My Friend Len Weinglass

My Friend Len Weinglass

Remembering a 1950s radical who developed his values, critical thinking and world view in a time when non-conforming was rare.


“Death is not real when one’s life work is done well. Even in death, certain men radiate the light of an aurora.” –Jose Marti

Len was not a 60s radical. He was something more unusual. He was a 50s radical. He developed his values, his critical thinking and world view in a time when non-conforming was rare. He told a newspaper interviewer in Santa Barbara in 1980 that “I would classify myself as a radical American. I am anti-capitalist in this sense — I don’t believe capitalism is now compatible with democracy.” Socialism he thought could be, if given a chance. Len argued that socialism was still a young phenomenon on the world scene, that another world, a non-capitalist world, was possible.

He saw his legal work as his contribution to the collective work of the movement. He didn’t care a bit about making a fee. “I want to spend my time defending people who have committed their time to progressive change. That’s the criteria. Now, that could be people in armed struggle, people in protest politics, people in confrontational politics, people in mass organizations, people in labor.”  Defending people against “the machinery of the state” as he put it, was his calling. He felt that one may have a fulfilled and satisfying life if one “aligns with the major thrust of forces in the time in which you live.”

The third of four children, he grew up in a Jewish community of 200 families in Bellville, NJ and attended high school in nearby Kearney, where he was a star on the football team and Vice-President of his high school class. He played saxophone, was tall and handsome, and sported a fifties pompadour hair style, spending a lot of grooming time behind a closed door in front of the bathroom mirror. His father jokingly complained that he had raised a girl.

When Len graduated he wanted to take a trip across the country to California. He got his father to drive him to the highway. His dad sat in his car weeping as Len hoisted his thumb at passing trucks. Soon an eighteen wheeler stopped and Len piled in. He called often from the road reporting that he was frequently picked up by cars and trucks, that everyone was nice to him, buying him meals and that he was making good time on his trip west.

He didn’t take any identification with him. There was a lot of anti-semitism in the US in the early fifties. Len didn’t want people seeing his last name was Weinglass and identifying him as a Jew. When he got to California he got work on a truck farm, doing stoop farm labor with Japanese agricultural workers. One night one of them was killed. Len was afraid that without an ID he would be a suspect. He jumped the fence in the middle of the night and got out of there.

He went on to George Washington University in DC for college on a scholarship. Len was an outstanding student and was accepted in 1955 into Yale Law School.

Len went from Yale in 1958 directly into the Air Force. In those days because of the draft there was no choice. One had to go into the military. Len was a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corp and rose from second lieutenant to the rank of captain. The Air Force had charged a black airman with some sort of crime. Len was assigned the case and got him acquitted. This infuriated the brass, which was used to exerting its command influence over the results of military trials.

He was discharged from the Air Force in 1961 and went on to set up a one-man law practice in Newark, New Jersey. When interviewed by the New York Times for Len’s obituary, Len’s friend and law colleague Michael Krinsky (Len was of counsel to the firm Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky and Lieberman of New York, NY) said he had first met Len in Newark in 1969. He considered him “a modern day Clarence Darrow”.

Krinsky told the reporter that Newark “was a rough place to be. A police department and a city administration that was racist and as terrifying as any in America, and there was Lenny representing civil rights people, political people, ordinary people who got charged with stuff and got beat up by the cops. He did it without fame or fortune, and that’s what he kept doing, in one way or another.” He did it for 53 years, being admitted to the bars in New Jersey, California, and New York.

We all know of Len for his famous legal work in the Chicago Seven case with Abbie Hoffman, Dave Dellinger and Tom Hayden during the Vietnam War period. We remember his expertise in advocating for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. He finally got his friend Kathy Boudin out of prison after 23 years. He represented Puerto Rican independentista Juan Segarra for 15 years. In the Palestine 8 case, where the defendants were charged with aiding the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, he was part of a team which stopped their deportation. That took 20 years. David Cole, his co-counsel along with Marc Van der Hout, remembers that Len “…coined the term ‘terrorologist’ while cross-examining the government’s expert witness on the PLO. He was a joy to work with in the courtroom. Our immigration judge, who was Lenny’s age, always eagerly wanted to know whether ‘Mr. Weinglass’ would be appearing whenever there was a proceeding.”

Len took the tough political cases, the seemingly impossible ones where his clients were charged with heavy crimes like kidnap, espionage and murder. “He wasn’t drawn to making money. He was drawn to defending justice,” Daniel Ellsberg said. “He felt in many cases he was representing one person standing against the state. He was on the side of the underdog. He was also very shrewd in his judgment of juries.” Len observed that a typical phone call he received started out with the caller saying “‘You’re the fifth lawyer I’ve spoken to’. Then I get interested.”

The Cuban Five was Len’s last major case. He worked on it for years up to the time of his passing, even reading a court submission from his bed in Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. The case highlighted what Len considered the US government’s hypocrisy in its “war against terror.”

Len came into the matter at the appellate level after the Five had been convicted by a prejudiced jury in Miami. His client Antonio Guererro and the others were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against the US sometime in the future. They were sent from Cuba to Miami by the government of Cuba to spy, not on the US, but on the counter-revolutionary Cubans in Miami who were launching terrorist activities from Florida directed at persons and property in Cuba, attempting to sabotage the Cuban tourist economy. They gathered information on the Miami based terrorists, compiling a lengthy dossier on their murderous activities and turned it over to the FBI. They asked the US government to stop the terrorists, who were targeting the Cuban tourist industry by planting bombs at the Havana airport, on buses, and in an hotel, killing an Italian vacationer. But instead of stopping the terrorists, the US government used the dossier to figure out the identities of the Cuban Five, had them arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to long prison terms.

What Len said about the use of the conspiracy charge is illustrative of his precision and clarity of thought.

Conspiracy has always been the charge used by the prosecution in political cases. A conspiracy is an agreement between people to commit a substantive crime. By using the charge of conspiracy, the government is relieved of the requirement that the underlying crime be proven. All the government has to prove to a jury is that there was an agreement to do the crime. The individuals charged with conspiracy are convicted even if the underlying crime was never committed. In the case of the Five, the Miami jury was asked to find that there was an agreement to commit espionage. The government never had to prove that espionage actually happened. It could not have proven that espionage occurred. None of the Five sought or possessed any top secret information or US national defense secrets.

Len had an ironic and wry sense of humor. He had a large one-room cabin atop a high hill overlooking the Rondout reservoir in New York’s Catskill mountains. He lived there in a teepee off and on for several years before designing the cottage. He had a special joy, which he inherited from his mother Clara, for gardening and raising fruit trees. This was an especially difficult pursuit because he had mistakenly planted the trees on the south side of the hill where they got plenty of sun but were vulnerable to a false spring, blooming early, then getting damaged by a frost, which could occur up there as late as June.

Nonetheless Len persisted and sometimes got a crop of apples, pears, and plums. The crop would then be eaten by the neighborhood bears. “I grow the fruit,” Len complained, “then the bears come and eat it and I go to Gristedes.”

He kept his sense of humor even during those terrible final days at Montefiore Hospital. His surgeon operated on him but abandoned his attempt to remove what turned out to be a large spreading malignant tumor, undetected by the pre-op CTscan. When the surgeon saw what it really was, that it was an inoperable tumor, he could do nothing but sew Len back up and tell him the bad news. Len looked up at us from his bed in the recovery room after being informed by the surgeon, and said, simply, “summary judgement.” And so it was. He lived but another six weeks, steadily declining, never getting to go home, never giving up, even as several doctors told him “you are in the final stretch.”

Len was strong and vigorous up to his last illness. Since his high school days he never lost his interest in football and closely followed the professional game. He was a Giants fan of course, but sentimentally he liked the Green Bay Packers because they were the only team in the league owned not by billionaires, but by the municipality of Green Bay. While Len was in Montefiore hospital the Packers made it into the Superbowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers. “ Want to bet on the game,” I asked. “How about five bucks.” He raised his finger to the sky. “Ten?,” I ventured. “No,” he whispered. “Fifty.” So my nephew Ben got us a bookie in Connecticut and we put down fifty bucks apiece. The Packers were favored so we had to give away 3½ points. Len advised that this was a responsible bet. It sure was. The Packers wound up winning in the last quarter by 4 points. I congratulated Len on his sagacity. That win lifted his spirits.

Len was a longtime member of the National Lawyers Guild and served for a time as the co-chair of its intenational committee. He was the recipient of the Guild’s Ernie Goodman Award, named after the extraordinary Detroit socialist lawyer and Guild leader who helped build the auto workers union and later organized the Guild to send its members down south to protect black people during the civil rights movment.

The Dean of Yale Law School Robert C. Post wrote Len’s sister Elaine to express his sympathy, writing that “Leonard Weinglass lived a full and admirable life in the law and exemplified the spirit of citizenship that lawyers at their very best display. He brought great honor to the legal community and to Yale Law School, which takes pride in all he did and was.”

Len was a Jew, but rejected the idea that it was racial ties or bonds of blood that made up the Jewish community, seeing that view as a degenerate philosophy leading to chauvinism and cruelty. He rejected Jewish nationalism, embracing instead an unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated.

Len was not religious. The emergency room admitting nurse asked him what his religion was so she could fill out the questionnaire. He paused and answered “leave it blank.” Two weeks later when he was admitted to the hospital he again was asked what his religion was. “None,” he answered. Religion to Len was superstition. Being part of a sect was too narrow and confining for Len. The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition. The historian Isaac Deutscher had a phrase for it, “the non-Jewish Jew.” Len was in line with the great revolutionaries of modern thought; Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Freud, and Einstein, whose photo hung in Len’s Chelsea loft. These people went beyond the boundaries of Judaism, finding it too narrow, archaic, constricting.

I don’t wish to stretch the comparison. Len was not so much a radical thinker as a man of action. But his intellectual understanding – he was well educated and widely read – powered his activity. He had in common with these great thinkers the idea that for knowledge to be real it must be acted upon. As Marx observed, “Hitherto philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.”

Like his intellectual predecessors. Len saw reality in a state of flux, as dynamic, not static, and he was aware of the constantly changing and contradictory nature of society. Len was essentially an optimist and shared with the great Jewish revolutionaries an optimistic belief in the solidarity of humankind.

Len died in the evening of March 23, 2011 as spring was approaching in New York. He had plans to celebrate Passover in April, as usual, with his family in New Jersey. He knew quite a lot about Passover, led his family’s observance at the seder every year, and kept up a file on the holiday. He liked the idea that the Jews had the chutzpah to conflate their own flight from slavery with spring and the liberation of nature.

He had plans to tend his fruit trees on the side of the hill next to his Catskill cabin. He would have put in a vegetable garden near his three block long driveway, which frequently washed out and which he repaired with sysiphean regularity. He would have set out birdseed on the cabin’s porch rail, where he would sit in a lounge chair on a platform and watch the songbirds feed.

He loved being out on that porch, high up on a hill, particularly at day’s end, seeing the sun go down over the Rondout reservoir which supplies some of the drinking water to New York City. Back in 1976 he told a student reporter for UCLA’s Daily Bruin that leading a committed life was satisfying, fulfilling, and made him happy.

He will be remembered personally as a good, generous, and loyal friend, a gentle and kind person; politically as a great persuasive speaker, an acute analyst of the political scene, and a far-seeing visionary. Professionally Len Weinglass will live on as one of the great lawyers of his time, joining the legal pantheon of leading twentieth century advocates for justice along with Clarence Darrow, Leonard Boudin, Arthur Kinoy, Ernest Goodman, and William Kunstler.

“Lenny cannot be replaced,” wrote his friend Sandra Levinson. “There are no words for the loss we all feel. Do something brave, put yourself out there for someone, fight for someone’s dignity, do something to honor this courageous just man.”

Leonard Irving Weinglass: Presente.

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