Darrow, Love and the Cost of Contentment

 "There is no such thing as justice – in or out of court." The words are Clarence Darrow’s. The same Clarence Darrow who once said:"Justice has nothing to do with what goes on in a courtroom. Justice is what comes out of a courtroom."

These are decidedly antinomian sentiments, warranting the H.G. Well’s description of Darrow as a "sentimental anarchist." Taken to their extreme, they suggest that Darrow, lawyer, essayist, orator and social philosopher, was not above suggesting that the ends justified the means. If there is no justice in court, and justice is only what comes out of a courtroom, then isn’t it just possible that he would justify such steps as bribing a juror to make sure that the verdict turned out right?

When he was in his mid-fifties, Darrow was tried twice for jury tampering in Los Angeles for his defense of the McNamara brothers, who had firebombed the Los Angeles Times building during a bitter labor dispute. The first jury acquitted Darrow as to claims he was involved in the bribery of a jury. A second jury deadlocked as to charges involving another juror. California agreed not to prosecute him a third time if he would leave the state and promise never to appear as counsel in a California court again. Darrow returned to Chicago a broke and broken man, resorting to the sale of cherished first edition books to pay the rent as he sought to recover from this humiliation.

Yet this is not the Darrow we remember. We recall the man who saved the lives of Leopold and Loeb in the infamous thrill-killing of a little boy, or the Darrow who defended Scopes in the "monkey trial" in Dayton, Tennessee, or the Darrow who defend Dr. Ossian Sweet’s black family, one of whom – just who was never clear – fired lethal shots at a white mob trying to drive them out of their home in Detroit. We recall the lawyer, the author, the riveting speaker. Few know the man who one night arrived at his mistress’s apartment in Los Angeles, a bottle of whiskey in one pocket, a revolver in the other, threatening to kill himself as he faced trial for jury tampering.

Donald McRae’s, The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow, focuses on Darrow’s relationship with Mary Field Parton, his mistress, and the trials that define his legacy. It is a worthy addition to all that has been written about Darrow, reminding, as if a reminder were necessary, that even the legendary among us struggle in the darkness to find their own distinctive and redeeming light. McRae’s sympathetic treatment of Ms. Parton is a counterweight to earlier works, such as Irving Stone’s, which tried to write Ms. Parton out of his life at the request of Darrow’s wife, Ruby. The parallels between Ruby and Count Leo Tolstoy’s wife in the effort to manage their spouse’s literary estate and heritage are striking. Is there a tortured spouse in the wings of every man regarded as great?

I cannot read enough about Darrow, so I read this eagerly. Yet the book was tone deaf to the rhythm of trial. While McCrae reports lavishly about Darrow’s trials, he is not a trial lawyer. Somehow the presentation of Darrow’s legal battles lacked the angst every trial knows when presenting a case: trial is less about finding facts under the dispassionate rule of law that it is the creation of a narrative world ex nihilo, a world in which the currents nourishing life flow in but one direction. Every trial lawyer searches for these currents; all fear being drowned by the currents unleashed by an adversary. There are no confident trial lawyers. There are only men and women struggling to survive the day’s torment and toil.

McRae’s book can be read less for insight on the life of a trial lawyer than the life of a man who somehow chose to remain unlucky in love. For more than 20 years, he regarded Ms. Parton as a soul mate. Friends regarded them as a perfect match. Yet Darrow chose to remain married to Ruby, complaining about her, yet seemingly afraid of her. Ms. Parton married another man, whom she loved after a fashion, and regarded as kind; but her heart remained with Darrow. She followed his career and cases obsessively, meeting with him whenever possible, and, one senses, forever waiting for but the smallest signal to fall into his arms there to remain forever.

But they remained distant lovers and admirers. Darrow’s flame flickered and then died. He slipped into silence with Ruby standing a jealous guard at the door of their Chicago apartment. She wanted the world to recall the giant’s roar; she did not want the world to see him as his gaze lost focus, and he descended into senescence.

I wondered, as I read this sad yet compelling account of something like unrequited love, whether it did not express a deeper truth about life in the law. There is no justice on or our of court. I agree, of course. But I would go further. There is no redemption in this world of ours, a world filled with struggle, sorrow and tears. Yet illusion draws us forward, and some among us, the dreamers, the reckless, and sometimes simply the weak, stake all they have in their hopes for better life. That these hopes so often end in tragedy is the stuff that keeps trial lawyers busy. Perhaps the larger truth about Clarence Darrow is that much though he believe that the ability love is the only redeeming quality we possess, its capacity to redeem is limited. Didn’t Paul write of faith, hope and charity, not just love? Perhaps we must abide in the presence of all three, and not just one, to have any chance at redemption. As soon as we settle into love, restlessness arises, almost inevitably. Perhaps distant love is what redeems. In the hard combat of life, there is but strife. In the end, there is not even that, there is, simply, nothing.

I wanted this book to tell me more about Darrow the trial lawyer. It didn’t. It shed a little more light on him as a man. That was far more valuable, even if it shared a seemingly bitter and unsatisfactory truth.

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Comments: (2)

  • RightO
    maybe you'll just have to keep wondering about that distant love, as you apparently don't have one.
    Meanwhile, you should run for probate judge, then just assign estates to yourself. This way, you don't have to move your office to new haven or waterbury.
    Posted on March 16, 2011 at 12:45 pm by anon
  • In response
    Perhaps he does......
    Posted on March 17, 2011 at 8:58 pm by Ms. Parton

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