Learned Hand’s Own Human Comedy

Learned Hand

Learned Hand, 1872-1961

After discovering the quotes of Judge Learned Hand by Justice Scalia for the recent posting of February 16, I Googled his name to learn more about him. The results were far different than I expected.

Hand was deeply insecure throughout his life, as he fully recognized, despite doing well by most people’s standards. He went to Harvard, but was bitterly disappointed not to be invited to join any of their social clubs. He became, however a top student, earning both a master’s and bachelor’s degree, and was chosen by his fellow students to give the graduating oration in 1893. He started out as a lawyer, even becoming a partner in a firm, but he still felt he was a failure. He later said, “I was never any good as a lawyer. I didn’t have any success, any at all.”

He lobbied for a judgeship as an alternate career, moved up the judicial ladder, and eventually was a candidate for appointment to the Supreme Court by Franklin Roosevelt and was crushed when he did not get it because of his political past. Many others would feel honored even to be considered.

However high his cup was filled, he only saw the part that was empty. He once described himself as the popular cartoon character of the time, Caspar Milquetoast, “The Timid Soul.”

But the biggest surprise was his marriage. He always thought no girl would marry him, but when he was 30, he met Frances Fincke, a graduate of Bryn Mawr, and he quickly proposed. She held back her answer for a year, but they were finally engaged and kissed for the first time. They eventually had three daughters.

In 1919, they bought a house in Cornish, NH, an artist’s colony that they had both enjoyed on vacations. They were friends with artist Maxfield Parrish, and Frances posed for some of his paintings.

Hand, however, had recently joined New York City law firm, a 9-hour commute away, and they were mostly living separate lives.  A good friend of both was Louis Dow, a Dartmouth professor of French, whose wife was in a mental institution. Frances began spending more and more of her time alone with Dow, even twice traveling to Europe with him, and she eventually convinced Hand that she should move in with Dow. Amazingly, Hand agreed to this arrangement, blaming himself for his insensitivity to her wants.

This arrangement continued until Dow’s death in 1944 with Frances at his bedside. Then, in a surprising twist, the strange story had a happy ending. Frances and Learned reunited and rekindled their early love. The last decade of Learned’s life was his happiest. He was convinced that Frances had rescued him from a life as a “melancholic, a failure, . . . and probably single and hopelessly hypochondriac.”

All this from the influential judge shown in the photo, a judge known for his explosive temper, throwing objects at young law clerks and swinging his chair around at the bench to show his back to annoying lawyers.

I kid you not.  No one could make this up, especially his name.  Learned Hand? Pshaw, who would ever believe that?


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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