hits on something rare: What we remember is what happened, even when it didn’t. Reality changes as our memories shift. The question of memory is at the core of The Art of Forgetting. Disappointingly, Pagán lets it fade into the background, not unlike any other recollection of peripheral importance.
—Sharon Steel, Contributor