Thursday, February 2, 2023

Flashback 2000: Elmer Gertz, 93, champion of liberal causes

Elmer Gertz (ST file photo)

     Sunday morning was spent chatting with my friend Robert Feder at a breakfast event at his synagogue. Our topic was my new book, but he also asked about obituaries, and I mentioned how useful they are as a portal into Chicago history. 
     I've posted many of my favorites, but this one has so far escaped republication. It came to mind recently because a friend joked that I am old enough to have known Leopold and Loeb (sigh, notorious "thrill kill" murderers whose 1924 slaying of a 14-year-old neighbor, Bobby Franks, and subsequent trial, horrified the public). I replied that no, wiseguy, I didn't. Though now that I think of it, I did know Nathan Leopold's lawyer, and had been to his apartment. Not Clarence Darrow, who saved Leopold's life and allowed him to go to prison. But the lawyer who got him out.  

     Elmer Gertz — lawyer, writer and intellectual gadfly, whose scholarly pursuits brought him into contact with some of the great figures of his day and whose legal work associated him with several notorious killers — died Thursday at 93.  
     He was best known for winning the 1958 parole of 1924 thrill-killer Nathan Leopold, and for defending Jack Ruby, the slayer of Lee Harvey Oswald. He became friends with both men, visiting Leopold in Puerto Rico and serving as a pallbearer at Ruby's funeral.
     Mr. Gertz also represented the author Henry Miller in the landmark 1963 Tropic of Cancer censorship case.
     He was a famous champion of liberal causes and a staunch opponent of the death penalty.
     "He was an inspiration. He was one of the reasons I went into law," said grandson Craig Gertz, 35. "He represented principles of justice and fairness that I can only hope to carry on in his name."
     Mr. Gertz was 25 when the first of his many books, "Frank Harris: A Study in Black and White," was written with Dr. A. I. Tobin. Rebecca West called it "a great book," and it was favorably reviewed by the likes of H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton and H. L. Mencken.
     Harris was only one of many prominent figures with whom Mr. Gertz, to his never ending pride, corresponded, from Winston Churchill, Clarence Darrow and Leon Trotsky to George Bernard Shaw and Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's lover. Harry Truman sent him more than 100 letters.
     He was born in Blue Island, near what was then 12th Street, the fourth child of Morris and Grace Gertz. His father, a Lithuanian immigrant, ran a clothing store at 39th and Cottage Grove; his mother died when he was 10. Growing up, he spent several years in orphanages, both in Chicago and Cleveland, with his father paying room and board, as was common then for motherless children.
     He attended more than a dozen schools, including Herzl elementary, where his classmate was future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.
     He graduated from Crane Technical High School, then the University of Chicago. Inspired in part by the Sacco-Vanzetti case, he went to the University of Chicago Law School, receiving his degree in 1930.
     Mr. Gertz went to work as an assistant in the law firm of political fixer Jacob Arvey, where he worked 14 years.
     He had a role in Chicago's fair housing movement of the 1940s and 1950s, and was a champion of inclusion of African Americans in bar associations.
     Mr. Gertz was on Jack Ruby's defense team between 1964 and 1967, overturning his conviction for murdering Lee Harvey Oswald. But Ruby died before he could be retried.
     Mr. Gertz won election to the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1969, and was chairman of its Bill of Rights committee.
     He received Israel's Prime Minister's Medal in 1972.
     After he was tarred as a criminal and a Communist by the John Birch Society, the libel lawsuit he filed took 14 years and reached the Supreme Court. The court's ruling in favor of Mr. Gertz extended protections against defamation.
     At the time of his death, he was a member of the adjunct faculty of John Marshall Law School and lived in East Lake View.
     He was a founder and past president of the Civil War Round Table, and also participated in the Shaw Society of Chicago, Public Housing Association and many other organizations.
     Survivors include a daughter, Margery Hechtman; son Theodore; six grandchildren; five great-grandchildren, and two brothers, Robert and George.
     Services are at 2 p.m. Monday at Weinstein Family Services, 111 Skokie Blvd., Wilmette. Burial follows at Memorial Park, Skokie.
          —published in the Sun-Times, April 28, 2000


  1. Well my grandmother knew Leopold. She was the same age and went to the U of C and hung with the wealthy Jewish crowd there ( she was Jewish but not wealthy… she was there on a scholarship…but all of her girlfriends were extremely wealthy. Those are the only people who sent girls to college…she ended up going after after coming in second in an academic scholarship competition, the first place winner was also a girl whose parents wouldn't let her go to college).

  2. Great obit. Harry Truman writting him 100 letters! I wonder how many of the last couple of Presidents have taken the time and thought to write that many letters in total?

    1. Harry is at the top of my short list (just seven names long, if I include the Current Occuppant) of favorite presidents. I have a whole shelf of books about Truman, including collections of the many letters he wrote during his lifetime. He probably wrote a few thousand, in total. Some of which were very angry, vindictive and nasty. But he was smart enough not to send them, and kept them in his desk drawer.

      Unfortunately, he used a lot of ethnic slurs for Blacks and Jews in those letters. Harry was descended from Confederate sympathizers (originally from Tennessee, I believe), and he was also a product of his times, and of his Missouri upbringing. But one of his lifetime friends, and his partner in a failed business after his World War I service, was Jewish. Go figure, huh?

      You've written a helluva lot of obits in your day, Mr. S. Many of them were about people you interviewed while they were still alive. Ann Landers and Abraham Lincoln Marovitz are just two who readily come to mind. Of all the folks you wrote about, who was the most unforgettable character you ever met?

  3. Thanks for the article about Elmer Gertz. Several threads. My father was a photographer, I remember him photographing Elmer and Mamie's wedding photo. She also was my brother's teacher at Boone. I also remember one of our employees was very involved with the Leopold case. He was a nice, gentle person, Mamie was a wonderful teacher. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Wow! What a guy. Thanks

  5. Certainly a man who kept busy doing good. It's a shame I never met Elmer Gertz -- I attended John Marshall Law School in the 90s, but was more focused on the courses I needed to graduate rather than those I might find more appealing.


  6. The Twenties was the era of the beginning of modern forensic science...the tests or techniques used in connection with criminal cases. Police found a pair of eyeglasses near the body. Although common in prescription and frame, the authorities discovered that they were fitted with an unusual hinge purchased by only three customers in Chicago, one of whom was Leopold. He claimed to have lost them while birdwatching at the site, a week before, but that alibi didn't fly.

    The typewriter used for the ransom note was later found in the lagoon in Jackson Park, and one of the letters was flawed when it struck a sheet of paper. The same flaw, in the same letter, appeared in the ransom note. Bingo. A perfect match.

    That same typewriter also matched the description of a machine that had been stolen in Ann Arbor, from a fraternity that Leopold and Loeb had burglarized. Other missing items from the frat house were also found in their possession. These two supposedly bright boys were not nearly as bright or as clever as they believed themselves to be.


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