Sunday, October 04, 2009

MEMOIR: When Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas rented my old apartment

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 Ave., 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 bachelors pad of my own to entertain lady friends. Two years after moving in, I married one of them, Sybil, 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 Ave., 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 Ave. 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. Sen. 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.



Blogger Sylvia K said...

Ah, Mort, another delightful look back at your very interesting life! I love it when I get a glimpse of your sense of humor in your posts. When I first began following your blog over a year ago I mostly saw the very intelligent and gifted writer who was also very, very serious. And then bit by bit I began to see the flickers of humor tucked away in many of your "looking back" posts and I enjoyed them even more.
You continue to be an inspiration!
I know it is getting close to moving time for you and Sybil. I hope it all goes smoothly!

Have a great week!


Sunday, October 04, 2009 7:13:00 PM  
Blogger Ron Southern said...

Justice Douglas's private life and your own are none of my business--I don't NEED to know it at all--but small things can be a very great entertainment if only one can get a little less tight-assed about things than Bob Dole. Good job!

Sunday, October 04, 2009 8:47:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

Gee your first apt. was somewhat similar to my first -- called an efficiency apt., also sparsely furnished, with a kitchen only one person at a time could occupy by seemingly sliding sideways into it -- don't even try to turn around.

I was forewarned by my landlady that the other half of this one story double she owned was occupied by a bachelor who entertained a lady friend regularly. His bed must have been pushed up against our units separating wall that had little or no soundproofing. Alas, I never learned who he was, but think it likely he was not as illustrious as the renter who moved into your vacated apt.

Enjoyed your story and the manner in which you related it. Glad you found Sybil and she took you out of there. That's what happened to me, left to wed my husband, only we lived in his one bedroom over-a-garage apt. for a couple of years before buying a house.

Monday, October 05, 2009 4:45:00 AM  
Blogger Vagabonde said...

This is a great anecdote. I have 4 books by William O. Douglas “My Wilderness” “North from Malaya” “Strange lands and Friendly People” and “West of the Indies.” I shall print your post and place it in one of the book. That reminded me of my first apartment when I moved from Paris to San Francisco. I found a roommate through someone I met on the ship coming over. Her German roommate had moved out so I went to see her (an American Mormon) and see if I could room with her (close to Nob Hill) and she said yes as long as I worked daytime because she worked at night at the bank and did not want to have anything to do with me because I was French and she hated foreigners (even though her boyfriend was Japanese.) Well she said she hated Europeans anyhow. Apart from her apartment the whole building was rented by couple of gay people and I made many friends there. It was great walking downtown in San Francisco or hoping on the cable car. But when I got married we moved to the Mission district – that was in the late 60s.

Monday, October 05, 2009 1:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of your latest posts are right up there with your best. In 2006, your blog inspired me to start one, and about 200 posts later I'm still at it. If you or your readers want to see how it worked out, check

Goold luck with your household move.

Dick Klade, Plainwell, MI

Tuesday, October 06, 2009 9:55:00 AM  
Blogger Chancy said...

Oh the interesting things that went on and still do go on in Washington D.C. Great story Mort thanks.

My husband and I lived in Washington D.C for 4 years when he was transfered there to head up his firm's Washington office in the 1980's.

We were fortunate enough to lease an apartment at the Watergate South, a co-op building.

On the first floor lived Bob and Libby Dole. Upstairs from us was John Warner( after his divorce from Elizabeth Taylor) and most interesting of all, Claire Booth Luce, the widow of Henry Luce.

She was still a beautiful woman, with grey hair and a delightful smile. She must have been in her early 80's then. We used to see her on the elevator and in the lobby at times. She wore the most delightful perfume that was not overpowering but fresh and feminine. We could always tell when Mrs Luce had been on the elevator because her scent lingered.

Later after we returned to Atlanta I did some detective work on Google and found out Mrs Luce wore the perfume "Joy" by Jean Patao" mixed with a lighter floral scent. I had my husband buy me "Joy" for Mother's day and I also mix it with a lighter fragrance.

Funny how some things linger in our minds. The scent of a woman is one of them.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009 11:23:00 PM  
Blogger Darlene said...

I can't tell you how much I always enjoy your reminiscing because it starts me down that path, too. Being the same age I can visualize everything you write about because I have lived during that time.

Of course my life was dull compared to yours and there were no Supreme Court Justices even remotely in my stories. So it's fun to read about a more vibrant part of our country.

Isn't Justice Douglas the one who studied the second amendment and came to the conclusion that the right to bear arms was not intended to be a right to own a gun unless you were a member of a militia? His argument was that our country didn't have an army at the time that amendment was passed and a militia would be necessary to protect us from an invader.

I agree with him, if it was Douglas.

Thursday, October 08, 2009 3:19:00 PM  
Blogger Buster Stronghart said...

Are you saying that there was sex before Clinton?

Sunday, October 11, 2009 2:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009 3:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Jhawk23 said...

An interesting memoir. I wonder if you might enjoy reading a book recently out on a similar theme: Herman Obermayer's "Rehnquist: A Personal Portrait," which offers a lot of interesting personal insights on this former Chief Justice.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009 3:30:00 PM  
Blogger Jerry550 said...


Mazel tov on your long marriage. I have to wonder how a brilliant mind like William Douglas had 4 wives and couldn't seem to find a decent woman. Maybe that was the point, maybe he didn't want to.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009 9:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mort!
I think the age does not matter while the head is still working.
My grandfather is a journalist and he went to Argentina, to one of the furnished apartments in Buenos Aires to work in a newspaper there.

Friday, December 10, 2010 11:27:00 AM  

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