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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: A Picaresque Attorney–at–Law

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2012

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal SpectatorIn the early 1950s there was a coffee shop at 15th and K streets across from the Investment Building where a group of well–known lawyers gathered together for breakfast.

One morning I was there alone drinking coffee and reading Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years by Thomas Mann. One of the older lawyers, Mr. Lancaster, introduced himself to me. He said he saw the title of the book I was reading. He was familiar with Felix Krull. Mr. Lancaster taught courses in literature before he entered law school. As a teacher, he told the class that the Krull novel is what is called a picaresque novel. The main character is a rogue who travels to different places, and each place is an adventure. He lives by his wits. On his way he helps as many people as he cheats. He takes the world as it is. He never complains.

The following week, Mr. Lancaster was there. I now shall tell you what he told me. He said he represented at one time a lawyer who practiced law here, but who was not a member of the D.C. Bar. He was a true–to–life pícaro, a Felix Krull.

Mr. Lancaster said that what he was about to tell me was a violation of the attorney–client privilege, but he was not concerned. The facts and circumstances happened years ago and, furthermore, he will disguise a few names.

His client’s name was Anthony Novarro. He had a slight British accent. He left England in his teens and came to New York City. He had been a clerk in a London bookstore. This helped him find work in New York City in an antiquarian bookstore. The English accent helped sell expensive leather-bound books.

A client of the store was a nationally known Washington lawyer, Fred Hagan. Hagan bought rare books for his own library in Washington.

The bookstore owner liked Novarro and valued him as a good salesman, but he discovered that Novarro stole books.

At that time, Hagan needed to catalog his personal library. The bookstore owner connected Novarro with Hagan. Novarro left New York and came to Washington to catalog the Hagan library.

Hagan and Novarro got along well. In addition to the library work, Novarro chauffeured Hagan around in the latter’s beautiful green Packard. Novarro also quickly learned how law firms work. Hagan used him to file papers and pleadings and to do other things around the office.

One day, when Hagan was in New York, he called Novarro. He said he must stay longer in New York. He would like Novarro to get in touch with the defendant’s lawyer, get his consent to a continuance, and then go to court and tell the judge that he was “with Mr. Hagan’s firm” and he would like a short continuance.

Neither Novarro nor Hagan said anything about the fact that Novarro was not a member of the Bar. Hagan treated him as a member of the firm. This went on for three years.

Not only did Novarro appear in court, he began to get clients. People who saw him in court liked the accent and the elegant way he presented himself.

Hagan’s brother, Charles, was a lawyer, but he mostly bought and sold real estate for himself and his brother. Fred Hagan was not surprised when they lost rather than made money. Hagan said that when lawyers practice law, they are good lawyers. But when they go into business, they get bad in the law and they get bad in business.

Novarro had a client in London. He went to England twice a year. Among the things he did was to buy and sell antiquarian books using many of the books he had stolen.

Although Hagan appeared to be in good health, he had a sudden heart attack and died. Hagan’s brother, Charles, was the executor of the will. Hagan’s widow was to receive one-half of the estate. Charles was to receive one–third of the other half, and the balance was to be distributed to a number of charities. The library was to be sold off, with Novarro in charge.

It was discovered that Hagan had a girlfriend, Alice, in New York. She contacted Charles about the will. When she was told she was not mentioned in the will, she said it was strange. She had a long and close relationship with Fred Hagan. They met when she was a Broadway actress. He promised her he would put in his will an annuity for her. She had letters to prove it.

It was at that time that Charles retained Lancaster to negotiate the settlement. Charles, Novarro, and Lancaster went to New York to visit with Alice in her East Side apartment. There were pictures of her with Hagan. There were also bookcases filled with beautiful books Hagan gave her. As she sat in her chair, she had a folder in her hand. It was easy to see there were letters in the folder. She took one of the letters from the folder and gave it to Charles who read it and then passed it around. The letter did say Alice was to get an annuity and books from the Hagan library. She also would like certain books. She had become a book collector.

After the meeting ended, Charles, Novarro, and Lancaster took the train back to Washington. Lancaster said he would work out a settlement.

The Hagan firm dissolved. Novarro went to live in London. He told Lancaster to drop in on him sometime to see his well–stocked London antiquarian bookstore.

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