THE STORY is told that a lip reader was once hired by counsel, who was scheduled to make an oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, to learn the individual views of the justices. The day that the attorney and his lip reader appeared in court, Justice Felix Frankfurter, characteristically, used the oral argument as his private seminar, peppering the attorney with an incessant stream of questions. While Frankfurter was putting counsel through his paces, Justice William O. Douglas was observed in whispered conversation with a colleague.
"What's Douglas saying?" the anxious attorney asked the lip reader.
"He's saying," the lip reader replied "that he wished that sorry little S.O.B. Frankfurter would shut up."
That tale is probably apocryphal, but the message is true enough. Felix Frankfurter provoked the deepest hostility among strong-willed colleagues, like Douglas, who resented his controlling personality as well as his conservative judicial philosophy. But Frankfurter also inspired thousands who came under his spell, from law students to presidents, with the relentless flow of his ideas and his insatiable intellectual curiosity.
What Frankfurter thought and did during his illustrious career is a matter of extensive public record. Why he did and thought as he did is the subject of H. N. Hirsch's psychologically-oriented biography, The Enigma of Felix Frankfurter. Taking his theme primarily from the writing of psychiatrist Karen Horney, Hirsch asserts that Frankfurter developed a textbook case of the neurotic personality which, because of a prolonged struggle for self-identity, forced him to idealize himself. The result was a frankfurter who held rigidly to his own views and at the same time vilified anyone who stood in the path of the acceptance of those views or, indeed, of Frankfurter himself.
A series of events stunted the development of Frankfurter's personality, Hirsch writes, beginning with the death of his father in 1916. Shortly afterward, Frankfurter was further demoralized by the fight over the confirmation of the court appointment of Louis D. Brandeis who, like Frankfurter, was a Jew. Hirsch also writes of Frankfurter's despair over the tension between himself and his mother, created by the courtship of his future wife, Marion Denman, the daughter of a Congregational minister.
According to the author, these events dealt Frankfurter devastating blows, causing him to lose all sense of self-worth. Only later, writes Hirsch, after Frankfurter had successfully built up his confidence through a series of professional triumphs, was he able to put his private and public lives in order. But by then, Hirsch concludes, the damage had been done. Frankfurter's neurotic personality had been irrevocably formed. For the rest of his life, he would be an insecure man with exaggerated notions of his importance in the world, determined to control all around him by his will and guile when he could not do so with the power of his ideas.
The author's problem is that the documentary proof he presents does not support the enormous weight of his provocative thesis. Felix Frankfurter was, in turns, arrogant, cunning, vindictive and manipulative, and these unattractive personality traits are vividly illustrated in excerpts from the Frankfurter diaries, reminiscences and correspondence that Hirsch provides. But Hirsch is significantly less impressive in arguing that Frankfurter bore the brunt of these personality weaknesses because of a struggle for self-identity in 1916 and 1917.
To be sure, Hirsch shows that Frankfurter was distraught in 1916 and 1917.
He does not, however, offer a single piece of convincing evidence that he was psychologically destroyed. Frankfurter's correspondence quoted by Hirsch indicates that he was deeply upset by his father's death, but this same correspondence does not suggest his father's death caused him seriously to question his self-worth. Similary, Hirsch documents that Frankfurter was embittered by the fight over Brandeis' confirmation, a fight with insidious anti-Semitic overtones. But it is a very different point, and one that Hirsch fails to make effectively, to say that the confirmation fight shattered Frankfurter's psychological security. Undoubtedly, too, there was tension between Frankfurter and his mother over his love for Marion Denman but, again, Hirsch does not successfully document his conclusion that this contributed to the annihilation of Frankfurter's strong sense of his own worth. Indeed, based on Hirsch's documentation, it is not fair to say that Frankfurter experienced any notable identity crisis in 1916 and 1917, and certainly not one of the proportion Hirsch suggests.
Despite Hirsch's failure to establish the validity of his major thesis, his book is a reminder, once again, of why the study of Frankfurter remains intriguing for scholar and layman alike. We read of Frankfurter, 29 years old, tutoring Secretary of War Henry Stimson on what a progressive Republican like Stimson ought to stand for. There is also the great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes taking pleasure in the company of Frankfurter ("Young fella -- you do cheer me up with all you bring"). And later, we listen as President Franklin D. Roosevelt marvels at Frankfurter's mind ("Felix has more ideas per minute than any man of my acquaintance.")
When Frankfurter was appointed to the court in 1939, prominent New Dealers assumed that he would lead the court to a new libertarian plateau. This did not happen, of course. To the chagrin of many admirers, Frankfurter became an outspoken exponent of the philosophy of judicial restraint, urging the court to defer to the legislative and executive branches of government on most important issues, even when basic civil liberties were at stake. Hugo Black then became the leader of the libertarian wing of the court, carving out a place in history that many had hoped and expected Frankfurter to claim for himself.
Hirsch is at his best in describing the philosophical and personal break between Frankfurter and the court liberals. Frankfurter was appalled at the defection of Justices Black, Douglas, Murphy and Rutledge from his leadership, and his despair led to a shocking vilification of his colleagues. He labeled Black "a self-righteous, self-deluded part fanatic, part demagogue" and Douglas "the most cynical, shamelessly immoral character I've ever known."
At the outset of his book, Hirsch admits that Frankfurter was a highly complex and already much studied man. Although the author has not fully explained Frankfurter's complexities, he has raised enough fresh questions to ensure that the study of this fascinating man will continue.