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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Ernest’s Commonplace Book

From Washington Lawyer, May 2007

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

In looking through Ernest Cuneo’s papers, I discovered a notebook titled My Commonplace Book. The big Oxford defines a commonplace book as a book that contains passages, usually under general heads, “hence a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement.”

It was said of Ernest (1905–1988) what Sherlock Holmes said of his brother Mycroft: “Other men have one specialty, but his specialty is omniscience.” Ernest had a long, interesting career as a lawyer, soldier, adventurer, and writer. That explains the diversity of his selections, recorded in his own hand.

Ernest wrote out a few of his favorite passages from Shakespeare that he recited whenever he saw an opening:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3
Man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.
Measure for Measure, Act 2, Scene 3

There are two Robert Boothby entries. Boothby was a British politician of the second rank. He was often called upon to deliver eulogies, as Ernest was:

Old and young, we are all on our last voyage. We sail in boats with leaky bottoms, on great and perilous waters to unknown ports of call.
We will not weep that spring be past and autumn shadows fall. These years, shall be, although the last, the loveliest of all.

Another eulogistic entry is ascribed to the eulogist who spoke at Marcel Proust’s father’s funeral:

He was skeptical enough to be indulgent to people who left what we like to believe is the path of virtue. He was Epicurean enough to enjoy life without taking the petty miseries of human existence too tragically. And stoic enough to face death without flinching.

Do these selections tell you what he was like? Ernest played big-time college football at Columbia College. While at law school, he played professional football, both for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the East Orange Tornados, when the pay was unpredictable and always in cash.

He graduated from St. John’s University School of Law and became legal assistant to Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia. Ernest later wrote a biography of LaGuardia.

Ernest took up the practice of law in New York City. He became the personal attorney to Walter Winchell when Winchell was as honorable as a gossip columnist could be. Through the Winchell connection, he developed a glittering show-business clientele.

When the Second World War commenced, Ernest worked with British spy Sir William Stephenson, who had set up his office in New York City. Ernest worked with the OSS and the British secret service. During that time he met Ian Fleming. They became good friends.

After the war Ernest practiced law here in Washington. He also wrote a regular weekly column distributed to the major newspapers.

Conversations with Ernest brought in personalities dead and alive, from Machiavelli to Toscanini. He would talk poetry; discuss the arts, sciences, politics, and the gossip of the moment. He would quote from his own books and outline the books he was thinking of writing.

The man who introduced me to Ernest was a talkative economist who had something to say on every subject. When the two were engaged in conversation, each fought for the right to finish a sentence. Ernest had memorized The World Almanac. He used this resource to temporarily subdue his adversary.

Every Sunday after reading the New York Times Book Review, Ernest got on the phone with a friend and reviewed each book review. He did this up to the day of his death in 1988.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.