Thursday, May 15, 2008

The wives and times of William O. Douglas

William O. DouglasA warm and welcome e-mail message from Thomas E. Baker showed the error of my ways. In The Mystery and the Mastery of the Judicial Power, 59 Mo. L. Rev. 281 (1994), I asserted that William O. Douglas is the only Supreme Court Justice ever to marry a law clerk. That assertion was wrong, and I apologize.

The research I performed to resolve Tom's question, however, revealed some fascinating details about the wives and times and Justice Douglas. I now share those details with the readers of Jurisdynamics and Ratio Juris.


1. A Sequel to Springtime, Time (August 16, 1963):

It was a lovely day in 1961, and in a springtime mood the students at Pennsylvania's little Allegheny College waited for their distinguished guest speaker, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Orville Douglas. A slender, brown-haired Kappa Kappa Gamma named Joan Carol Martin was especially anxious. After all, Joan was a political science major, an honor student who was deeply interested in juridical philosophy—particularly as expounded by Justice Douglas. Introduced to Douglas by an Allegheny professor, Joan escorted him about the campus. She was duly impressed, and charmed.

The next year Joan titled her senior thesis "Testimonies and Concepts of William O. Douglas," and after graduation she headed for Washington. There, she called Douglas and asked for an appointment to see him. Joan was looking for work. Douglas, as it happened, needed someone to type notes for a book he was writing. Joan qualified and she got the job. . . .

Time magazine coverThat fall Douglas separated from his second wife and moved to a bachelor apartment. A precociously distinguished jurist and an outdoorsman of rare dedication, Douglas had in 1923 married Mildred Riddle, a girl he had met while both taught at Yakima, Wash., high school. Mildred worked to help him through Columbia University Law School, bore him a son and daughter. But after 30 years of marriage, in 1953, she divorced him, charging that he left her "abandoned and alone" while working and traveling "to remote places in the world."

The next year Douglas married Mercedes Hester Davidson, divorced wife of a former Assistant Secretary of the Interior. Mercedes had been his research assistant, even attended auto mechanics school to learn how to change tires and spark plugs on their faraway trips. But for all of that, something was amiss. Two weeks ago, Mercedes won an uncontested divorce on grounds of cruelty. Five days later, Bill Douglas, 64, and Joan Martin, 23, were married; the following day, Mercedes married her third husband, Washington Lawyer Robert B. Eichholz. . . .

For months, the rumor has persisted Washington that Douglas chatted with President Kennedy last spring, hinted that he might resign from the Supreme Court Douglas denies this — and there seems little likelihood that he would conceivably step down before Oct. 16, his 65th birthday, when he will be eligible to retire at his full salary of $35,000 a year for life.

Last week, while the Douglas newlyweds were honeymooning on Washington State's lonely Olympic Peninsula, Joan's mother reported that she had received some "nasty telephone calls about the marriage. Said she to newsmen: "I'd like to give this an aura of good taste. He is an extraordinary man, and I think my daughter is a very unusual girl. They are, neither of them, ordinary people."


2. September Song, Time (July 29, 1966)

"Oo, la, la!" exclaimed Oliver Wendell Holmes to a startled aide who was attending him in his study one wintry day. "Young man," explained Mr. Justice Holmes, then a redoubtable 93, "I was thinking about walking down the street with a pretty lady and holding her hand behind her husband's back." And oo, la, la, generally speaking, was Washington's reaction last week to news that one of Holmes's most libertarian successors on the Supreme Court, William O. Douglas, 67, had taken as his fourth bride blonde, blue-eyed Cathleen Heffernan, a 23-year-old senior at Portland's all-girl Marylhurst College.

Within hours of the week's first session, members of the House had introduced four resolutions calling for an investigation of the thrice-divorced Justice's "moral character." Kansas Republican Robert Dole charged that Douglas had not only used "bad judgment from a matrimonial standpoint, but also in a number of 5-to-4 decisions of the Supreme Court." Democrat Byron Rogers of Colorado suggested that the romantic Justice might be retired under a law allowing for the removal of a judge "permanently disabled from performing his duties."

Supreme Court in 1967The resolutions and half a dozen floor speeches probably were an embarrassment to Douglas, but were hardly likely to lead to an investigation, let alone the first successful impeachment of a Supreme Court Justice in the nation's history. Nor were they likely to persuade the ruggedly individualistic Douglas — who has served 27 years on the court — to repeat a half-serious offer to resign from the bench, tendered to President Kennedy after his second divorce in 1963. His first marriage, to Mildred Riddle, ended in 1953 after 30 years and two children; his second, to Divorcee Mercedes Hester Davidson, lasted nine years; his third, to Joan Carol Martin, 26, broke up last December after two years, four months.

On to Peking. Douglas met his latest, the boyishly bobbed Cathleen, at a party in Portland last summer, and on a return visit in December asked the host for "the name, telephone number and address of that terrific gal I met at your party." In May, he stopped in Portland again — to see Cathy and his dentist, "in that order of importance" — and later invited her to join a party at Prairie Lodge, his remote cabin in Gooseprairie, Wash., in the heart of the Cascade Mountains. Invited to a banquet in Los Angeles earlier this month, Douglas once again invited Cathy along, just in time for her to be stranded by the airline strike. Said Cathy: "I stayed over three days and I got married."

Back at Prairie Lodge last week, under the peaks of Baldy and Old Scab, Douglas and his bride appeared blissfully unconcerned by the headshaking on the Potomac. "We don't get much news around here," drawled Douglas. "On the short-wave radio we can listen to the broadcasts from the Bureau of Reclamation and Peking." The latter, at least, should be worth listening to if Peking approves the Justice's plans, sanctioned last week by the State Department, to visit Red China with Cathy this September.


3. David J. Garrow, The Tragedy of William O. Douglas, The Nation (April 14, 2003):

Douglas Wilderness
The William O. Douglas Wilderness
In 1961 Douglas began pursuing a young Allegheny College student, Joan Martin, who was writing her senior thesis on him, and once Martin moved to Washington the affair became public. "Other Justices at the time had mistresses," [said] Douglas's utterly loyal Court messenger, Harry Datcher . . . , "but they would employ them as secretaries or keep them away from the Court building. Douglas, though, did what he did in the open. He didn't give a damn what people thought of him."

A 1962-63 law clerk recalled Joan Martin once hiding in an office closet to avoid Mercedes, but the following summer the 64-year-old Douglas divorced Mercedes and married 23-year-old Joan. But Douglas's behavior toward women did not improve. One old Douglas friend remembered how Joan "just sat down and cried all night because he never paid any attention to her," and more than once Joan complained to a former Douglas clerk that "he beats me up all the time." Less than two years later Douglas dismissed Joan from his life, took up with an old Washington State girlfriend, Elena Leonardo, and then met a 22-year-old Oregon waitress, Cathleen Heffernan, who became his fourth wife in mid-1966.



The upshot: Douglas experienced the first, second, and third divorces by a sitting Supreme Court Justice.

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