Sunday, August 16, 2009

Attorney for the Damned

I have just finished reading Donald McRae's The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow. If a one-word review was sufficient, I'd just say "Wow". Or "Amazing." But it's not, so here goes.

Clarence Darrow had two principle reasons for living: winning and women. We know a lot about his courtroom victories, thanks to a succession of books, articles, and film adaptations. The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow delves into more intimate territory, namely his relationship with Mary Field Parton, socialist writer and reporter. She prevented him from committing suicide in 1912, and despite disillusion and heartache, supported him while he built his legacy as America’s greatest defense attorney. Compassionate yet conceited, equal parts earthy and intellectual, few American lawyers have attained the mythical status of Clarence Darrow. He turned seemingly hopeless cases into judicial triumphs, spawning the nickname ‘Attorney for the Damned’.

In 1924 he saved teenaged thrill killers Leopold and Loeb from the gallows by persuading the judge that mental illness was sufficient grounds to commute the death penalty. An ardent civil libertarian, Darrow defended John Scopes, who stood trial in Tennessee in July 1925 for teaching Darwinism in a state-funded school. The following October, he joined the defense team of a black physician, Ossian Sweet, who had moved into an all-white neighbourhood in Detroit and caused a riot that saw one white man killed and another injured. His closing statement in that trial is regarded as a civil rights landmark.

Previous reviewers have complained that this book contains no new information about Darrow’s career or personal life. That may be: I admit that this is the first biography I’ve read of the man whom Variety called "America's greatest one-man stage draw." As an introduction to Darrow’s legacy, I found McRae’s book to be engrossing. It may not be especially critical or insightful about the legal issues of the day, but this is a book aimed at the popular history market and has its limits in that regard.

What appears to be new in McRae’s treatment of Clarence Darrow’s story is his emphasis on the stormy relationship with Mary Field Parton. Although she had the misfortune of falling in love with a man whose moral compass was broken at birth and has been trivialized by some as a peripheral floozy, she was part of Darrow’s life for over thirty years, and shared in both his greatest highs and darkest lows. McRae’s access to her diaries gave him, and therefore the reader, a little more insight into how the ‘attorney for the damned’ affected those close to him.

No comments: