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Luke Gilman

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Two new bios on America’s first celebrity lawyer Clarence Darrow

Two new bios on America’s first celebrity lawyer Clarence Darrow:

“He was Jefferson’s heir, his time’s foremost champion of personal liberty, raging against the concentration of wealth and power that had accompanied the nation’s industrialization. But Darrow also thought of the law as blood sport. He shamelessly seduced juries with his common man routine — the rumpled suits and suspenders, the gentle country drawl — and his extraordinary closing statements, which he packed with philosophy, poetry and cheap emotions meant to make men cry. Those were the benign manipulations, Farrell argues. In some of his biggest cases Darrow bought the testimony he needed. And when he was apparently caught in the act in 1911, he hired as his counsel the most ruthless criminal lawyer he could find — a flashy-dressing, hard-drinking, anti-union conservative — because there was no point in confusing means and ends.

A similarly callous streak ran through Darrow’s personal life. He divorced his first wife because she wasn’t sophisticated enough; married his second because she doted on him; then took a mistress 21 years his junior. He cheated on his law partners too, handing them work he didn’t want to do and pocketing fees they were supposed to share. And for all his radicalism, Darrow loved a big payday: according to Farrell, he took on Leopold and Loeb, two sons of privilege, primarily because their parents offered him a $65,000 retainer.

Once the deal was struck, though, he gave them a brilliant defense, the horror of their crime buried beneath layers of psychological theory and wrenching appeals for mercy. When he was done, the tears came streaming down his face, because he meant every word he said. That was vintage Darrow, his onetime partner Edgar Lee Masters wrote, “with his young, old heart and … his infinite paradox,” inspiring, enraging, and in Farrell’s engrossing biography, marvelously alive.”

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