Nizer, Louis

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Nizer, Louis

(b. 6 February 1902 in London, England; d. 10 November 1994 in New York City), lawyer for prominent celebrities and businesses, specializing in entertainment and libel law, whose defense of CBS radio personality John Henry Faulk helped break the blacklist.

Nizer was the son of Joseph Nizer and Bella Bialestock. Joseph Nizer immigrated to the United States in 1904, brought the family over the following year, and opened the California Cleaning and Dyeing Establishment on Sumner Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. The Nizers lived first in a single room behind the store, then in a few rooms upstairs, before they finally purchased the building. To help pay the mortgage, Louis worked nights with his mother scalloping lace and during summers worked at errand jobs.

Louis had an active childhood. He sang in the choir of the renowned cantor Josef “Yosele” Rosenblatt. At the age of ten, he began speaking to local crowds. Nizer attributed his later fame as an orator and toastmaster to the lessons he learned as a socialist soapbox speaker. During World War I he turned his oratory to Liberty Loan drives, making appeals during intermission at Broadway shows and ultimately earning a government certificate of merit. After graduating from Boys High School in Brooklyn, Nizer entered Columbia College in Manhattan. He was small, but his competitive spirit turned that to his advantage as coxswain on the rowing team and on the handball team. He joined Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity, and twice won the George William Curtis Prize for excellence in the public delivery of English orations. Nizer graduated in 1922 and entered Columbia University Law School. In 1924 Nizer obtained an A.B. degree and was admitted to the bar in the State of New York.

From 1924 to 1926 Nizer worked for Emily Janoer, a Manhattan lawyer, serving dispossession summonses on her defaulting tenants for $7 a week. His first case, on behalf of property owners on Ellery Street in Brooklyn was brought against the City of New York. Dubbed the “pushcart case,” it went to the New York State Court of Appeals, where he argued before Chief Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo and won. In 1926 Louis Phillips, who knew Nizer’s parents from London, hired him for $20 a week and 50 percent of his clients’ fees. Nizer was so successful he was offered an equal partnership in 1928, and the law firm of Phillips and Nizer (later Phillips, Nizer, Benjamin, Krim, and Ballon) was established. He was appointed executive secretary and attorney for the New York Film Board of Trade in 1928, thus beginning his long association with the entertainment industry. He held that post until 1994.

In the 1930s Nizer was an active member of the New York City mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia’s “kitchen cabinet.” He also advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In July 1939 Nizer married Mildred Mantel Wollins, becoming stepfather to her two sons. They lived at 180 West Fifty-eighth Street in Manhattan.

During World War II, Nizer increased his national political profile with his book What to Do with Germany (1944), which advocated temporary suspension of German sovereignty, national or international trials of war criminals, return of stolen property, and a complete overhaul of Germany’s education system. He turned down President Harry Truman’s offer of an appointment to the federal bench and consistently declined the seat when it was offered by subsequent presidents. He also refused the position of attorney general. In the late 1940s Nizer was a vocal opponent of communism. In articles and radio programs, he advocated the registration of Communist Party members as foreign agents, abolishing the party, and drastically changing judicial procedures so that communists could be “firmly dealt with.”

An ardent supporter of Adlai Stevenson’s campaign for the presidency in 1952, Nizer served as a speechwriter and adviser. In 1955 he won a libel suit for the journalist Quen-tin Reynolds against columnist Westbrook Pegler, dramatized by Henry Denker as A Case of Libel (1963). In 1956 he took on his most famous case, that of John Henry Faulk, a CBS radio personality blacklisted for his opposition to AWARE, an anticommunist organization that “cleared” performers for sponsors. In 1962 Nizer proved that Faulk had been libeled, winning $3.5 million in damages (reduced on appeal), and thus helped to break the blacklist whereby persons with suspected communist affiliations were denied jobs in the entertainment industry. The trial was turned into a television movie, Fear of Trial (1975), with George C. Scott portraying Nizer. Nizer’s attacks on blacklisting in the entertainment industry and his defense of Faulk may seem contradictory, given his virulent public attacks on communism, but this was typical of left-wing anticommunists of the McCarthy era who strongly championed noncommunist liberals while vigorously denouncing communism and communists.

Nizer’s book My Life in Court (1961) spent seventy-two weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. It brought him national fame and influenced a generation in the legal profession. Many lawyers and judges have stated that the book inspired them to pursue law. In 1964 Nizer published his analysis of the Warren Commission Report regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He became a close adviser and speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson. He was also a member of the Fair Campaign Practices Committee. In 1966 the astronaut Alan Shepard asked Nizer to represent NASA’s astronauts in their personal affairs, which he did pro bono. From 1966 to 1994 Nizer served as general counsel for the Motion Picture Association of America. As such, he successfully argued on 15 April 1974 before the Supreme Court on behalf of Billy Jenkins, a theater manager in Albany, Georgia, who had been charged with public indecency for showing the film Carnal Knowledge. The case, Jenkins v. Georgia, helped establish the principle that juries do not have “unbridled discretion” to determine what is patently offensive. Only material displaying “hardcore sexual conduct” is prohibited. He conducted legal work for Armand Hammer and his Occidental Petroleum Corporation and served on the company’s board of directors.

Nizer wrote a weekly column for the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate from 1971 to 1972. The Implosion Conspiracy (1973), his analysis of the Rosenberg atomic spying case, led to an unsuccessful defamation suit by the sons of accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Always active in politics, Nizer advised foreign leaders such as Indira Gandhi, as well as several Israeli prime ministers.

Nizer was called a Renaissance man. His songs for his grandchildren were issued as Songs for You (RCA); others were bought for film and television. He received a Grammy nomination for a recording analyzing Oliver Wendell Holmes’s Supreme Court decisions. His oil paintings and caricatures were exhibited in various galleries and museums.

In the 1980s Nizer was still generating about $6 million in yearly billings. In 1993 his wife died. Working until ten days before his own death, Nizer succumbed to kidney failure at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. He is buried in the Nizer family mausoleum in Washington Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

Devoted to the law and to his firm, Nizer was a short man with curly hair whose physical appearance belied his immense energy and dedication. His “A Lawyer’s Prayer” starts, “Please, O God, give me good health with which to withstand the rigors of a most arduous profession—the law.” For him the client always came first, and he often counseled against litigation if he felt it was against the client’s best interest. He was meticulous and thorough.

“Yes, there’s such a thing as luck in trial law, but it only comes at three o’clock in the morning,” he explained. “You’ll still find me in the library looking for luck at three o’clock in the morning.” His courtroom demeanor was polite and disciplined, and he concentrated on issues, not personality. Nizer insisted on clarity in written and oral briefs and never memorized arguments. These qualities also served him well as a speaker, writer, and political adviser. Nizer was the prototype for the modern celebrity lawyer.

My Life in Court (1961) describes some of Nizer’s most interesting cases. Reflections Without Mirrors: An Autobiography of the Mind (1978) is a more personal journey, detailing the story and philosophy of his life. Other profiles include Current Biography (1955) and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series 76 (1999). The inaugural lecture of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs’ annual Louis Nizer Lecture on Public Policy includes two tributes. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 11 Nov. 1994). Much of Nizer’s artwork hangs in the offices of Phillips, Nizer, Benjamin, Krim and Ballon.

Sharona A. Levy