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Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas Hardcover – March 4, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Murphy, a judicial scholar and biographer of three Supreme Court justices, this time reveals the genius and the warts of William O. Douglas, arguably the greatest influence on American jurisprudence. Douglas was one of the youngest and longest-serving Supreme Court justices, a perennial dissenter who shaped the right to privacy and attempted to halt President Nixon's Vietnam War efforts. After graduating with honors from Columbia Law School, Douglas was highly sought after and eventually settled on a professorship at Yale Law School. Attracted by the New Deal of Roosevelt's administration, he accepted the post of chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and helped reform Wall Street. Here Murphy explores new material on Douglas, including his hidden ambitions to be president. This extraordinary man, a rugged outdoorsman and master of political machinations, endured four impeachment attempts to unseat him from the court, as well as four sometimes-turbulent marriages, and yet remained an American giant. This is a well-researched and absorbing look at an enduring figure in American legal history. Vernon Ford
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (March 4, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394576284
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394576282
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 2.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #111,554 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 26 people found the following review helpful By MarkK VINE VOICE on April 18, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book will probably stand as the definitive examination of William O. Douglas as a person. Having undertaken over a decade of research, Murphy has produced an exhaustive (though not exhausting) account of Douglas' personal life, from his boyhood in eastern Washington through his early years as a lawyer, law school professor, and New Deal administrator, to his years on the Court. While the basic details have been known for nearly a quarter century, thanks to James Simon's earlier biography of the justice, Independent journey: The life of William O. Douglas, Murphy provides many new details gleaned from his research in the Douglas papers (which were closed when Simon wrote his book) and his extensive interviews with people who knew the justice offer several illustrative anecdotes. The result is an important corrective to the idealized image Douglas constructed of himself in his many autobiographical accounts, recounting his womanizing, his politicking, and his terrible treatment of his staff with considerable thoroughness. Murphy's descriptions of Douglas's failed campaigns to become the Democratic nominee for president are particularly fascinating, and alone justify the price of the book.

In his effort to debunk the Douglas myths, though, the author adopts an excessively negative interpretation of the facts. Murphy claims, for example, that contrary to Douglas's assertions he did not suffer polio as a child, yet without definitive medical evidence to the contrary, such a topic can only remain an open question at best.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Kayte on March 23, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This large, but extremely readable biography of one of the 20th Century's most colorful figures is an amazing story! Before I read "Wild Bill", I was aware of the legend of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas--his liberal activism, support of the environment, and, of course, his four wives. But, when I read the book, which is based on wonderfully detailed research, and written more like a novel than an academic work, I was amazed at what I learned about the man himself. I wasn't surprised that there was more womanizing going on than the contemporary press had revealed. What I found particularly interesting, though, was how such a famous and apparently successful public figure felt he had to embellish his personal history for public consumption. For example, who would have questioned the veracity of a Supreme Court Justice when he told us that he suffered from polio as a small child, or served in Europe during World War I? Bruce Allen Murphy did--and his book not only gives us the true facts of William O. Douglas's life, but helps us understand what drove him to exaggerate his life story, and why he remained unfulfilled despite his many accomplishments. For those of us who want to know how he discovered these hidden truths, Murphy provides copious and detailed endnotes, but none of that intrudes on the more casual reader. One need not be a Court follower to enjoy this amazing story--just one who enjoys understanding the all-too-human insecurities and foibles of even the most famous among us. If you like Caro, Morris or McCullough, you will not want to miss this book!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By W. C HALL VINE VOICE on May 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Bruce Allen Murphy's "Wild Bill" left me feeling conflicted. Unlike the other reviewers so far, I can't say I loved the book, or that I hated it. Murphy's research is exhaustive and impressive, and his narrative powers do make the amazing story of Douglas' life read more like a novel. He deserves much credit for peeling away the layers of myth that Douglas laid over the true story of his life. At the end, though, I came away feeling that the good that Douglas accomplished somehow got lost in the bargain. There must have been some reason a couple of generations looked to him as a champion of individual liberties. It's there, all right, but it seems to almost disappear in an ocean of negatives. Overall, though, the good outweighs the flaws; this is a worthwhile book for anyone who wants to know more about Douglas, the Supreme Court, or one of the most tumultuous eras in American life.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Man Reads on March 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I'll start by acknowledging the book's strongpoints. First, the author's research is solid and that comes through from beginning to end. A reader can learn a lot about Justice Douglas's childhood, his career before his appointment, and some aspects of his tenure on the Court. Second, the author does a good job at portraying the complexities of the man. From Justice Douglas's tactics in advancing his academic career to his political ambitions, the reader gets a good sense of the often distasteful and disagreeable side of the man. This is far from a puff piece, and comes across as a more faithful portrait as a result. Third, Justice Douglas off of the Court comes through quite well. The reader can learn much about Washington, its political maneuverings, and how both of those factors influence the Court.

My criticism is that the book is a political memoir that overlooks the legal aspects of Justice Douglas's career. I think this is a glaring omission; it's hard to understand a Supreme Court justice without considering his contribution to the law. There is little substance about Justice Douglas's academic career and his government career before reaching the Supreme Court, and most of the chapters covering his time on the Court focus on political maneuvering, the media, and gossip. This omission is noticeably different from other, highly regarded, judicial biographies (Schwarz's Super Chief, Urofksy's Louis D. Brandeis). And this book is the poorer for it.
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