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The Life of Justice Douglas:

Bruce Murphy's Biography, Wild Bill


Friday, Apr. 25, 2002

Bruce Murphy, Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas (Random House 2003)

Bruce Murphy is certainly no stranger to the art of biography. In 1982, he published The Brandeis/Frankfurter Connection and in 1988, Fortas. Both books were the subject of critical acclaim; the latter was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

It should be no surprise, then, that Murphy's latest book, Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas, also deserves acclaim. The book is the result of fifteen years of extensive interviews and research on the former Supreme Court Justice, and it more than lives up to Murphy's reputation - as well as Douglas's.

While Douglas, and his expansive life are inherently engaging subjects, they also posed many potential traps for the unwary author - being too critical or too gushing; adding too much detail or not enough. Murphy, fortunately, brings just the right balance to his account of Douglas's life.

Debunking Douglas Legends, While Discerning The Truth About Douglas

Contrary to popular belief, Douglas did not have polio as a kid, nor did he live in a destitute family. He did not fight in World War I. Nor did he graduate second in his class at Yale Law School.

Even when these fictions are put to the side, however, Douglas's real life is compelling. In the 1930's, as Commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission, he cleaned up Wall Street in an era when it was desperately needed. He was the second youngest Justice to be appointed to the Supreme Court, and he served longer than any other justice on the Court. He also wrote more opinions, as well as dissents than any other Justice, and wrote more books than any other Justice, as well. Basically, he was brilliant.

The Real Life of William O. Douglas

In truth, as Murphy explains, Douglas grew up in Yakima, Washington - but not in poverty. There, he was raised by his strict - and adoring - widowed mother. His mother had enough money to live comfortably, but nonetheless acted as if she were poor. This would have a profound influence on Douglas, who throughout his life strived for financial independence.

After attending Yale Law School, Douglas had a short stint as a Wall Street attorney. But later he found himself back in law school as a professor, where he excelled. It did not take long for him to become a rising star, as he focused on some of the critical issues of the Great Depression - securities and bankruptcy law.

Like any smart money man, Douglas was able to parlay his success into competing offers from top law schools. Every year, he seemed to get a higher salary.

Once on the Supreme Court, Douglas was cantankerous, seeming to relish terrorizing his assistants and clerks. Douglas once said: "Law clerks are the lowest form of human life." On the bright side, as one Douglas clerk mentioned, "When you left the judge's office as a clerk, you were prepared for anything."

Meanwhile, while Douglas was succeeding professionally, his personal life was far more troubled. Indeed, it was often fit for the front pages of the tabloids.

Douglas had many vices, to say the least. He neglected his kids, who considered him "scary" (ironically enough, he was nevertheless named "Father of the Year" in 1950 by the National Father's Day Committee in New York). He was an open womanizer and drank heavily. After twenty-eight years of marriage, he divorced his first wife. He then thrice was remarried. His fourth wife was a twenty-two-year-old blond. At the time, Douglas was sixty-seven.

Douglas's ultimate goal was not to be on the Supreme Court; instead, he desperately wanted to be President of the United States. He was a popular figure; the office did not seem out of this grasp.

Indeed, Douglas may well have taken a Supreme Court seat in order to launch his bid for the Presidency - a move that was not uncommon for the times. "[T]his position had become the place where presidential hopefuls went to cool their heels while waiting to see if Franklin D. Roosevelt would ever leave the White House," writes Murphy.

Perhaps this explains why he greatly embellished his past. A past of transcending abject poverty, to become a war hero and star student, would have made Douglas a far more attractive candidate.

So why weren't Douglas's Presidential ambitions ever fulfilled? Murphy's account explains the reasons.

In particular, Wild Bill provides insight into the "back room" politicking of the influential bosses during the FDR years. In so doing, it shows that Douglas lacked the political skills to further his presidential ambitions. In 1940, Douglas failed to get nominated for the vice presidency. Then, in 1944, FDR operatives skillfully blocked Douglas's nomination.

These failed attempts left Douglas bitter and frustrated - but they did have a silver lining. Once the Presidency was out of the question, there was a pronounced shift in Douglas's judicial decisionmaking - as Murphy illustrates.

Until the early 1960s, Douglas was fairly pro-government in his opinions. That may have been a clever way to aid his political goals. But when it was clear he would not be president, his opinions became more egalitarian and anti-government.

Perhaps Douglas's most memorable opinion was Griswold v. Connecticut. It struck down a law prohibiting the purchase of contraceptives. But far more broadly, it began a judicial revolution by making privacy a constitutional right, leading to subsequent decisions such as, most famously, Roe v. Wade.

Justice Douglas plainly knew his influence was both creative and transformative. "I don't follow precedents," he said, "I make 'em."

Despite his flaws, Douglas was incredibly efficient and hard working, and he could quickly find the key issues of any case. More importantly, the book makes clear that Douglas had an ability to see things before others could. Griswold is only one example of his prescience, though a striking one.

It is for this reason that the legacy of Douglas will continue to live. As Murphy puts it, "it was Douglas's broad vision of rights and the ability to enumerate them in such clear language that captured the imagination of the public and pointed the way for the future."

Tom Taulli is the author of a variety of finance books, such as The Complete M&A Handbook and the StreetSmart Guide to Short Selling. He also teaches corporate finance at the USC Business School. He has his own web site at

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