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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Thomas Jefferson and Friend, Side by Side, in a Hotel Library

From Washington Lawyer, December 2009

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

Hotels here and there have bookshelves known as the guest library for people who wish to read Reader’s Digest abridgements, National Geographics, paperback mysteries, government publications, U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports, and out of date volumes of the old Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia.

The Homestead and The Greenbrier, when I last looked, provided their guests reports on the state of U.S. agriculture published by the U.S. Government Printing Office, Civil War books with the pictures missing, a book on veterinarian remedies, a course on how to shoe a horse, and diagrams of Bobby Jones’ golfing stroke.

The New York hotel libraries I have seen include “as told to” autobiographies of once popular politicians and television performers, along with the Reader’s Digest abridgements.

Every now and then, there is an attractive, well-worn book that has something about it that makes it worth a riffle of the pages. I found at the Elysée Hotel such a book, The Paradine Case, published in 1933. The author, Robert Hichens, was new to me. The book is about a highly moral British barrister who makes the mistake of falling in love with his client, a client charged with murdering her husband. Each character—the lawyer, the defendant, and the trial judge—stands out as a real life person caught up in a tragedy. Hichens got into the minds of the lawyer and judge so cleverly, it made me wonder if he had a legal background. He did not.

Hichens (1864–1950), in his youth, had an interest in music. In his twenties, he turned to writing.

Hichens, after meeting Oscar Wilde, described the latter in a satirical novel titled The Green Carnation (1894). It was a success, and Hichens was on his way. His best-selling book, The Garden of Allah (1904), sold more than 700,000 copies.

The Paradine Case was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck as the lawyer. Unfortunately, the movie bears no relationship to the book.

In reading up about Hichens, I came across a friend of his, Reginald Turner, who was a novelist, but a novelist whose novels did not sell. Turner said that the only books more rare than his first editions were his second editions. One of his books was in a tramp steamer library, so when an acquaintance told him she had read that very novel, he told her where she had been, just as Professor Henry Higgins could tell, by the accent, where a person was raised. Turner said the boat was sunk during World War I. Thus, his sole surviving novel went down with the crew and passengers:

I hope not before the reader had finished it. Now [my books] cannot be got for love, which doesn’t surprise me, nor for money, which does. Some of them were rubbish, and one or two were quite good, and I cannot read bits of them now without tears in my eyes.

Recently a friend of mine who was staying at the Jefferson Hotel here in Washington invited me over to see the hotel’s library. He said I was in for a surprise.

What I saw was a library that must have more than 3,000 volumes of what used to be called a 19th-century gentleman’s library, a library where one could spend days reading good books.

One of the books I took from the shelf was The Collected Essays and Addresses of Augustine Birrell 1880 to 1920. Mr. Birrell (1850-1933) was a British lawyer, essayist, and member of Parliament.

In one of his essays, he discusses contempt of court:

An ill-disposed person may exhibit contempt of court in diverse ways—for example, he may scandalise the court itself, which may be done not merely by the extreme measure of hurling missiles at the presiding judge, or loudly contemning his learning or authority, but by ostentatiously reading a newspaper in his presence or laughing uproariously at a joke made by somebody else.

Mr. Birrell says these are criminal offenses, and the judge may punish the lawyer summarily by locking him up. I, myself, was present in court when this happened. The lawyer whose briefcase I was carrying at the time decided to exchange strong views with the judge. The judge won. Offutt v. United States, 348 U.S. 11 (1954).

Mr. Birrell says it is impossible:

nicely to define what measure of freedom of manners should be allowed in a court . . . which, as we know, is neither a church nor a theater, but, as a matter of practice the happy mean between an awe-struck and unmanly silence….

There is a big shelf devoted to the papers of Thomas Jefferson for whom the hotel is named. I opened, by chance, volume X. On page 542, I saw his letter to the Parisian woman he was in love with, Maria Cosway. It is dated, Paris, November 19, 1786. Jefferson, in this love letter, wrote both in English and French. He ended with Adieu ma chere madame, followed by Encore adieu.

In another book in the library—Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History by Fawn M. Brodie (1974)—there is a quote from Ms. Cosway’s letter to Jefferson:

My heart is … full or ready to burst…. Your letter could employ me for some time, an hour to Consider every word, to every sentence I could write a volume….

Benjamin Franklin (and other Founding Fathers) also had Paris acquaintances, but the Jefferson–Cosway affair must stand high on the list.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.