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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Great Mouthpiece

From Washington Lawyer, April 2003

By Jacob A. Stein


One sail drives east and another
drives west
With the selfsame winds that
’Tis the set of the sails and
not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.

—Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The movie Chicago tells the story of a wizard of a fictional criminal lawyer whose niche practice is defending women who murder their wealthy husbands. Their defense is “He had it coming.” Billy Flynn, the lawyer, dazzles the twelvers with his closing arguments. He celebrates the acquittals with booze and bimbos. It is great fun. All singing, all dancing.

I wonder whether the screenwriters were aware that a Roaring Twenties New York lawyer named William J. Fallon Jr. was a real-life Billy Flynn. Gene Fowler tells Fallon’s story in The Great Mouthpiece, published in 1931.

Fallon was the valedictorian of his Fordham College class of 1906. He went on to Fordham Law School and then did a three-year assignment as a prosecutor in Westchester County, New York.

In 1918 he joined up with a Fordham friend, Eugene McGee. They opened their office in New York City. McGee was industrious and reliable. Fallon, as we learn, was neither. His gifts were charm, a fine voice, a remarkable memory, and a persuasive style with jurors. In addition, he was an excellent and resourceful lawyer.

Within a short time Fallon’s courtroom skill brought him a glittering clientele of theatrical personalities, criminals, and beautiful women. In trial after trial he obtained acquittals or hung juries. He was unbeatable.

Gene Fowler wrote: “Fallon’s fees were the first tremendous ones paid by captains of modern crime-syndicates for legal advice. He became, in fact, a corporation counsel for the underworld. He did not seek this condition; it was thrust upon him. After a few successes Fallon was deeply involved, and his services were virtually commanded by men powerful in politics and in criminal circles.”

Again Fowler: “He became the Great Mouthpiece for the grand dukes of Racketland. He, himself, later longed to escape the web in which he was entangled. He sometimes voiced his hope. ‘There’s still time to get out.’ ”

One of Fallon’s cases brought him to Washington, D.C. He represented a colorful personality named Nicky Arnstein, who was charged with the theft of $5 million in securities. Arnstein was married to Fannie Brice. Her story is told in the movie Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand playing Fannie Brice.

My father was practicing law at the time of the Nicky Arnstein trial. I recall asking him in 1948, after reading The Great Mouthpiece, whether he saw any of the trial. He recalled how impressed he was with Fallon’s youthful appearance and his skill in winning over the trial judge. He also recalled the rumors that Fallon had a weakness for alcohol.

Fallon obtained a hung jury in the first trial. The local U.S. attorney’s office, in preparing for the second trial, decided that Fallon had overpowered the opposition in the first trial. The special assistant who was assigned to go in against Fallon in the second trial was William E. Leahy Jr.

The contest between Fallon and Leahy did not take place. Arnstein had a falling-out with Fallon, who was drinking heavily during the trial and spending his evenings at the Willard Hotel with his showgirl girlfriend. Fallon was replaced by his partner, Gene McGee, and local counsel. They were no match for Leahy. Arnstein was convicted and went to jail.

After the Arnstein case, Fallon returned to New York. He appeared in a series of trials involving crooked stockbrokers. He obtained acquittals or hung juries. There was talk of jury tampering. A juror testified that he had received a payoff from Fallon. Fallon was indicted. He represented himself and was acquitted.

Despite the acquittal, the criminal element backed away from Fallon. They knew he was being watched by the government. Near the end (he was only 41 when he died) a friend remarked that Fallon’s problem was he never grew up. “I think he failed more through success than anything else. His environment overwhelmed him.”

Leahy and Fallon present an interesting comparison. They were both born in 1886. They both had a similar early life. Fallon was Fordham College and Fordham Law. Leahy was Holy Cross and Georgetown Law. Both commenced as prosecutors. Both left the prosecutor’s office to open an office of their own. Both were marked up to be leaders in trial work.

Leahy’s career never faltered. Nick Chase, who practiced with Leahy, has given me a copy of Leahy’s obituary. It reports his sudden death in 1956 at age 69 at the summit of his career as a lawyer and civic leader:

The profession which he honored and the community which he served alike will mourn and miss him. He leaves a multitude of vital places vacant. For whenever the people of Washington faced some difficult problems calling for exceptional delicacy, resourcefulness and “integrity,” they were accustomed to call upon Bill Leahy to deal with it. Thus, even though he had suffered a heart attack but a few months ago, he was still at the time of his death chairman of the District Commissioners’ Citizens Advisory Council and a director or president of half a dozen other active civic organizations. . . .

     Mr. Leahy became the lawyer of choice in all the important criminal and civil litigation. Fallon, with many of the same gifts as Leahy, ended a failure.

Perhaps ’tis the set of the sails.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at [email protected].