WILD BILL: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas

Bruce Allen Murphy, Author . Random $35 (736p) ISBN 978-0-394-57628-2

Despite the enduring image of former Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas as the white-haired, mountain-climbing protector of individual rights and liberal causes, the man who emerges from Murphy's thorough biography is a great deal more complicated. In such books as Of Men and Mountains, Douglas himself carefully crafted the myth of the poor boy from the state of Washington who arrived in New York with just a few cents in his pocket and ended up conquering the Eastern establishment in the name of the little guy. Like so many of the stories he fostered about himself, though, this one was only partially true; others, such as a childhood bout with polio, were outright false. In reality, Douglas enjoyed tremendous emotional and financial support throughout his life from his family, friends and multiple wives. On a professional level, he achieved much that has been overshadowed by his career on the Court. As the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission during the 1930s, he helped to curb self-dealing by Wall Street brokers and bankers who manipulated the system at the expense of the small investor. (This discussion has obvious parallels to today's scandals, as does Murphy's examination of how civil liberties eroded during the Cold War despite Douglas's efforts to the contrary.) Murphy (Fortas: The Rise and Ruin of a Supreme Court Justice) does a wonderful job of providing just enough historical context to allow general readers to appreciate the complexity of his brilliant, but flawed, subject without bogging down his narrative in a crush of detail. Douglas's biography is as much a history of American politics in the mid-20th century as it is a portrayal of the man himself. (Mar.)

Reviewed on: 12/23/2002
Release date: 03/01/2003
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