When H. L. Mencken helped convince Clarence Darrow to go to Dayton, Tennessee, and defend biology teacher John Scopes in the 1925 Monkey Trial, the great newspaperman stumbled upon one of Americaʼs most virulent personal feuds.
Mencken was a friend to Darrow. And Mencken was a friend, as well, of Edgar Lee Masters, the poet-lawyer who had achieved great fame for publishing the Spoon River Anthology of poems.
But Darrow and Masters were no friends of each other.
“Iʼll make that son of a bitch the most detestable figure in American history,” Masters had vowed, a few years earlier.
It was not always so. In the early years of the twentieth century, Masters and Darrow had been law partners in Chicago.They were much alike: literary men, defenders of individual liberty, with Jeffersonian political beliefs and a taste for sex and money. “I have never been able to see anything wrong in erotic indulgence,” Masters would recall. “On that subject I was as emancipated as an animal.”
“Sex,” Darrow told a mistress, was “the only feeling in the world that can make you forget for a little while.”
Then came their falling out. Masters became persuaded that Darrow had cheated him of $9,000 of the firmʼs profits. He chewed on the grievance and then, in 1916, at the height of his Spoon River fame, threw the first punch, describing Darrow in a published poem as “A giant as we hoped, in truth a dwarf;/ A barrel of slop that shines on Letheʼs wharf.”
Darrow fumed, but decided that revenge, indeed, was best served cold. He said nothing to Masters, and continued to pose as his former partnerʼs friend— praising his poetry and sending him young female admirers. And when the poetʼs marriage disintegrated (due in part to what Masters dismissed as his “lighthearted adulteries”), Darrow offered to counsel the couple, and settle things amiably.
“Of course you know me well enough to know that I would never . . . try to make you any trouble,” Darrow said.
To his subsequent regret, Masters agreed. Darrow had “waited for a chance to revenge himself” and then “approached me extending his hand with an ingratiating smile,” a rueful Masters would recall. Too late, he discovered that his wife was “in the hands of Darrow, avaricious and sordid.” In the divorce, Masters lost his house, his country home, his children, and his fortune.
When Darrow announced that he would go to Dayton, to clash with prosecutor William Jennings Bryan and defend Scopes for teaching evolution in a public school biology class there, Masters dashed off a letter to Mencken:
You will find that Darrow is not the man to fight Bryan. I have seen Darrow perform. . . . He must have the stage set, a complaisant judge or a fixed jury to be bold and even there his forte is a speech, such as it is. He fails in cross examination due to his lack of concentration, patience, sequences of plan, pugnacity and will. I have seen Darrow quit cold more than once where he could see that it meant labor to fight, and where the publicity was doubtful, or adverse. In a word, he lacks character.Mencken didnʼt disagree, but in his reply to Masters, he suggested that Darrowʼs flaws were irrelevant. “The way to handle it is to convert it into a headlong assault upon Bryan,” he wrote.
That Darrow did, in his famous showdown with Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential nominee and former Secretary of State, later immortalized in the play and film Inherit the Wind.
The showdown was “inconceivably dramatic: two ancient warlocks brought jaw to jaw at last,” Mencken wrote. “It was superb to see Darrow throw out his webs, lay his foundations, prepare his baits. His virtuosity never failed. In the end Bryan staggered to the block and took that last appalling clout. It was delivered calmly, deliberately, beautifully. Bryan was killed as plainly as if he had been felled with an axe. He rolled into the sawdust a comic obscenity.”
Even Masters was impressed. “At last Darrow has his hour,” he wrote a friend. “He is a grey-eyed infidel, and all his life he has been talking this stuff; now he can empty his mind of it on a good occasion.”
Mencken continued in his somewhat awkward role as friend to the two feuding lawyers. He found himself in the middle, again, when Darrow chaired a special review board, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to evaluate the National Recovery Administration, a key element in the New Deal.
Darrow had endorsed FDR, and the White House staff thought he was a safe choice. Masters strove to warn them.
His old antagonist had spent a lifetime “winding serpent-like where there was food, and winding safely away when there was danger,” Masters wrote the White House. “Money and publicity have been his life objects and to get them he has sacrificed parties and friends and principles all along."
“I do not refer to Darrowʼs malodorous career, to his indictment for jury bribing in California, nor to his dubious reputation as a lawyer in Chicago, but rather to his insidious and subtle faculty of playing fast and loose with labor and capital,” said Masters. If FDR allowed Darrow “inside the breastworks,” he was sure to turn and “fang” the president.
Mencken tried to reassure Masters. The White House knew what it was doing, he wrote. Darrow was just an old pussycat, entranced by the “catnip” of the press.
But Masters knew his man. The reports released by Darrowʼs review board in 1934 scored the NRA for favoring big industry over small business and consumers. FDR swiftly, and unceremoniously, cut Darrow loose.
“I hear from Washington that Darrow is wandering around in a fog, scarcely knowing where he is at or what he is doing,” Mencken wrote to Masters. “His report will take its place among the comic documents of all time. When it came in the Brain Trust boys threw back their ears and howled with delight.”
That was the White House spin. But Congress listened to the Darrow board, and so perhaps did the Supreme Court. In the spring of 1935, a year after Darrowʼs report, the court ruled unanimously that the NRA represented an unconstitutional excess of federal power.
Darrowʼs death, in 1938, failed to placate Masters.
“They will try to get a bust of him and make him an heir of fame, but what he did in life, his dishonesty and his treachery and his selfish grabbing and living will seep up from the grass of any pedestal and fill the circumambient air with feculence,” Masters told a friend.
Mencken was more generous. He hailed the “Gladiator of the Law” in the Baltimore Evening Sun. “In his private life and philosophy he was singularly gentle and even sentimental, but when he enlisted for a cause he was a terror,” Mencken wrote. “It was to his credit that he was most often a terror to quacks and dolts, hypocrites and scoundrels.”
Also of interest:
- James Weldon Johnson hires Clarence Darrow for the landmark 1925 Sweet murder trial, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- H. L. Mencken and Sara Haardt tie the knot, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- H. L. Mencken on “The Nature of Liberty,” a previous Story of the Week