Monday, November 17, 2008
’Twas Nice That Twice I Heard From Bird—in Rhyme, Each Time
By ROGER M. GRACE
California Chief Justice Ronald George never writes me poems. A predecessor of his did: Rose Bird.
I came across our exchange of poetic correspondence in plowing through the MetNews’ “Bird” file while doing research for my recent column on Attorney General Evelle Younger’s 1977 vote to confirm her as chief justice.
The first poem I received came in response to my column of July 8, 1977 (then appearing in another newspaper). It was titled, “ASTROLOGICAL LOOK AT JUSTICES” and included this item:
ROSE ELIZABETH BIRD—There are those who can’t fathom how she came to be appointed chief justice, having had no judicial experience. A clue to her success might be her date of birth: Nov. 2, 1936.
Her sun sign is Scorpio.
Scorpions are ambitious. They’re go-getters. Lack of experience won’t daunt their quest for high positions.
They seem attracted to law. If you flip through the biographical section of Martindale Hubbell, you’ll see that a large percentage of the senior partners of major law firms are Scorpians and Virgoans....
Look through the Daily Journal Superior Court profiles. Repeatedly, you’ll find judges who are Scorpians and Virgoans...a far higher percentage of each than one-twelfth. The last presiding judge [Robert Wenke] was [that should have read “is”] a Virgoan; the present one [William Hogoboom] is a Scorpion; the assistant PJ [Richard Schauer] is a Virgoan.
(Chief Justice Rose Bird was born with her sun in Scorpio and with Mars—a major planet—in Virgo.)
Scorpians are typically “political animals.” More U.S. presidents have been born under the sign of Scorpio than any other sign. (There were six of them. The last one was Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920.)
Vindictiveness and secretiveness are standard Scorpian traits...but so is success.
All this goes to show:
Rose Bird just might have the inner strength and determination to prove her critics wrong.
I received the following note from the chief justice in response:
“Where oh where’s your usual Grace,
“We Scorpios think it out of place,
“That you assay to quantify,
“Those qualities we typify.
“If I were you, I’d change my pace,
“And write about the commonplace.
“Your gifts lie not in astrology—
“The stars are due an apology.”
I, too, tried my hand at poetry, probably displaying less prowess at that than in astrology. I responded to Bird in an Aug. 1 letter:
“In the column I listed various
“Traits that Scorpios share;
“It’s the viewpoint of this Aquarius
“The characterizations were fair.
“But Scorpios are nefarious
“When it comes to grudges they bear.
“To be spared your wrath
“I’ll take the path
“Of leaving the stars, Venus and Mars
“To astronomers’ loving care.”
That much was published in my column of Aug. 5. Not published were some negative comments on the appointment of State Bar President Ralph Gampell, a dogmatic socialist, as director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. My ditty included the lines (perhaps matching Gampell’s dogmaticism):
“Now that the courts have Ralph Gampell,
“I assume the system’s going to hell.”
Bird replied by Western Union mailgram on Aug. 4:
“NOW THAT YOU’VE GOTTEN YOUR THOUGHTS OFF YOUR CHEST
“LET ME ASSURE YOU MY POEM WAS IN JEST.
“I HAVE NO DISTRUST OF AQUARIANS’ ENDS,
“IN FACT, SOME OF THEM ARE AMONG MY BEST FRIENDS.
“BEFORE SENDING GAMPELL TO THE STYGIAN DEPTHS,
“GIVE HIM A CHANCE TO REPLACE MR. KLEPS.”
Bird, whose suitability for the post of chief justice had been questioned before she was confirmed, quickly made waves after she assumed command. Attracting criticisms, she became insular. Unavailable for interviews with the press, she surely was not prone to engage in exchanges of poems with a journalist. So, I lost a pen pal. (Some mundane correspondence took place into the 1980s, in non-poetic form.)
I did dash off a couplet to Bird on Nov. 18, 1977. My wife and I were attending the State Bar’s 50th anniversary gala in San Francisco. Before the program started, someone on Bird’s staff, assuming I was there to cover the event, handed me a copy of the chief justice’s “speech.” It was in rhyme. By then, she had delivered talks before various bar groups in poetic form. I scribbled a note to Bird, saying:
“I’ve read your speech, dear Rose.
“Can’t you ever speak in prose?”
She explained to the audience that people had requested more poetry from her.
A United Press International report contains these lines from her poem pertaining to mounting distrust among the public of lawyers:
“The Bar need not feel in a defensive position,
“The answer lies in following its own tradition.
“Constructive programs, proposals for change characterize the Bar.”
Bird presented light-hearted doggerel on Oct. 6, 1977, in appearing before the Chancery Club in Los Angeles, playfully chastising the lawyers for their all-male membership. Bird was quoted by United Press International as saying:
“You’re a microcosm, in my humble estimation,
“Of our society’s dilemma when dealing with discrimination.
“Women members, it’s been said, you simply do not take
“Unless, of course, they’ve been hired to jump out of a cake.”
Her poetry could take more serious form. The March 9, 1985 issue of the Times contains a report on campaigning by Bird...20 months before she would face voters in a retention election (which she and two associate justices were to lose). She’s quoted as telling one audience, with reference to the victory of a man, after a 30-year battle, to gain a court ruling saying that Japanese internment during World War II was wrong:
“The difference between an idea and a right,
“Depends upon someone to fight the good fight,
“Depends on someone to strive ’til they win,
“So what happened before will not happen again.”
Other lines of the poem included:
“Remember when freedom was clearly your right
“Provided you proved your skin was pure white?”
After Bird was in 1986 denied a 12-year term by voters (her employment just hadn’t worked out), she got a job doing a two-minute commentary twice a week, aired on KABC, locally, and on KGO in San Francisco. Her first commentary, on Feb. 7, 1978, was comprised of reading that poem.
Her stint as a commentator did not last long. For some years prior to her death in 1999, Bird was a virtual recluse, remaining in her Palo Alto home, tending to her garden, sometimes writing poetry.
SUPERIOR COURT POET—Among other black-robed poets was Judge Frank G. Swain, known as the “bard” of the Los Angeles Superior Court. He was appointed to that bench in 1935.
Now and then, Swain would submit letters-to-the-editor to the Times in verse.
On Oct. 23, 1953, the Times carried a story on Swain’s approval of a television contract for two 15-month-old identical twins. Approvals of such contracts commonly were captured by news photographers—as that one was—and were more of a ceremony, or “media event,” than a court hearing.
Keen-eyed Swain spotted in the document a “morality clause.” That was standard in Hollywood contracts—but, Swain wondered, was it really necessary with respect to toddlers? The Times write-up included a poem Swain had dashed off which he read at the proceeding:
“A broadcasting contract with babies,
“Just fifteen months old, gives me pause.
“I read the agreement’s minutiae.
“What’s this? The morality clause?
“Are infants too fond of the women?
“Will they hit the bottle too much?
“Will they go in swimming undiapered
“And ruin their box office touch?
“I tremble for Hollywood’s virtue
“If babies aren’t turned from such ways.
“Producers are risking disaster
“Who trust actors’ morals these days.”
That was included with scads of other poems by Swain in “Judicial Jingles,” a 1955 a book published by Pageant Press. Here’s one “jingle” which Gene Sherman of the Times repeats in his Jan 5, 1956 “Cityside” column:
“A witness always tells the truth;
“To claim he does not is uncouth.
“Yet though an idle act it be,
“We have a law called perjury.”
“The reporters in the [courthouse] press room are wont to hail him with, ‘Yonder approaches the jurist Swain, fetching, forsooth, his latest quatrain.”
Nov. 26, 1958 editions of the Pasadena Star-News, and I assume other newspapers in the county, include this news story from a local wire service:
LOS ANGELES. (CNS) The three Judges who serve in the Appellate Department of Superior Court were honored by county supervisors yesterday.
Supervisor Kenneth Hahn presented individual scrolls to Judges Edward T. Bishop, Frank G. Swain and Leon T. David commending them for their long and efficient service.
To which Judge Swain replied in humorous vein:
“ ‘Hail to judges,’ shout the winners.
“ ‘To hell with Judges,’ roar the sinners.
“Praise and blame ride side by side,
“A judge must take each in his stride.”
Bennett Cerf’s column in “This Week Magazine” (a national Sunday supplement) on Dec 13, 1959, borrows a nugget from Swain’s book. The “What’s My Line?” panelist (and Random House publisher) asks: “And how do judges kill time when dull cases drag on?” He answers by saying that Swain writes poems, and quotes this one (from the book):
“I asked Mrs. Jones, ‘Where’s your husband?
“And blushed when I learned he was dead.
“I dreamed I was walking down Main Street
“In underwear worn to a thread.
“When I can’t recall names and faces
“I wish I had died in a trench.
“But life’s most embarrassing faux pas
“Is going to sleep on the bench.”
The Long Beach Press-Telegram on Nov. 19, 1961, ran a feature on Swain. It reveals that a newspaper headline—“San Quentin Convict Plans to Shoot Judge Swain”—was the inspiration for one rhyme in the book—which reads, in full:
“The press says a con in San Quentin
“Is plotting to liquidate me.
“I don’t know that man even slightly;
“With him I can’t wholly agree.
“I think of my social position
“When living precariously.
“If I were shot dead by a stranger,
“I know that would mortify me.”
The article notes that Swain emphasized in an interview: “I do not write jingles on the bench, nor do I read them in court.” That debunks Cerf’s assumption that Swain veered his attention while on the bench from dull matters before him to crafting his stanzas.
The Times’ “Around Town With Joan Winchell” column on May 7, 1961, in the Sunday “Calendar” magazine, contains this letter from Swain:
“The L.A. Times carried a story that Bing Crosby and his wife are expecting. I was intrigued by a statement that Bing was the one who informed his wife. The idea sent me out of control and I wrote the following jingle: ‘The paper says that Bing’s expecting /And notifies his wife. [/] I thought before I was 13 / I knew the facts of life.’ ”
Swain retired from the bench in 1964 and died 11 years later.
In case you’re wondering...Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Leslie A. Swain is not related to him.
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