20 MARCH 1976, Page 24


John Grigg

From the Diaries of Felix Frankfurter with a Biographical Essay and Notes by Joseph P. Lash (Andre Deutsch £6.95)

Felix Frankfurter was an Austrian Jewish immigrant who became a professor at the Harvard Law School, a friend and adviser of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in 1939 a justice of the US Supreme Court. As a young man he was a protégé of Henry L. Stimson and for a time worked in the Department of Justice during the Presidencies of Taft and Wilson. But when Roosevelt offered him the post of Solicitor

General he refused it, preferring to stay at Harvard and to be a non-resident courtier. His influence was considerable, though the man he served was a virtuoso at using people for his own purposes without becoming excessively dependent upon them.

Throughout his career Frankfurter was a passionate Zionist. He was also stronglY Anglophile and in 1933-4 spent a year at Oxford as a visiting professor. By American standards his social views were 'advanced' and his wide circle of friends included Harold Laski. Though his knowledge of the Law was magisterial he was probably net one of the great Supreme Court justices, because he took an unduly restricted view of the Court's functions. He was also touchy, vain and apt to be resentful of those who disagreed with him. Mr Lash's long biographical essay gives a fair account of his talents and achievements, but without sparing the less attractive sides of his character. We are shown the contradiction between his advocacy of judicial. restraint on the Supreme Court and the unrestrained partisanship of his other activities while he was a justice. We are also shown that there was some incompatibility between his academic duties at the Harvard Law School and his political machinations as a confidant of Roosevelt. Finally, we are given grounds for suspecting that he was not always a reliable witness as to fact, and that he was a distinctly unreliable witness as to his own motives. This is one reason why his diaries are a limited value. Though highly egotistical, he does not reveal himself as a good diarist should. Also, the record is far from con; tinuous. There are no entries between 193-, and 1943, which is surely the period o' maximum potential interest, and the last entry is in 1948, fourteen years betbre Frankfurter's retirement from the Supreire Court. Moreover, a large part of the subject-matter . is of interest Only r° Americans or specialist students of tile American scene.

But there is at least one nugget for the general British reader. In June 1943 Ed Murrow asked Frankfurter whether or not he should accept an offer just made to him by Brendan Bracken (on Churchill's authority), that he should become director of programmes in a new set-up contemplated for the BBC. There is no reference to this offer in Alexander Kendrick's life of Murrow or in Andrew Boyle's life of Bracken--or, for that matter, in Asa Briggs's volume on the BBC in wartime. Frankfurter advised Murrow to accept, on certain conditions, but for whatever reason he decided against taking the job. A pity?