The San Francisco Examiner

(Art Cohn's Column)

January 24, 1958

 

THE MASTER

 

Two boys wrote a so-called biography of Jake Ehrlich a couple years ago.  It turned out to be an inventory of his cases more than a portrait of the man.  It was not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me.

Jake has never pulled any punches and any writer who does must miss him by six furlongs.

“I didn’t exactly idolize my father,” he told me in a typical moment of candor a few years ago when I was toying with the idea of doing a book on him.  “Lifting a mint julep was the only work I ever saw him do.”

How about your mother?

“She wanted me to go into medicine.  It is just as well I didn’t.  I would want to dramatize surgery.  Like throwing a scalpel fifty yards.”

After several months of research I decided not to write the book.  I would rather remain his friend than be his biographer. 

You may assume nothing from that last line.  In my opinion, and I have had studied them all, Jake Ehrlich is one of the three greatest trial lawyers this country has ever known.  I rank him above William J. Fallon, Earl Rogers, Sam Liebowitz and Jerry Giesler.  Only Moman Pruiett and Clarence Darrow were in his class.  And they’re dead.

 

# # # #

 

When people who presume to know Ehrlich talk or write about him they speak of his hippodroming and haberdashery, his bluster and bombast: stage business, his sleight of hand with starched cuffs, deceives his friends as facilely as it does judges and juries.

What of the man behind the mask? At fifty-seven what does he really think?

“No man thinks 100 per cent honestly because his own desires add or subtract.”

Jake said that the first night I met him back in the mid-Thirties.  It remains one of my precepts.

“Love has no basis in logic.  You can’t feel it or see it walk in, only when it walks out.”

That was his sole comment after listening to a two-hour lament of unrequited love.

“Man is basically prejudiced against everything except his own image.  How can you teach a white man to understand the equal rights of a Negro if he only understands his own?”

            He said that 20 years before the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously decreed that all men are equal before the law be they black or white.

            He has no illusions about women and has been married to the same one for 37 years.

            “People are 100 per cent mentally unfaithful but are stopped by cowardice or lack of opportunity.  Marriage vows are evidence of possession, not affection.

            “The archaic divorce law we have in California has done more to create divorce than have human weaknesses.  Imagine entering into a contract with another person and not providing that such contract may be terminated my giving notice to each other—but stipulating that the parties must call each other vile names under oath, in court, to terminate the relationship!

            “Ninety-nine per cent of all divorces—I have handled hundreds—can be traced to the boudoir.”

 

# # # #

 

Jake, you take clients obviously guilty of the crimes with which they are charged.  Why?

“Every poor devil I defend in court came before the bar of justice because of the unevenness, unfairness and downright stupidity of society.”

Are you suggesting that all laws be repealed, all prisons emptied, all halls of justice converted into bowling alleys?

“I am stating there is less justice in the Hall of Justice than any other building in town.  I am stating that legalized civilization destroys justice with its respectability masking hypocrisy.”

            Spell that out.

            “First a man steals to exist.  Then he gets everything he wants.  Then he becomes holier-than-thou.”

            Cynicism is unworthy of you, Jake.

            “I’m not cynical.  I have the ability to laugh at myself.  The Law is cynical.  It says that if a man is aware of his crime he is subject to punishment.  What of the mentally distraught?  They are aware.  Too many practitioners of the Law forget, or never knew, they are dealing with the frailties of men, not the tensile weakness of steel.”

            Jake Ehrlich knows the Law as few men do but believes that the law is law and justice is justice, and never the twain shall meet.  His definition of justice is a kind of agreement not to hurt or be hurt.

 

# # # #

 

“If I had to do over again,” he told me the other day, “I would not be a lawyer.  I would not deal in personal services.  I could have been just as successful with less effort in other occupations.”

            Name one.

            “Show business for one.  I would have done all right.”

            What self-delusion!  Jake has been in show business since he came to San Francisco almost 40 years ago.  He is the best actor who never won an Academy Award.

            The Master is the last of his breed.  May he get the Hebraic limit and no time off for good behavior.