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L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

Poor Immigrant Became 'Mr. L.A.'

November 28, 1999|Rasmussen, Cecilla

To most of the lawyers and litigants hurrying into the Los Angeles County Courthouse on Grand Avenue, he is probably just another bronze ornament on a granite pedestal, a forgotten figure in a three-piece suit in a city whose approach to history usually can be characterized as collectively unconscious.

But not that long ago, Joseph Scott was "Mr. Los Angeles," a passionate advocate of civic reform, the Roman Catholic Church, Irish freedom and his clients' causes--a lawyer whose charity outside the courtroom was as legendary as his combativeness inside.

Scott, whose trademarks were his formidably bushy eyebrows and shock of white hair, was a spellbinding orator who won widespread popularity as a tireless opponent of racial and religious intolerance.

He was the child of privilege, the beneficiary of a first-rate university education in a place and time when high school diplomas were prized achievements. To the public, he probably was best known as the lawyer who helped defend the McNamara brothers, who successfully represented 23-year-old starlet Joan Barry in her paternity suit against Charlie Chaplin, and who secured what was then a record libel judgment against The Times and its publisher, Gen. Harrison Gray Otis.

Scott's acid courtroom tongue often won him a place in the news columns. He once drew the wrath of a foreign government when he proclaimed during a divorce trial that one witness possessed the "dirty, filthy, low mind that is so prevalent in France."

Scott himself was an immigrant, born in England in 1867 to a Scottish-Presbyterian father and an Irish-Catholic mother. Armed with university degrees in rhetoric and English and hoping for a career in journalism, he arrived in New York in 1889.

Unable to find a writing job, he found work as a laborer, carrying hods filled with mortar. Noticing his struggles, a veteran hod carrier remarked: "One of the troubles is you look down. Never look down when you're climbing. Always look up." It was advice he would carry with him for the rest of his life.

After a short career teaching and coaching football, baseball and handball, Scott took the advice of a friend, Father Joseph Doyle--later the first pastor of St. Mary's Church in Boyle Heights--and headed West with another priest, Father Joe Noonan.

As they prepared to board the train, however, Scott and Noonan discovered that their pockets had been picked. They were rescued by a sympathetic countryman who happened to be nearby. Witnessing their distress, Gentleman Jim Corbett--the San Francisco-born heavyweight boxing champion of the world--peeled five $100 bills from his wad and sent Scott and Noonan on their way.

Convinced that his future was at the bar, Scott began reading law in Judge James Anderson's office in 1893. The following year he passed the bar exam with Earl Rogers, who would soon become the city's most famous defense attorney.

At a fund-raiser for a local orphanage, Scott met Bertha Roth, who sang soprano in St. Vibiana's choir. He joined the group as a bass and later married Roth, who would bear him 11 children, seven of whom survived.

After Scott and another young attorney lost their first case, defending a Mexican immigrant charged with arson, they asked the jury foreman what they did wrong. "One of you talked too long and the other talked too loud," he replied.

Scott lowered his voice and, over the next two decades, emerged as a powerful player in the growing city. He became a friend to popes and presidents and won a fiercely loyal following, including Times owner Otis, who was attracted to Scott as one of the rare Irish immigrants who shared the publisher's Republican politics.

But in 1911, when Scott signed on as co-counsel for John and James McNamara, accused of bombing The Times, the friendship with Otis ended. In fact, Scott spent more time trying to bring the brothers back to their Catholic faith than he did representing them in court. He even gave them a prayer book that belonged to a young apprentice killed in the Times explosion. It had been given to Scott by a nun, the dead man's sister.

Over the next four years, Otis assailed Scott in print and cartoon. Times cartoons regularly portrayed Scott as a hod carrier, then a common caricature of the mostly working-class Irish immigrants. But when Scott retired from the school board after 10 years of service in 1915, he was no longer a public figure and, therefore, now could be libeled.

On Feb. 5, 1915, the morning after taking on a divorce case, Scott read in The Times that he allegedly had taken advantage of his new client, Bessie Olive Hillman, wife of Clarence D. Hillman, a Pasadena millionaire. The article alleged that Scott induced Bessie Hillman to file for divorce, though she really had no desire to do so.

Scott sued for libel and won. The Times was ordered to pay him $30,000. The paper appealed and won. The case was retried, and this time the jury awarded Scott $47,700.

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