Thursday, 15 October 2009
When Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas Rented My Old Apartment
By Mort Reichek of Octogenarian
After sharing apartments in Washington, D.C. for three years with other young bachelors, I reached a sufficient state of affluence in 1951 to rent my own apartment. My new home was Apartment 233 at 3701 Connecticut Avenue, N.W. It was defined as a "studio apartment." It consisted of a single room, a Pullman kitchen, a tiny dressing alcove and a bathroom.
Despite the limited facilities, I was now privileged to live in a brand-new, centrally air-conditioned building that had been advertised as a "luxury" apartment house. I was among its first tenants.
As an upscale building, it featured a concierge who was stationed in the beautiful lobby to handle the mail and to monitor the entry of residents and guests. As I recall, the monthly rent was $89. (Several years ago, I learned that the apartment house had been converted into a co-op.)
I furnished my small new apartment with a studio couch, a book case, a kitchen table, a desk and two upholstered chairs. The focal points in the apartment were an expensive, high-fidelity radio-phonograph system with giant Wharfedale loudspeakers and a Capehart television set. A reproduction of a Marc Chagall painting entitled The Rabbi of Vitebsk adorned one wall.
After coping with the often conflicting social needs of my room mates, I now had an attractive bachelor pad of my own to entertain lady friends. Two years after moving in, I married one of them, Sybil Green, a young woman from Boston who was employed as a service representative for the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.
Almost immediately, Sybil insisted that we move out. Although she never brought up the subject, perhaps she was bothered by the vision of other women who may have slept in the apartment. More important, however, she saw the need, with which I readily agreed, for a larger apartment more suitable for a married couple. We soon found an attractive two-bedroom apartment in a garden-apartment complex in Langley Park, a Maryland suburb.
About two weeks after our departure from 3701 Connecticut Avenue, I received a phone call from the young man, with whom I had become close friends, who lived in a studio apartment across the corridor from mine.
"Do you know who moved into your old apartment?" he asked excitedly. Before I even had a chance to guess, he said breathlessly: "Supreme Court Justice William Douglas!"
My friend was a lawyer for a government regulatory agency. He was obviously overwhelmed by the idea of having a Supreme Court justice as his neighbor. Both he and I were great admirers of Douglas, who eventually served for 36 years on the high court.
We soon learned that Douglas had recently separated from his wife. According to Washington gossip, he was apparently having an affair with a young law student in her twenties. We suspected that my former apartment was now functioning as the justice's "love nest."
Several months later, Edward R. Murrow's popular TV program, Person to Person, featured an interview with Douglas in the Connecticut Avenue apartment. My wife and I eagerly watched the program. From the screen we could see only a couple of chairs, a huge desk and a studio couch in my old apartment. The judge had evidently furnished it very sparingly.
Douglas eventually married the young lady law student. According to a Douglas biography that I have read, they divorced nine years later. Douglas married twice again before his death in 1980, at age 82.
Well before his death, I was aware of Douglas' Washington reputation as a womanizer. During his many years on the Supreme Court, resolutions were introduced four times in the House of Representatives calling for an investigation of his "moral character."
Aside from his marital affairs, Douglas was always a highly controversial figure as one of the Supreme Court's most liberal members. Senator Bob Dole, one of Douglas' most ardent ideological foes, once compared Douglas' "bad judgment from a matrimonial standpoint" to his court decisions.
Nevertheless, I have always regarded Douglas as one of the most brilliant and influential Supreme Court justices of his time. And I will always remember that he ended a marriage while moving into the Washington apartment that I vacated to start a marriage that is now 56 years old.
[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]