Fred Rodell

Fred Rodell

Fred Rodell is largely forgotten these days, but as the “bad boy of American legal academia” he inspired several generations of Yale Law School students to think differently about their chosen profession. Sidney Zion was one of them.


In the wee small hours at Toots Shor’s long ago, I saw Frank Sinatra kiss Joe E. Lewis good night, just as the great comic dragged himself off for a little shuteye before the morning bottle. Wistfully, Sinatra said to nobody in particular: “Every time I say good night to that lovely sonofabitch I gotta figure on saying goodbye.” Fred Rodell, the fabulous iconoclast of the Yale Law School, who died on June 4 at the age of 73, never let me forget that incident. For the past decade, Rodell was beset with a plague of Jobian illnesses. Every time I talked to him, I had to figure it was the last time. Like Joe E., he kept fooling the medics; unlike Job, he didn’t cry out to the heavens. His only complaints were that his drinking days were done and that he didn’t have the strength to discomfit his enemies.

Long before the Man in the Bright Nightgown came to call, many of Rodell’s foes had cashed in — most notably Felix Frankfurter, Dean Acheson, Alexander Bickel. Fred took no pleasure in these funerals; indeed, it galled him to lose such fancy targets, no matter that his typewriter was fast running out of bullets. Rodell knew that other typewriters were working and that he had trained most of them. He also knew that however dead the enemies, the Enemy would live on, for it is an old one, as old as the human soul.

Fred Rodell’s enemies were powerful ones, upright and uptight. The Enemy was fear posing as responsibility, pedantry dressed like scholarship, cant parading as truth. He devoted his extraordinary talents to fighting them and it, while at the same time extolling his Charter, which turned out to be no more or less than the Bill of Rights.

He said it in everything he wrote and did, but I think he said it best in the old American Mercury in 1945: “Two paths in life are open to the college bright boy. One is to devote that first-rate mind relentlessly to the discovery and expression of naked truth, no matter whose toes may be trampled or whose sacred cow gored. The other is to shade intellectual integrity and courage to get on well in the world — to confine that mind and the work of that mind within the bounds of acceptability to the right people, the best people, the powers that be.”

Of course, Rodell followed the first path, and though he altogether eschewed the second, he was acceptable, for a glorious moment, to some of the powers that be. The Warren Court, or at least its majority, greatly respected him. In my days at The New York Times, more than one Justice told me that Rodell knew more about them, was better able to analyze and predict them, than all the fancy scholars rolled into one. And at his home in Bethany, Connecticut, next to a picture of Hugo Black and a bust of Bill Douglas, hangs the photograph of the 1968 Supreme Court, featuring this message: “To Fred Rodell, than whom this court has had no greater friend, from his friend Earl Warren.”

In a way he lived too long; he didn’t need to see the Burger Court undermine nearly everything the Warren Court had accomplished. Still, his Nine Men, written in 1955, was a precursor to The Brethren, and eons better and wiser than that current best seller. And he was more than a little pleased to be around when Berkley Publishing this year reprinted his 1939 opus, Woe Unto You, Lawyers! to rave reviews, particularly from young people who were surprised to see that somebody knew all about legal gobbledygook forty years ago.

Rodell’s greatest influence lay in the unique seminar he taught at Yale called “Law and Public Opinion.” It was a course devoted to teaching lawyers to write about the law in the English language. It spawned, like Jolson, Crosby and Sinatra, hundreds of imitators. And in journalism it turned out the first generation of lawyer-journalists.

But I don’t want to miss the man in all this. What Fred Rodell had, the thing about him, was his attractiveness; a romantic allure that only the dullest could not see. For those of us fortunate enough to be there in the 1950s, the Yale Law School was, above all, Fred Rodell. He was the one who had been everywhere, seen everything. They knew him at Sardi’s and at Frankie and Johnnie’s and at the Ritz in Paris. He was our Bogart, to be found (why not?) in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world. The last words he said to me were these: “I’ll see you in hell.” I’ll check it out, and if he’s there, I’m coming

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