The Defense Rests

April 26, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University

Superstar attorney Alan Dershowitz gives archives to his alma mater — along with eloquent thanks.

by Barbara Fischkin

Alan Dershowitz, the famed, chutzpah-driven attorney, donated his historic papers to Brooklyn College, and after they were sorted into 1,841 archival boxes, a ceremony was held on campus one day last fall.

Dershowitz, known for his candor, held “court” before the ceremony on the edge of a fabled Brooklyn College quadrangle. He spoke about his marginal career as a high school student, the way Brooklyn College turned him around — and how he almost went to a different CUNY school: City College.

Dershowitz (’59) grew up in Williams-burg and Borough Park. Through family connections, though, he was pals with a boy his age who lived on the Lower East Side and wanted company at CCNY.

“But my mother did not want me to go out of town,” Dershowitz explained.

Dershowitz checks out an archive display beneath supersized old photos of himself.

Many in the crowd of well-wishers chuckled at this evocation of another time. “Everything I am I owe to Brooklyn College,” said Dershowitz, now 73. “It was such an intellectually stimulating environment. The teachers were unbelievable.”

After graduating from Brooklyn College, the political science major attended Yale Law School and ultimately litigated some of the highest profile murder cases of the 20th century. At Harvard, Dershowitz has been the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law since 1993.

Later in the ceremonial day, the “official opening” of Dershowitz’s papers — with even more papers to come — would be commemorated in the college library’s Woody Tanger Auditorium. But first the jurist lingered outside, in that quadrangle where he had spent so many hours as a student.

The Brooklyn College campus, an urban oasis as it has been for years, is ranked among the most beautiful in the country by the Princeton Review.  Looking around and remembering out loud, Dershowitz spoke wistfully about his House Plan’s meal — and how kosher food was served there. (He also mentioned that his mother claimed he would have remained kosher had he not attended Brooklyn College.) Dershowitz made connections between then and now, even though today’s students may represent a somewhat different array of ethnic groups.

“I looked around at the students today,” he said, “and I saw myself and my friends and what we had in common.”  Like today, he said, many were first-generation college students.

“Everything I am I owe to Brooklyn College. It was such an intellectually stimulating environment. The teachers were unbelievable.” — Alan Dershowitz

The day was lush with accolades for the attorney-alum.  Inside, at the ceremony, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould described Dershowitz as “the most iconic legal scholar of his generation.” Along with his accomplishments in the courtroom, he has written more than 30 books, advised presidents, prime ministers and governors and appeared often on network television and in other media. Included among his clients were O.J. Simpson, Claus von Bulow, Mike Tyson, Leona Helmsley and Jim Bakker.

But there was also a quality to the event that Dershowitz’s working-class parents might have called hamish — a Yiddish word that means familiar in a good, down-to-earth way. The attorney had set the tone himself by brandishing his report card from Yeshiva University High School on President Street in Brooklyn: Math — 60, Physics — 60, History — 65.  Grades like that would not have gotten him into Brooklyn College, so he opted to take a test that would override his record and passed it “by the skin of my teeth.”

Yet once at Brooklyn, Dershowitz flourished. In recognition of this he dedicated a recent book to his professors. “The questions that got me suspended at Yeshiva got me commended at Brooklyn,” he said.

He mentioned many of those professors by name, including the renowned historian John Hope Franklin, who inspired — but did not pressure Dershowitz — to join the NAACP. They remained friends until Franklin’s death in 2009.

Another professor, Benjamin Rivlin, now Director Emeritus of the CUNY Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, was in the audience. Good thing, too. The lawyer claimed Rivlin gave him a B. The professor counterclaimed the lawyer did better than that. And, in turn, Dershowitz praised Rivlin’s prescient scholarship on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, written decades ago.

“… If there was not a free school that let me take a test to get in, I’d be selling shoes on Flatbush Avenue today,” Dershowitz said.

He then paused.  “But I’d be a good shoe salesman.”

Dershowitz’s signature irreverence was also in fine form as, peering through his gold-rimmed professorial spectacles, he perused samplings of his papers that were on display in the college library until late January.

Included was a case of “hate mail,” which Dershowitz seemed to enjoy like a spirited adversary. Other cases contained laudatory and informative missives, including one written by Robert F. Kennedy. It was erudite and caring. But Dershowitz moaned when he saw it. He collects autographs and had just paid $500 at an auction for an RFK letter, not realizing he already had one.

Dershowitz also viewed a picture of himself and Golda Meir with an exhibit of his work, “Drafts of Closing Arguments by Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky Lawyer in Absentia,” perhaps the most famous of Soviet Jewish “refuseniks.”  Ultimately, these documents and others will be available to scholars, although certain papers that come under the purview of attorney-client privilege will remain confidential.

Dershowitz is the first to admit that, like the effusive boy from Brooklyn he once was, he still speaks with his hands. When he recalled his experiences at Brooklyn College — social and academic — he held out his hands in a welcoming gesture. Then Dershowitz provided chapter and verse on his professors and exactly what they did for him — and perhaps to him — to get him motivated.

He spoke about philosophy professor John Hospers, the first presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party. Hospers taught Dershowitz the Socratic method. He spoke about the political theorist Martin Landau who was “furious at me for going to law school.” There was also Charles Parkhurst, the debate coach who Dershowitz said taught him to listen and memorize, since as the Orthodox Jew he then was, he couldn’t take notes on Saturdays, the Sabbath.

He remembered a professor who was blind yet knew all his students by their voices within a week — and another who, after finding out that Dershowitz had not read any works of fiction, took to calling him “dearth of wits.” He soon picked up a copy of Moby Dick. Dershowitz also reminisced about a show by the painter Jimmy Ernst and how Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” had its preview in Brooklyn College’s Gershwin Theater before its Broadway run.

And finally, and ultimately, there was John Hope Franklin.

“He didn’t urge us to join the NAACP. I did,” Dershowitz said. “If you went into his class a Conservative, he wanted you to come out a smarter one.” It was due to Franklin that Dershowitz went to a march on Washington and heard Martin Luther King deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Over the years, Dershowitz maintained a connection with Brooklyn College, and it is through that connection that his papers came to be donated. One day he called archivist and professor Anthony M. Cucchiara with a research question. Cucchiara wasn’t at his desk, but he returned to find a pink message note saying Dershowitz had called. He returned the call, mustered his courage and asked if the attorney would donate his papers.  At the ceremony in November, Cucchiara added a memento to the archives — that pink “while you were out…” message note, elegantly framed. Others who spoke included author and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and professor Stephanie Walker, the college’s chief librarian.

Also at the ceremony was Norman Sohn, now from New Jersey and a retired surgeon with an MBA degree. Sohn was the pal from the Lower East Side who wanted Dershowitz to go with him to City College.  In those days, he called the attorney by his Hebrew name, Avi. As the day ended, Sohn wanted to make sure that people knew that Avi was always smart even if his earlier grades did not demonstrate that.  When Dershowitz was in high school his IQ, according to his mother, was 142. Sohn’s was “only” 138.

“She told me, ‘He’s supposed to be smart.’ ” Sohn’s own hands were in the air as he spoke.

Sounds like Mama Dershowitz was right. And Brooklyn College proved it to be true.