Clarence Darrow: Thursday, February 23


John A. Farrell’s biography Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned (Doubleday, 2011) — “impeccably researched, beautifully written, and timely,” said the San Francisco Chronicle— describes the career of the limelight-stealing, two-fisted attorney who resigned from corporate law to defend union organizers, powerless minorities, and those accused of sensational crimes.

Darrow is perhaps best known for his devastating attack on his former friend (and three-time presidential candidate) William Jennings Bryan, when the pair faced off during the notorious Scopes “Monkey Trial” over the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools.


Q: The journalist Hutchins Hapgood that Clarence Darrow “could best be described, he wrote, as a philosophical anarchist who, in the name of liberty, refused to be ruled buy nettlesome rules or creeds…. ‘It allows a man to be an opportunist,’ Hapgood said, ‘while having a high ideal.’“ Do you agree with this paradox about Darrow, which allowed him to defend, with a clear conscience, anti-union corporations, pro-union laborers, crooks, and bomb-throwers?

Clarence Darrow

I agree. One of Darrow’s defining, and finest, characteristics was his individualism. He sailed his own course. He believed that men were flawed creatures, doomed to meaningless lives, and that all the political and religious creeds of the ages were fairy tales crafted by a terrified humanity to provide comfort. He would have nothing to do with them. There was no right nor wrong, nor God nor Heaven. His father was the village infidel of the small Ohio town in which Darrow grew up, and Darrow became the village infidel for the nation. What saved him, usually, from his cynicism was his profound compassion. He could not stand to see the strong brutalize the weak, or the sick, or the flawed. He only represented one anti-union railroad, and left it after a time, confessing to friends that he felt ashamed to work there.

In the first part of his career he was the leading labor lawyer in the country, battling corporations and wealthy individuals of the gilded age, and representing union men and women in several spectacular cases. Later, he focused his anger against the State which, in the years after World War I, was becoming steadily more powerful, and not only in Italy and Germany— though he was an early foe of fascism. He hated Prohibition, and the death penalty and represented all sorts of murderers, con men, bootleggers and the like.

The lawyer, Billy Flynn, in the musical and movie “Chicago” is patterned, in part, on Darrow— ‘Give em the old razzle dazzle’— and the cynicism and corruption displayed in the show is a pretty fair representation of what Chicago, in Darrow’s time, was like.

Q: Darrow, in a letter to a friend wrote, “Of course, the law is a con game….” Is this to say that Darrow was fundamentally dishonest, or that he saw a difference between law and justice?

Darrow didn’t believe in law or justice. He only really believed in compassion, and mercy. The law was something that a bunch of corrupted hayseeds wrote, under the influence of the robber barons, in the state legislature down in Springfield— so how much respect did it deserve? Darrow certainly enjoyed notoriety, and a good argument. But it also took courage to face life fearlessly, as he liked to say.

And there were many days when his courage failed, and he threw himself into his work, or a sexual affair, or some other consuming occupation to keep from dwelling on the uselessness of it all.

He was reliant on, if not addicted to, narcotics at one point in his life, and spoke of how we all need some form of “dope”— whiskey, sex, religion or work — to get through the night.

Q: Darrow had to be one of the homeliest, but nevertheless successful practitioners of free love ever. What explains his appeal to women?

John A. Farrell

He wasn’t a classic beauty. But he wasn’t ugly. He possessed a rugged charisma, and a roguish style, and that courageous non-conformity, that women found captivating. The free love movement was, at the time, a real political cause, to which many feminists subscribed. They believed in changing marriage laws to allow for divorce, and in making women equal partners in relationships, in sex education and birth control. Darrow took their cases when they ran afoul of the law.

Many wanted the freedom of careers, and several of Darrow’s most intriguing and long-lasting affairs were with what were known as the “new women” of the era. They were artists and journalists and the like, generally better educated, who wanted the freedom to choose a life, and a spouse, on their own terms. He was up front with them— never stringing them along with false promises— and seemed to respect both the women and their beliefs. They were the ones who saved his letters, or confided in their diaries. I am sure there were others that he treated as disposables, but he does not come down through history as a cad.

Q: It’s really remarkable how violent the war between American anarchists and the “good people,” as Darrow called them (the self-righteous establishment) became. I suspect that if dynamiting places of business were as common now as it was around the time of War World I, the National Guard would be on the streets in dozens of cities. What were the main reasons for the implacable hatred between the working class and the successful capitalists?

Conditions were terrible for the immigrant workers who, truly, were cogs in the industrial machine. In volumes like The Shame of the Cities, or The Jungle, the muckrakers from the era have left us with a valuable record of what their time was like.

The workers were the victims of a kind of organized violence – forced to work for little pay, with little hope, on unsafe jobs. All they could do was try and organize, and when they did the upper class did in fact bring in the National Guard – not to maintain peace and order, but to crush any resistance to the economic order, with volleys of gunfire.

The robber barons, in turn, were awful people. They were pious and self-satisfied and believed their success was a sign of divine favor, or Darwinian selection. They ruled with the help of corrupt legislators and judges and gave the working folk no choice, or so it seemed, but to turn to violence.

Q: An admirer of Darrow’s said, “Darrow is false to everything, except humanity.” On the other hand, his success at turning witnesses, and in one case, trying to bribe a juror, seems to imply his contempt for people, doesn’t it?

Darrow was certainly contemptuous of the “good people,” as he called them. But let’s remember that with his gifts, had he so chosen, he could have “run with the wolves” as he said in his defense in the bribery trial. He could have made a fortune representing the rich and the powerful. He chose not to.

My touchstone for Darrow is what took place in the fall of 1925. He had just saved Leopold and Loeb from the noose, and won the famous showdown with William Jennings Bryan in the “Monkey Trial.”

Darrow was old, in poor health, and needed money for retirement. But instead of working for a Wall Street firm, or taking some other well-paying job, the most famous lawyer in America chose to go to Detroit and represent an African-American family that had been put on trial for murder because they fired into a racist white mob that had surrounded their home. Darrow worked for nine months on the case— won a hung jury in the first trial and a not guilty verdict in the next— for a few thousand dollars scraped together by the NAACP. And when it was over, after he won, he suffered a heart attack. There would be other cases, but he was never the same. Given the chance to cash in, he chose instead to represent the poor Sweet family, in the year that thousands of hooded Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, and lynching was an all-too-common atrocity.

Q: Darrow confided to someone that constant work was the only way he could avoid the burden of reality. What do you think was eating at Darrow, so that he had to drive himself to exhaustion? Was it fear of death or failure, for instance?

Darrow was a non-believer. He faced life’s pointlessness fearlessly. He had a vibrant imagination, lived in a merciless era, when all verities were crumbling, and was surrounded in his criminal practice by constant reminders of man’s brutality and savagery. He refused the comfort of self-delusion even though, since his childhood, he had a distinct fear of death. It is amazing he functioned as well as he did.

Q: You’re a prize-winning journalist, and at time your style seems to indicate a love of Americanese, and newsroom talk: “Murphy was an old friend of Mont Tennes and a veteran goon from the bone-breaking days of the Hearst circulation wars.” Do you enjoy American idiomatic speech? Why?

Ernest Hemingway once said that journalism was fine training for a writer, if you get out of it early enough, and avoid getting trapped. I went into newspapers thinking I would get out of it early enough, but fell in love with this great romantic craft, and stayed for thirty years. What I have learned in newsrooms shows in my books. They are strong on research and very objective— I let the truth of the story take me where it will. And I do enjoy the fine turns of phrase that the masters of early 20th century journalism left us in their copy. But my writing also shows the dangers Hemingway spoke of. I need to display more imagination and analysis, and less reliance on other observers— even if they were superb wordsmiths. It is a constant battle for me.

Scene at the Scopes "Monkey Trial"

Q: It was revelation to find out that the town of Dayton, Tennessee orchestrated the Scopes Trial to get publicity for the town. Was it your sense that the civic boosters had any notion what a bizarre event it would become?

It was a show trial from the start— the telegram that the city fathers sent to the ACLU, offering to stage the test case on the state law barring the teaching of Darwin in school, promised that John Scopes would be convicted.

So they pretty much got what they hoped for— a mid-summer diversion that would bring tourists and money to sleepy Dayton. But no one could have foreseen that the trial would touch such a chord— that all of modernism was put on trial, not just the biology teacher who (it turns out) may or may not have taught evolution at all.

It was the Roaring Twenties, the press was at its rambunctious peak, radio was coming into its own, and Darrow was shrewd enough to grasp the opportunity to show up the fundamentalists to the world.

Q: The Scopes “Monkey Trial” seemed less a duel of intellects between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, than the spectacle of a rather foolish old man being pilloried on the witness stand for his Sunday school beliefs. Would you agree that Darrow was less interested in debunking creationism than in humiliating Bryan?

Darrow didn’t like Bryan. He thought that Bryan was a poor spokesman for populism and liberalism, and too ignorant to properly frame the case against privilege. And Darrow envied Bryan. Darrow thought of himself as the brighter man, just as good or better a speaker, and free from foolish religious superstition. Over time, that envy hardened into contempt.

Darrow certainly wanted to put the whole fundamentalist movement on trial, because he saw it as a legitimate threat to science, intellectual liberty and education. But he relished the idea of destroying Bryan, and when he got the chance, he did indeed reveal Bryan as a foolish old man.

10. Do you admire Darrow? If so, why?

I do admire Darrow. I believe that in a world that is ultimately tragic, what he teaches in his speeches, his writings and his actions— about the need to reach out and console our fellow doomed souls— is an admirable alternative to despair.

He showed great moral and physical courage in defending the underdogs of his time against the powerfully cruel forces of the industrial age. He was a man with weaknesses and failures, crimes and sins. But so are all great souls.


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