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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: De Maupassant, Paris, and Boris Morros

From Washington Lawyer, November 2005

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator I have been to Paris only once. Twenty years ago, Mary and I signed on to a junket sponsored by the Maryland State Bar Association. I took along for reading on the plane a collection of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories about Parisian life. Maupassant (1850–1893), it has been said, was the master of the short story as anecdote in the form of a plain short statement of fact (Rule 8, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure), told swiftly with revealing descriptions of the characters. When Maupassant relied on coincidence, as many short story writers do, he was believable.

I learned that a lawyer friend of mine was to be in Paris on business the same time I was there. Charles Dale (that is the name I will use for him) knew this was my first trip to Paris and we planned to get together and he would give me the tour. Dale’s practice had included people targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and people connected with the far left. As best I could tell, he was committed to no ideology, unless you consider the desire to get new legal business to be an ideology. He said his clients who had a strong ideological connection had one distinguishing characteristic: they were slow to pay. They treat a lawyer’s bill as part of a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Dale knew Paris well. We were to start with lunch with a former client of Dale’s who had been charged with some crime in the 1950s related to a connection with the Communist Party. He had jumped bond and had been living in Paris for 35 years. Those who knew him could not explain where he got the money to live in luxury as he did. A fine apartment, expensive clothes, the best restaurants.

Dale said there was a rumor he had married a wealthy woman who fell out of a window, died, and left all her money to her husband.

I met Dale in front of his Left Bank hotel and we walked to Maxim’s to meet Dale’s former client. I don’t recall his name, and so to move this along I will call him Mr. Renwick. Dale introduced me to Renwick, who was more interested in a conversation in French with the Maxim’s waiter about the wine and the specials than he was in me. The waiter had the required condescension to offset Renwick’s own condescension. The waiter won.

When Renwick turned away from the waiter, he asked me my business in Paris. I told him this was my first visit and I was with a tour group sponsored by the Maryland State Bar Association. Renwick stared at me with disbelief. Was he to dine with, of all people, a bourgeois member of a state bar association? He looked at Dale for an explanation.

Dale said he was taking me around to Shakespeare & Company. The bookstore proprietor was friendly to him and would tell lots of stories, new and used, about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and the others who hung out in the bookstore in the 1920s.

Renwick said to Dale, “Of course the proprietor is friendly to you. Don’t you know he is in the pay of the government? Each time you and he speak he writes up the conversation and turns it in and gets $50 for it.”

This did not concern Dale. He said, “That may be so. Nevertheless the proprietor knows I have a bad back, and when I am in the neighborhood he lets me use the cot on the second floor.”

Renwick said, “I am telling you, this man is treacherous.”

Dale picked up the word treacherous and turned the conversation back to Renwick and asked him who was the most treacherous person he had known. Renwick said he had met many treacherous people, but the person at the top of the list was Boris Morros. Dale nodded.

After lunch Dale and I took a stroll to Shakespeare & Company. Dale said that Boris Morros had some connection with Hollywood and may have been threatened by an investigation into Hollywood communist activity. Dale thought Morros had implicated Renwick. All this was back in the 1950s. At the bookstore the proprietor, who was an American, gave Dale a warm greeting. Dale introduced me and suggested I look around the store. He was going upstairs to rest his back by lying on the cot. “When you are ready to leave, come upstairs and get me.”

The bookstore had posters and faded pictures of the usual suspects: Hemingway, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Sylvia Beach, who may have been painted by Picasso, and maybe not.

I wandered about and then I saw in the biography section a book by Boris Morros. It was his autobiography. Here was the Maupassant Parisian coincidence unfolding as I stood there with the book in hand. I brought the book upstairs to Dale and showed it to him. He took it and looked at me and I looked at him. Dale turned to the index. He pointed to Renwick’s name. We turned to the page noted. It said that Renwick had “defenestrated his wife.” Defenestrated. We went downstairs with the book and asked for an English dictionary. Defenestrated: pushing someone out of a window.

I bought the book. The proprietor asked Dale why we were interested in an autobiography of Boris Morros. Dale said he had known Morros. He dropped a few more controversial names into the conversation. After we left he said that if the proprietor does not get $250 for today’s memorandum, he is a bad negotiator.

The Venona Secrets, Exposing Soviet Espionage and America’s Traitors, by Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, published in 2000, is about the breaking of the USSR code in the 1940s. The book includes significant excerpts of cable translations. Boris Morros shows up as a Communist. The Commies were unaware that he was reporting everything to the FBI.

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