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The other night I started re-watching the 1959 movie, Anatomy of a Murder, starring Jimmy Stewart. (I should say, re-watching again. It’s one of those rare classic movies, like Casablanca, that I can watch over and over again. One law professor said it was “probably the finest pure trial movie ever made.”)
And one of my favorite characters in this classic courtroom crime film is Joseph N. Welch. He plays the judge presiding at the murder trial in Iron Bay, a resort town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. (The regular “UP” judge is indisposed, so Judge Weaver – Joseph Welch – is brought in from the Lower Peninsula.)
Some background. Ben Gazzara plays Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion, who guns down a local tavern keeper, Barney Quill, an hour or more after Quill raped Manion’s wife Laura. (Played by Lee Remick.) Stewart plays defense attorney Paul Biegler, who used to be the town prosecutor, but lost the election to Mitch Lodwick. (Who feels that – due to the importance of the case – he needs to call in the help of state Assistant Attorney General Claude Dancer, played by George C. Scott.)
Incidentally, both the film and novel that inspired it were based on an actual Michigan case in 1952. There the defense used the concept of “irresistible impulse” – based on an obscure 1886 state supreme court holding – to win an acquittal “by reason of insanity.”
Two days after trial that defendant was judged to be sane by a psychiatrist and released. (Only to be divorced by his wife, also soon after trial.) In Anatomy, Lt. Manion is released as well, but then he and his wife skip town before attorney Biegler can get the lieutenant to sign a promissory note for $3,000. (The amount he agreed to pay Biegler while in jail awaiting trial. But note, a “real” defense lawyer would have gotten the promissory note well before that, most likely before trial but at least right after the verdict. That’s why the call it artistic license.)
But back to Joseph Welch: Aside from playing Judge Weaver in Anatomy of a Murder, he was a “real-life lawyer famous for dressing down Joseph McCarthy” – left, with counsel Roy Cohn – “during the Army–McCarthy hearings.” For some background on that…
June 9, 1954. The hearings were in their 30th day, the result of Senator Joseph McCarthy‘s “aggressive investigations of suspected Communists and security risks” within the U.S. Army. (As well as a counter-accusation that Committee Counsel Roy Cohn – at right in the photo above – had pressured the Army “to give preferential treatment to G. David Schine, a former McCarthy aide and friend of Cohn’s.”)
Joseph Welch served as Army counsel, and on June 9 challenged Cohn to give his alleged list of “130 security risks” to the U.S. Attorney General. McCarthy responded that Welch should “check on Fred Fisher, a young lawyer in Welch’s own Boston law firm.” Fisher had once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, in what Welch considered a youthful indiscretion. McCarthy insisted it was a “Communist front.” When McCarthy continued his attacks Welch responded:
Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who … came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career… Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is true he is still with Hale and Dorr… It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.
McCarthy tried to renew his attack on Fisher, but Welch interrupted. “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” McCarthy tried to attack Fisher yet again, but Welch would have none of it. He refused to discuss the matter further, said that if there was a God in heaven it would do neither McCarthy nor his cause any good, then prompted the chairman to call the next witness. “At this, those watching the proceedings broke into applause.”
For one thing, I’d say we could use a lot more “Joseph Welch” in today’s political arena…
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But what also struck me – as I watched Welch preside over the “Anatomy” trial – came when I started wondering how old he was when he did the movie. “I’m guessing, what? 80? 85?“
I did some research, and learned that when Welch died he was way too close to how old I am now. Born in 1890, he played in Anatomy of a Murder in 1959, and died not long after that. “Sixteen days before his 70th birthday, and fifteen months after the release of Anatomy of a Murder, Welch suffered a heart attack and died on October 6, 1960.”
Which leads to a personal note: I just turned 69, and 16 days before my 70th birthday will be next June, 2021. So again: OMG! On the other hand, I’m guessing that Judge Welch didn’t exercise seven hours a week like I do. (Including yoga, weights and hour-bouts of stair-stepping, with a 30-pound weight vest and 10 pounds of ankle weights. See also my 2018 post, A Geezer’s guide to supplements. For my part, I want to live to at least 120, like Moses.)
My how times have changed!
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Christie Brinkley at age 65 – in 2019 – and “Times have indeed changed!”
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The upper image is courtesy of the Joseph N. Welch link in the article, Anatomy of a Murder – Wikipedia. The full caption: “Welch (left) being questioned by Senator Joe McCarthy (right) at the Army–McCarthy hearings, June 9, 1954.” See also Joseph N. Welch – Wikipedia.
The poster image is also courtesy of, Anatomy of a Murder – Wikipedia. The “teaser” at the top of the poster reads, “Last year’s No. 1 best-seller … This year’s No. 1 motion picture.”
Some notes on Fred Fisher (1921-1989). After the Army-McCarthy hearings, he went on to become a partner at Hale and Dorr, Welch’s firm. In 1973–74, he served as president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. Fisher died in 1989 in Tel Aviv, Israel, where he was lecturing. In his New York Times obituary, Fisher was referred to as a “McCarthy target.”
Ironically, G. David Schine – who the Army said got preferential treatment because of Cohn’s pressure tactics – also died “young,” at 68 in a plane crash. He started life as “the wealthy heir to a hotel chain fortune,” and after the Army-McCarthy hearings went on to a career in Hollywood, most prominently as a firm producer. Also a musician, he once “conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra in place of Arthur Fiedler at a concert,” at which some members of the orchestra refused to play. One musician commented later: “That man ruined my father’s life. No way I was going to play for him.”
The lower image is courtesy of Christie Brinkley 2020 – Image Results. The image accompanies an article from the UK Home | Daily Mail Online, “Christie Brinkley, 65, reveals major cleavage in breezy outfit as she is joined by daughter Alexa Ray Joel, 33, for star-studded Polo Hamptons Match & Cocktail Party.” Note: The article and photo were dated 2019, when she was actually 65.