A few months ago, I was reading Boston Teran’s novel Never Count Out the Dead. In the novel, the protagonist makes reference to Zzyzx and Curtis Howe Springer, the “king of quacks.” I had no idea who Dr. Curtis Springer was or why he was so notorious. I did some digging and found out. He was a charlatan, a seller of snake oil. Charged with fraud, Dr. Springer needed the best criminal defense lawyer money could buy. So he hired Gladys Towles Root.
Gladys Root, in her own way, was even more notorious than Dr. Springer. For Gladys didn’t seem to fit any ordinary categories. She was a female attorney at a time when women weren’t supposed to be anything but decorations. Not only that but Gladys dressed like a Las Vegas showgirl, wearing form-fitting dresses made from shiny purple material, displaying a little too much. Other times, she wore red sequins. And her hair was always color coordinated with her outfits. Then there were the big earrings, and the big hats. This sort of flamboyance, suggestive of hookers and prostitutes, could not be imagined in a court of law.
Gladys was a lot more than just extravagant. She was talented. In fact, Gladys was a star on the stage called the courtroom. The Lady in Purple was smart as God, tricky as the Devil and not intimidated by her male counterparts.
A number of things about Gladys took me by surprise.
Because women weren’t supposed to practice law, Gladys got the clients that no one else would take. Her clients were accused of sordid crimes and usually had no money for an attorney. Gladys believed they had a right to the best defense. So that’s what she did, she defended them to the best of her ability. And her cup overflowed with ability.
Gladys believed that women could be very spiteful and often lied about what had actually occurred during the course of a supposed crime. And many children were wise beyond their years. They knew how to work the system by lying. Or the children simply made false accusations as a form of revenge. According to Gladys, children were not the innocents most people thought they were.
None of this would make Gladys popular with today’s feminists. However, at the same time Gladys believed homosexuality was not a crime or a sin. And she supported a woman’s right to abortion and declared publicly that prostitution should be legalized. All three of these viewpoints made her a foaming-at-the-mouth liberal.
I kept digging.
Gladys’s notoriety has four sources. One, she was involved in the Frank Sinatra, Jr. kidnapping case. She defended one of the kidnappers. Two, she was charged with tax evasion by the IRS. Three, she became involved in the power struggle between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X for control of the Nation of Islam. Four, she defended Robert Clayton Buick.