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Wild Bill by Bruce Allen Murphy (Random House, 736 pages, $35) When William O. Douglas died in 1980, after an amazing life that included 36 years as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, his legacy seemed set. Douglas, it appeared, would be remembered as a brilliant jurist who in his frequent lone dissents stood up for the persecuted; an early chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission who dared storm the bastions of a corrupt Wall Street; a nature lover who fought for the environment long before Earth Day; an author of environmental and travel books and inspiring memoirs; and a maverick politician who nearly became president in 1945 and 1949. Bruce Allen Murphy, a professor at Lafayette College, a veteran biographer of Supreme Court justices, is here to tell you much of what Douglas is remembered for is a lie. His biography of Douglas, Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas, has justly received mentions on the news pages as well as the review pages. Some of its revelations are shocking. Wild Bill will probably have an impact beyond torpedoing Douglas’ reputation. It will reopen the debate about the role of the biographer. If any biography deserves the label of “pathography,” this is it. Murphy had previously published books about Justices Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, and Abe Fortas. He chose Douglas as his next subject, Murphy says, because who could resist exploring the Supreme Court justice “who set records for serving the most years, issuing the most opinions, writing the most dissents, writing the most books, giving the most speeches, having the most wives, suffering the most divorces, and being threatened with the most impeachments.” It seemed simple at first. Douglas had published three autobiographies. “So all I had to do, I thought, was to use that material to guide me through the justice’s recently opened private and professional papers in the Library of Congress and to interview the sources who could confirm his accounts,” Murphy says. Wrong. As Murphy contacted sources from every phase of Douglas’ life, he found two truths: They wanted the real story to be told, then mentioned the dubious portions of his memoirs. “Douglas’ life was the stuff of novels,” Murphy says. “Unfortunately for me, he had already written those novels in the form of his memoirs.” Murphy, unfortunately for Douglas’ reputation, fortunately for contemporary readers, persisted. His 172 pages of source notes attest to his diligence. In his private life, the Douglas portrayed by Murphy can only be described as despicable. As a child growing up in Washington state, he was self-centered. He left his beloved West to attend law school at Columbia University in New York City; for the remainder of his life, his love-hate relationship with the East Coast caused anguish for everybody who dealt with him. He treated his four wives, his two children, and almost everybody he worked with — including fellow Supreme Court justices — like garbage. Because of his brilliant mind, ambition, and manic energy, he received prestigious appointments in government, the academic world, and the judiciary. But, in each calling, Douglas demonstrated near-complete insincerity, making his decisions based on self-interest rather than the common good he had sworn to uphold. According to Murphy, he violated principles he publicly espoused over and over to advance his career, assist his financial backers, or seduce whatever woman he currently lusted after. Journalists and colleagues who could have blown the whistle stayed silent. The pages of Wild Bill dedicated to Douglas’ two brushes with the presidency give rise to speculation on how the United States and the rest of the world would have fared had he attained that post. The nearest-miss occurred in 1944, when Democrats chose Franklin Roosevelt’s running mate. Roosevelt would die before finishing his fourth term, so the vice presidential decision really meant selecting the next president. Murphy explains how the maneuverings of a Democratic Party operative with ties to Harry Truman conspired to sabotage Douglas’ spot on the ballot. Pathographies, by definition, are something other than uplifting. Readers who come to biographies of Hitler or Stalin expect pathographies. Readers who come to a book about a cultural icon such as Douglas are less prepared. Like other biographers I know who have found their heroes distasteful, Murphy probably had a hard time dealing with immersion in the muck. But he composed Wild Bill the way he had to — according to the evidence. For a biographer, that is the highest praise. Steve Weinberg of Columbia, Mo., is a biographer and free-lance journalist.

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