Joseph Welch’s participation in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 brought him national prominence. We have seen a summary of those hearings and his performance as the U.S. Army’s lawyer.
As a result, Welch became a celebrity. His career expanded to do new things.
Welch appeared on various national television programs, most notably talking about the U.S. Constitution on the Omnibus program. A book of those commentaries was published.
In 1959 Welch provided commentary during intermissions of several televised concerts by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, then under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. After Bernstein apparently had called Welch a “great American,” Welch responded, “I suspect you are a better judge of good music than you are of what could truly be called great Americans. Do not think for a moment, however, that it is not music to me to have you say of me what you do.” Welch added that for him to accept money for being on a Christmas concert with Bernstein and soprano Marian Anderson was “just barely distinguishable from cheating.”
Correspondent with Groucho Marx
Welch’s television appearances had an impact on comedian Groucho Marx. In a serious article in TV Digest about the status of television programming, he said, “[I]t speaks very well of television and its audience that the man so constantly in demand for more TV appearances after the Army-McCarthy Hearings was not Senator McCarthy, but Joseph Welch.”
This article came to Welch’s attention, and he wrote to Groucho on his law firm’s letterhead that listed the names of all the 40 or so lawyers in the firm. Welch said that it had not been necessary to hire extra help “to hold at bay swarms of people anxious to get me to appear on television or in the movies.” He then expressed admiration for Groucho’s work and said it “must be wonderful to be (a) Rich, (b) Intelligent, and (c) Funny. I trust I list them in their correct order.”
Groucho responded that he was not rich, but “rich enough . . . to know that inflation is knocking hell out of what I have.” He also said he was a “little frightened” by the imposing list of 40 lawyers on Welch’s law firm’s letterhead. Groucho said he had been sued over the years on most of the “minor charges—rape, larceny, embezzlement and parking in front of a fire plug,” but those law firms never had more than four lawyers. Groucho then asked a series of questions about life in such a large law firm.
Welch could not let this Marx missive go unnoticed. Welch told Groucho that he had misunderstood the letterhead: “All the names below the first line are the name of our professional witnesses. They hang around street corners and turn up unexpectedly as witnesses in all the automobile cases we try.” Welch then answered Groucho’s questions about the firm:
- “Q: How do you get along in the office?
- A: By leaning on each other heavily and on our secretaries.
- Q: Do you trust each other?
- A: In every area except money, property and women.
- Q: Does each one have a separate safe for his money?
- A: Yes, except I have so much money I have two safes.
- Q: Isn’t there some danger that you and one of your partners could both be in a courtroom, representing opposing clients?
- A: Damned if there isn’t and every now and then somebody takes in a case where the client is against the client of another guy in this office and there is hell to pay and no foolin’.
- Q: Do you have one community storage room for your briefcases? Or does each one sit on his own case?
- A: I do not understand this question. I sit on what you sit on only I do more of it than you do.”
While Welch said he hoped that Groucho would visit him in Boston, Welch advised him to keep it quiet because “a highly numerous and vocal collection of people in Boston thought and still think that hanging is too good for me.”
Welch indeed matched wits with Groucho.
In 1959 Welch became a movie actor when Director Otto Preminger picked him to play Judge Weaver, a Michigan trial-court judge, in the film, Anatomy of a Murder, which is still an entertaining movie.
The basic plot concerns an Army Lieutenant, Frederick Manion (played by Ben Gazarra), who is accused of murdering a man, Barney Quill, for allegedly raping his beautiful wife, Laura Manion (played by Lee Remick). Manion’s lawyer, Paul Biegler (played by Jimmy Stewart), is assisted by his friend, Parnell McCarthy (played by Paul O’Connell), an alcoholic lawyer. They oppose the district attorney, Mitch Lodwick, and a state assistant attorney general, Claude Dancer (played by George C. Scott). Judge Weaver (Joseph Welch) presides over the trial. Several interesting issues of legal ethics are posed by the trial, which is a subject for another day.
Filmed in a small, apparently all white, county seat in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the movie has an enjoyable digression. Duke Ellington, the great jazz musician, appears in one scene as Pie-Eye, a musician playing the piano with a black jazz band, at a roadhouse. Joining him on the piano is the defense attorney (Jimmy Stewart), who is a jazz aficionado.
The movie received many Oscar nominations, but lost “Best Picture” to Ben-Hur while Stewart lost “Best Actor” to Charlton Heston in the latter movie.
During the filming, Welch became a good friend of John Voelker, the author of the film script and of the novel of the same title and a fellow attorney and a former member of the Michigan Supreme Court. They discussed the possibility of Voelker’s assisting Welch in writing an autobiography, but that never happened. In their extensive correspondence over the last 18 months of Welch’s life, Welch compared his wordsmithing as “counterfeit” coins to Voelker’s “complete access to, if not ownership of, the First National Bank of Words.”
Law Firm Partner
Welch’s graciousness, so evident in the Army-McCarthy hearings, also was present in Welch as a law firm partner.
In 1952 the Hale and Dorr law firm was faced with an issue of whether it should make a claim on the estate of a deceased partner who had paid himself more than he was entitled to, i.e., who had embezzled law firm funds. The firm adopted Welch’s proposal to make a claim for one-half the amount. Said Welch, “Let him pay for his choice of life style. But because of the nature of the partnership and because we truly liked him at his best, let us forgive a half.”
In addition, presumably in the late1950’s Welch wrote a letter to his partners at Hale and Dorr, “This is like my will to you. I have lived a successful, rewarding and happy life. I believe that I owe the firm money rather than visa-versa. In any event, since my second wife does not need any money, any moneys owing to me by the firm upon my death should be paid to you [the partners], not to my family.”
Welch also prepared what he called an “office will:” It stated, “All the rest and residue and remainder of me as a lawyer I leave to all those in Hale and Dorr that I have loved. To a very large degree they . . . have made me what I am. Such success as I have attained I owe largely to them. I have lived my whole professional life in an office free from grief, envy, and jealousy. Few lawyers have been so blessed in their associations continually all through life. For the serenely happy life I have had with all of you, I say a simple and inadequate thank you.” Welch concluded: “this is my office will and is undated. The identity of the typist is to remain a secret. It is not witnessed. But even so—no fooling. Joseph N. Welch.”
The author in his years as a practicing lawyer in large law firms has never heard of anything like these gracious comments from a partner to his or her fellow partners.
Welch’s first wife, Judith Lyndon Welch, died in 1956, and he was remarried to Agnes Rodgers Brown Welch.
Welch died on October 6, 1960, just weeks before his 70th birthday.
4 thoughts on “Joseph Welch After the Army-McCarthy Hearings”
What a great pity that Joseph Welch’s autobiography never got written. Surely some decent publisher could compile an anthology of Joseph Welch’s many letters? They would be edifying and funny too, if those replies to Groucho are anything to go by. Citizens of the caliber of Joseph Welch should be kept circulating in the culture, especially a culture falling down around our ears. So come on, publishers, some some literary and public responsibility here. Are Little & Brown asleep at their post?