A STRANGE combination of accidents, circumstances, luck and -- I suppose -- Divine Providence has controlled my life. The enormous distance from a nomadic childhood in a poor and constantly struggling family to a career in the law and then to the federal bench and to a critical confrontation with the most powerful man in the world is nearly incomprehensible. I think back over the failures I've had, the mistakes I've made and the wrong turns I almost took. I think of the chance encounters with the people who helped shape my life -- those who cared for me, gave me advice and counsel, helped me in difficult times, those who were my friends and mentors, guiding me in the right directions.
Both my parents were the children of Italian immigrants. My mother, whose maiden name was Rose Zinno, was born in New Haven, Conn., where her parents had settled after the trip to America. My father, Ferdinand, called Fred, was born in the small town of San Valentino, about 18 miles from Naples. He came with his father to this country when he was about 7. Like a lot of other people at that time, Dad got very little formal education; he said he did not go beyond the second or third grade.He took up the barber trade when he was very young, beginning as an apprentice, standing on a box to lather the customer before their shaves.
I was born in Waterbury, Conn., in 1904, and lived there until I was 6 or 7. At that point, my father began a sad sort of obyssey, moving from city to city, from Dayton to Jacksonville to New Orleans, and then back to Jacksonville and, in 1917, to Richmond, Va. In each place, the story was much the same. My father would attempt to earn his living with one kind of business or another. Each time, he would fail. In 1918 we were uprooted once again, moving to Washington, D.C.
We would up in a little two-room flat on D Street, N.W., between 9th and 10th Streets, where the new FBI building is now. There was a shoemaker's shop on the first floor. There was no air conditioning then.Along with thousands of other people, on especially hot nights we used to sleep in the parks or down at Hains Point, along the Potomac River, just to get a breath of fresh air.
I found a job at the Gish Garage, at 17th and U Streets N.W. I was a mechanic's helper and my main job was to grease cars. In those days, the lubrication systems were primitive, and you had to clean out the hardened old grease from the grease cups with your hands and a screwdriver before packing new grease into the cups. I figured out that I could shortcut the whole process simply by smearing some fresh grease on the outside of some of the cups, leaving the appearance, I thought, of a welldone job.
But before long some of the customers with squeaking cars began to complain to the boss, and one day he caught me in the act. He unscrewed a couple of the grease cups, saw the old grease and bawled me out right in front of the mechanic I was supposed to be helping.
I was so embarrassed that I hid out in the men's room at the garage and had myself a good cry. A few days later I quit the job, thinking I would eventually be fired anyway. That ended my career in auto mechanics.
In the fall of 1918, we were visited by a cousin from Waterbury. He was in his early twenties and was named Alphonso Sirica; we called him "Fonsy." He was determined to make something of himself, and to get an education. He encouraged me, as my father did, to go back to school. Largely because of his advice, I entered Emerson Preparatory School, a small school with only two or three teachers and extremely low tuition costs.
After going to Emerson for a year or so, I transferred to Columbia Preparatory School. There were about 20 students there in a building on I Street, N.W. More important than the school was a friend I made at Columbia. Henry K. Jawish became like a brother to me, and I was greatly influenced by him. By the spring of 1921, Henry and I had been graduated from Columbia.
In those days, it was possible to go directly from high school into law school, without getting an undergraduate degree in college. I didn't have any particular desire to become a lawyer. I was only 17 years old, but with my father's preaching in mind, Fonsy's advice, and the example of Henry Jawish to follow, I applied to George Washington University Law School. Henry was accepted and, amazingly, so was I.
I started law school that fall. In just about a month, I realized what a mistake I had made. I couldn't begin to understand what the professors were talking about; it was like being in a foreign country. I got discouraged and quit.
I had resolved that summer to do something about my body and weight. After giving up law school, I joined the YMCA and began to exercise regularly. I learned how to box that fall. I was pretty good, or at least I thought so. I boxed almost every day with local professional welterweights and middleweights. By the next spring I had lost about 30 pounds and had begun boxing at local clubs in exhibition bouts with the professionals.
After a year at George Washington University Law School, Henry Jawish transferred to Georgetown University Law School, and I decided to make a fresh start with him. I was now 18, but I was not any better prepared for law school than the year before. I feared being called upon in class and would frequently avoid school altogether rather than risk the embarrassment of having to answer questions I didn't understand.
By this time, my father, in another of his attempts to better himself, had bought a small poolroom with two bowling alleys and a snack bar. I used to help out in the evenings.
But my father was again in despair. As he had so often before, he had trusted someone only to be deceived. We lived in rooms above the place. I remember Dad coming upstairs one night after closing. He poured himself a drink as the tears rolled down his face. He was again facing the fact that his hopes were being dashed.
One evening a particularly unpleasant group came in. Many of them had been drinking, even though this was during prohibition. My father decided to close early, about 9 p.m., to get rid of the roughnecks. But one young man was angry that we were closing. He called me a "goddamned wop" and threw a punch.
I sidestepped the punch and clipped him on the jaw with a left hook. He landed flat on his back and had to be carried out. When word of that incident spread, it got a bit easier for us to control things in the poolroom.
Finally, about a month after my second try at law school, Dad found a buyer for the poolroom. As he had done so often before, he set out to find a new place to start his life over again. This time, he decided to try California.
He wanted me to stay in school, but I told him I'd find a school in the west after we got there. Dad had a four-cylinder Hupmobile, and with my mother and my younger brother, Andy, we headed for Los Angeles. Twenty-one days after leaving Washington, we arrived in Los Angeles. We had no friends there. My father found work, but I didn't. His job wasn't much, though, and the whole family was lonely and discouraged. After three months in California we all agreed to head back east.
All the way east my father preached to me about the necessity of going back to law school. "You can see what a tough world this is," he said. "You can see how difficult it can be without an education." For the first time, I really believed him. I contacted Georgetown Law School and was readmitted. In January 1923, I began law school for the third time.
It wasn't any easier now than on the two previous tries. I still shivered nervously when the professors called on me. I turned 19 that March, and I was in a class with many men who were 25 or 26 years old, had been through World War I and were just getting started again.
I was lucky enough to get a job at the Knights of Columbus gymnasium as a physical education and boxing instructor. The job paid about a hundred dollars a month. I met several men who would help shape my future. I used to spar and train with an assistant United States attorney named Leo A. Rover. He was an excellent trial lawyer and later became U.S. attorney and then chief judge of the Municipal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He gave me a lot of encouragement and advice, and eventually the relationship became like that of a father and son.
Another man who advised and encouraged me a great deal was Morris Cafritz. Morris was at that time becoming one of the most prominent and successful real-estate developers in Washington. He later built up a huge personal sortune. He was always the same, whether dealing with a millionaire or with a person of very small means. He somehow took a liking to me.
I was graduated from Georgetown Law School in June 1926. I ranked, I believe, somewhere in the middle of the class, but I was still unsure about becoming a lawyer.
On the morning the bar exam was to be given, I had breakfast with Morris Cafriz. I had pretty well decided to skip the bar exam and head for Florida to see my mother and father. I told Morris I was not too eager to proceed with the law but really didn't know what I was going to do. He knew I was thinking about becoming a professional boxer. "Don't be foolish," he told me. "Even if you're not prepared, take the exam. It will be good experience for you, even if you fail it." I went to the law school that morning to return some books. When I saw the other students lined up to pay their exam fee, I decided to give the exam a try.
The bar exam last three days. Each evening after the test sessions, my friends and I would gather to compare answers. I headed for Miami prepared for the worst, certain that I did not have a chance of passing. I moved in with my father and mother and brother Andy and began making the rounds of law firms to see if I could get located in some capacity.
One day I stopped in at the downtown YMCA to get a little exercise. A man with a cauliflower ear asked if I would play a game of handball. After the game, he asked me if I would put on the boxing gloves and spar a few rounds. We boxed four or five rounds, and he wanted to know where I had gotten my experience in the ring. He was Jack Britton. It turned out that Britton, who had held the world welterweight title twice, was training for a comeback.
I was impressed with Britton and liked him instantly. So when he asked me to become his sparring partner, I agreed right away. We worked together all summer. Jack had three or four bouts, earning about $1,500 for each. Out of his prize money, he'd pay me $100 or $150 for training with him for each fight. One day Britton told me that a local promoter needed someone to box in a semiwindup at Douglas Stadium, a local boxing arena. Jack said I'd get $100 to box 10 rounds with a fellow named Tommy Thompson. Thompson was a 6-foot-tall welterweight who was known for having fought one of the roughest bouts ever staged in Miami. Jack said he didn't think Thompson was a very good boxer, however, and urged me on. "He won't hit you a solid punch in 10 rounds," Jack said. I decided to take the fight.
I made the welterweight limit of 147 pounds. Thompson was a few pounds heavier. I stood about 5-feet-6, and Thompson towered over me, it seemed. He was the toughest, meanest-looking human being I had ever seen. He hadn't shaved for a week or two and gave me a hard stare to frighten me. It worked. I was still nervous when the fight began. I had a shaky first round, trying to feel out Thompson, trying to learn how he punched and moved. The second round brought me more confidence, and I began to think Hack had been right. Thompson was a vicious puncher but he was a not a good boxer. The fight went the full 10 rounds and I won a unanimous decision and $100. I was elated. Here it was, my first 10-round professional bout, and I had won. The writeups in the newspapers the next day were all good, even though they didn't spell my name correctly. The Miami Herald headlined: "Serici: Great Little Mitt Artist."
A few days before the bout, a friend had wired me the incredible news that I had passed the bar exam in Washington and that one of the best students in the class had failed. I had more or less put the bar exam out of my mind while worrying about Tommy Thompson, but my mother hadn't. She really hit the ceiling when she heard about the fight: "Your father and I struggled and slaved trying to send you a little money from time to time to help you finish law school so that you might be somebody. And now all you want to do is be a prize fighter. Are you crazy?"
I felt I had really let my parents down. I was ashamed of myself. I agreed to return to Washington and the law.
Through the fall of 1926, I repeated the job-hunting routine I had started in Miami, with the same result. Among the law firms unwilling to give me a chance was Hogan and Hartson, where years later I was to become a partner. I turned again to my friend Morris Cafriz. Morris had just opened a new cooperative apartment house on 14th Street and offered me a job there, selling apartments on a straight commission basis.
By December I had managed to sell a grand total of one efficiency apartment. With the holidays coming, I headed back to Miami to visit my family and to try again with the law firms there.
Jack Britton was a still in Miami, working at the Roney Plaza Pools, training several wealthy men who had taken up boxing to keep in shape. Jack offered me $50 a week to help him out, and I went to work. One of the men who came by regularly was Bernard F. Gimbel, the department-store owner. I used to train with Gimbel every morning in the hot sun. He was about 42 years old, but was in excellent condition and was a good boxer. He also became a good friend and adviser. Shortly after the holidays, Gimbel had to return to New York. He let me use the upper berth in his train compartment, thus saving me the fare to Washington, where I would make another stab at getting started in the law.
Again I encountered the same problems. To pass the time, I went back to the Knights of Columbus gym to box and work out. There I ran into an old friend, Ray Neldecker, with whom I had boxed and trained while I was in law school. Ray was an assistant United States attorney. One of Ray's former colleagues in the United States attorney's office was a man named Bert Emerson, who had gone into private practice. Ray recommended me for a place in Bert's office. At the time, Bert was one of the outstanding criminal lawyers in the city.
Most lawyers worked together nearly every day, running up against each other in police or criminal court. The important work was usually finished by noon. Some of the lawyears would spend their afternoons playing handball or boxing, often with delightful people like Milton Kronheim, then a bail bondsman on Fifth Street and later Washington's largest wholesale liquor dealer and a great friend of mine. Because of Ray's recommendation, Bert Emerson offered me my first job as a lawyer. He was practicing with two brothers, Joe and Russell Kelly, and an associate named Nita Hinman.
Every day, I would show up bright and early at Bert's office. When he went to court I would go along, sitting beside him, watching him queston the witnesses and argue to the jury.
Once, when Bert was out of the country, one of the Kelly boys and I were in police court trying a case when word came that another judge had called up one of Bert's cases. Kelly asked our judge to excuse him so he could appear in the other courtroom. He told the judge he could only try one case at a time. The judge, John P. McMahon, looked down at me and said, "What's the matter with that little black-haired fellow? Let him take the other case." Kelly explained that I had never tried a case before. "Now is a good time to start," the judge said. And off I went. That was on July 7, 1927.
I stayed in Bert's office for 3 1/2 years. I tried 14 court-assigned casea in that time, losing every one except the last. I also tried many other civil and criminal cases during that time.
After about 3 years, Leo Rover offered me a job as one of his assistants in the U.S. attorney's office.
I got valuable trial experience as an assistant U.S. attorney, prosecuting and handling about 200 cases in 3 1/2 years. I stayed in the U.S. attorney's office until the beginning of 1934.
By then my parents had moved back to Washington from Florida. My dad was barbering again and his financial situation had improved somewhat. He had managed to buy a little house on 14th Street, N.W., and I lived there during my years in the U.S. attorney's office. Thank heaven I was able to stay there after I started practicing.
I had a little two-room office in the Shoreham Building, on 15th Street, NW, for which I paid $90 a month rent. I had a secretary who I paid about $10 a week. This was the beginning of what I call my "starvation period," when I really lived from hand to mouth. The period lasted, essentially, until 1949, when I joined the firm of Hogan and Hartson. I earned my biggest single fee by successfully defending Walter Winchell against a defamation suit. But that case took the better part of a year. It was my friends that kept me going. And I never had a better or closer friend than Jack Dempsey.
Dempsey and I met in 1934 in Washington. Congress had just legalized professional boxing in the District. I was still quite interested in the sport and so Goldie Ahearn (a local prize fighter) and I decided we'd set up a boxing club. For our opening, Abearn prevailed on his friend Max Waxman, Dempsey's business manager, to have the former heavyweight champ refree the main bout. The boxing arena turned out to be a failure, but my friendship with Dempsey developed steadily. I occasionally went to New York for weekends, and Dempsey took me into his circle of friends. He always introduced me as his Washington lawyer. Eventually, we got closer than two brothers.
Jack and I had some great times together. In 1942, he was touring with the Cole Brothers Circus and wanted some company. I met the circus in North Carolina and spent three days with Jack on the circus train. I'll never forget Jack charming the ladies, making the clowns laugh, playing poker with the circus workers.
When Lucy and I were married in 1952 in Fort Lauderdale, Jack was my best man. He was present when I was sworn in as a judge in 1957. He is my best friend.
Like many lawyers, I found that politics became a sort of hobby. I never thought of seeking elective office, but after the Republicans helped me get into the U.S. attorney's office, I wanted to help them in return.
In 1936, Leo Rover became Republican State Committee chairman for the District of Columbia. When he and his slate of delegates to the 1936 convention in Cleveland were challenged, he asked me to come and help him in the fight before the credentials committee.We lost, but I had my first taste of national politics there.
In 1953, Joe McCarthy offered me the job of chief counsel to his Senate subcommittee which was investigating Communist influence in government. Lucy and I talked a long time about the idea of my going back up to Capitol Hill. She was strongly opposed, feeling that since I was now a partner in a good firm, I would be foolish to leave. Joe stopped by our apartment one evening and I told him I felt I had better stay where I was.
In the fall of 1956, Henry Schweinhaut, a judge on the United States District Court, retired. I was then serving on the Republican State Committee for the District, and another lawyer, George Hart, was the Republican state chairman for the District. I knew Hart wanted that position on the bench. The District of Columbia Bar Associatin endorsed David Bress, a Democrat, as well as Hart and myself.
On April 2, 1957, I was sworn in as a federal district judge. I had never been so prood and happy in my life. I had realized my dream. From my office in the federal courthouse, I could see Bert Emerson's old office on 5th Street.I could easily remember my days as a kid lawyer trying cases in the police courta. It seemed like a long, long way -- big jump from 5th Street to the bench for a guy like me. CAPTION: Picture 1, Rose Sirica at 18 or 19.; Picture 2, Ferdinand Sirica at 21.; Picture 3, Sirica, left, sparring with Jack Britton in Miami in 1927.; Illustration, no caption