The Making of a Justice

Reflections on My First 94 Years


By Justice John Paul Stevens

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A “timely and hugely important” memoir of Justice John Paul Stevens’s life on the Supreme Court (New York Times).

When Justice John Paul Stevens retired from the Supreme Court of the United States in 2010, he left a legacy of service unequaled in the history of the Court. During his thirty-four-year tenure, Justice Stevens was a prolific writer, authoring more than 1000 opinions. In The Making of a Justice, he recounts his extraordinary life, offering an intimate and illuminating account of his service on the nation’s highest court.

Appointed by President Gerald Ford and eventually retiring during President Obama’s first term, Justice Stevens has been witness to, and an integral part of, landmark changes in American society during some of the most important Supreme Court decisions over the last four decades. With stories of growing up in Chicago, his work as a naval traffic analyst at Pearl Harbor during World War II, and his early days in private practice, The Making of a Justice is a warm and fascinating account of Justice Stevens’s unique and transformative American life.


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My First Ninety-Four Years

IN A RECENT interview with a New York Times reporter, I mentioned Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as one of the books that I had always intended to read but had not. After reading that interview, my good friend Ken Manaster presented me with a copy of Proust’s masterpiece at a surprise party that my wife, Maryan, orchestrated for my ninety-fourth birthday. Frankly, I found it less interesting than another book given to me on the same occasion. Empire of the Summer Moon is a fascinating story about Quanah Parker, the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman, and his experience as a leader of that tribe. Quanah was a fierce warrior, an astute politician, and ultimately a luncheon guest of Teddy Roosevelt. In contrast to the action-packed story about the Comanches, Proust’s book reminded me of Jerry Seinfeld’s attempt in Seinfeld to negotiate a contract to do a television series about “nothing”—Remembrance of Things Past is a beautifully written account about nothing. It does, however, have a title I would like to plagiarize. For I plan to write an account of some of my remembrances of a past that included both mundane and unusual experiences that my nine grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren may one day enjoy reading.


My Ancestors

IT WAS NOT until after her death ten days before her ninety-eighth birthday that I learned that my mother had been almost three years older than my father. She was a beautiful woman who always wore her blond hair in a nineteenth-century bouffant style. She was also—like her mother—a devout Christian Scientist who regularly read Mary Baker Eddy’s texts explaining the importance of “mind over matter.” Because she did not believe that physical diseases really existed, she did not accept medical advice or remedies; instead, she relied on frequent uses of enemas as an all-purpose response to childhood ailments. Her religious faith explains why the broken nose that I suffered during a high school soccer game was never repaired.

My mother and father were both proud of their ancestors. She grew up in Michigan City, Indiana; her best friend was the daughter of the warden of the nearby Indiana State Prison. I believe my grandfather used prison inmates to provide labor for the glove factory that he managed. That belief is not based on any actual knowledge, because he was employed in an office job in San Francisco when I first came to know him many years later. My mother’s family included Lewis Cass, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1848; and George Street, the English architect who designed the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in London and is buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey.

My father prepared a handwritten genealogy, which states that the name “Stevens” is of Scotch origin and was originally “Fitz-Stephens.” The genealogy states that Henry, “the immediate progenitor of the family, was born in the county of Cornwall, in the southwest corner of England about 1520. He was knighted by King Henry VIII.” He had three sons and a daughter who “married an Asquith.” Why her marriage into the Asquith family was a sufficiently important event to be mentioned by my father has always been a mystery to me.

Henry’s son John had six sons. His youngest, Nicholas, had an outstanding career as a brigadier general in Oliver Cromwell’s army. In 1659, after the death of Cromwell and the defeat of his son Richard by royalist forces, Nicholas came to America. I presume that he was one of the Puritans who were motivated by their fear of religious persecution and their interest in following the dictates of their own consciences in matters of faith. Nicholas and his family settled in Stonington, Connecticut.

Four generations later, members of his family moved, first to Dutchess County, New York, and later to Barrett, Vermont, where one of the daughters, in a family of ten children, married Colonel Ethan Allen. After two more generations, Socrates Stevens, the youngest son in an eleven-member family, married Amanda and moved to Colchester, Illinois. Socrates and Amanda were my father’s grandparents.

While I was unsuccessfully trying to find a record of Amanda’s maiden name, I was surprised to receive a letter from Colchester signed “Dev” that contained persuasive evidence that the Stevens family was well regarded by leading members of the town’s community in the 1880s. Dev is an executive of the local brick company that recently acquired a parcel of real estate on which an old church is located. Her letter enclosed a colored photograph of a stained glass window in the church that had been built in the 1880s. The inscription on the window bore the names of Socrates and Amanda Stevens, presumably reflecting a favorable local reputation of my father’s grandparents. Their five sons were then successful merchants in Colchester, and soon thereafter they all moved to Chicago, where they all prospered.

My grandfather James William Stevens (“J.W.”) became extremely wealthy while my father was still a child. I am told that J.W. made shrewd investments in real estate, that the Illinois Life Insurance Company, which he organized, was highly profitable, and that he financed successful business ventures in Chicago, including the Charles A. Stevens Department Store, operated by one of his brothers. In 1909, he acquired what was then Chicago’s newest and finest hotel. Constructed at a cost of $3.5 million, the twenty-three-story La Salle Hotel was located on the northwest corner of La Salle and Madison Streets. Notable guests at the hotel included Presidents William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge, as well as “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who presented my father with an autographed picture (see photo insert).

My father received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1904 and a law degree from Northwestern Law School in 1907, a few weeks after he married my mother. She had attended both Vassar College and the University of Chicago and was teaching English in Michigan City during their courtship. My father never practiced law but became the general manager of the La Salle Hotel when it opened and later also managed the Stevens Hotel in Chicago, which was constructed in 1926 and was at the time the largest hotel in the world.

During the early years of Father’s management of the Stevens Hotel, he and other hotel men in the city thought it important to persuade industry groups to hold their conventions in Chicago. Chicago’s reputation as a crime-ridden city was an obstacle they had to overcome. After they received a commitment from an important trade association, Father and the manager of another hotel decided to do what they could to minimize the risk of criminal activity during the convention. They paid a visit to Al Capone, explained how Chicago’s hotel business might be affected if any conventioneers were robbed, and asked for his help. According to my father’s account, Capone said he understood and in fact there was not a single holdup in Chicago during the week of the convention.


Grammar School

AS WAS TRUE before the birth of each of my three older brothers—Ernest Street (“Ernie”) in 1909, Richard James (“Jim”) in 1915, and William Kenneth (“Bill”) in 1917—when my mother was expecting me, she wanted to name the new member of the family “Elizabeth Jane.” By the time of my arrival my parents had exhausted the list of family members to provide an acceptable name for another son and therefore, for reasons that neither of them ever explained to me, they named me “John Paul.”

Shortly after my birth on April 20, 1920, in a residence on Blackstone Avenue south of Fifty-Eighth Street in Chicago, our family moved about three blocks to 1314 East Fifty-Eighth Street—a three-story brick house next to the alley between Kimbark and Kenwood Avenues. The University of Chicago High School and its elementary school were, and still are, located in separate buildings in the block across the street to the south. I graduated from those two schools in 1932 and 1937, and then attended college at the University of Chicago, which was also within easy walking distance from our home.

When I finished kindergarten, the school doctor gave all the students in the class a physical exam and then administered an oral test to determine whether the pupil belonged in the “A” or “B” section of the first grade. Although I was probably the smallest child in the class, I passed the physical exam with flying colors but flunked the mental test. I did not know the answer to the question of why stoves are not made of silver. My mother challenged the doctor’s ruling, arguing that the question was unfair and provided no relevant evidence of a kindergarten student’s mental ability. Her challenge was rejected, and I ended up in Class 1B. My father must have been disappointed in me, because I recall his frequent quotation of Julius Caesar’s advice that he would rather be “first in a little Iberian village than second in Rome.” In any event that advice may have provided the motivation that enabled me to make it into Class 2A the next year.

My teacher in Class 2A was Thelma Polkinghorn. In 1977 I received a wonderful letter from her describing my arrival at class the morning after the opening banquet at the Stevens Hotel in 1927. Guests at the banquet dined on sets of china that my father had designed for the occasion and received gifts of either bronze ashtrays or bronze bookends. The dinner plates contained five profiles of my mother and this verse composed by my father:

Her silhouette in profile

Is pleasing to the eyes—

But her own dear self in person

Makes home my Paradise.

The gifts were replicas of the two statues located in fountains in the entrance hall of the hotel. The ashtray featured my brother Jim riding a dolphin in his birthday suit, and the bookends featured my brother Bill and me (also au naturel) with a large fish. I think the figures were sculpted by Frederick Hibbard, a well-respected artist who I believe had also created the statue of my oldest brother, Ernie, in the Blue Fountain Room of the La Salle Hotel, where we enjoyed many family dinners.

Amelia Earhart, the famous aviator, was the principal speaker at the banquet. After her talk, my father introduced me to her. All that I can remember about meeting her was her suggestion that I was out pretty late on a school night. Despite her concern, I know that I was not only on time for school the next morning but, according to Miss Polkinghorn’s letter, as usual, the first student to arrive. She said that she remembered the occasion because I presented her with a set of the bookends.

A few weeks later, when Charles Lindbergh was making a triumphal tour of the United States after miraculously completing his thirty-three-hour solo flight from New York to Paris in a single-engine plane, he was a guest at the Stevens Hotel during his visit to Chicago. I was allowed to accompany my father when he went to Lindbergh’s suite to welcome him; the suite was cluttered with piles of gifts that had been sent to him by a host of admirers. I remember him as a tall, friendly man who made a point of being nice to a child and who explained that he did not know what to do with all his gifts. I joyously accepted when he asked me if I would like to have the caged dove on the table. My memory of that occasion remained vivid long after our loss of the bird that we named “Lindy.”

My father played a central role in other memories of happy years in grammar school. He took my brothers and me to the opening game of the 1929 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Athletics. It was my first visit to Wrigley Field. I had listened to Hal Totten’s broadcast of most of the Cubs’ home games—and to Pat Flanagan’s ticker-tape account of most of their away games—during the season and knew the batting average of every player in the Cubs’ lineup. We were seated directly behind home plate, where I expected my heroes—Hack Wilson (who had hit fifty-four home runs during the regular season) in center field, Riggs Stephenson (a.300-plus hitter) in left, the base-stealing Kiki Cuyler in right, Charlie Grimm on first base, and Gabby Hartnett behind the plate—to demolish the Athletics. Contrary to expectation, instead of having either Lefty Grove or George Earnshaw—the A’s two leading pitchers—start the opening game, the wily Connie Mack gave the assignment to a has-been with a sidearm delivery named Howard Ehmke. Ehmke fanned one Cub after another; his thirteen strikeouts set a series record. The contrast between my anticipation of an overwhelming Cub victory after a slugfest and the actual outcome of a pitching duel could not have been more dramatic. Watching the A’s beat the Cubs 3–1 was an unforgettable tragedy.

During my years in grammar school, our home provided the location for the afternoon recreation of many of my classmates. Because the traffic on Fifty-Eighth Street was then almost nonexistent, we located the goal in our kick-the-can games in the center of the street that also provided the arena for fiercely contested stick hockey games. During cold weather, groups of my friends were attracted to the house to enjoy sliding down the banister from the second to the first floor, playing hide-and-seek and blindman’s buff throughout the house, and a fairly rough game we called “miniature football” (because we had to remain on our hands and knees on every down) in the large attic on the third floor. The location and size of our house probably explain why my brothers and I had so many friends.

We spent our summer vacations in Lakeside, Michigan, which was about a two-hour drive from Chicago. Our large stucco house was on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan to the west. Our property occupied a rectangular area with about seventy-five yards of lake frontage and a gravel road about a quarter of a mile long that connected the bluff to the public road. We had our own concrete tennis court and a large garden, where my mother grew both vegetables and flowers. Different sets of my mother’s relatives were regular guests. Perhaps the most frequent visitor was her sister Julie and Julie’s daughter, Nancy, who lived in Berkeley, California. My brother Bill’s affection for Nancy probably explains his decision to attend the University of California, while the rest of us attended the University of Chicago. My mother’s parents spent several summers with us. Her father taught me to swim and to play two-handed card games, both lifelong hobbies of mine.

My father routinely spent the first several days of the week in Chicago working at the hotel, but he came to Lakeside for the weekends, sometimes arriving as early as Thursday afternoon. When we received word of his probable arrival time, Jim, Bill, and I would usually walk down the gravel road to the front gate of our property to welcome him. His presence always made life more enjoyable. He often brought canisters containing several reels of films that he invited our neighbors to watch in our living room on Saturday evenings. On the Fourth of July, he supervised a fireworks display on the beach that attracted a fairly large audience. I have especially fond memories of sitting with him in the screened portion of the “pump house” on our beach watching lightning streak across the sky during thunderstorms. One weekend he arrived in a single-engine floatplane that landed in the water in front of our beach. The pilot flew back to Chicago while Father waded ashore in business clothes.

Father enjoyed both tennis and golf. Sometimes when he was playing doubles with friends, he would pay me a penny for each ball that I retrieved. He taught me how to play both of those games. On the golf course he explained the importance of strict adherence to the rules. Any cheating was sure to be noticed by other golfers, who would likely infer that anyone who cheated at golf might violate other rules as well. I have thought of him over and over again when young lawyers have asked me for advice about practicing law, and I have responded by telling them that a lawyer’s most valuable asset is his or her reputation for integrity. Bending the rules may provide a benefit to a client, but that benefit is always outweighed by the inevitable injury to the lawyer’s good name.

Almost every weekend, Father would take the entire family to see a movie either in Sawyer, Bridgman, Saint Joe, or Benton Harbor, Michigan, or sometimes in Michigan City, Indiana. He had an infectious sense of humor. I think W. C. Fields was his favorite, but I can also remember him laughing uncontrollably in movies starring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy. Mae West was his favorite movie actress, while he was also a fan of Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, and Fanny Brice on the stage. I was able to see those stars perform in New York, thanks to my mother’s summer travels.

In late August each year she took some of her children with her on a trip to Boston to attend events sponsored by the “mother church” of Mary Baker Eddy. With our chauffeur, Orson Washburne, at the wheel, we drove from Lakeside to Detroit, where we put our car on a ship (either the “City of Detroit” or the “City of Buffalo”) and made an overnight voyage on Lake Erie. After docking in Buffalo, we visited Niagara Falls and drove to Watkins Glen and ultimately on to Boston. On one or more of those trips, Father surprised us by arriving in Boston a day or two later, having shipped his car on the train that brought him to the East Coast. From Boston he drove the family to New York City to see the sights and attend a play or two on Broadway. What happened to Orson and the other car, I simply do not remember. I do, however, remember seeing Eddie Cantor in the play Whoopee as well as performances by Fanny Brice and Will Rogers. I also remember a family dinner at what I believe was a new hotel that was featuring a show that included an act by an artist who painted a cartoon of a face on the front of a nude female model. The large eyes in the cartoon were particularly memorable. I don’t believe there were any grammar school students at any other table.

We engaged in other travel that I only dimly remember. Several spring vacations were spent in Biloxi, Mississippi, where I fished for crabs using a piece of meat on a long string as bait. On one trip to Washington, D.C., I saw Vice President Charles Curtis preside during a session of the Senate. On our drive back to Chicago, we had an accident in which Mother broke her arm. She refused to accept medical care, but I have no memory of her healing process. On another trip we visited Havana, Cuba; rather than Morro Castle, my principal memory of that trip was the distressing number of beggars in public areas.

Sundays were always enjoyable days at home. They would frequently begin when Father was shaving and dramatically reciting his version of “Casey at the Bat”—instead of referring to the score as “four to two” as the author of the poem did, he made it “two to four,” and instead of referring to Flynn and Blake as “hoodoo” and “cake,” he said “the former was a no-good and the latter was a fake.” Or he might favor us with a rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” which famously begins, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs,” and ends with “You’ll be a Man, my son!” Mother, for her part, used couplets as teaching tools. Instructions about the proper way to drink soup at the dinner table included: “Like a ship put out to sea, I push my spoon away from me.” And she conveyed a more important message when she recited (as she often did), “Lips that touch wine will never touch mine.” My brother Jim would often favor us with Lewis Carroll’s wonderful lines:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogroves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

The first poem that I recall committing to memory was Longfellow’s “Village Blacksmith.”

Jim, Bill, and I would don our Sunday best and walk three blocks together to the Christian Science Church, where each of us attended a Sunday school class of about a half dozen students. Thereafter, our oldest brother, Ernie, and his bride, Dorothy (and sometimes other guests as well), would join us for the Sunday dinner. They were happy occasions.


FDR and Babe Ruth

FATHER WAS A loyal Republican. He had a framed letter signed by Warren G. Harding hanging on the wall of his bedroom; the letter thanked him for voluntary service to the federal government. During the Depression, he frequently announced to the family, “Business is looking up!” He would then explain, “It is flat on its back.” Despite his politics, he took Bill and me with him to hear President Roosevelt’s acceptance speech on the last day of the Democratic Party’s convention in 1932 at the Chicago Stadium. The speech is memorable for many reasons, including the fact that, in his closing sentence, FDR first used the term “new deal” to describe his campaign promises. Although I have no recollection of the text of the speech, I do recall that he was accompanied by his son, who assisted his moving to the podium in a way that prevented the audience from noticing that he had a serious physical disability.

Later that same year, FDR returned to Chicago, where he threw out the first pitch of the third game in the World Series between the Cubs and the Yankees. Father took me to that game and we sat about twenty rows behind the third-base dugout. I have no recollection of FDR’s presence in the crowd, but I do recall verbal exchanges between Guy Bush and Babe Ruth during the early innings of the game. Bush was one of the Cubs’ starting pitchers, but he was not on the mound that day. Presumably he and the Babe were debating the fairness of the Cub players’ decision to award only a half share of their World Series bonus to Mark Koenig, a former Yankee who had been traded to the Cubs late in the season. When Ruth came to bat in the fifth inning, apparently responding to a shouted comment by Bush, he pointed his bat at the center-field scoreboard. On the next pitch he hit his “called shot” over the center-field scoreboard.

A few years ago, during a question-and-answer session at a judicial conference in Columbus, Ohio, I described my recollection of that event. After that session, a young bankruptcy judge introduced himself and advised me that his grandfather had also attended that game and had been seated in the left-field bleachers, where he had been successful in recovering the ball that Ruth had hit on that occasion. He did not want to embarrass me in front of the audience by pointing out that my memory of the direction of Ruth’s called shot was inaccurate. Because my attendance at that game has long been my most important claim to fame, and because the judge’s account would be difficult to dispute, when I returned to Washington after the conference, I asked my law clerk Merritt McAlister to do the necessary research to determine the direction of Ruth’s hit.

This was unquestionably the easiest research assignment any of my clerks ever received; for the answer to the question is revealed by a copy of the box score that hangs on a wall in my office. The box score was given to me in 1947 by my friend Jim Marsh, an avid baseball fan who was then serving as the law clerk for Justice Robert Jackson and who later had a distinguished career as a Philadelphia lawyer. It shows that Ruth hit two home runs in that game. The ball that the bankruptcy judge’s grandfather retrieved from the left field bleachers must have been hit in the second inning; the “called shot” was hit in the fifth. Since the card also identifies Charlie Root as the Cubs’ starting pitcher, it is consistent with my recollection that Guy Bush was the Cub engaged in the unfriendly colloquy with Ruth.


The Armed Robbery

WHEN THE STEVENS Hotel opened in 1927, the economy was booming, but the stock market crash in 1929 had a disastrous impact on the hotel business in Chicago as well as the rest of the economy. In the ensuing months, in order to pay the interest on its debts, the hotel borrowed over a million dollars from the Illinois Life Insurance Company, which was controlled by my grandfather James W. Stevens (“J.W.”), my father’s older brother, Raymond W. Stevens (“R.W.”), and my father, Ernest J. Stevens (“E.J.”). As matters developed, the economy did not recover, and neither the Insurance Company’s loan, nor an additional $522,000 that J.W. advanced from his own funds, saved the hotel from insolvency. Although the loan did not violate any law regulating the insurance business, the state’s attorney for Cook County viewed the decision to make the loan as a criminal act and at the end of January 1933 obtained an indictment charging J.W., R.W., and my father with embezzlement of over $1 million. J.W. then suffered a stroke and R.W. committed suicide, leaving my father as the only defendant to stand trial. Sensational coverage of the charges in Chicago newspapers apparently convinced several men who later robbed us that Father had concealed $1 million in cash in tomato cans in the basement of our home.

A few days after the indictment, Orson Washburne, our chauffeur, was kidnapped when he was walking back to his home after locking Mother’s car in our garage. At gunpoint he was ordered into the backseat of a sedan and forced to crouch on the floor so that he would not be visible to any potential witnesses. For over an hour his abductors drove around, interrogating him about the precise location of the horde of cash that was supposedly hidden in our home. Orson knew nothing about any cash, but apparently described the location of our two telephones, one in the library on the first floor and the other in my father’s second-floor bedroom. Following Orson’s description of his terrifying ordeal in the back of the sedan, Father hired an armed private detective to spend every night in our home, beginning around 8 p.m.


On Sale
May 14, 2019
Page Count
560 pages

Justice John Paul Stevens

About the Author

Justice John Paul Stevens served on U.S. Supreme Court from 1975 until his retirement in 2010. He is the third-longest serving Justice in American history. Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1920, Stevens served in the United States Navy during World War II and graduated from Northwestern University School of Law. He was appointed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1970 by President Richard Nixon and to the Supreme Court in 1975 by Gerald Ford. He was the author of two other books, Five Chiefs and Six Amendments. Justice Stevens passed away in 2019.

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