NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Famous people rarely live up to their press clippings. When Thurgood Marshall first went on the bench, he was the most famous lawyer of his time. As a courtroom lawyer, he tried everything, from murder cases to landmark constitutional cases. As a leader of the civil-rights movement, he had played a central role in bringing that movement into the mainstream of American politics and culture. After that, he became a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and a household name.
Unlike many household names, however, Marshall lives up to--even outdoes--his press clippings. He is a warm, incredibly funny man, a lovable human being.
Anyone who has spent any time with Marshall knows he is a keen observer of life, always ready with a one-liner or anecdote summing up his views on an issue. Discussing street crime, he once remarked he was thinking of getting a large sign to wear that read, "Just Ask."
Describing good detective work, he explained, "When a man robs a bank, the first thing he'll do with the money is get a new girlfriend. Sooner or later, the old girlfriend will call the police. A good detective is one by the phone with his feet on the desk when that call comes."
Marshall's inexhaustible sense of humor has enabled him to laugh at, as well as combat, the darker side of human nature. He often describes how, in the 1940s, he dealt with travel agencies that booked reservations for Florida hotels that discriminated. As he tells the story:
"I called this agency and asked to book a room at the ------ Hotel. I told the woman who answered that my name was Thurgood Marshall. Usually, when I did that, they would say, 'I'm sorry we cannot accept your reservation,' and I would then get the agency booted out of New York. This time, though, the woman said 'Thank you, Mr. Marshall. Your reservation will be made. I hope you have a good vacation.'
"I said to her, 'Excuse me, isn't this a restricted hotel?'
"She replied, 'Oh, Mr. Marshall, I didn't know you were Jewish.'
"I told her (lapsing into an exaggerated accent) 'Ahh've got NEWWSS for you.' "
Marshall also tells of confronting Gen. Douglas MacArthur about the continued segregation of the Army during the Korean War--despite presidential orders to the contrary. Each time Marshall brought up the name of a black soldier who had performed courageously in battle or efficiently in a staff position, MacArthur would deny the soldier was qualified to serve in an integrated unit. Just as the conversation reached an impasse, an all-white band went by. Marshall asked the haughty general whether he was also unable to find a qualified black musician.
On another occasion, during the Nixon Administration, Marshall, then a Supreme Court justice, was in the hospital. A doctor informed him that the White House had asked for details on his condition and asked whether he minded if this was passed along. Marshall said that he didn't care one way or the other--as long as, at the bottom of the report, the doctor wrote in block capital letters, "NOT YET."
Marshall is a man who not only preaches tolerance but also practices it. In 1962, he was interviewed by the FBI about the proposed federal appointment of a former Southern governor who had vowed never to accept school desegregation in his state. Marshall noted he had indeed had many serious political and legal differences with the man. However, he added, "I have got to say, though, that he spent 25 years in politics in that state and never became rich. He must be one of the most honest men around."
Recently, at a meeting of lawyers, Marshall went out of his way to grasp the hand of Judge Robert H. Bork, after Bork's nomination had been defeated in the Senate, and said some kind words to him. Marshall and Bork differ on many things, but this does not stop Marshall's basic humanity from coming through.
Some view Marshall as a curmudgeon--not realizing this is one of the longest-running acts in legal history. Law clerks are rarely praised for good work or a conscientious performance. I was his first law clerk--when he was a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the court I now serve on.
One day, I braved a blizzard to travel from Madison, Conn., to the New York Courthouse in Folsey Square. Arriving on time, I walked into his chambers in a casual manner, hoping to conceal my pride at my feat. Marshall looked at me, looked out the window at the snow, and said, "Boy, now I know how stupid you really are."
Working for him, I got used to being called "knucklehead." I came to regard this as a singular honor after one of my successors told me that, after he had done a very good job on a project, Marshall had declared the clerk was working his way up, and was "almost a knucklehead."