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Prich’: A New Deal Memoir

In the summer of 1941 I went south from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to do research at the Library of Congress. Every morning I disappeared into the darkness of the manuscript division and immersed myself in the Washington of Andrew Jackson. At five o’clock, when the library closed, I would come out into the sunlight and heat of the Washington of Franklin Roosevelt. While I was entangled in the nineteenth century, the twentieth-century world was exploding around me. I remember emerging one afternoon to find newspaper extras proclaiming that the British had sunk the German battleship Bismarck. One could almost touch the wave of elation running through people on the street. It was far from the age of Jackson.

A beautiful young girl named Evangeline Bell, whom I had known when she was at Radcliffe, invited me to dinner at a place called Hockley to meet her friend Ed Prichard. One knew of Prich by reputation. He had made a powerful impression when he was at the Harvard Law School. He was Felix Frankfurter’s adored protégé, the coeditor at the age of twenty-four with Archibald MacLeish of Law and Politics: Occasional Papers of Felix Frankfurter. Now he was the Wunderkind of the New Deal. I had no idea that, as a friend, I would in years to come watch his brilliant future fall in ruins, and then conclude in triumph. He died on December 23, 1984.

On a soft summer evening Evangeline and I drove across Key Bridge to an old Virginia mansion on a high bluff overlooking the Potomac. We sat on the columned veranda, with a wide lawn before us and the lights of Georgetown in the distance, while Johnson, the Negro butler, served mint juleps in silver cups. I had never had mint juleps before. The “New Deal bachelors” who were renting Hockley were returning from their jobs at the war agencies. I cannot remember who was there that night. Among the young men living for periods short or long at Hockley were Philip L. Graham, later publisher of The Washington Post; Adrian Fisher, who was to become arms control negotiator and dean of the Georgetown Law School; Henry Reuss, later congressman from Wisconsin; William L. Cary, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission; John Oakes, editor of The New York Times editorial page; John Ferguson, ambassador to Morocco; Graham Clayton, secretary of the Navy and president of Amtrak. William Sheldon, the moving spirit behind Hockley, was grievously wounded at Guadalcanal and killed himself in a naval hospital in California.

When Prich appeared, he at once took over as the undisputed king of that formidable group. The talk was rapid, knowing, and droll—talk of the war, of the problems of defense mobilization, of FDR, of Felix and Harry, of Dean and Ben and Tom. I found it all vastly exciting. I do not think it was just the mint juleps. Prich was the dazzling center, exuberant, witty, bursting with legal ideas, political insight, administration gossip, and intrigue. He was enormously fat, enormously well read, enormously funny. He seemed to know everything that was going on, mimicking the mighty with immense relish.

Prich dominated his friends partly because of his extraordinary personal brilliance and charm, partly too, I surmise, because he mingled two basic streams of New Deal energy, one political, one intellectual—the Kentucky side and the Frankfurter side.

He had been born in 1915 in Paris, Kentucky, in the bluegrass region. His father, Big Ed Prichard, was a local personality, a rough and convivial man, who had served a couple of terms in the state legislature and made his living as a beer distributor. Sonny, as young Prichard was known, was a precocious little fat boy. He wore a broad-brimmed Panama hat. He read voraciously, skipped several grades, and, after school, he hastened not to the playground but to the Bourbon County courthouse.

Kentuckians are famous storytellers, and Prich learned the art. Sometimes a county judge invited him up on the bench to hear a case. He soaked up Kentucky history, politics, and law, and seemed to forget nothing. Already certain characteristics were evident—his habit of closing his eyes while he absorbed information, his passion for books, his passion for the law, his impudent humor, his remarkable memory.

Kentucky was still a southern state, where the past was a living part of the present. Politics remained a road to status as well as a source of entertainment long after the North had given itself over to moneymaking. But Kentucky was also a border state, the “dark and bloody ground,” which made it sensitive to northern and national preoccupations. The Kentucky instinct for accommodation went back to the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay. Kentuckians were natural politicians.

Democratic politics in Kentucky had a liberal and cosmopolitan cast. This was owing in part to the presence of a great newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal. The Courier-Journal had first acquired national influence under the celebrated editor and Democrat Henry Watterson. Watterson finally broke with Woodrow Wilson over the League of Nations. When he was much criticized for this, he replied, “Things have come to a hell of a pass when a man can’t wallop his own jackass.” Robert Worth Bingham, who supported the league, bought the Courier-Journal, steadied its course, and established it as one of the best papers in the country. When in 1933 FDR sent Judge Bingham as ambassador to the Court of St. James, the paper was left in the hands of his able son Barry. The editor of the eloquent editorial page in the late Thirties was the historian Herbert Agar.

Kentuckians were a disproportionately large presence in FDR’s Washington. Alben Barkley of Paducah, Truman’s vice-president, was then Senate majority leader. Fred M. Vinson of Ashland was perhaps the most effective New Dealer in the House before becoming secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice under Truman. Stanley Reed of Mason County was Solicitor General before he went to the Supreme Court. The erratic and egotistical Albert B. “Happy” Chandler of Versailles, after a term as governor, crashed into the Senate in 1939. Paul A. Porter, of Lexington, one of the keenest of the younger New Dealers, helped to found the law firm of Arnold, Fortas & Porter. Arthur Krock had worked in Louisville for Henry Watterson and was now the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times.

Prich grew up in this most political of cultures. But he added to it a first-rate analytic mind and broad intellectual interests. He was only sixteen when, in 1931, he entered Princeton. In freshman English, a professor, seeing Prich sit through class with his eyes closed, denounced him for sleeping. Prich responded with a verbatim summary of the lecture just delivered. He quickly became a renowned figure on campus. His Princeton friends included Fisher, Oakes, and Sheldon, with whom he was to live at Hockley, Edmund Gullion, who had a distinguished diplomatic career ahead of him, and Philip Horton, the biographer of Hart Crane and executive editor of The Reporter magazine.

Graduating summa cum laude in 1935, he went on to the Harvard Law School, where his friendship with Frankfurter began. As a professor, Frankfurter was effervescent and combative. He delighted in irreverent young men. Prich, a special favorite, stayed on an extra year as his research assistant. One day in 1939, shortly after Roosevelt nominated him to Cardozo’s seat on the Court, Frankfurter set forth an argument in administrative law. Prich said, “That is the most tenuous legal proposition I have ever heard.” “I hope, Mr. Prichard,” Frankfurter said, “that your capacity for surprise has not been exhausted.” “No, it has not,” Prich said, “and I’ll tell you why. You can never tell what one of these new Justices may decide.”

Justice Frankfurter inherited his first law clerk, Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., from Justice Cardozo. Rauh was followed by Adrian Fisher, who was followed by Prich, was was followed by Philip Graham (who had spent a year clerking for Stanley Reed). These Frankfurter clerks, a high-spirited, iconoclastic group, took full advantage of their license to challenge their principal. Once when the Justice was holding forth, Prich could be seen slumped down at the end of the table, counting on his fingers. Felix interrupted himself and said, “Prich, what are you doing?” Prich said, “Oh, nothing, Mr. Justice. Just counting your digressions.”

While Prich was living with his Princeton friends at Hockley, John Oakes brought Katharine Meyer, the daughter of Eugene Meyer, the owner of The Washington Post. Both Prich and Phil Graham became interested in this lively and attractive young woman, but Graham won her and Prich was best man at the wedding. To everyone’s surprise, given his unreliable habits, he appeared on time and with the ring. The wedding lunch was disrupted by a violent argument when Frankfurter (this was at the time of the Soviet–Nazi pact and of vehement Communist opposition to the Roosevelt policy of aiding Britain) proposed outlawing the American Communist party. Prichard and Graham accused him of betraying the Bill of Rights. There was much shouting, and Frankfurter finally took Kay Graham for a walk in order to cool off.

One evening in May 1940, Prich rushed panting into Rauh’s house, pulled a sheaf of papers out of his pocket, and said, “You’ve got to do something to prevent this disaster.” He handed Rauh Frankfurter’s draft opinion in the Gobitis case, which held that two grade-school Jehovah’s Witnesses could be expelled from a Pennsylvania public school for refusing to salute the flag. Prich said he had pleaded with Frankfurter not to commit this atrocity against civil liberties, but to no avail. How to save their beloved Justice from himself? Rauh said, “If I am to go and argue with the Justice, how do I explain where I got the draft opinion? May I tell him you showed it to me?” “Oh, God, no,” cried Prich. “He would have an absolute fit.” Since they could not figure out a story of how Rauh could have seen the draft, there was nothing to be done. With that case, Frankfurter’s reputation began its descent among liberals.

On the Court Frankfurter became more conservative, more possessive, more insistent on agreement. Though nothing interrupted their personal affection for him, Ben Cohen, Rauh, and Prichard felt in the end that his reputation would have been higher had he never gone on the Court. In 1975, after the publication of the Frankfurter diaries, Prich recalled in a letter to me Mrs. Mark Howe’s opinion that Felix was an intellectual and spiritual vampire sucking the blood of his protégés. “While I must agree that there is some truth in this contention,” Prich wrote, “it is also true that he, at the same time, pumped their blood full of life, giving oxygen, so that it was really Felix’s giving and Felix’s taking away.”

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