Sunday, May 4, 2008

Annals of Law

The Artist as Litigant

This blog will consist of a series of short essays on memorable trials or court proceedings involving great artists, written by an experienced trial lawyer. The series will explore the phenomenon of the artist as litigant – what happens when great creative minds find themselves required to perform in the arena of the courtroom or find themselves bogged down in bitter and protracted adverserial litigation proceedings?

The four initial cases will be:

The Trials of Oscar Wilde

This is the showcase example. There were three trials, two civil proceedings in which Oscar sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel and one in which Wilde was prosecuted for homosexual conduct. He was convicted in the criminal trial and sentenced to two years at hard labor. He served the entire term, part of it in the infamous Reading Gaol. Upon release he left England for Paris and died in a luxurious hotel on the Rue des Beaux Arts, where he exclaimed as he lay dying, “I am dying beyond my means.” His civil trials pitted the two greatest English barristers of the day against one another: Sir Edward Clarke for Wilde and Sir Edward Carson for Queensberry. Fortunately an rather complete transcript fo the trials was produced at the time and still exists. Carson clearly outmatched Clarke and put on a brilliant defense for Queensberry. He did what few barristers, even to this day, do – he conducted a thorough fact investigation and had many of the boys and young men with whom Oscar had had relationships interviewed and then brought to court as witness. Clarke, to the contrary, asked Wilde whether the charges made by Queensberry were true and Wilde assured him they were not. Clarke thus committed a cardinal sin for an experienced trial lawyer – he assumed his client was telling him the truth, an assumption which is contrary to the real life experience of all trial lawyers. Carson then conducted a wonderful cross-examination of Wilde, full of brilliant repartee between the two, with Wilde coming across as quite confident in his own ability to outwit Carson. Carson was too experienced and too clever, however, and putting the decisive, game-ending question to Wilde, referring to one of the lads (Walter Grainger) with whom he had allegedly had sexual relations,

Carson: Did you ever kiss him?

Wilde: Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied him for it.

Well, everyone can see that Oscar should have stopped after “Oh, dear no.” But he didn’t, and the trial was lost to him with this single question. Carson then mercilessly tore into him and reduced him to incoherence in a masterpiece of cross-examination.

Ludwig von Beethoven

The case here concerns Beethoven’s attempt to assume the guardianship of his deceased brother’s son Karl in preference to his brother’s widow, Johanna. The case dragged on for five years and became an obsession for Beethoven. He ultimately prevailed, but the victory proved hollow. Karl attempted suicide several years later in an apparent attempt to escape Beethoven’s domination. The litigation occurred in parallel to a major personality and creative crisis in Beethoven’s life, and it is fascinating to note the output of his musical composition during the pendency of the litigation. This is not a story about courtroom tactics, but about the grotesque spectacle of the greatest musical genius of all time becoming embroiled in bitter and tawdry family court litigation.

Somerset Maugham

Though an English playwright and novelist, Maugham was born and died in France. He brought an adoption proceeding in France in which he sought to adopt his male lover, Alan Searle, in order to assure that Searle would inherit his estate. French inheritance law then limited inheritance to legal heirs, i.e., relatives. Therefore the adoption proceeding. In the case Maugham was bitterly opposed by his daughter Liza and her husband, Lord Glendevon, and was exposed to much public ridicule. The case resembles the Beethoven case, wherein a great man resorts to the courts to wage a bizarre struggle with other members of his family. One would have thought that great artists had no time for such such things.

Otto Klemperer

Klemperer brought a remarkable lawsuit against the Prussian government in the labor court in Berlin in 1931 to enforce a provision in his contract as musical director of the Kroll Opera that said, according to his interpretation, that if the Kroll were closed (as it was) he would be entitled to take up the same position with the Linden Opera. The Linden Opera, however, already had a music director (Kleiber). Klemperer’s position was that his contract now entitled him to be Kleiber’s superior. The suit was regarded by Klemperer’s friends as rash and dangerous. Klemperer was a jew and the Prussian government was now in Nazi hands. Moreover, in the labor court the parties were not entitled to be represented by attorneys, but had to represent themselves. Klemperer therefore conducted the suit as his own lawyer, and he took it very seriously. Here we have the spectacle of a great artist actually performing as a lawyer. He was described by one local newspaper as an “artist through and through, even in this situation.” Adding to the interest of the case is the fact that the bi-polar Klemperer was in a manic state during the course of the litigation. When he eventually recovered from his manic state the case was on appeal, Klemperer having lost in the trial court. When he came to his senses he dismissed the appeal. The curiosity of the matter is the incredible spectacle of a Jewish conductor suing the nascent Nazi government for breach of an employment contract.