The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox
A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in FDR's Washington
When John Frush Knox (1907-1997) wrote these words, he was in the middle of law school, and his attempt at surpassing Pepys—part scrapbook, part social commentary, and part recollection—had already reached 750 pages. His efforts as a chronicler might have landed in a family attic had he not secured an eminent position after graduation as law clerk to Justice James C. McReynolds—arguably one of the most disagreeable justices to sit on the Supreme Court—during the tumultuous year when President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to "pack" the Court with justices who would approve his New Deal agenda. Knox's memoir instead emerges as a record of one of the most fascinating periods in American history.
The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox—edited by Dennis J. Hutchinson and David J. Garrow—offers a candid, at times naïve, insider's view of the showdown between Roosevelt and the Court that took place in 1937. At the same time, it marvelously portrays a Washington culture now long gone. Although the new Supreme Court building had been open for a year by the time Knox joined McReynolds' staff, most of the justices continued to work from their homes, each supported by a small staff. Knox, the epitome of the overzealous and officious young man, after landing what he believes to be a dream position, continually fears for his job under the notoriously rude (and nakedly racist) justice. But he soon develops close relationships with the justice's two black servants: Harry Parker, the messenger who does "everything but breathe" for the justice, and Mary Diggs, the maid and cook. Together, they plot and sidestep around their employer's idiosyncrasies to keep the household running while history is made in the Court.
A substantial foreword by Dennis Hutchinson and David Garrow sets the stage, and a gallery of period photos of Knox, McReynolds, and other figures of the time gives life to this engaging account, which like no other recaptures life in Washington, D.C., when it was still a genteel southern town.