Superman

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Superman

Superman Love Theme, by John Williams, performed by John Williams and the Boston Pops (1980), encountered 1982

Buy it here | See it here[1] | Sheet music here

When my father died, I inherited all of his photographs, and within a few years I started trying to organize them. One summer’s day I sat down with my stepmother to ask her about some “unsubs” in the photos, people I couldn’t identify. There was one black-and-white, obviously taken in the Fifties, of an attractive women in a calf-length summer dress, standing beside what looked like a driveway in the country in the bright sunlight. “Did you know who she was?” I asked. Etta, my wise stepmother, paused for a moment, and then, looking and sounding her most European, she said, “You know, Jack, when a marriage is in trouble, there are always affairs.” She shared only a few more details. The woman in the picture was named Gertrude; she had been my father’s translator as he drove around Austria in 1953, spreading Marshall Plan money.[2] And evidently she had been something more as well.[3] And, in keeping with Etta’s aphorism, my parents did in fact go their separate ways at the end of that year.

Didn’t Know It Yet

My stepmother spoke truly, and the converse of her aphorism is true as well: when there are affairs, the marriage is always in trouble. Sometimes you just don’t know it yet.

In 1982, I didn’t know it yet. As I wrote last time, the judge for whom I clerked until midsummer ran a straitlaced and businesslike chambers, and that kept my extracurricular activities in check. The firm I went to after that was exactly the opposite and would have exactly the opposite effect on me.

Things might have been a little different. Before going to work for the judge, I had been on a path to conventional BigLaw, as it’s called these days; the firm that eventually morphed into DLA Piper had offered me a job, but the offer wasn’t good if I took the clerkship, which I did. And when I came a-calling as the clerkship was coming to a premature end,[4] they had no open slots for starting litigators. Since I really did want to litigate, that was that. Meanwhile this other firm (let’s call it Funhouse, P.A.) was keenly interested in me. I knew it was different; I didn’t realize how different for a while.

Funhouse, P.A.

Many high-class firms have former Assistant U.S. Attorneys fronting their litigation departments, but mostly in those outfits, the former AUSAs have moved from prosecuting bad guys to defending big economic interests that mostly play by the rules. A fair number of the former AUSAs at Funhouse – and the firm were stacked deep with that kind of talent – had gone instead from prosecuting bad guys to defending them. Among more conventional, and conventionally virtuous, clients, the lawyers at Funhouse attended to the legal needs of well-off criminals, politicians with questionable lives, rich people getting divorced, psychopaths who ran businesses in shady ways and had the short temper and sense of entitlement that always went with it, tax dodgers, and people who ran savings-and-loan associations into the ground.[5]

Of course, being comfortable with disreputable clients is no discredit; it’s when their qualities begin to rub off that the problems come. There was some rubbing off at Funhouse, and in one or two instances what rubbed off stuck. But looking back from thirty years later, it’s amazing how many of these lawyers grew more solid and respectable as they went on. But integrity, though it did ultimately arrive, came late to many of them. When I got there, I think it’s fair to say it was the most talented group of litigators ever assembled under one roof in Baltimore, and the largest cast of prima donnas, psychopaths – and horndogs. These distinctions were not unrelated.

For instance, the junior lawyer I had been brought in to replace had apparently been let go because his sexual intrigue with a client had ended up compromising the representation in some way; I never learned the details, even though I took right over with the same client, or, more precisely, group of clients. But it was made plain that it wasn’t the intrigue that caused his departure, but the blowup the intrigue happened to cause.

By contrast, the lawyer I reported directly to for some time was known to be cheating on his wife with many of the attractive young women who were just then finally entering the profession in significant numbers. The partner’s playmates came in contact with Funhouse as associates, adversary counsel, and law clerks, as well as the more traditional quarry for libidinous male lawyers: secretaries, court reporters, and courthouse personnel. He must have treated them pretty well, because I kept track of many of them, and I never heard a single one say an uncomplimentary word about him later.

Not so with another lawyer I spent significant time working for; he was known to the women in the firm as someone to stay away from because the passes he would make at them would be pronounced, odious, and unwelcome.

An associate of mine was an open devotee of the strippers on The Block, Baltimore’s row of nudie bars; a junior partner was a closeted one. Another colleague of mine, a legendary cocksman, wandered into and out of a marriage while we were at Funhouse, never, so far as I could tell, altering his promiscuous ways much.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

I think the sex was not sought so much for itself as for an expression of our sheer importance in the universe. It was an era of Jaguars and trophy offices and getting photographed walking out of the federal courthouse with rich and powerful malefactors. The partner I reported to stated the philosophy very starkly one day when we were getting on a train coming back from a deposition in Newark where I had carried his bags. (We were representing some people who had absent-mindedly sold the same hotel twice, much to the inconvenience and annoyance of both sets of buyers.) We made for the club car where we ordered martinis. I tried to pay for mine and he waved his hand impatiently: “No, Jack, the clients pay for it. They want us drinking on them.” And out came the partner’s credit card (and I have no doubt the charge appeared on the next monthly client bill.)

As for me, then, it was a case of monkey see, monkey do. In fact, I followed in my predecessor’s footsteps and had a relationship with someone from the very same client group in which my predecessor had ill-advisedly met his disastrous inamorata. I still would have said I loved my wife and wanted to protect my children, but I also wanted to walk with the big guys. For the most part, they were superlative lawyers, if not always great successes as human beings. And, smart as I was, I had begun to lose the ability to distinguish between what I should be imitating and what I should not. I couldn’t afford a Jag at that point (a yellow Corolla was more my speed) but I could have little flings, the way the big boys did.

Not Much Fun

Looking back, it seems to me these outings weren’t even that much fun. The women I got involved with all pushed back against the limits I tried to set. One tried to trap me in a blizzard so I would have to be stuck with her for a day or two rather than going home to my family. Another told me pointedly on a getaway weekend that she was tired of having me talk about my home life. Another one willingly accompanied me to a night of dancing while I was away at a seminar in New York City, and then made herself so unpleasant on the train back we didn’t want to see each other again. And I don’t blame a one of them. They were only looking out for their own needs, and I’m sure I was no more fun than they were.

In retrospect, I don’t think I was doing it for how good it actually felt. No, I was looking at a theoretical picture. And in that theoretical picture I was practicing law at a high level, reaping some of the rewards and prestige associated with it, and part of that system of rewards was the occasional bit of fun on the side, the sort of thing a morally sophisticated person condones.

And yes, in retrospect it was fatuous. But while the illusion lasted, it was an ecstatic thing, no matter how miserable the realities.

A Gem of Orchestration

There was a piece of music from that era that expressed it beautifully for me, the Superman Love Theme, from the Christopher Reeve/Margot Kidder epic that hit the screen in 1978. That was one of eight orchestral pieces[6] packaged by the composer, John Williams, in an 1980 release: Pops in Space, featuring Williams at the helm of the Boston Pops, his home base from that year, as he succeeded Arthur Fiedler as its director. I bought the record in 1981 or 1982. I would play that record and feel good about what I was up to.

Williams was really hitting his stride as the ne plus ultra of American film composers at this point. And this piece, an utter gem of orchestration, remains for me the best expression ever of the sheer wonder of love. It runs in the movie as Superman appears on the balcony of Lois Lane’s apartment, dines with her, and then takes her for a flight. At first she is apprehensive, but soon discovers she is safe floating above Metropolis through Superman’s magic. The scene in the movie is scored a little differently, heavier on brasses and strings, and definitely more playful and less langorous than the concert version. I prefer the concert version from my 1980 record; the sweetness of the music is to die for, as the theme is first introduced by the oboe and nurtured by the woodwinds before being released to the whole orchestra. I could talk for a long time about the orchestration, giving a blow-by-blow,[7] but the point is simple: in both versions, but especially in the concert version, Williams provides a musical metaphor for that wonderful dream we’ve all had sometime, in which we learn to fly. And that dream is in turn a serviceable metaphor for the erotic ecstasy of Superman and Lois.

High Above Everything

That was how I wanted to think of myself then: freed from the bonds of conventional morality, accompanying professional success with sexual release, floating high above everything.

Of course, there is no Superman and no Lois. I wasn’t really having such a good time. And what I was helping to do to my family did not bear thinking of.

I was about to wake up on the ground.


[1] There is only one video I’ve found on the web of John Williams conducting the piece, and it is of terrible quality. There’s also a song version, with lyrics: Can You Read My Mind?

[2] By then, the Marshall Plan had technically expired, but the program was the continuation of the Marshall Plan. In 1971, I spent the night at a hotel in Innsbruck he’d put back on its feet.

[3] In 1957, around the time Etta and my dad got married, they went back together to Austria, among other things to meet Etta’s family. But the photo collection also shows a reunion between Gertrude and my dad, which Etta attended, at a rooftop restaurant somewhere near St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It would seem they got along well.

[4] It had been slated to run for two years, but at the end of the first, the judge offered me an out, and I took it, to the relief of both of us.

[5] In the course of my years at Funhouse, I personally would be part of the representation of, among many others, a corporate treasurer who had committed murder to cover up his defalcations, a corrupt union boss, and a bill collector who threatened to break my kneecaps if I didn’t save his professional license. I also got to work around some of the best lawyers I have ever been privilege to encounter.

[6] The others being the Superman March, three pieces from the Empire Strikes Back, two from Star Wars – Or Part IV as the called it later on, and a suite from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

[7] There is quite an extended orchestral analysis – of the film version – here. Its author, Andrew Drannon, obviously has golden ears.

 Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for artwork

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