For me, and many of my contemporaries, Clarence Darrow was more legend than fact, more myth than man. He was a composite of actors, like Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy, Orson Welles, and Henry Fonda, all of whom brought him to the screen and stage. Our idea of him came from reading his own words in The Story of My Life; the matchless orations compiled in Attorney for the Damned; and Irving Stone’s powerful, iconographic account, Clarence Darrow for the Defense. We knew him as one of America’s greatest orators, whose arguments still resonate in speech classes around the country.
Born in rural Ohio in 1857, Darrow practiced small-town law until 1887, when he moved to Chicago, inspired by big-city life and the controversy surrounding the Haymarket bombing. With the help of his benefactor, Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld, Darrow gained a job with the Chicago and North Western Railway. He abandoned his lucrative post in the company’s law department in 1894 – changing sides in the great Pullman workers strike, where he represented Eugene Debs, the labor organizer who later became the leader of the Socialist Party.