Kirkus Reviews QR Code
CLARENCE DARROW by John A. Farrell Kirkus Star

CLARENCE DARROW

Attorney for the Damned

By John A. Farrell

Pub Date: June 14th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-385-52258-8
Publisher: Doubleday

A comprehensive biography of the storied defense attorney.

At midlife, embarrassed by his comfortable railroad practice so at odds with his personal beliefs, Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) took on a series of high-profile cases whose underlying political, sociological and economic issues placed him at the white-hot center of the Progressive Era. His starring role in these courtroom dramas turned him into a legend. Making elaborate use of transcripts, observers’ accounts, correspondence and newspaper reports, Farrell (Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century, 2002) chronicles Darrow’s most celebrated trials in detail: the defense of labor leaders Eugene Debs and “Big Bill” Haywood; the McNamara brothers, charged with firebombing the Los Angeles Times headquarters; homosexual thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb; Ossian Sweet, accused of murder for defending his home against a racist mob; John Scopes for teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee law; and the friends and family of Thalia Massie, on trial in Hawaii for a so-called “honor killing.” These cases—including two in which Darrow, almost surely guilty, was himself tried for jury tampering—dominate the narrative, but Farrell neatly places them within the larger context of this complicated man’s crowded life and practice. He covers Darrow’s small-town upbringing, his brief country-lawyer career, his move to Chicago and his rise within the city’s political and legal establishment. A puzzling mix of towering ego and bottomless compassion, Darrow was also an author and an in-demand lecturer who more than dabbled in politics. Also at home within bohemian circles, Darrow preferred the company of artists, professors and poets. (Edgar Lee Masters, who grew to despise him, was for a time his legal partner.) Twice-married, Darrow was also an inveterate womanizer, money grubber and shameless self-promoter who often bent the ethical code to combat what he saw as corrupt prosecutions. Farrell unflinchingly addresses these shortcomings, even as he underscores the genuine brilliance of a still-unmatched advocate for underdogs everywhere.

A warts-and-all portrait that leaves readers lamenting Darrow’s private failings, while still in awe of his immensely consequential career.