- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 16, 2009

By Donald McRae
William Morrow, $26.99, 432 pages

Recently a slew of books has appeared discussing America’s greatest and most controversial trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow. During the 1920s, few lawyers were ever “more discussed, more loved, or more hated,” according to his friend, journalist H.L. Mencken. “No harder fighter ever practiced at the American bar, nor one who fought oftener for good causes.”

Darrow was famous for his defense of teenage “thrill killers” Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who he saved from capital punishment in 1924. Darrow fought against racial injustice in 1926, when he defended Dr. Ossian Sweet and his family from a lynch mob, after they moved into a white neighborhood in Detroit. McRae, a white South African, grew up in a country dominated by apartheid and murder. Darrow’s courageous defense of the civil rights of American blacks resonated forcefully for the author, “for we lived in a country that echoed 1920s America.” The fear and prejudice experienced by Ossain Sweet and his family in the white suburbs of Detroit sounded like Johannesburg and Soweto. A 1970s production of the one-man play “Clarence Darrow” brought “the old lion” back to life, and made the author a life-long fan of Mencken’s “gladiator of the law.”

For Mencken, Darrow’s masterpiece was the Scopes Trial, and it is this trial for which he is remembered. There have been many “Trials of the Century,” since then, but during those steaming weeks of July 1925, the Scopes Trial was a world sensation. Hundreds of newspapermen, photographers and newsreel crews from across America and Europe inundated the little town of Dayton, Tenn. Science teacher John Thomas Scopes had been arrested for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution, which denied the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible. His doing so violated the anti-evolution law passed by the Tennessee legislature. Clarence Darrow and Dudley Field Malone volunteered to be the defense attorneys for Scopes. William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate and a Fundamentalist who believed the anti-evolution code must be written into the Constitution itself, joined the prosecution.

Mencken’s famous newspaper dispatches on the trial were widely quoted, and the author has made good use of them, as well as Darrow’s fiery speeches. Those words continue to thrill: they have not lost their fire or their relevance. “It would be hard to exaggerate his pertinacity, his resourcefulness, his unshakeable energy in the courtroom,” Mencken later wrote of Darrow, leaving the modern historian lamenting that a recording of the trial, carried live by WGN Radio in Chicago, could not have been preserved. On the last day, Darrow put Bryan on the stand, exposing Bryan’s ignorance of Darwinism and much else. The ordeal was one of public humiliation for the Fundamentalist, who died five days later of a massive heart attack. “In the end, he not only pinned down, exposed, disgraced and ruined Bryan but also actually killed him,” concluded Mencken. If so, he brutally observed, it was “a job of public sanitation” that Darrow “never regretted.”

To give fresh perspective to the familiar, McRae has dug into the archives and explored the private papers of writer Mary Field Parton, Darrow’s confidante and lover. Parton is rarely (if at all) mentioned in other Darrow biographies, but there is little doubt of the esteem and respect Darrow held of this young journalist. During the outset of their affair, he introduced her to his friend, Theodore Dreiser, who published her short stories in his magazine, “The Delineator.” Later, Darrow elicited her help when researching the background of prospective jurors. Darrow turned to Parton when he was accused of trying to bribe a jury in 1912, a dark period in his life. He became so depressed he actually contemplated suicide.

Impressed by Parton’s biography of the labor activist Mother Jones, he entreated her to write his own biography. (When she gently declined, citing their love affair, he wrote his autobiography.) In a cavalier disrespect for the feelings of his wife, Ruby, as well as for Mary, Dreiser introduced the two women. Both knew they were among a roster of “thousands” esteemed by the rascal. Ruby was so hurt by the affair that she begged Irving Stone not to include any mention of Parton in his biography of Darrow. McRae describes Darrow’s trials through Parton’s eyes, as recorded in her private diaries, correspondence and oral histories. Additional information has come from interviews with Parton’s daughter, Margaret. As interesting as these glimpses are, they remain just that glimpses. By the mid-1920s, Mary Parton was no longer a steady fixture in Darrow’s life. Instead of paraphrasing passages from the material, more use of direct quotations would have strengthened the book.

And therein lies the rub. To make the past more visual to modern readers, there has been an increasing tendency for history to be written as if it were a novel. This is not a criticism of vivid writing. In the hands of Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, among others, history comes alive. McRae’s notes and sources are sincere in their enthusiasm and give a fascinating general summary. But more precision would have been helpful, alleviating any doubt the careful reader may have regarding the material quoted. Nonetheless, many readers will enjoy “The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow,” if only to relive one of the most fascinating series of trials and revisit with one of the most mesmerizing icons in American history.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” to be released on CD this fall through Blackstone Audio Books.

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