Clarence and His Family

Towards the end of his days, Clarence wrote of Amirus, “My father [was] willing to meet all comers on the mysteries of life and death. As a listening youth, my moral support was with my father. I never doubted that he was right, and the fact that most of the community was on the other side made me feel surer that his was the just cause.”

Unfortunately, Amirus’ preoccupation with books placed the primary burden of looking after the needs of the family upon Clarence’s mother, Emily. “[Y]ears of drudgery for her visionary husband and her children at last took their toll.” Emily died at age 48 in 1871.  Only14 years old at the time, Clarence would recall years later, “She had no religious beliefs. Her life was given fully and freely to her home and children, and she faced the future without hope or fear. On the day of her death, I was away from home…but I still remember the blank despair that settled over the home when we realized that her tireless energy and devoted love was lost forever.”

Following Emily’s death, Amirus continued to mentor his seven children, but he was limited by his eccentricities.  The teaching philosophy that he tried to emulate was that of his personal hero, Englishman John Stuart Mill, best known for his work “On Liberty.”  Yet with Emily gone, the household was in disarray and finances were always a major problem after his mother’s death.

Despite the hardship of his youth, Clarence inherited traits from Amirus which formed the core of his personality. He had a strong contempt for the “establishment” and authority generally, viewing government and institutions as a tool of the wealthy, used to suppress the working poor. Clarence rejected conventional wisdom, and was ready to challenge popular opinion on any issue: nothing was sacred. Finally, Clarence delighted in religious heresy, and was quick to ridicule sanctimonious people who wore religion on their sleeves; he viewed religion as a desperate attempt to make sense of the lonely situation of humans on earth.  For him life was absurd.  The only meaning it had was what we put into it through our deeds.  Nonetheless, Darrow respected the tenets of Christianity, he just felt that too few people practiced them. Despite those perspectives on life, he was generally respectful of the beliefs of others as long as they weren’t proselytizers.  He did not hide his feelings toward pompous people who spouted pious hokum.

As his career demonstrates, Clarence’s greatest inheritance from his father was the courage of his convictions. He had the strength to stand up resolutely to the crowd. He possessed the resilience to swim against the stream of popular opinion, never losing confidence in the face of overwhelming opposition, whether speaking for himself or a client.   

At a young age, Clarence learned not only how to read books but also how to read an audience. He developed a feel for how to connect with a crowd of people through public speaking, at a level far advanced for his years. As a small boy, his older siblings frequently brought him to Friday night meetings of the Literary Society, where he was captivated by lectures, readings and especially debates on issues of the day.  Like a sponge, he was taking it all in, most of which proved valuable years later. Finally, his parents and siblings introduced him to the great works of literature, science, and history. They taught him to appreciate early in life that knowledge was a prize worth pursuing unto itself.

Yet Clarence’s passion for learning did not translate into a love for formal education – quite the opposite. He was never a diligent student and viewed schools as just another institution bent on molding young minds. Schools generally, were to be tolerated no more than was necessary. Clarence never attained academic distinction at any school he attended, nor did he care to. What’s more, though the law was his chosen profession, and he had “to read the law” to gain admission to the bar, the only legal writings that interested him were his own.

Darrow’s attitude toward educational institutions was that they promoted conventional thinking at the expense of independent thought, suppressing spontaneity and creativity for no good purpose that he could discern. Reminiscing as an adult, Clarence concluded that his school days were “an appalling waste of time.”

Rogers & Appel: Mental Illness

There is truth to the cliché, “There is a fine line between genius and insanity.” The lives of Horace Appel and Earl Rogers are a testament to this phenomenon. Today, psychology acknowledges that the association between genius and madness is not based on fables. Many serious studies endorse the notion of the “tortured genius.” As fate would have it, years after their representation of Darrow, Appel and Rogers renewed their acquaintance while both were serving a short period of confinement as required by separate court orders for involuntary commitment to a state hospital in Norwalk, California.

Appel, son of a Jewish father and Mexican mother, had been a prominent member of the California bar for years. He had been sent to Norwalk as incurably insane. His aberration was in the nature of delusions of grandeur. He believed himself to be one of the world’s wealthiest men. “Every morning,” related Earl, “Horace used to bring me a check for a million dollars. The real reason that I left there was because I found out that his bank account was slightly overdrawn.” Despite the virtuosity of his performances in the courtroom, eventually Appel succumbed to the demons between his ears. He was permanently committed to a mental institution, where died in 1922, delusional and destitute.

During his career, Earl Rogers defended 77 murder trials and lost three. To be the pioneer on multiple courtroom innovations, serve as a professor in law schools and medical colleges, and to maintain the high standards of legal practice as he did for more than 20 years, Rogers was no mere drunk. He was a legal genius, a brilliant advocate and a tortured soul. Rogers’ ruin was his self-medication with alcohol. He was known to disappear for days with his drinking pal, novelist Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild and White Fang. At one point, Rogers’ family sought to have him involuntarily committed to a state hospital; Rogers represented himself and defeated their efforts. Later Rogers voluntarily underwent treatment for a brief period in the sanitarium where he found Horace Appel. Months later, in a moment of relative sobriety, Rogers told Adela that he planned to drink himself to death. Not long after, on February 23, 1922, a law clerk from his office found Rogers, at age 52, dead in a “humble lodging house.”

A long-time Los Angeles reporter said of him: “Rogers had a bottomless capacity for knowledge as well as booze. He absorbed foreign languages; he became an expert in forensic medicine; he was up on the newly discovered science of ballistics. His cross-examinations destroyed the prosecution’s expert witnesses. He cajoled and seduced juries with his histrionics. In person, he was immaculate. His clothes were one step beyond fashion.”

A decade following Rogers’ death, author Erle Stanley Gardner conceived his fictional lawyer Perry Mason, which filled books and television screens. Most people believe Gardner’s writing was inspired by Rogers’ career.

Clarence & Mary Field

It’s likely that when Darrow met Mary Field, he was searching for respite from the tension entailed in all that he had committed himself to upon returning to Chicago following the ordeal of the “Big Bill Haywood” trial in Idaho. He was bound to his “irksome law work” but also to his marriage.  After his illness in Idaho and hospitalization in Los Angeles, Clarence understood well that Ruby was indispensable in making possible everything that he did in his professional life. Nonetheless, he remained bitterly disappointed at having to postpone indefinitely his hopes of becoming a full-time public intellectual, and somehow, he blamed Ruby. So, Clarence sought solace in the arms of a woman 21 years his junior, who had captivated him with her witty and mischievous demeanor. Yet they both knew that nothing permanent could ever come of their relationship. As it was recounted years later by Mary’s daughter, “The sex part was evidently short-lived and the relationship settled into a deep friendship.” Their friendship was kept alive by letters; Ruby knew nothing of these contacts.

Within months of their meeting, Mary left her position as a social worker, and before the end of 1909 she was off to New York City. There, on Darrow’s recommendation, she began work as a reporter with a newspaper sympathetic to organized labor. As confirmed by Darrow’s correspondence to Mary, there are adulterers who should never write letters to their paramours. This maxim is doubly true when it’s an older man writing to a young woman. In one of Darrow’s many letters to Mary he wrote, “I miss you all the time. No one else is so bright & clever & sympathetic to say nothing of sweet and dear & I wonder how you are & what you are doing in the big city…Am tired & hungry & wish you were here to eat & drink with me & talk to me with your low, sweet kind sympathetic voice. I will send you some money tomorrow.” Like so many furtive lovers, Darrow had no restraint once he took pen to hand, writing words that he never would have spoken in the presence of a third person.

At about the time Darrow began to despair over the lack of facts to support a defense for the McNamara Brothers, he learned that Mary was on her way to Los Angeles. When Darrow first heard of her plans, he discouraged her, but Bridgeman’s Magazine, official publication of the Iron Workers Union, had hired her to cover the trial and Mary needed the work. The trial was shaping up to be a major story and she couldn’t resist it. The anguish, strife and humiliation which are an inevitable part of a love triangle were on their way to Ruby.

Why did Darrow permit this triangle to play out? Larger than life personalities have bigger than normal egos. A woman twenty-one years his junior finding him attractive inflated his ego as nothing else could. Yet it’s not possible that Darrow shared with Mary Field the bond that existed between him and Ruby, nor the extent to which his ability to function proficiently as an attorney was dependent upon her. Mary was a sexual frolic that evolved into a relationship grounded in her willingness to be a sounding board for all of Darrow’s courtroom triumphs, social critiques, and personal tribulations; their relationship never had an aura of permanency.

As for Mary’s interactions with Ruby, the more they learned about one another, the greater their mutual contempt. “Ruby thought Molly an impetuous, self-centered sycophant. Molly thought Ruby insane, mean and uncouth.”  Over the next 18 months, they were forced into one another’s company; it had to have been disturbing for both.

Piecing together the available information, what emerges is that Darrow’s relationship with Mary Field was much like the familiar scenario of dalliances by other celebrated older men with younger women. Benjamin Franklin illustrates this phenomenon well. Darrow and Franklin were both flirtatious, highly intelligent and had a droll sense of humor. Each loved the sound of his own voice and never hesitated to prattle on at length, as long as he had an audience, even an audience of one. They likewise relished receiving letters from, and writing to, young female devotees. Combine those traits with their celebrity status, and almost any young, educated woman of their time would have been flattered to have received their attention. In turn, both Franklin and Darrow reveled in being fussed over by young women and enjoyed flirting with them. But alas, neither seems to have been a genuine lady-killer once into his fifties. By that point in their lives, they were far more capable of memorable conversation than noteworthy fornication.

Clarence & Ruby

If it’s true that in every relationship there is a lover and a beloved, then there’s no mystery who was which in the Darrow marriage. Though Ruby had been making her own way in the world for twelve years as a news reporter, when she married Clarence she decided to end her career. Ruby was now “Mrs. Darrow” and her tasks were much more than those of a wife and homemaker.

The bromide which holds that great actors always need someone working behind the scenes to make it all happen was doubly true in the Darrows’ relationship. Clarence was an eccentric who could get lost in his own thoughts, an interesting book, or something he was writing. As he approached his fifties, his foibles became more pronounced; it was increasingly difficult for him to focus on the humdrum of daily existence, and without Ruby he would have struggled with life’s details.

By the year of their marriage in 1903, Clarence was not only Chicago’s best known lawyer but was on the path to becoming the most famous attorney in American history. Looking through the lens of history, it’s apparent that Ruby saw the trajectory of Clarence’s career more clearly than any other woman he had known. She devoted her life to making Darrow’s star shine. Ordinarily, each person is the narrator and hero of his or her own life story.  Yet, whether aware of it or not, each is also a supporting cast member in the life stories of others. “Mrs. Darrow” was an exception. Clarence was the hero in the story of her life. Ruby consciously cast herself in the role of the prime supporting player in the life of a man who she believed would be remembered as the greatest lawyer in American history.

Ruby learned early in their relationship that some of the most basic details of life, namely food, clothing and shelter, were necessities to which Clarence paid little attention. As Ruby understood things, following the death of his mother when he was only 14, Clarence never was induced to eat anything he did not like, and so he developed a limited taste for foods.

Food was one thing, but clothing and shelter were different matters altogether. Despite being a prominent figure in the law at the time they married, Ruby felt that Clarence didn’t look the part. To her, he looked too much like a shopkeeper from Ohio and not enough like a lawyer from Chicago. Following their honeymoon, she decided that her husband needed a makeover. She tossed his rumpled clothes and had him fitted for hand-tailored suits, silk shirts, new shoes, and handkerchiefs with his initials. Yet despite Ruby’s pleadings, Clarence refused to part with his suspenders, wearing them long after belts were common. What Ruby eventually accepted was that Clarence’s “galluses” played an integral role in his courtroom persona. He often snapped them loudly, to punctuate a remark he had made, or to distract the jurors from a comment damaging to his client. Ruby also worked on Clarence’s hygiene, reminding him to bathe and herding him to the barbershop for haircuts and especially for manicures. Clarence often let unsightly crud accumulate under his fingernails.

At the time Clarence was called to Idaho to represent “Big Bill” Haywood and the Western Federation of Miners, Ruby was forced to place all their belongings in storage, where they remained for two years (1905-07). When the Darrows returned to Chicago Ruby immediately began hunting for a home more suitable for someone of Darrow’s standing. She found one in the Hyde Park section of Chicago, a short walk from the University of Chicago. Ruby located a spacious nine-room apartment on the top floor of a six-floor apartment building, the Midway Apartments, overlooking Jackson Park and Lake Michigan. As recalled by Ruby, the Midway “was built by a man who forgot that neither he nor the building would be everlasting, so every inch of the inside was solid oak.” Three of the master bedroom’s walls had windows, and from most of the rooms large uncurtained windows offered an ever-changing vista, a source of delight to Clarence.

The Darrows entertained a large realm of friends and acquaintances; ranging from professors, scientists and philosophers to journalists, poets and politicians, young and old, famous and obscure; everyone from cynical, street-wise politicians to idealistic, progressive social workers. During the many cocktail parties organized by Ruby, all manner of people and opinions were welcomed and the verbal combat was exhilarating. As might be expected, Clarence usually had the final word.

Not long after moving into the Midway, Darrow was implored by the leaders of the American Labor Movement to travel to Los Angeles to represent two brothers charged with murder. As Ruby made plans for their trip west, her instincts told her nothing good could come from their trip.

Invoking My Youth

At the age of five I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. Seated between my father and grandfather, I was chattering away when my grandfather said, “Puggy, you talk so much you should be a lawyer.” When I asked what lawyers did, Grandpop Johnson replied, “A lawyer is someone who helps people when they’re in trouble.” From very early, my mother taught me that the only reason we exist is to help one another. Thus, becoming a lawyer sounded like a good thing. My path was set.

Soon, I learned of legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow from my mother who introduced me to Irving Stone’s biography, “Clarence Darrow for the Defense.” For me, Darrow represented all things noble about the law. The John Scopes “Monkey” trial (dramatized in “Inherent the Wind” starring Spencer Tracy), Ossian Sweet (African-American physician unjustly charged with murder), and Leopold and Loeb (deranged teenage murderers), were all trials I learned of in my youth.

By age thirteen, Darrow was my polestar. He possessed two attributes I admire: compassion for his fellow human beings and courage of his convictions. I had an uncomplicated youth. There were few hard choices and no anxiety over my education and career. The pieces fell neatly together.

Following thirty-one years as a lawyer, thirteen years as a trial judge (presiding over 200+ jury trials) and as a byproduct of Boardwalk Empire, I have a parallel profession for my passion of trying to make sense of things in the past that capture my imagination. I needed to revisit Darrow, particularly the worst two years of his life.

Recent historical works have suggested doubts about Darrow, questioning his integrity and debasing his marriage to Ruby. Darrow’s critics are particularly harsh with regard to his time in Los Angeles, 1911-1913, when he represented the McNamara brothers, charged with murder for bombing the Los Angeles Times – 20 people dead.

Within a short time following his arrival in Los Angeles, Darrow became mired in circumstances that threatened his career and haunted him the remainder of his life; circumstances not fully accounted for in his biography, upon which his detractors have feasted. Yet none of Darrow’s critics have placed those two years, nor his marriage to Ruby in their proper context, not to mention the indispensable role of the phenomenal lawyer who defended him, Earl Rogers. The two years in Los Angeles were far more complicated than have been previously recounted. I try to remedy that situation.

My book “Darrow’s Nightmare” is not a biography, nor historical novel, but rather the true story of the most challenging chapter in Clarence and Ruby’s life together. I leave it to you the reader to judge Clarence Darrow.

(note: featured photo from the Library of Congress)