The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox: A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in FDR's Washington

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"My name will survive as long as man survives, because I am writing the greatest diary that has ever been written. I intend to surpass Pepys as a diarist."

When John Frush Knox (1907-1997) wrote these words, he was in the middle of law school, and his attempt at surpassing Pepys—part scrapbook, part social commentary, and part recollection—had already reached 750 pages. His efforts as a chronicler might have landed in a family attic had he not secured an eminent position after graduation as law clerk to Justice James C. McReynolds—arguably one of the most disagreeable justices to sit on the Supreme Court—during the tumultuous year when President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to "pack" the Court with justices who would approve his New Deal agenda. Knox's memoir instead emerges as a record of one of the most fascinating periods in American history.

The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox—edited by Dennis J. Hutchinson and David J. Garrow—offers a candid, at times naïve, insider's view of the showdown between Roosevelt and the Court that took place in 1937. At the same time, it marvelously portrays a Washington culture now long gone. Although the new Supreme Court building had been open for a year by the time Knox joined McReynolds' staff, most of the justices continued to work from their homes, each supported by a small staff. Knox, the epitome of the overzealous and officious young man, after landing what he believes to be a dream position, continually fears for his job under the notoriously rude (and nakedly racist) justice. But he soon develops close relationships with the justice's two black servants: Harry Parker, the messenger who does "everything but breathe" for the justice, and Mary Diggs, the maid and cook. Together, they plot and sidestep around their employer's idiosyncrasies to keep the household running while history is made in the Court.

A substantial foreword by Dennis Hutchinson and David Garrow sets the stage, and a gallery of period photos of Knox, McReynolds, and other figures of the time gives life to this engaging account, which like no other recaptures life in Washington, D.C., when it was still a genteel southern town.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226448633
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 1,553,773
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Dennis J. Hutchinson is the William Rainey Harper Professor in the College and senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Man Who Once Was Whizzer White, a New York Times Notable Book. Davud J. Garrow is the Presidential Distinguished Professor at the Emory University School of Law and the author of several books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bearing the Cross.

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The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox

A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in FDR's Washington
By John Knox

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Dennis J. Hutchinson and David J. Garrow
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-44863-0

Chapter One

John F. Knox was the secretary and law clerk to Justice James C. McReynolds of the United States Supreme Court during the term that President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to "pack" the Court, 1936-37. Knox came to the job by an unusual route. He held two law degrees, including an LL.M. from Harvard, but he owed his appointment to a habit he began in high school-writing pen pal letters to celebrities. He began with Civil War veterans and proceeded to luminaries of the day such as Helen Keller, William Howard Taft, and Admiral Byrd. Even before law school, he established an on-going correspondence with members of the Supreme Court, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Benjamin N. Cardozo, and Willis Van Devanter. His most sustained correspondence was with Van Devanter, one of the conservative "Four Horsemen," as they were then called.

After years of exchanging letters, Knox finally screwed up the courage to ask Van Devanter for a job. Van Devanter retained a permanent secretary and clerk, but his colleague McReynolds suffered high turnover, and the justice recommended Knox. But what Knox thought was a dream job turned out to be a constanttrial. McReynolds was a severe and distant man of intense passions and biases, including naked racial bigotry and anti-semitism. Ironically Knox developed his closest relationships in the McReynolds household with the Justice's two black servants, Harry Parker, the messenger and general factotum, and Mrs. Mary Diggs, the housekeeper and cook. Although the new Supreme Court building had been opened for a year, all but two of the justices maintained their old habits of working at home and attending the Court only for oral arguments and delivery of opinions.

Knox was seared by his year with McReynolds, and at mid-life began writing his memoirs, based on his daily diary, carbon copies of letters he had written, and his meticulous memory. After ten years of work he had a 978-page manuscript, which, despite constant effort, remained unpublished at his death in 1997. The memoir is unique: no other law clerk to a Supreme Court justice has documented the experience. Knox's work is a candid, sometimes naive, account of what might be called "Upstairs, Downstairs" at the Court during a politically tumultuous period in which the country and the Court were changing dramatically. The following excerpts are drawn from the book.

[September 18, 1936:] Harry then became quiet, looked at me intently for some moments and then decided to change the subject of conversation. He finally said, "Say, Mr. Knox, did you ever sort of notice anything different when you hear me talking to Mary?"

"Well," I replied, after a pause to collect my thoughts, "now that you mention it, I guess I did. Sometimes I hear you and Mary talking about funny things-like, for instance, pussy-willows and queens."

"That's just it," said Harry excitedly, "and Mary and me has now decided to initiate you into our secret!"

At this announcement I straightened up a bit in my chair and began to show more interest. "Secret?" I inquired, "You mean you want me to join a club or something?"

"Naw, it ain't nothing like that!" said Harry. "What I means is that once you is initiated, the three of us can talk about the Justice and all his friends without his knowing it or understanding us!"

"Indeed!" I declared with real interest. "I'm all ears. Just what do you have in mind?"

"Well, it's like this," said Harry triumphantly. "When Mary and me is getting dinner, the Justice often pokes his head in the kitchen door to give us some last minute instructions. Or he sometimes hears Mary and me talking when we is cleaning up the dining room or fixing for me to go to market. Now all the time the Justice thinks we is just talking about some of our no count colored friends, but we ain't at all. We is really talking about him and his friends!"

"Well, you don't say so," I countered. "But how do you talk about the Justice and his friends without his knowing it if he hears you?"

"That's easy," said Harry beaming, "and that's our secret. You see, we gives secret names to everybody. Take the Justice himself, for instance. We calls him 'Pussywillow'. Now his best lady friend is 'Madam Queen'-that's Mrs. [Camilla Hare] Lippincott."

"So that explains my hearing you two talk about pussywillows and queens!" I exclaimed. "Very clever, very clever indeed!"

"And now," Harry announced dramatically, "we have given you a name, too. You are going to be Mr. Shoefenicks. After this, when you hear that word you will know we are talking about you."

And so it came to pass that from that day forward I was always referred to in private by Harry and Mary as "Shoefenicks". Why they chose this name, or from whence it came, I was never to know. Nor did I ever question their selection of such a name. If the Justice, for instance, overheard Harry and Mary discussing Shoefenicks and whether he got sick after finding too many pussywillows yesterday, McReynolds must have wondered what sort of jungle dialect was being spoken in his presence.

Following this conversation, Harry began to refer at once to Justice McReynolds as "Pussywillow" in all subsequent conversation with me. Having been "taken into" the secret, I became a part of it at once. To this day McReynolds is, in reality, "Pussywillow" to me instead of "Mr. Justice". Several times, while serving as his secretary and law clerk, I narrowly avoided addressing him as "Pussywillow".

With the Justice, or rather "Pussywillow", gone to play golf, and it being a Friday, I continued my conversation with Harry in a leisurely manner. After a pause, during which I looked up toward Harry as I sat there at the typewriter, I said slowly, as if groping for words, "You know something, Harry. I think I'll call up Justice Brandeis and ask to meet him. He's not so busy now as he will be after the Court opens, and maybe he would have time to see me."

In one shattering moment, however, Harry's expression changed. His face took on a look almost of horror. "Justice Brandeis! Have you gone out of your mind?"

"Of course, Justice Brandeis. Why not? He's going to be 80 years old in November, and I'd like to meet him. Besides, his new secretary was at Harvard when I was there."

Harry made a helpless, dazed sort of gesture with his right hand, as he stood there in the doorway of my room, and he said, "Sometimes I think I never will be able to teach you nothing at all about Washington! Don't you know that we has absolutely no relations with Justice Brandeis?"

"What do you mean, we don't have any relations with him? Doesn't he come over here now and then to discuss cases that are up for decision?"

"Come over here?" exclaimed Harry in amazement. "Oh you got so much to learn! Of course, he never comes over here. Don't you realize that Justice Brandeis is Jewish?"

"Yes, but what about it?" I inquired innocently.

"Why," said Harry emphatically, "there's been only one Jewish fellow who ever got to come to this apartment, and he was Mr. Garfinckel who had the department store. You know, Garfinckel's downtown where they don't have no basement in the store."

In a tone of quiet sarcasm I said, "And how did Mr. Garfinckel ever get in here? Did he sell some merchandise wholesale to the Justice?"

This question caused Harry to pause for some moments before replying. "Say, maybe that was why he came here. I always did think it kind of funny like. Pussywillow sure don't like to buy nothing if he can get out of it, and even some of the furniture here was given to him. Take that Japanese screen, for instance. One of his lady friends sent us that a couple of years ago."

"Now Harry," I ventured, "do you really mean to say that the Justice, I mean Pussywillow, is at outs with Brandeis because he's Jewish. And does that mean Cardozo doesn't come over here either?"

Without replying to the first question, Harry immediately commented, "Now Justice Cardozo, he's a sort of special case. He couldn't come over here even if he wasn't Jewish because the Justice is real mad at him."

"Mad at Cardozo? What did he ever do to upset Pussywillow?"

"Well," said Harry thoughtfully. "It was some time ago-soon after Justice Cardozo came to Washington. Pussywillow wrote an opinion and circulated it around to the other eight Justices, as he was supposed to do, of course, but Cardozo went and made a suggestion or two about improving the wording of a few sentences. That was when he was real new to the Court, too, and Pussywillow had been here for many years. Well, Pussywillow never had no more to do with Cardozo after that, and I guess they're not even on speaking terms to this day."

"Oh Harry," I said, shaking my head slowly back and forth, "sometimes I wonder how these cases ever get decided at all. Is everybody mad at everybody else on the Supreme Court of the United States?"

* * *

[September 26, 1936:] The next morning my first glimpse of Justice McReynolds was when he summoned me to his study and rather impatiently shoved a letter across the desk in my direction. "Take care of this. Somebody wants my autograph. I've signed my name on a piece of paper here, and you can send it to this child. It's nonsense, that's what it is, wanting stranger's autographs-and for what?"

This was my first introduction to a phenomenon that I was to see much of during the months to come-requests from strangers for the autograph of the Justice. It finally became rather burdensome to answer such requests by return mail and always accompany my answers with the autograph of the Justice. In the Spring of 1937 these requests became very numerous following President Roosevelt's attack upon the Supreme Court. Yet never once did I venture to suggest to McReynolds that the matter would be simplified if he would only give me 25 or 30 autographs at one time, which I could keep "in reserve" for future requests. "If I asked him to sign his name on pieces of paper that many times and all at once, I suppose he would fire me for sure!" I rationalized to myself.

There was, however, something intriguing about this very first request for an autograph. In fact, the next time Harry stopped by the door of my office that day to ask if the Justice or I had any errands for him, I showed Harry the letter. "Nobody ever asks for my autograph," he said with a chuckle. "Say, why don't you send him my signature, too, along with your autograph and the Justice's?" And at the very thought of such a thing, Harry threw back his head, smiled from ear to ear and gave a hearty laugh. McReynolds was at that time sitting in his study but not near enough to hear what we had been talking about. Yet almost immediately the buzzer on my desk began ringing with an insistent hissing sound. Grabbing my shorthand pad, I walked in at once to the Justice's study after throwing a knowing glance at Harry. He then turned and walked back toward the kitchen.

"I don't want to dictate any letter," McReynolds said rather impatiently, "but I do feel that this is the time to speak about one thing. I realize you are a Northerner who has never been educated or reared in the South, but I want you to know that you are becoming much too friendly with Harry. You seem to forget that he is a negro and you are a graduate of the Harvard Law School. And yet for days now, it has been obvious to me that you are, well, treating Harry and Mary like equals. Really, a law clerk to a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States should have some feeling about his position and not wish to associate with colored servants the way you are doing." And with a genuine sigh McReynolds continued, "Of course, you are not a Southerner, so maybe it's expecting too much of someone from Chicago to act like a Southerner, but I do wish you would think of my wishes in this matter in your future relations with darkies."

"Yes, sir," I said, in a low and almost inaudible voice. I then turned and left the room as the Justice indicated that he did not wish to discuss the matter further. Walking back to my office I sat down at the typewriter but began running my fingers absent-mindedly through my hair and saying to myself, "What's the matter with me anyway? Am I a coward or something? Why don't I march right back in there and tell him that I am a Southerner! Of course, I wasn't born down South, I never lived down South, and I know very little firsthand about the South. But, at least many of my ancestors were born in North Carolina and Virginia during the 1700's, my great-great grandfather was married in Warrenton, Virginia, after his return from the Revolutionary War, my grandfather was born in Richmond in 1833, and a small Confederate flag hangs on one of the walls in my home next to autographed pictures of Generals Lee and Beauregard. Why, I not only know many Confederate veterans personally, but I even know a member of General Robert E. Lee's staff. I'm not just a Northerner; I'm a Southerner, too!" But on second thought I decided not to go back into the Justice's study and revive the conversation, and in fact he was destined never to know anything about my ancestors, the Confederate flag, or my Confederate friendships. Nor did Harry or Mary ever learn of this conversation of mine with the Justice.

* * *

[Late September, 1936, McReynolds cleared his throat and said:] "You asked me-umph-about what advice I would give to someone just starting out to practice law."

"Oh yes, I remember," I replied hastily.

I turned suddenly in my chair and looked intently at the Justice. I had, in fact, not even had time to rise upon his entrance into the room and then wait until he indicated that I should be seated again. There also flashed through my mind the realization that he could never be quite at ease in the presence of his law clerk-at least when he was talking to the clerk as "man-to-man". And somehow at that moment I felt a genuine burst of admiration for him, for I suddenly realized the care he had apparently taken in mulling over my question.

"I'm glad to see you are so earnest about the law," McReynolds said in a brusque sort of way. "You must be or you wouldn't have asked the question in the first place." Then with an almost inaudible sigh the Justice continued, "I think, first of all, that honesty and integrity are the most important things for a young lawyer to keep in mind. A man must have sound principles and stand by them these days, and he should not endorse every wild scheme that comes along. I suppose you know that Washington is full of impractical lawyers, and I must say that many of them seem to have come from Harvard. You might as well realize right now that I think the Harvard Law School is highly overrated!"

McReynolds drew a long breath and then continued. "I also hope that you did not come under the influence of Frankfurter when you were in law school. There was some doubt in my mind about Justice Van Devanter's selection of any law clerk who graduated from a school where Frankfurter teaches. He is certainly one man not to be trusted! Even though he is dangerous to the welfare of this country, he evidently has a powerful influence at the White House."

"I only had Professor Frankfurter for one class at Harvard," I managed to reply. "There were about two hundred students in that class, and I am sure he did not even know that I existed." I was just about to add, however, that I did consider Frankfurter a very stimulating and interesting professor, but on second thought I decided to remain silent on this point.

"But with or without Frankfurter's help," the Justice continued, "the present administration has made many mistakes. Now just suppose we review a few of them. I was a Democrat when I was appointed to the Court, but I must recognize this administration for what it is. It began, for instance, by repudiating the campaign platform of 1932. That was the first betrayal. Then it recognized Soviet Russia. Imagine restoring diplomatic relations with that country! Justice Van Devanter was over there last year, and he even saw pregnant women working on the railroads in section gangs. And yet the Communists propose to infiltrate their ideas throughout the world. And Roosevelt recognizes them and installs the Soviets in the old embassy of the Czars right here on Sixteenth Street!"

I remained silent, fascinated by the flow of conversation that I had so unwittingly released. "Shortly after we recognized soviet Russia," McReynolds continued, "we took another step down the road to Socialism and the destruction of states' rights!"


Excerpted from The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox by John Knox Copyright © 2002 by Dennis J. Hutchinson and David J. Garrow. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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