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)