CLARENCE DARROW: ATTORNEY FOR THE DAMNED
By John A. Farrell
Doubleday, $32.50 561 pages, illustrated
During the 1920s, Clarence Darrow made his name defending Reds, poor blacks, politicians, bootleggers and murderers. While Darrow was already famous when he arrived in Dayton, Tenn., for the Scopes trial, “by the time he left, he was an American folk hero,” writes John A. Farrell in “Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned.” And there Darrow would have remained, an uncomplicated figure, emblazoned in collective memory, a mix of Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy, if not for this groundbreaking biography, the first to make use of new archival material that gives depth and dimension to this iconic figure.
Mr. Farrell calls himself a “loving revisionist, one who believes that the story of Darrow’s life is no less rich when grounded in the grays and contradictions of truth.” Mr. Farrell shines a bright beam of light on whether or not Darrow was guilty of bribing a juror in two trials (he was). He also clarifies the antagonism between Darrow and his former law partner, the poet Edgar Lee Masters, a murky topic that heretofore had remained a mystery.
In addition, the author explores Darrow’s multiple extramarital affairs. From the outset, this defender of the free-love movement was drawn to younger women who were independent, idealistic, clever and pretty. After 17 years of marriage, he left his wife, Jesse, and son, Paul, to marry Ruby Hamerstrom, hardly the universal favorite, with her twittering, fluttery, self-sacrificial ways. It was Ruby who “watched his health, served his guests, helped him with correspondence … selected his clothes.” Her loyalty to Darrow remained undiminished even when she suspected that her husband strayed into the arms of others. Other conquests included the feminist Mary Field Parton, whose diaries and letters the author consulted for this volume.
Ruby’s loyalty would be put further to the test as the years passed. A lifelong speculator of the stock market, Darrow, along with son Paul, sank thousands of dollars into railroads, copper companies, banks, gold mines and Latin American shares. As the money rose to stratospheric heights in 1929, Darrow knew that it could not last. When the crash came, Darrow lost his entire savings - down from $300,000 to $125,000 - and what remained went to pay his son’s debts. Ruby’s hunch - that owning real estate, such as a ranch out in California - would have been a better gamble. The hope of retiring comfortably vanished as Darrow, now an old man, was forced to scramble for fees - from the lecture circuit, from Hollywood (narrating a motion picture about evolution) or radio (performing in a dramatization).
Wobbly health and meager finances did not prevent Darrow from taking on more cases, however, or make him desist from fighting for individual liberty. But his strength was sapped. When he died, Ruby was forced to give up their apartment and sell his library and possessions. She was stunned to discover how little his estate commanded. Ultimately, she sold his personal papers to biographer Irving Stone, but not before she had his consent that Darrow’s flaws be overlooked in his final manuscript.
The passage of time is a boon to biographers. Friends and relatives become less reticent, others generous by unloading boxes of papers from attics. The author’s observation that “the treasure hunt provides much of the fun when writing a biography” would find universal agreement. The opening of new collections of Darrow’s correspondence, in 2010 and 2011, gave Mr. Farrell an advantage over Stone (whose biography Mr. Farrell has owned since age 12). In addition, he has also made judicious use of archives stretching from Princeton to Hawaii. Other recent Darrow biographers have plowed through similar fertile fields: Andrew Kersten for his “Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast” (2011) and Andrew McRae for “The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow” (2009), but I would argue that neither has been as definitive or as thorough.
Storytelling is the essential element of any good biography, and Mr. Farrell tells this story well, writing smoothly and vividly. Elements that are not relevant are ruthlessly discarded, thereby avoiding a crushing litany of facts. And while atmospheric detail can be created in fiction, in biography it only emerges from research. Mr. Farrell makes clear that he has not manufactured conversations or made “novelistic assumptions,” and his footnotes attest to that. “Attorney for the Damned” is a well-balanced portrait of the private and public Darrow, giving the sweep of his life and times. The story of Darrow’s life retained my interest even though I have read it many times before, and I know the Scopes trial by heart.
The cases that made Darrow famous - his defense of Eugene Debs, Leopold and Loeb, Ossian Sweet and the famous Scopes Monkey Trial - all are here. Some of Darrow’s most triumphant closing arguments are quoted. The rolling cadence of Darrow’s language and his passion ring from the page - thrilling music, oratory at its best.
Ultimately, one comes away agreeing with Mr. Farrell’s assertion that “Darrow’s flaws, and his great fall in Los Angeles, makes his subsequent struggles for freedom, civil rights and liberty that much more admirable.” Turn to his speeches on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the Constitution, delivered during 1919 at the height of the Red Scare when super-patriotism reigned supreme, and you will find yourself feeling more proud to be an American than on the Fourth of July. And you just may find yourself agreeing with the assessment of H.L. Mencken, who said of his pal: “In his private life and philosophy he was singularly gentle and even sentimental, but when he enlisted for a cause he was a terror. It is to his credit that he was most often a terror to quacks and dolts, hypocrites and scoundrels.”
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast.”