Category Archives: law school

Another love story

Part II

Watching “Love Story” again, 50 years later, I found it terribly disappointing.

The film was an enormous hit at the box office, earning $130 million—the equivalent of $1 billion today.

It was a box-office phenomenon, a tearjerker that offered its audience a classic love story filled with amorous scenes and, ultimately, tragedy.

But….

Fifty years later, I found the two leads far less appealing than I remembered.  Ryan O’Neal, who plays highly-privileged Oliver Barrett IV, and Ali MacGraw, who plays Jenny, a super-smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks, encounter each other on the Harvard campus as undergrads.  After some sparring, they quickly fall into each other’s arms.  But I didn’t find either them or their relationship overwhelmingly endearing.

Ali MacGraw’s character, Jenny, strikes me now as borderline obnoxious.  She’s constantly smirking, overly impressed with her brain-power and witty repartee. 

Even Oliver, who falls madly in love with her, calls her “the supreme Radcliffe smart-ass” and a “conceited Radcliffe bitch.”  (As you probably know, Radcliffe was the women’s college affiliated with Harvard before Harvard College itself admitted women.)

Jenny would repeatedly retaliate, ridiculing Oliver by calling him “preppie,” a term used at the time by non-privileged students in an attempt to diminish the puffed-up opinion that privileged prep-school graduates had of themselves.

Jenny may have been Hollywood’s version of a sharp young college woman of her time, but 50 years later, I view her character as unrelatable and hard to take.

I received my own degrees at a rigorous college, a demanding grad school, and a world-renowned law school.  My classmates included some of the smartest women I’ve ever known.  But I don’t recall ever encountering any bright young women who exemplified the kind of “smart-ass” behavior Jenny displays.  If they existed, they clearly stayed out of my world.

The film has other flaws.  In one scene, filmed near a doorway to Langdell Hall (the still-imposing law school building that houses its vast law library), Jenny bicycles to where Oliver is perched and proceeds to make him a peanut butter sandwich while he is so engrossed in his recognizably red Little Brown casebook that he barely notices her presence. This scene is ludicrous.  Law students are traditionally super-focused on their studies.  Well, at least some of them are.  But Oliver’s ignoring a beloved spouse who’s gone out of her way to please him in this way is offensive and totally contrary to the “loving” tone in the rest of the film.  In short, ludicrous.

The movie also became famous for its often quoted line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  The absurdity of that line struck me back in 1970 and has stayed with me ever since.  I’ve never understood why it garnered so much attention.  Don’t we all say “I’m sorry” when we’ve done something hurtful?  Especially to someone we love?

Interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz in March 2021 (on CBS Sunday Morning), both Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal (still vibrant and still in touch with each other) confessed that they never understood the line either.  “What does it mean?” Mankiewicz asked.  MacGraw’s response:  “I don’t know.” 

One more thing about that famous line:  If you watch the hilarious 1972 screwball comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” you’ll probably get a kick out of a scene at the very end.  Barbra Streisand cleverly mocks the “Love means never…” line while traveling on a plane with her co-star (and “Love Story” lead) Ryan O’Neal.

Another line in the film, this one spoken by Oliver’s father, struck me as remarkable as I listened to it 50 years after the film first appeared.  When his father, played by veteran actor Ray Milland, learns that Oliver has been admitted to Harvard Law School, he tells Oliver that he’ll probably be “the first Barrett on the Supreme Court.”  Just think about this line.  Who could have predicted in 1970 that someone named Barrett would actually be appointed to the Supreme Court in 2020? (My opinion of that appointment?  No comment.)

One more thing about Jenny:  Yes, women used to give up great opportunities in order to marry Mr. Right, and many probably still do. But I was heartily disappointed that Jenny so casually gave up a scholarship to study music in Paris with Nadia Boulanger so she could stay in Cambridge while Oliver finished his law degree.

What’s worse, instead of insisting that she seize that opportunity, Oliver selfishly thought of himself first, begging her not to leave him.  Jenny winds up teaching at a children’s school instead of pursuing her undeniable musical talent.

I like to think that today (at least before the pandemic changed things) a smart young Jenny would tell Oliver, “I’m sorry, darling, but I really don’t want to give up this fabulous opportunity.  Why don’t you meet me in Paris?  Or wait for me here in Cambridge for a year or two?  We can then pick up where we left off.” 

But I’m probably being unfair to most of the young women of that era.  I’m certainly aware that the prevailing culture in 1970 did not encourage that sort of decision.

When I decided to marry Marv in 1971 and leave my job at UCLA to move with him to Ann Arbor, Michigan, I wasn’t giving up anything like Paris and Nadia Boulanger.  For one thing, I had had a perilous experience in LA with a major earthquake and its aftershocks.  [Please see my post, “I Felt the Earth Move under My Feet,” July 17, 2019.]  I was also aware of other negative features of life in LA.

And shortly after Marv asked me to marry him, we set off on an eight-day road trip from LA to San Francisco, via Route 1, along the spectacular California coast.  Spending every minute of those eight days together convinced me that Marv and I were truly meant to be together. (On one memorable occasion, while dining at The French Poodle restaurant in Carmel, Marv insisted that the server let me, not him, taste our wine before accepting it for our dinner. In 1971, this was absolutely stunning.) 

So I decided, on balance, that moving with Marv to Ann Arbor would mean moving to a tranquil, leafy-green, and non-shaky place where I could live with the man I adored.  The man who clearly adored me, too.

I was certain that I would find interesting and meaningful work to do, and I did.  

Both of us hoped to return to California after a few years in Ann Arbor, where Marv was a tenured member of the University of Michigan math faculty.  (He’d been at UCLA in a special one-year program and had to return to Ann Arbor in 1971.) 

But when that didn’t work out, and we jointly decided to leave Ann Arbor, we settled elsewhere—happily–because it meant that we could stay together.

I’ve made many unwise choices during my life.  The list is a long one.  But choosing to marry Marv, leave LA, and live with him for the rest of our gloriously happy married life was not one of them. 

The unwise choices were my own, and loving Marv was never the reason why I made any of them. 

On the contrary, life with Marv was in many ways the magical life I envisioned when we shared dinner for the first time at Le Cellier in Santa Monica in October 1970.

It was, in the end, and forever, another love story.

Postscript:  If Marv were still here, we’d be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary this month.

Another love story

December 2020 marked 50 years since the release of the film “Love Story” in December 1970.  This film played a role in the burgeoning romance between me and the astonishing man who became my husband a few months later.  I’ll call him Marv.

Part I

We waited in a long line outside the theater in chilly Westwood.  The air was nothing like the frigid nighttime air that would have enveloped us in Chicago, or Boston, or Cleveland. But we were in LA, and for LA it was a chilly December night.

We didn’t mind waiting. We were too enthralled with each other, with Westwood, and with the prospect of seeing “Love Story” on the big screen. 

I’d met Marv two months earlier at the Chancellor’s Reception on the UCLA campus. The reception was intended for faculty only, but the director of my legal-services support program at the law school was a member of the faculty, and he circulated his invitation to all of us working in the program.

I’d moved from Chicago in late August and was eager to meet new people in LA. The reception was taking place on a Sunday afternoon in October, and I decided to show up.  I purposely wore my incredibly fetching black sleeveless miniskirt dress with bright red pockets and made my way to the campus under a radiant California sun.

I looked around.  I didn’t know anyone there—I’d been in LA for only six weeks.  I wandered over to the “cookie table” and was pondering which cookies to sample when a woman approached me.  “Are you by yourself because you want to be, or would you like to meet some other people?” she asked.

I immediately responded that I’d like to meet other people, and she led me to a group of four men. She began by introducing her husband, a bearded middle-aged math professor, who was accompanied by three much younger men. As I glanced at the younger men, I instantly recognized one of them–a good-looking guy I’d seen around my apartment building near the campus.

The professor explained that these young men were there because they were new math faculty, and he asked me why I was there. I told him I was working at the law school.  He then asked where I’d gone to law school. When I said Harvard, he turned to the good-looking guy and said, “Marv went to Harvard, too.”

Thus began my bond with Marv.  We had Harvard in common.

I’d noticed Marv around our building but, as it turned out, he’d never noticed me. I’d seen him—alone—diving into the building’s small pool, and I’d seen him walking back and forth along a pathway that connected our apartment building (near the corner of Kelton and Gayley) to the campus.  Sometimes he’d been smoking a pipe as he walked.

I sometimes wondered: How could he help noticing an adorable redhead like me?  But I later decided it was just fine that he never noticed me because that meant he wasn’t noticing any other young women either.

Even later, I figured out why he’d been totally unaware of me.  Whenever he was by himself–in this case, walking to and from campus by himself–he was thinking about math.  Marv was a brilliant mathematician who almost never stopped thinking about math.

When we began talking at the Chancellor’s Reception, Marv discovered what I already knew—we lived in the same apartment building.  He smiled a lot and let me know that he wanted to see me sometime.

Did I give him my phone number?  I must have because a day or two later he called and asked me to go to dinner.

We agreed that I would meet him at his apartment and make our dinner plans there.  So on Saturday night I walked a short distance from my apartment to his apartment on the same floor. 

Marv and I had both searched for a studio apartment in Westwood at the same time. At the end of my search, I decided that I preferred the building on Kelton.  Hoping to rent a relatively inexpensive studio there, I returned and learned that the last studio had just been rented.  It turned out that the renter was Marv. 

So, because someone (namely Marv) had just rented the last available studio in that building, I had to decide whether to rent a one-bedroom I could barely afford.  It was a stretch for me, financially.  But I decided to go ahead and rent it. 

Destiny? 

When he answered his door, Marv welcomed me and handed me a copy of a paperback book, “101 Nights in California.”  We sat together on his sofa, looking through the book’s list of restaurants, along with their menus.  “You pick wherever you want to go,” he said.

My jaw nearly dropped.  It was 1970, and it was almost unimaginable that a man would say that to a brand new date, allowing her to choose the restaurant where they’d dine that night.  I knew immediately that Marv just might be the right man for me.  He was certainly unlike anyone I’d ever dated before.

I’d already dated some pretty good guys.  But when men met me during my years at law school, or later learned that I was a lawyer, only the few who were immensely secure chose to date me.  Others fell by the wayside.

Marv was completely secure and non-threatened by someone like me.  He actually relished having a smart woman in his life.  And that never changed.

That evening, I chose a French restaurant in Santa Monica called Le Cellier.  How was our dinner there?  In short, it was magical.  We not only had a splendid French meal, but we also used our time together to learn a lot about each other.  My hunch that Marv was possibly the perfect man for me was proving to be correct.

We proceeded to have one promising date after another.  Dinner at Mario’s, a small Italian restaurant in Westwood.  A Halloween party at a colleague’s home in Pacific Palisades.  Viewing the startling film “Joe,” starring Peter Boyle.  (We later ran into Boyle when we ate at a health-food restaurant in LA.)

By December we were hovering on the precipice of falling in love.  We’d heard the buzz about “Love Story,” and both of us were eager to see it.  So there we were, waiting in a long line of moviegoers at the Westwood Village Theater that chilly night.

The plot of “Love Story” wasn’t totally unknown to me.  I’d already read Erich Segal’s story shortly before I’d moved to LA from Chicago.  I was casually leafing through a magazine when I came across the story.

It grabbed me right away.  It was set, after all, in Cambridge, and its leading characters were students at Harvard.  I’d spent three years there getting my law degree, and I’d finished just a few years earlier.

The story was sappy and had a terribly sad ending.  But I relished the Harvard setting, and I couldn’t wait to see the film based on it.  When Marv learned a little bit about it, he wanted to see it too.

We soon found ourselves inside the theater, every seat filled with excited patrons like us, and began watching Hollywood’s “Love Story,” our eyes glued to the screen.

What did we think of the movie that night?  I truthfully don’t remember, and Marv is no longer here to recall it with me.  So I recently decided to re-watch the film—twice–to reflect on it and what it may have meant to us at the time.

In 1970, enamored with my companion, I most likely loved the film and its countless depictions of student life at Harvard.  Marv had graduated from the college in 1963, and I’d finished at the law school in 1967, so we’d attended Harvard at about the same time as author Segal (Harvard class of ‘58, Ph.D. ‘65). 

The two lead actors, Ryan O’Neal (playing Oliver) and Ali MacGraw (playing Jenny), were also contemporaries of ours who could have been Harvard students at about the same time.  Let’s add Tommy Lee Jones, whose first film role is one of Oliver’s roommates.  He was himself a Harvard grad, class of ‘69.  (Segal reportedly based Oliver on two of his friends:  Harvard roommates Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore.)  By the way, Tommy’s name in the credits is Tom Lee Jones.

Marv and I certainly relished the scenes set in a variety of Harvard locations, including the hockey arena where Oliver stars on the school’s hockey team and where I had skated (badly) with a date from the business school. In another scene, the two leads ecstatically make snow angels on the snow-covered campus. 

And I loved watching Oliver searching for Jenny in the Music Building, a building located very close to the law school, where I occasionally escaped from my studies by listening to old 78 LP records in a soundproof booth.

Overall, Marv and I probably found most of the film a lightweight take on life as a Harvard student (although darker days followed as the story moved toward its tragic end).  I’m sure we were also moved by the haunting music composed by Francis Lai, an unquestionably brilliant addition to the film that earned its only Oscar (out of seven nominations). 

Seeing “Love Story” together that chilly night must have been wonderful. 

But watching the film again, 50 years later?  I have to be honest:  I found it disappointing.

                                       To be continued

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

POST #10

This is the tenth and final post in a series recalling what it was like to serve as Judge Julius Hoffman’s law clerk.  It will encompass the following:

  1. Concluding remarks on the “Chicago 7” trial
  2. My final contacts with Judge Hoffman, 1970-1983
  3. My life, post-clerkship (in brief)

Concluding remarks on the “Chicago 7” trial

What happened in the appellate court?

            After reading several rulings by the appellate court, I’ve come away with this:  There was plenty of blame to go around.

            At the end of the trial in February 1970, the jury found five of the defendants guilty of the statutory crime with which they were charged:  the intent to incite a riot.  These criminal convictions were reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which sent the case back to the district court for trial.  A new trial never took place because the Justice Department apparently chose not to bring new charges against these defendants.

            In addition to the criminal convictions, Judge Hoffman convicted all seven defendants and two of their lawyers of contempt of court for their behavior during the trial.  Most but not all of the contempt convictions were also overturned by the appellate court.

            The appellate court issued a lengthy and detailed opinion reviewing the defendants’ criminal convictions. In that opinion, the court concluded that the Anti-Riot Act was not unconstitutional.  It also discussed the evidence presented during the trial, as well as the conduct of the prosecutors, the defendants, and the judge.  If you’d like to read the appellate court’s opinion, you can find it online:  United States v. Dellinger, 472 F.2d 340 (7th Cir. 1972).

            In a later ruling, in 1974, the appellate court focused on the contempt convictions issued by Judge Hoffman. (These were, as I noted above, separate from the criminal convictions.)  In this ruling, the appellate court acknowledged that three of the defendants (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and David Dellinger) were guilty of serious misbehavior and “overwhelming misconduct,” including the wearing of judicial robes in court.  It also upheld the contempt conviction of attorney William Kunstler, noting that his bitterness and anger on at least one occasion “constituted a vicious personal attack on the judge,” delaying and disrupting the trial.

            When the appellate court reversed the defendants’ criminal convictions, it commented on the defense’s arguments attacking Judge Hoffman’s conduct during the trial.  The court noted Hoffman’s “deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense” and his comments that were “often touched with sarcasm.”  The appellate court stated:  “Taken individually any one was not very significant and might be disregarded as a harmless attempt at humor.  But cumulatively, they must have telegraphed to the jury the judge’s contempt for the defense.” 

            The appellate court’s comments might well have applied to other criminal prosecutions that took place in Hoffman’s courtroom.  The judge often made similarly “harmless attempts at humor” that were attacked by defendants on appeal.  But in most of the other criminal prosecutions over which he presided, the trials were far shorter and the defendants and the charges against them were far less newsworthy.  In addition, Hoffman’s comments were never broadcast by the media to the same extent.  For these reasons, Hoffman had formerly escaped the kind of criticism that was aimed at him during this much more newsworthy trial.

            We should also note the appellate court’s focus on the conduct of the trial by the government prosecutors.  The court criticized them harshly. These lawyers, representing the Nixon administration, took advantage of Hoffman’s general bias in favor of the government, encouraging him to rule in favor of the prosecution–as was his wont–regardless of the merits of its position. In its 1972 ruling (cited above), the court stated that the prosecutors’ remarks “fell below the standards applicable to a representative of the United States.”  Doesn’t that say a lot?  I think it does.  The court pointed out some examples, such as prosecutors’ calling the defendants “evil,” “obscene liars,” “violent anarchists,” and “predators.”

            At the same time, it’s only fair to add that it was clear from the beginning that these particular defendants chose not to play the game the way defendants are supposed to.  They were determined to upset the courtroom at every opportunity.  A lot of the blame for the fiasco that followed must therefore fall on their shoulders as well. 

            My conclusion, when all is said and done?  The government never should have brought the indictment in the first place.  It was ill-conceived, and although the statute under which it was brought was later held by the Seventh Circuit to be constitutional, it was a highly dubious piece of legislation, spawned by the turmoil and the upheavals of its time.  If the Nixon administration had not pursued the indictment, this whole sorry chapter in U.S. legal history would never have been written.

            In the end, Hoffman’s reputation was besmirched as almost no other federal judge’s reputation has been, before or since.  The Sorkin film has revived interest in the trial, and in that film, Hoffman is portrayed as the arch-villain of the piece.   But in retrospect, I believe that this portrayal is not entirely justified.  With all of his faults, Hoffman was not an evil or cruel man.  I think he saw his role as that of a presiding judge compelled to impose order during a frenetic and chaotic trial, a trial unlike any he had ever encountered.

A side note on judicial findings of contempt

            During my high school years, I was a devoted fan of the TV series “Perry Mason.”  Every episode concluded with a courtroom scene, and I watched with fascination to see how admirable defense lawyer Perry and his opposing counsel, along with Perry’s clients and any witnesses, conducted themselves in the courtroom.  The judge’s rulings also interested me.  D.A. Hamilton Burger’s repeated objections that certain testimony was “incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial” lodged in my mind, and when I took a course in Evidence during law school, I recalled many of the judges’ rulings.  Classmates who were questioned by Professor Chadbourn sometimes couldn’t come up with an answer, and I often thought to myself, “Didn’t you ever watch ‘Perry Mason’?  If you had, you’d probably know the answer.”  (I did.)

            “Perry Mason” reruns now appear on late-night TV in San Francisco, and I occasionally watch one.  In a recent episode dating from the 1950s (“The Case of the Purple Woman”), someone in the courtroom (not a lawyer) shouted out an objection in the middle of witness testimony.  The judge first issued a $25 fine for contempt.  But when this individual repeated his misbehavior, loudly protesting the $25 fine, the judge (who looked remarkably like Judge Hoffman) sentenced him to 24 hours in county jail for contempt.  It was great fun to come across an episode of “Perry Mason” featuring a conviction for contempt issued by an irascible judge like Hoffman.

My final contacts with Judge Hoffman, 1970-1983

            After observing the trial twice, and each time feeling uncomfortable, I cut off my relationship with Judge Hoffman almost completely. I was working as a lawyer in Chicago, and I was embarrassed that the judge I had clerked for had become the subject of so much criticism.

            But when I decided to leave Chicago and move to California in August 1970, six months after the end of the trial, it seemed only right to phone the judge to tell him I was moving and to say goodbye.  And so I did.

            During our phone call, I didn’t mention the trial, but after an awkward silence, he did.  “I still don’t understand what happened,” he told me.  He sounded almost mystified.  Uncertain about what had happened.  Baffled by all of the criticism hurled at him, without understanding why–or perhaps, without wanting to understand why.

            Despite his many flaws, this admission by the judge led me to feel sorry for him. Looking back, I think that when he agreed to preside over this trial, he never contemplated what might actually happen.  He somewhat ingenuously found himself dealing with a group of hostile defendants who were intent, from the outset, on disrupting his previously well-ordered courtroom. 

            Thinking about his admission to me during that phone call has–50 years later–left me wondering:  What actually happened to him, outside the courtroom, during the trial?  Did he witness protests in the streets surrounding the courthouse?  Did his wife try to bolster him at the end of every day in court?  And what happened inside the courthouse?  Did any of his fellow judges come to his aid?  Did any of them offer him support or advice?  Did he welcome their advice, if it was offered? 

            I don’t know the answers to these questions.  I’ve never tried to find out, and I don’t plan to try now.  But I suspect that the judge was left out there by himself, trapped in his appalling situation, twisting in the wind.  His colleagues and his law clerks, probably grateful to have themselves been spared what happened to him, may have failed to give him the kind of support he needed to help him get through the whole awful mess.

            When I think about the two years I spent as Hoffman’s law clerk, I recall some uncomfortable and unhappy times, some of which I’ve set forth earlier in this series.  But I can also recall some truly pleasant times.  He treated his clerks and office staff to holiday lunches, as well as farewell lunches for a secretary or law clerk leaving his chambers, at the Empire Room in the Palmer House hotel and the posh Standard Club.  He would also give us year-end bonuses paid out of his own pocket.  And, as I noted earlier, while I worked for him, he always treated me and my co-clerks with respect.

            My life changed dramatically at the end of the summer of 1970.  I moved to California, met the man I fell in love with and married, and did not return to Chicago with my husband and delightful one-year-old until 1975.  Instead of returning to working full time, I sought out part-time work in a variety of law-related jobs, and I only seldom ventured to downtown Chicago.

            But in 1980, my co-clerk Susan Getzendanner became the first woman judge on the Northern District of Illinois bench.  I was thrilled for her, and I was happy to congratulate her and wish her well.  My friendship with Susan led to two final contacts with Judge Hoffman.

            After Susan’s appointment, the judge cheerfully called me at home one day.  He told me he was about to speak about Susan at a celebratory gathering and asked whether I could tell him a funny story about her, gleaned from the year we worked together.  I came up with a silly story for him.  But before he hung up, he asked me when I would be returning to work as a lawyer.  I was busy with two young daughters, ages 6 and 3, and trying to stay viable in the legal profession by working at part-time law-related jobs.  When I told him I wasn’t sure when I would go back to working as a full-time lawyer, he emphatically responded something like this:  “Well, you should come back sometime soon.  We need good lawyers like you!”

            I replicated this dialogue in my mystery novel, Jealous Mistress, which I began writing in 1985 and finally published in 2011.  Alison Ross, the protagonist (who loosely resembles me), gets a call from the judge she clerked for.  A reporter had called to ask him about his former clerk Alison, who had garnered local attention by solving a recent murder. The judge asks Alison, “When are you going to go back to the law?  You were a real crackerjack when you worked for me.”  Alison tells him that she’s been busy at home with her kids, but the judge insists, “We need more good lawyers like you.”  Thanks, Judge Hoffman, for inspiring the dialogue I later used in my novel.

            Susan Getzendanner also wangled an invitation for me to attend a high-profile luncheon held in honor of the judge, sponsored (at least in part) by his alma mater, Northwestern University Law School.  It took place at a snazzy private club on Michigan Avenue, the Tavern Club, where I ran into a bunch of lawyers and law professors I knew, as well as a few of Hoffman’s former law clerks.  There had been a huge student protest at the law school during the trial, and a plaque (noting his donation to fund a room at the school) had been torn off the wall outside the room.  Some faculty members had also expressed scathing criticism

            The judge was not surprisingly offended by what happened, and the rumor was that Hoffman had dropped NU from his will.  By sponsoring this lavish luncheon held in his honor, NU made a huge effort to get back in his good graces, but I later heard that the effort did not bear fruit and Hoffman died without leaving anything to NU law.  (I don’t know whether that’s in fact true.  When I later taught at NU Law, I never asked any other member of the faculty whether it was.)

            During the luncheon, the judge smilingly walked over to me.  He seemed terribly pleased to see me and greeted me by kissing me on the lips. This was somewhat startling, but I forgave his brashness.  Probably because he was about 85 at the time.

            After the NU luncheon, I lost touch with the judge once again.  I sadly learned of his death in an unexpected way.  My family was traveling to the East Coast that summer.  My husband, whom I’ll call Marv, was a celebrated mathematician, and he was invited to speak at a math conference held at Yale.  The four of us memorably stayed in a stifling dormitory on the Old Campus. (We’d been assured that it was air-conditioned. They lied.) 

            After leaving New Haven, we drove to Cambridge, and Marv thought it would be fun to have lunch at his old Harvard College haunt, Elsie’s sandwich shop.

            As I perched on a stool at one of Elsie’s tables, I spied a copy of The New York Times left behind by another customer.  I picked it up and began leafing through it.  My heart stopped when I came across an article buried on an inside page:  a lengthy obituary for Judge Hoffman, who had died on July 1, 1983, while I was traveling.

            Was there a funeral?  If so, who attended?  I never looked into it, and I choose not to do so now.  But I hope there was some sort of memorial service that praised the many good things Hoffman did, instead of focusing on the notoriety he had earned as a result of the trial.

            As for me, I’ll be forever grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to begin my legal career as his law clerk.  The two years I spent as his clerk provided me with a solid foundation for my career.  I learned how the courts worked.  How lawyers did or did not craft persuasive arguments that could sway a court.  How judges did or did not conduct their courtrooms in a fair and unbiased fashion. And how litigants themselves could influence the outcome in a given case.

            In that benighted era, when most judges selected their clerks from among male law graduates and only male graduates, eschewing the opportunity to choose highly capable women, Judge Hoffman had the sense and good judgment to choose women like me.     

My life post-Hoffman (in brief) 

            When I finished my clerkship in the summer of 1969, I chose not to enter the private practice of law.  Instead, I applied for and won a fellowship in a program that helped lawyers learn how to represent poor people and placed them in programs where they could use those skills (the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship Program}. 

            I became a “Reggie” with the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau, where I was soon immersed in a lawsuit, Doe v. Scott.  My co-counsel and I filed this lawsuit, which challenged the constitutionality of Illinois’s restrictive abortion law, on February 20, 1970.  In August 1970, at the end of my first year as a Reggie, I transferred my fellowship to a program at UCLA Law School that focused on legal issues related to health problems of the poor.  During my year there, I continued to work on Doe v. Scott.  (I plan to write much more about my involvement in this lawsuit.  I hope to finish in the next year or two.) 

            Six weeks after moving to Westwood to work at UCLA, I met Marv, and my life changed again.  I’ll say more about that in my next blog post, “Another Love Story.”

Postscript

            Would Judge Hoffman be viewed differently today?  Should he be?  I titled this series “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” implying that he could be described as a “hanging judge.”  But in retrospect, I now think he was a much more complex human being than I used to think, and this implication is probably unfair.

            During the five decades since Judge Hoffman presided over the trial of the “Chicago 7,” we’ve witnessed the rise of sharp-tongued “Judge Judy,” who has starred on one of the hottest shows on daytime television, winning high ratings in 25 seasons from 1996 to 2021.  The title of her 1996 book gives us a clue to her judicial demeanor:  “Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining.”  Her great success might lead one to assume that the American public now admires an acerbic judge (who has also been called abrasive, discourteous, and insulting) and prefers her to one who displays what’s usually called “judicial temperament.” 

            What can we say about the public’s fascination with an acerbic judge like Judge Judy?  Does that fascination lead us to view a judge like Hoffman differently today? 

            I don’t think the public views these two judges in the same way.  One was (at least until the trial of the “Chicago 7”) a generally respected federal judge who presided over a great many important cases in his courtroom.  The other is a judge who is closer to a comedian than a respected jurist. 

            As a member of the legal profession, I think that “Judge Julius”—often lacking in fairness and judicial temperament–was not the kind of judge we need.  He wasn’t the villain the Sorkin film makes him out to be.  But he could have, consistently, throughout his tenure as a judge, been less abrasive and less biased in favor of the government.

            Although “Judge Judy” may be an amusing figure in the world of entertainment, she’s also not the kind of judge we need. 

           In short, lawyers and litigants in the real world, confronting serious legal issues, deserve serious judges who invariably display judicial temperament and avoid, as much as they possibly can, acting in an abrasive and biased way.

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

POST # 6

This is the sixth in a series of posts recalling what it was like to serve as a law clerk to Judge Julius J. Hoffman during 1967 to 1969.

Sitting on the Seventh Circuit

            Judge Hoffman was always worried about the fate of his rulings in the appellate court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which reviewed the rulings of the district courts in the circuit, including ours.

            The Seventh Circuit was made up of appellate judges who sat in three-member panels in a courtroom in the same courthouse as the district court courtrooms.  But, as I recall, the Seventh Circuit courtroom was larger, was on a higher floor than the district court courtrooms, and was grander in every way.  The court, as an appellate court, also conducted its proceedings in a far more rarefied atmosphere than the one that permeated the more rough-and-tumble atmosphere at the trial court level.

            Hoffman was frequently reversed by the Seventh Circuit.  In the process, he was often severely criticized by one or more appellate judges for the way he had conducted a trial or reached a legal conclusion.  The South Holland school-district case was a prime example.  Another example was the Amabile case, in which the Seventh Circuit opinion pointed out how easily Hoffman could have avoided reversal if he hadn’t so adamantly refused to ask the jury about the influence of the media on the jury’s thinking.

            Of course, the “Chicago 7” trial was the leading case in which Hoffman was eventually slapped down by the Seventh Circuit.  (I’ll say much more about that trial soon.)

            In early 1969, despite his spotty record with the Seventh Circuit and several months before the “Chicago 7” trial, Hoffman was asked to sit “by designation” on a panel of the Seventh Circuit.  The U.S. Courts of Appeals were at that time frequently overwhelmed by their caseloads, and they would ask retired judges or district court judges to sit by designation on a panel made up of two regular appellate court judges and one non-regular judge. 

            There was great excitement in Hoffman’s chambers when he was asked to do his bit for the Seventh Circuit.  He was thrilled to play the role of appellate judge for a change.  I’m quite sure that he longed to be appointed to the appellate court (he called it being “kicked upstairs”), but that plum had never been offered him.  At least he could now be Appellate Judge for a Day.

            As senior clerk, I was assigned to assist the judge in this new and challenging role.  So when the briefs in the case he was to hear arrived in our chambers, he asked me to read them and prepare questions he could ask during the oral argument.  This sounded reasonable enough.  He was busy with his routine courtroom work and didn’t want to devote much time to the appellate briefs. 

            Still, I did expect him to scan the briefs and have some knowledge of the issues before the oral arguments would be heard.

            I was myself excited about assisting the judge with his new role as appellate judge.  I hadn’t applied for a clerkship with an appellate court, a clerkship that was (like the role of appellate judge vs. that of trial-level judge) more prestigious than the clerkships I applied for with the Northern District of Illinois.  Looking back, I probably didn’t explore the possibility of an appellate clerkship because I was pretty sure that I had a better chance of getting a clerkship with the district court, when securing even one of those was a challenge for a woman applicant in 1967. 

            I’d therefore resolved that if I was offered a clerkship with the Northern District, which was based in my hometown of Chicago, I would grab it and forgo my inclination to work as a lawyer in Washington, D.C. 

            I’d always been fascinated with being at the center of power in D.C.  But at the time of my last year in law school, Lyndon Johnson had squandered the remarkable record he’d acquired on domestic issues (for example, propelling the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and creating the Office of Economic Opportunity) by plunging further and further into the disastrous Vietnam War.  I decided to await the results of the presidential election of 1968 before committing to D.C.  So I was quite happy to accept a district court clerkship in Chicago.

            My own affinity for appellate-level work had been sparked when I participated in my law school’s moot court program, the Ames Competition.  In my first attempt at appellate brief-writing in the fall of my first year, I’d triumphed over a male classmate who was openly miffed that he was assigned to compete against a woman student.  He was overheard complaining that “If you win against a girl, you’ve only beat a girl.  And if you lose to a girl, you’ve been beaten by a girl!” 

            Some of my closest and longest-lasting friendships began in law school, and a great many of them are with male classmates.  But it’s entirely possible that, at that time, there were some others among my male classmates who shared the same misguided notion as my Ames opponent. 

            All of which made my victory especially delicious when I walloped him in moot court.  I earned a higher score from our three male judges, both on our oral arguments and on our briefs.  I almost felt sorry for my opponent.  His lawyer-father had traveled a thousand miles from the Midwest to witness his son’s humiliating defeat.

            Competing in moot court, I discovered my love of brief-writing, and I continued to compete in the Ames Competition as long as I could, hoping to do brief-writing during my career as a lawyer.  As things turned out, I did write appellate briefs during my career, and I went on to teach appellate brief-writing to students at law schools like Northwestern and the University of Michigan.

            The day Hoffman sat on the Seventh Circuit, I was present in the imposing courtroom, perched on a chair just behind the judges.  Once the oral arguments began, the judges were free to interrupt the lawyers with questions, and I had provided Hoffman with a list of challenging questions for both sides. 

            I was shocked when Hoffman finally spoke and revealed his vast ignorance of the legal arguments presented in the briefs. 

            He asked the right questions, of course (I had written them out clearly for him), but he asked them at the wrong time.  Once or twice, he asked a question that a lawyer had already answered, and the lawyer was forced to repeat what he had said a few minutes earlier.

            Hoffman also asked some questions completely out of context, revealing his total lack of understanding of the issues.  As the appellate lawyers struggled to complete their well-prepared presentations, I cringed.  The man was smart enough.  He simply hadn’t bothered to learn anything about the case being argued in front of him, and it showed.

            After the argument, the three judges and their law clerks adjourned to the chambers of one of the appellate judges, and the judges took an informal poll of where they stood.  Once the two appellate judges announced how they were leaning (the two were tentatively in agreement), Hoffman of course jumped in and agreed.  He was then assigned the task of writing the court’s opinion.

            Back in our chambers, Hoffman asked me to write the opinion.  I was excited and eager to bite into the apple of appellate opinion-writing, something I’d never expected to do while working for a trial court judge.  I immediately immersed myself in the law that applied to the case. 

            The law turned out to raise serious constitutional questions.

            The legal issues were complex, and I discovered that I was not completely sold on the outcome the three judges had tentatively agreed upon.  I began going back and forth, one day deciding in favor of the appellant, the next day agreeing with the appellee. 

            Looking for help, I sought out one of the appellate judges’ law clerks.  He was a friend I’d known in law school, and I was sure that he could give me some guidance.  But, like me, he seemed uncertain which way to go, so our brief discussion didn’t help me resolve my internal debate.

            Once or twice, Hoffman asked me how my opinion was coming.  I assured him that I was researching the applicable case law and giving the issues a great deal of thought.  I stated quite clearly that I was deeply involved in pondering these important issues and that I wanted to write an opinion he would take pride in.

            I didn’t see any reason to rush to judgment.  I preferred to think through the issues and come up with a well-reasoned ruling.  Appellate court opinions are often not issued for many months after oral argument.

            But Hoffman’s obsession with speeding through his caseload triumphed over my desire to do a thoughtful and thorough job. 

            One morning I arrived in chambers and was abruptly informed by Hoffman’s secretary that the opinion was written and I no longer needed to do any work on it.  After catching my breath, I asked, “What happened? Did the judge write the ruling himself?”

            Of course not, I was assured.  He had hired someone to write his opinion for him.  Although the secretary didn’t reveal the name of the author, it was a professor at a local law school. 

            So, without telling me, Hoffman had turned the case over to a law school professor, whom he paid out of his own pocket.

            I was astounded.  If Hoffman had given me a deadline (say, “If you don’t write this by June 1st, I’ll have to take it out of your hands”), I would have finished writing an opinion by the deadline.  And it would have been as good as, or better than, whatever the law professor came up with.

            But I wasn’t given any deadline.  After I spent weeks doing difficult legal research and evaluating the merits of the competing issues, the case was yanked out of my grasp and turned over to someone else.

            I never checked to learn how the opinion fared.  Did the two other judges go along with it?  Did the parties appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court?  The truth is that, after the shock wore off, I really didn’t care what happened, so I never bothered to find out.

            Looking back, I probably should have realized that Hoffman desperately wanted to get the appellate case out of the way so he could get back to his everyday routine.  I had assumed that he could separate his appellate court role from his obsession with being in first place in the district court’s statistics.  While he waited for a well-reasoned opinion, he could have speeded through his trial-level caseload the same as always. But I was mistaken on that score.  He couldn’t separate the two roles. 

            In retrospect, maybe I could have proceeded differently.  Maybe I spent too much time going back and forth on the complex legal issues.  Maybe I should have set aside my trial-court responsibilities and focused exclusively on the appellate case.

            I could have simply sat myself down and written an opinion that favored one side or the other.  And been done with it. 

            But I still think that Hoffman was unforgivably wrong to do exactly what he did.

            As disillusioning as so much of my experience with him was, I view this entire episode as one of the worst examples of Hoffman’s high-handed behavior.

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

This month I’m beginning something new.

I’m beginning a series of posts that will focus on my personal recollections of working as a law clerk for a federal judge–a judge who became notorious shortly after I left my clerkship.

Judge Julius J. Hoffman was a U.S. district court judge in Chicago who became notorious when he presided over the “Chicago 7” trial that began in the fall of 1969.

As Hoffman’s law clerk from 1967 to 1969, I observed him closely throughout my two-year tenure with him. This two-year period included, in its final months, the road that led to the “Chicago 7” trial.

This trial is now the subject of a new film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Because the film has inspired new interest in Judge Hoffman, this seemed to be an appropriate time to publish my recollections.

As Judge Hoffman’s law clerk during the two years before the trial began, I could foresee much of what would happen in his courtroom.  I later sat in on the trial, as a spectator, on two very cringe-worthy occasions.

This is the first post in a series that will examine what it was like to clerk for a judge like Hoffman. I’ll begin at the beginning: my first encounter with Judge Hoffman and how I came to work for him.

I’ll go on to describe a wide range of issues that arose during my tenure. These will include my observations during the frenetic time just before and during the “Chicago 7” trial. I’ll conclude with my final communications with the judge, just before I left Chicago in 1970.

Post #1

          In the fall of 1969, Judge Julius J. Hoffman moved from relative obscurity into the spotlight of national attention.  Although he had earned a reputation within the Chicago legal community as an irascible judge with a strong conservative bent, he was otherwise a little-known figure.  The public knew him only as one of Chicago’s U.S. district judges, and as such, he was generally respected.  Even lawyers who had appeared before him were compelled to admit that, despite his personal shortcomings, he could sometimes be an excellent judge.

          All that changed in the fall of 1969.  Assigned to be the presiding judge in what became known as the “Chicago 7” trial, Hoffman was suddenly the focus of journalists and lawyers from every corner of the United States, even the world.  Suddenly his courtroom demeanor was under a microscope, probed for rationality and fairness.  And just as suddenly, he became a national villain, even a national joke.

My first encounter with the judge

          In his custom-made elevator shoes and his black robe (double-stitched for longer wear), Judge Julius J. Hoffman would stride imperiously into his courtroom.  He would seat himself behind his imposing judicial bench, his tiny figure almost lost in the high-ceilinged courtroom he occupied on the 23rd floor of the federal courthouse in Chicago’s Loop.

“The motion will be dee-nied!”

                I can still hear the judge spouting those five words, the five words he must have said a thousand times during the two years I worked for him.  He always seemed to be denying motions rather than granting them.  But that was just one feature of this eccentric and soon-to-be-notorious judge.

          Julius Hoffman was a diminutive, bald-headed man with a prickly ego that was easily punctured.  But when I met with him over the Christmas holidays in 1966, he struck me as a charming and altogether reasonable person to clerk for.  I was in my last year of law school, and Hoffman was one of only three U.S. district judges in Chicago who had agreed, in that benighted era, to interview me, a woman, for the job of law clerk.

          For a number of reasons, Hoffman became my first choice of the three, and when he offered me the job, I decided to take it.  Although I had done almost no research into what kind of judge Hoffman was, I was thrilled with the simple prospect of being any federal judge’s law clerk.

          My failure to research Hoffman’s reputation later came back to haunt me.  I soon discovered that I was working for an irascible, difficult man who had unusual proclivities and a bizarre personality that often played itself out on the bench.  So although I loved my job as a federal judge’s law clerk, and I learned a great deal from my experience working in the federal courts, I was sometimes sorry I had so quickly settled on Hoffman as the federal judge to clerk for.

RBG in ’72

Countless words have been, and will continue to be, written about the incomparable U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served on the high court for 27 years.

I will leave discussions of her tenure on the Court to others.

What I will do here is recount the one and only time I encountered her in person, at a law school conference, at a pivotal point in her career.  If you’re interested in learning about that encounter, please read on.

In September of 1972, I was a full-time faculty member at the University of Michigan (UM) Law School.  Notably, I was the only full-time faculty member who was a woman.

The law school had a desirable setting on the UM campus, whose multitude of elm trees were unfortunately denuded of leaves, thanks to Dutch elm disease. The law school buildings made up the stunning Law Quadrangle, featuring beautiful old buildings constructed in the English Gothic style.

My role on the faculty was to help first-year law students learn the basics of legal education:  how to analyze court rulings (the kind they would read in the books assigned to them in courses like Torts and Contracts); how to do their own research into case law; and how to write a readable legal document, like an appellate brief aimed at persuading an appellate court to decide in their favor.

I was one of four young lawyers hired to fill this role.  The three men and I each taught one-fourth of the first-year class.  As I recall, we got to choose our offices in the law school library, and I immediately chose a plum.  It was an enormous wood-paneled room with charming hand-blown stained glass windows.  One entered it via a stairway leading upstairs from the library’s impressive reading room.  I treasured my office and happily welcomed meeting with students there.  And I wonder, in light of renovations at the law school, whether that glorious office still exists.

At some point early that fall, I learned that a conference on “women and the law” would be held at the New York University School of Law in October.  This was a bold new area of law that most law schools didn’t consider worth their attention.  NYU was clearly an exception. 

The idea of the conference immediately grabbed my attention because I had a longstanding interest in its stated focus.  One reason why I had myself attended law school a few years before was that, beginning very early in my life, I was and remain concerned with achieving equity and justice, including equal rights for women.

This focus had led me to attend law school during the mid-’60s.  My first job was that of law clerk to a U.S. district judge in Chicago.  After finishing my clerkship, I became a practicing lawyer as a Reggie assigned to my first choice, the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau.  [I discussed the Reggie program in a blog post, “The Summer of ’69,” published on August 7, 2015.]

And so, three years earlier, in October of 1969, I had begun working on a lawsuit that had a significant bearing on women’s rights because it would challenge the constitutionality of Illinois’s restrictive abortion law. This law had an enormous impact on the lives of women, especially poor and non-white women.

I worked with Sybille Fritzsche, a lawyer with the ACLU in Chicago, who became my close friend.  Sybille and I spent months preparing our case.  We filed our lawsuit in February 1970, argued it before a three-judge federal court in September, and won a 2-to-1 ruling in our favor in January 1971.  (The ruling in that case, Doe v. Scott, and the events leading up to it, are the focus of a book I’m currently writing.  In the meantime, you can read about our case in historian Leslie Reagan’s prize-winning book, When Abortion Was a Crime.)

Now, in the fall of 1972, I learned about the conference at NYU.  Because I was extremely interested in attending it, I decided to ask the UM law school’s dean, Theodore St. Antoine, whether the school might send me to New York to attend it.  I thought I had a pretty persuasive argument:  I was the only full-time woman on the law school faculty.  Didn’t the dean think it would be a good idea to send me to represent UM at the conference? 

How could he say “no”?  Ted thought about for a moment, then gave his approval.  So off I went, my expenses paid by the kind patrons of UM. 

My hotel, the Fifth Avenue Hotel, located near NYU’s law school, had sounded appealing on paper, but it turned out to be something of a dump.  It suited me just fine, however, because I barely spent any time there.  I was too busy attending the conference sessions and, when I could, taking a short break to reconnect with a couple of law-school classmates and briefly sample life in New York City, a city light-years removed from less-than-exhilarating Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The conference, held on October 20-21, turned out to be a symposium sponsored by AALS (the American Association of Law Schools), “The AALS Symposium on the Law School Curriculum and the Legal Rights of Women.”  It featured a number of prominent speakers, mostly law professors and practicing lawyers who had turned their attention to “the legal rights of women” in areas like tax law, property law, and criminal law.  I attended most of these sessions, and each of them was excellent.

But the only session I was really excited about was a talk by someone named Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  I was quite certain that I would relish hearing her talk, “Toward Elimination of Sex-Based Discrimination: Constitutional Aspects,” because the topic was right down my alley.

Looking back, I don’t think I knew anything about RBG at the time.  But when she was introduced (by NYU dean Robert McKay) and began to speak, I was riveted by every word she uttered.  She spelled out everything she had already done and planned to do to achieve gender-equity.

So although I was not already familiar with her, I knew immediately that she clearly was and would continue to be a brilliant leader in the field of women’s rights.  I filed her name away in my memory so I could follow whatever she would do in the coming years.  And I did just that, enthusiastically following the many astounding accomplishments she achieved after 1972.

Your image of RBG may be that of the frail, petite woman who took center stage in our culture in her 80s.  But the RBG I saw in 1972 was very different.  She was an amazingly attractive young woman of 39.  You can see photos of her at that time in The New York Times of September 18 (in Linda Greenhouse’s long review of her life and career) and in a recent issue of TIME magazine (Oct. 5-12, 2020). Although much has been made of her short stature (one I share), she was so very energetic and focused that one quickly forgot how small she was.

It turned out that she had attended Harvard Law School about a decade before I did.  Like her, I’ve been called a “trailblazer” and a “pioneer,” and I also confronted gender-bias at every turn throughout my life.  My path was only a bit less rocky than hers:  My class at HLS included the whopping number of 25 women in a class of 520, while hers had only 9.

I’ve since learned that October 1972 marked a pivotal time in RBG’s career.  She had just switched her teaching position from Rutgers Law School to Columbia Law School (a considerable upgrade).  And she had just assumed another new position:  Director of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, a project she had helped to found a short time before. 

So I’m left wondering…did she know about the case Sybille (an ACLU attorney in Chicago) and I brought in February 1970, a case that put a woman’s right to reproductive choice front and center?

RBG was an ardent supporter of reproductive rights during her tenure on the Supreme Court.  She discussed her views on abortion and gender equality in a 2009 New York Times interview, where she said “[t]he basic thing is that the government has no business making that choice for a woman.”

But I know that she had also stated that she wasn’t entirely happy with the way in which Roe v. Wade gave every woman in the U.S. that choice by bringing cases like Doe v. Scott in the federal courts.  She stated that she would have preferred that the argument had been made, over time, in each state’s legislature, with the right to choose being gradually adopted in that way rather than in one overriding court ruling that included every state.

Notably, on the 40th anniversary of the court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, she criticized the decision because it terminated “a nascent democratic movement to liberalize abortion laws” that might have built “a more durable consensus” in support of abortion rights.

She had a point.  A democratic movement to liberalize abortion laws would have been the ideal route, and might have been a less contentious route, to achieving abortion rights throughout the country. 

But I think her position was influenced by her own life story. 

It stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that in April 1970, she was living and working in New York, where the state legislature had passed a new law allowing abortion, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had signed it on April 11, 1970.  New York became only the second state in the U.S. (after Hawaii) to permit abortion, and only a few other states had carved out any sort of exception to what was otherwise a nationwide ban on abortion.

RBG may have optimistically believed that other states would follow New York’s lead.  But history has proved otherwise.

If women had waited for each of the 50 states to accomplish the goal of women’s reproductive choice, I think we’d still have many states refusing to enact laws allowing choice.  In support of my view, I ask readers to consider the situation today, when some states are trying to restrict abortion so frenetically, with or without achieving a complete ban, that they’re now simply waiting for a far-right conservative Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Whether or not RBG was aware of what was happening in the courtrooms of Chicago in 1970, I think I could have persuaded her that Sybille and I were doing the right thing.  

By advocating that the federal district court hold that the restrictive Illinois abortion law was unconstitutional, and persuading the court to decide in our favor, we achieved our goal of saving the lives and health of countless women who would have otherwise suffered from their inability to obtain a legal and medically safe abortion.

What greater achievement on behalf of women’s rights could there have been? 

I like to think that, after hearing my argument, RBG would have approved.

My Life as a Shopper

I have a new outlook on shopping.  I’m no longer shopping the way I used to.

Why?

I’ll start at the beginning.  My long history of shopping began when I was very young.

My parents were both immersed in retailing.  My mother’s parents immigrated to Chicago from Eastern Europe and, soon after arriving, opened a clothing store on Milwaukee Avenue.  Their enterprise evolved into a modest chain of women’s apparel stores, and throughout her life my mother was intimately involved in the business.  She embedded in me the ethos that shopping for new things, especially clothes, was a good thing.  Under her influence, I gave away countless wearable items of clothing in favor of getting something new, preferably something sold in one of her family’s stores.  (I later regretted departing with some of the perfectly good items I could have continued to wear for many more years.)

Even though my father received a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois, and he enjoyed some aspects of his work as a pharmacist, he was himself attracted to retailing.  At a young age, he opened his own drugstore on the South Side of Chicago (I treasure a black-and-white photo of him standing in front of his store’s window).  After marrying my mother, he spent a number of years working in her family’s business, and in the late ‘40s the two of them opened a women’s clothing boutique on Rush Street, a short distance from Oak Street, in a soon-to-be-trendy shopping area.  Ahead of its time, the boutique quickly folded, but Daddy never lost his taste for retailing.

In view of this history, I was fated to become a “shopper.”  After Daddy died when I was 12, our family wasn’t able to spend big wads of money on anything, including clothes.  But my mother’s inclination to buy new clothes never really ceased.

Thanks to generous scholarship and fellowship awards, I made my way through college and grad school on a miniscule budget.  I saved money by spending almost nothing, savoring the 99-cent dinner at Harkness Commons almost every night during law school to save money.  And because I began my legal career with a $6,000 annual salary as a federal judge’s law clerk and, as a lawyer, never pursued a high-paying job (I preferred to work on behalf of the poor, for example), I got by without big-time shopping.

Marriage brought little change at first.  My darling new husband also came from a modest background and was not a big spender, even when our salaries began to move up a bit.

But things eventually changed.  Higher salaries and the arrival of new retail chain stores featuring bargain prices made buying stuff much more tempting.  I needed presentable clothes for my new full-time jobs.  Our daughters needed to be garbed in clothes like those the other kids wore.  Our living room chairs from Sears began to look shabby, propelling us toward somewhat better home décor.

A raft of other changes led me to spend more time shopping.  My boring law-firm jobs were more tolerable if I could escape during my lunch hour and browse at nearby stores.  The rise of outlet malls made bargain shopping easier than ever.  And travels to new cities and countries inspired buying small, easily packable items, like books and jewelry.

After I moved to San Francisco, having jettisoned possessions I’d lived with for years in my former home, I needed to acquire new ones.  So there I was, buying furniture and kitchen equipment for my sunny new apartment.

At the same time, our consumption-driven culture continued to push buying more and more, including the “fast-fashion” that emerged, offering stylish clothes at a temptingly low price.

But this emphasis on acquiring new stuff, even low-priced stuff, has finally lost its appeal.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t need it.

My overall goal is to simplify my life.  This means giving away a lot of things I don’t need, like stacks of books I’ll never read and charming bric-a-brac that’s sitting on a shelf collecting dust.  Like clothes that a disadvantaged person needs more than I do.

My new focus:  First, use what I already have.  Next, do not buy anything new unless I absolutely need it.

Choosing not to acquire new clothes—in essence, reusing what I already have, adopting the slogan “shop your closet”–is a perfect example of my new outlook.

I’ve previously written about confining one’s new purchases to “reunion-worthy” clothes.  [Please see my blog post of October 12, 2017, advising readers to choose their purchases carefully, making sure that any clothes they buy are flattering enough to wear at a school reunion.]

But that doesn’t go far enough.  New purchases should be necessary.

I find that I’m not alone in adopting this approach.

Many millennials have eschewed buying consumer goods, opting for new experiences instead of new material things.  I guess I agree with the millennials’ outlook on this subject.

Here’s other evidence of this approach.  An article in The Guardian in July 2019 shouted “’Don’t feed the monster!’ The people who have stopped buying new clothes.”  Writer Paula Cocozza noted the growing number of people who love clothes but resist buying new ones because of the lack of their sustainability:  Many consumers she interviewed were switching to second-hand shopping so they would not perpetuate this consumption and waste.

Second-hand shopping has even taken off online.  In September, the San Francisco Chronicle noted the “wave of new resale apps and marketplaces” adding to longtime resale giants like eBay.  At the same time, The New York Times, covering Fashion Week in Milan, wrote that there was “a lot of talk about sustainability over the last two weeks of collections, and about fashion’s role in the climate crisis.”  The Times added:  “the idea of creating clothes that last—that people want to buy and actually keep, keep wearing and never throw out, recycle or resell”—had become an important part of that subject.  It quoted Miuccia Prada, doyenne of the high-end clothing firm Prada:  “we need to do less.  There is too much fashion, too much clothes, too much of everything.”

Enter Tatiana Schlossberg and her new book, Inconspicuous consumption:  the environmental impact you don’t know you have (2019).  In the middle of an absorbing chapter titled Fashion, she notes that “There’s something appealing about being able to buy really cheap, fashionable clothing [..,] but it has given us a false sense of inexpensiveness.  It’s not only that the clothes are cheap; it’s that no one is paying for the long-term costs of the waste we create just from buying as much as we can afford….”

Some scholars have specifically focused on this issue, the “overabundance of fast fashion—readily available, inexpensively made new clothing,” because it has created “an environmental and social justice crisis.”  Christine Ekenga, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has co-authored a paper focused on the “global environmental injustice of fast fashion,” asserting that the fast-fashion supply chain has created a dilemma.  While consumers can buy more clothes for less, those who work in or live near textile-manufacturing bear a disproportionate burden of environmental health hazards.  Further, millions of tons of textile waste sit in landfills and other settings, hurting low-income countries that produce many of these clothes.  In the U.S., about 85 percent of the clothing Americans consume–nearly 80 pounds per American per year–is sent to landfills as solid waste.  [See “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion” in the journal Environmental Health.]

A high-profile public figure had an epiphany along the same lines that should influence all of us.  The late Doug Tompkins was one of the founders of The North Face and later moved on to help establish the apparel chain Esprit.  At the height of Esprit’s success, he sold his stake in the company for about $150 million and moved to Chile, where he embraced a whole new outlook on life and adopted an important new emphasis on ecology.  He bought up properties for conservation purposes, in this way “paying my rent for living on the planet.”  Most tellingly, he said, “I left that world of making stuff that nobody really needed because I realized that all of this needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the [environmental] crisis, the mother of all crises.”  [Sierra magazine, September/October 2019.]

Author Marie Kondo fits in here.  She has earned fame as a de-cluttering expert, helping people who feel overwhelmed with too much stuff to tidy up their homes.  Her focus is on reducing clutter that’s already there, so she doesn’t zero in on new purchases.  But I applaud her overall outlook.  As part of de-cluttering, she advises:  As you consider keeping or letting go of an item, hold it in your hands and ask:  “Does this item bring me joy?”  This concept of ensuring that an item brings you joy could apply to new purchases as well, so long as the item bringing you joy is also one you really need.

What should those of us enmeshed in our consumer culture do?  In The Wall Street Journal in July 2019, April Lane Benson, a “shopping-addiction-focused psychologist and the author of ‘To Buy or Not to Buy:  Why We Overshop and How to Stop’,” suggested that if a consumer is contemplating a purchase, she should ask herself six simple questions:  “Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it?”

Benson’s list of questions is a good one.  Answering them could go a long way toward helping someone avoid making a compulsive purchase.  But let’s remember:  Benson is talking about a shopper already in a store, considering whether to buy something she’s already selected in her search for something new.  How many shoppers will interrupt a shopping trip like that to answer Benson’s questions?

I suggest a much more ambitious scheme:  Simply resolve not to buy anything you don’t need!

My 11-year-old granddaughter has the right idea:  She’s a minimalist who has rejected any number of gifts from me, including some fetching new clothes, telling me she doesn’t need them.

When I reflect on my life as a shopper, I now understand why and how I became the shopper I did.  Perhaps, in light of my family history and the increasingly consumption-driven culture I’ve lived through, I didn’t really have an option.

But I have regrets:  I’ve wasted countless hours browsing in stores, looking through racks and poring over shelves for things to buy, much of which I didn’t need, then spending additional hours returning some of the things I had just purchased.

These are hours I could have spent far more wisely.  Pursuing my creative work, exercising more often and more vigorously, doing more to help those in need.

Readers:  Please don’t make the mistakes I have.  Adopt my new philosophy.  You’ll have many more hours in your life to pursue far more rewarding goals than acquiring consumer goods you don’t really need.