Biographer John Farrell

The investigative reporter discusses complex defense lawyer Clarence Darrow and talks about his biography of the towering figure, Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned.

Now at The Center for Public Integrity, John Farrell has been The Denver Post's Washington bureau chief, written for U.S. News & World Report and was a founding correspondent at GlobalPost. In his prize-winning career as a newspaperman, he's covered Congress, the Supreme Court and every U.S. presidential campaign since '80, and his work as an investigative reporter has spurred congressional investigations on several issues. Farrell has also written biographies of former House Speaker Tip O'Neill and America's great defense attorney Clarence Darrow.


Tavis: John Farrell is an award-winning journalist and author whose previous books include a best seller about the life of Tip O’Neill. His latest, though, focuses on another iconic American, Clarence Darrow. The book is called “Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned.” John, good to have you on this program.

John Farrell: My pleasure.

Tavis: For those who don’t know the famed Clarence Darrow, Clarence Darrow was who?

Farrell: Clarence Darrow was probably America’s greatest or grandest defense lawyer. He is familiar to most people as Henry Drummond in “Inherit the Wind.” Spencer Tracy played him. He’s also Billy Flynn in the movie “Chicago.”

But for lawyers, you don’t graduate from law school without once having an aunt come up and sort of squeeze your cheek and saying, “Now we’ve got our own little Clarence Darrow in the family.” He’s quite an icon.

Tavis: What made him such a defender of defendants?

Farrell: Two things. One, he grew up in a family of abolitionists in rural northeast Ohio, and the other thing was he had this amazing sense of empathy and compassion, and time and time again, when given the choice between taking one route making a lot of money and joining corporate America or doing something like defending an indigent person who was really stuck, Darrow would come, time and time again, on behalf of, as I said, the damned, in American life.

Tavis: I read a comment that you made to somebody, apparently, that struck me, because you made the point – and I can empathize with this – you made the point that you were at one point reticent about even doing the research and a book about Darrow because he was a hero of yours, and there’s always that danger –

Farrell: If you’re doing research on me now. (Laughs)

Tavis: Yeah, oh, that’s my job. You do Darrow, I do you. There’s always that danger in coming across stuff about your hero that you really don’t want to confront. Tell me about that process.

Farrell: Yeah, absolutely. When I was 12 years old, somebody gave me a copy of Irving Stone’s biography of Darrell, which was called “Clarence Darrow for the Defense,” and I know that because I actually printed my name inside the cover and the date that I got it on. So he was a big influence of mine.

Then you go out, and as with Tip O’Neill, you go out and you start to do the research of somebody that you love, somebody that you think you can live with because it takes six years to do this, you have to live with this person for six years, and you find that they’re human.

You have to process this, and I’m sure that if I’d written the book at certain points in the process it would have been a much more negative book or a much more positive book, but what I ended up with is what I call in the acknowledgements “loving revisionism.”

I try to tell the tale of him as a true person, an unvarnished look, and yet at the same time show my admiration and show why I think he was a hero.

Tavis: To your point about loving revisionism, my sense has been – I regard Dr. King as my hero, and as time passes on and we learn more about King’s humanness, for me it makes him even greater, that he was able to, in spite of those shortcomings, in spite of those frailties, stay focused on the work he was doing on behalf of people who were disenfranchised.

So Darrow, a long way from perfect, but how do you process him now that you know his shortcomings?

Farrell: Well, very much like King, very much of the same shortcomings. The thing about Darrow was that Darrow had a meteoric rise and then a complete crash here in Los Angeles when he was caught bribing a jury and put on trial for bribing a jury.

Then he went back to Chicago and his career was in ruins, and he had to take whatever case he could. That is the man that goes on to do Leopold and Loeb, the Scopes Monkey trial, the Sweet trial in Detroit, all because he still had this drive, this empathy, in him. That shows to me the quality of the man all along, even more so.

After the Monkey trial, he was, without a doubt, the most famous American lawyer. He was 68 years old, he had very little money. He was always worried about money. He could have picked any case in the world, he could have gone to Wall Street, he could have done rich divorces in Chicago.

Instead, the NAACP calls up and says, “We’d like you to defend the Sweet family in Detroit. They moved into a house in a White neighborhood, it was surrounded by a racist mob. They fired out the window at the mob and now they’ve been charged with murder.”

And so Darrow, at the age of 68, goes there for $5,000 for a year. He does two trials, he gets a hung jury in one, and again, the NAACP had no expectations that they would win this trial, wins the second one, again, for almost nothing financially, and goes home that summer and has a heart attack from the strain.

So that sort of says to me about the quality of the man and where his values were.

Tavis: Some of his greatest work, to your point, though, John, comes after he has his fall, so he falls and then in the courtroom and in the annals of history he rises again.

Is the rise only possible because of the fall? Is the crucifixion necessary for the resurrection?

Farrell: It was an act of redemption. I think he was definitely a better man. His friend, the great muckraker Lincoln Steffens, said that the man that laughed now has seen his soul and is a different person. In the book I say when he went back to Chicago he was somewhat more hollow and also somewhat more holy.

Tavis: What makes a guy who is as regarded as good as Darrow is already want to bribe a jury?

Farrell: He hated to lose a defendant to the death penalty, and these guys were facing the death penalty. He justified in his mind, especially as he looked and saw the tricks that the prosecution was playing, that he could match them.

So to save their lives, desperate to help organize labor in America, to help the labor movement, and also for his own aggrandizement, he went out and I make the argument in the book that he did this.

Tavis: How does he become – I’m glad he was, but how did he become so violently opposed to the death penalty?

Farrell: I think when he was a small boy in Ohio, his father was the town furniture maker, and that also included in those days the duties of undertaker. So he grew up in an undertaker’s house, and in one corner of the machine shop were coffins, and they didn’t do embalming in those days, but death was part of his life.

He would clean up the body and put it out in the parlor, and his dad did that and arranged for the funeral up to the graveyard, and that left a searing impression on him. He was not a man of faith. At best, you would call him an agnostic. So I think he was very afraid of what death meant and what would come after death.

So when he applied that, these various impulses to his clients, again, this sense of compassion comes in. He was just absolutely terrified of losing one of them to the hangman or to the electric chair.

Tavis: When Darrow is being taught or studied by students, what principally are they wrestling with, with regard to his legacy?

Farrell: The number one thing that they talk about is the evolution case. The Monkey trial was about teaching evolution in the classroom, and of course it had that great confrontation that we saw in the movie, “Inherit the Wind,” which is produced almost everywhere around the country, read in high school drama classes.

So I think that that legacy is the one everybody remembers. To me, what struck me was that there was this consistent push throughout his life to defend the rights of individual liberty against big, impersonal forces. In the first part of his career it was the industrial age, big corporations. Later on it was against prohibition, but especially against the state coming in and executing individuals.

So of almost 100 cases, he lost one to the hangman and that was the very first one, back when he was a young man.

Tavis: I’m not asking this question, John, because I’m necessarily looking for names. If you have them, I’m happy to take them. But I’m trying to get a sense of what it would take and whether or not there are persons on the national stage today who in any way are reminiscent of the kind of vigor and intellect and skill and charisma that Darrow had.

Farrell: Well, sadly, there are people like John Edwards, who are great trial lawyers, but they don’t stick in the courtroom their entire lives. I argued in a piece that I wrote saying that if John Edwards really wants to follow the same path of redemption that Darrow did, then he should go back to the courtroom.

He should go back and find the kind of clients that Darrow did and the kind of causes and fight for them, not necessarily for the glory, but for the cause.

Tavis: That’s great advice and it may very – I can’t get inside John Edwards’s head but I found it interesting that rather than plea bargain he is going to trial and the word is because he does not want to lose his right to practice law.

He may very well be thinking, and reading this book right now, about his own redemption in that way.

Farrell: Wouldn’t it be great if John Edwards went back into the courtroom, wins this case like Darrow won his case, and then devotes the rest of his life and those immense skills that he has in the courtroom towards people who are stuck?

The problem with defense attorneys who win big these days is that their heads do get turned by the money and the fame, and very few of them – maybe it was lucky. Maybe Darrow was lucky that he had that great fall. Otherwise, he may have turned out the same way.

Tavis: Speaking of money and fame, what is it about him as a lawyer that made him such – since we’re sitting here in Hollywood, in Los Angeles – what made him such a darling of Hollywood, certainly screenwriters?

Farrell: Very apt question, because he was an actor in the courtroom, and he would do things like he would start out like this, and then he would lean over to the jury and he’d talk in a very low voice, until the people in the back row had to lean forward so that they could hear. Then all of a sudden he would raise his hand and start thundering, and bring his fist down.

I think that those dramatics impressed whole succeeding generations of lawyers to try the same thing. So you see this constantly, this sort of Darrowesque, iconic behavior by American attorneys – Atticus Finch, you can find it in an awful lot of novels, “Native Son,” “An American Tragedy.” There are Darrow-like figures. So he became part of the culture, and I think that Hollywood is fascinated, as well.

Tavis: I’m not asking this question to be silly, but when you look at Clarence Darrow on the cover of this book or any number of other photos, he’s not, speaking of John Edwards, he’s not the most handsome guy and he’s not the easiest guy on the eyes, and yet he wins time and time again.

We live in an age, of course, where image is everything. So I raise that to ask whether or not it was his intellect or his charisma or both, because it certainly wasn’t his good looks.

Farrell: No. I think that intellect and charisma is the answer. He was also a great heartbreaker and had many affairs throughout his life. One woman admirer said that he had – there’s a French phrase called “the beauty of the devil,” which is someone who’s not necessarily classically handsome, but there was a presence about him.

When he would walk into the courtroom, everything would get quiet and people would say, “There’s Darrow, there’s Darrow.” So that’s the kind of charisma that he had.

Tavis: Vis-à-vis the law, what is his enduring legacy?

Farrell: I think it’s that tradition that was instilled in American defense attorneys to stick up for the little guy, and I’m touched, because I get notes, emails from defense lawyers who said, “I can’t make your book party” or “I can’t make the reading,” at such-and-such a shop, “But I just want to tell you that on my wall, Clarence looks over my shoulder every day. I’m inspired by him and he still does sort of create that – he’s sort of the patron saint of the defense lawyer, fighting great odds on behalf of the individual.

Tavis: Final question here. There’ve been obviously other books written about Darrow, but you had access to a cache of letters. There’s some new material in this text.

Farrell: Yes, it’s an amazing story. There’s a fellow named Randy teaching out in Minnesota who is a Darrow letter collector, and before she passed away he went to Darrow’s granddaughter’s house and asked if she had any material. They went down the basement and they were rummaging through boxes and they found one box that said “Christmas ornaments.”

They uncovered it, and inside were, like, a thousand letters that had been written to or from Darrow, and last summer they were released. They’re at the University of Minnesota law library, and that’s the meat of the new material in the book.

Tavis: His name is John A. Farrell, author of the best selling book about Tip O’Neill. Now a new book out about Clarence Darrow, “Attorney for the Damned.” John, great work. Good to have you on the program.

Farrell: Thank you very much.

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Last modified: June 29, 2011 at 2:57 pm