San Francisco Examiner

J.W. ‘Jake’ Ehrlich Dies At 71; Famed S.F. Lawyer

Hubert J. Bernhard

Friday, December 24, 1971

Attorney J.W. "Jake" Ehrlich, who came to San Francisco in a box car and rose to become The City’s most renowned trial lawyer, died suddenly today at his Nob Hill apartment.

Ehrlich, who was 71, arose at 5:30 a.m. as was his invariable practice, according to his wife of 51 years, Marjorie.

As he prepared his usual cup of coffee before walking from the apartment at 850 Powell St. to his office at 300 Montgomery St., the famed barrister complained of chest pains.

Mrs. Ehrlich persuaded him to sit down and rest, and as pain persisted and grew more severe she telephoned his law partner, Edward Dullea, son of a former San Francisco police chief, who was already at the office.

Finds Him Dead

Dullea advised her to call a physician, and himself rushed to the Nob Hill apartment—only to find Ehrlich dead.

Thus, a little more than six weeks after his 71st birthday, a career that made him not only a colorful and prominent San Francisco celebrity but a legend throughout the nation, was ended.

Ehrlich won his greatest fame as a criminal lawyer, defending scores of murder suspects and according to the legend, never losing a case.

But he handled more than his share of Bay Area socialite divorces, too, and it was estimated that about 97 percent of his lucrative practice, when he was at the peak of his activities, lay in civil cases.

Defends Police

In addition, he defended more policemen on various charges than all the rest of The City’s attorneys put together, and had served for years as the attorney for the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

A naturally gregarious, personable man, Ehrlich was also concerned with such matters as raising free milk for school children—an activity to which he devoted much attention during those years when he was the perennial president of San Francisco’s Saints and Sinners, a group composed primarily of show business people.

He was known, among other things, for his fastidious linen and his huge collection of cufflinks as well as for his dramatic courtroom practices. The title of "The Master" was conferred upon him by his associates, and his steadfast slogan:

"Never Plead Guilty."

'The Master'

A close friend of financier Louis R. Lurie and a friend or associate of almost every other San Francisco celebrity, Ehrlich was virtually penniless when he arrived in The City in a boxcar in 1919.

He did some small-time professional boxing here, earned a law degree, went back to the University of Georgetown after he accumulated a little money and there obtained a doctorate in law.

His early days as an attorney were lean ones. The man who would one day charge a client $15,000 for 15 minutes work in the courtroom considered himself fortunate at the start to be given summonses to serve at $1 each.

Line on Desk

He had a yellow line painted down the middle of his desk, so the story goes, and whenever a prospective client walked in his opening remark was:

"Put it on the line."

He referred, of course, to cash.

Ehrlich’s first bid for fame was the successful defense of theater magnate Alexander Pantages in a rape case. Pantages, defended by a battery of high priced lawyers, had been convicted.

When he won a retrial, Ehrlich and Hollywood attorney Jerry Geisler assumed the defense—and Ehrlich’s brilliant courtroom strategy was credited with winning the acquittal.

Read Poetry

His later clients read like a Who’s Who of the social, sports and theater world, including such people as Dolly Fine, Gene Krupa, Madge Bellamy, Anita Howard of the Howard-Vanderbilt clan, Sally Rand, Martha O’Driscol, George Vanderbilt, Errol Flynn, Billie Holiday, Howard Hughes, Tony Stralla Cornera, Artie Samish, and Sally Stanford.

Ehrlich was always, he said many times, disdainful of lawyers who try to make the facts fit the rules. His own principle, he insisted, was to make the law fit the facts.

A widely read man, he startled many of his underworld clients by reading poetry and his socialite friends by being familiar with the insides of lavishly bound books the had never opened.

Ehrlich married the former Marjorie Mercer on June 30, 1920, when he was working as a secretary to a railroad president in the daytime and as a tire factory employee at night and boasted total capital reserves of $3.70.

The wedding ceremony was performed by Marin County Justice of the Peace in San Rafael—a county in which he was one day to own a seven-acre hilltop home, complete with a 60 foot swimming pool and an expansive view.

In his later years, Ehrlich turned his love for reading into one for writing, and authored at least 11 books.

In addition to countless magazine articles, he wrote and edited many of the scripts for the television series, "Sam Benedict," as well as other video shows.

He also was the subject of a popular best-seller, "Never Plead Guilty," written by John Wesley Noble and Bernard Averbuch and published in 1955.