Bill Fallon, the "Great Mouthpiece" and Archetypal Amoral Criminal Defense Lawyer


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"He's the guy that the joke was wrote about: 'Is he a criminal lawyer?'
"Yes, very.'"
?Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest


Bill Fallon was called "The Great Mouthpiece." Though he practiced law in Manhattan for less than a decade, he represented some of New York's leading pimps, illegal narcotics dealers, embezzlers, swindlers and operators such as Jules W. Arndt Stein, better known as Nicky Arnstein, the husband of Fanny Brice. Fallon was counsel to Arnold Rothstein, one of the first nonpoliticians to successfully organize crime in New York. Few Fallon clients spent a day in jail before trial and, if not acquitted, they usually enjoyed hung juries. One newspaperman called Fallon "The Jail Robber." However, Fallon's reputation stemmed from murder. He represented over 120 homicide defendants. None was convicted. Fallon's style was Runyonesque before Runyon invented it for himself. His suits were exquisitely tailored, his ties of finest silk; he wore no shirt more than once and left his cobbler-made shoes unshined.


The relationship with Rothstein, the gambler and operator whom he called "Old Massa Mind," won him his nickname. Rothstein was F. Scott Fitzgerald's model for Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby (alas, Wolfsheim is an anti-Semitic caricature without Rothstein's intelligence and polished charm), fixed the 1919 World Series and died from a gunshot wound inflicted in the Park Central Hotel, without ever naming the killer.


Fallon was famous at his death in 1927: four years later, Gene Fowler published The Great Mouthpiece; in 1932 Hollywood released The Mouthpiece, based on Fallon's career; and so long as he endured in public memory, he was the archetype of the amoral criminal defense lawyer. Even Fowler, whose compassion and hero worship occasionally endangered his common sense, never let Fallon's charm overcome his reporter's instincts. Thus Fallon's intelligence, eloquence and panache forever stand trial beside his immorality, dishonesty and self-indulgence.


William Joseph Fallon was born at 134 W. 47th St. in Manhattan on Jan. 23, 1886. Valedictorian of Fordham College's class of 1906, he graduated from Fordham Law in 1909. Fallon was strikingly handsome, a broad-shouldered 5-foot-10, weighing about 165 pounds, with full features, pale skin, gray-blue eyes and wildly tousled auburn hair that he barbered himself with a system of triple mirrors, scissors and razors. He moved with an athlete's grace. His voice was resonant, his diction flawless and he never wanted for the right words. He was a brilliant tactician, with a startling grasp of technicalities. He had a genius for "horse-shedding" witnesses, a coinage attributed to James Fenimore Cooper that refers to rehearsing testimony in carriage sheds; any resemblance to a vulgarism for equine excrement is purely intentional. Last, he possessed a phenomenal memory, with a quick-fire intelligence honed by the Jesuit tradition of daily extemporaneous oral examinations.


Fowler claimed Fallon could read and memorize a book, nearly word for word, within two hours. This let him save Ernest Fritz from the electric chair.


The accused had mortally injured his mistress during rough sex. Fallon began trial preparations only a week before opening statements. He then analyzed more than 100 medical texts and, during the trial itself, mastered four medical textbooks on gynecology overnight to confound the prosecution's expert witnesses in the morning. His cross-examination compelled one witness' fatal admission that Fritz's mistress had been so delicate a mere coughing fit might have caused a lethal hemorrhage, let alone her lover's intimacies.


Another expert witness said, "Mr. Fallon, I did not know you were an M.D. When did you get your degree?" Fallon replied, "I received my degree last night. I began practice this morning."


Fallon first became notorious in 1915, as a Westchester County assistant district attorney, for his prosecution of Thomas Mott Osborne, Sing Sing's reforming warden. Gov. Charles S. Whitman, who considered Osborne's ideas so much mollycoddling, desired to be rid of him. Apparently, Whitman's cruelty, deceit and cowardice blinded him to the ease with which a governor may fire or reassign even a famous prison official.


Instead, he arranged Fallon's prosecution of Osborne on seven counts, including "gross immorality" with certain prisoners (according to Andy Logan's Against the Evidence, John Jay Chapman, a friend of Osborne's, later wrote, "I have just read 292 editorials on his death and only one stated what the precise charge was"). George Gordon Battle, Osborne's counsel, discredited the witnesses against his client, most of them prisoners who had been offered sentence reductions for their testimony, and the court dismissed the charges for lack of evidence.


Fallon claimed he left the district attorney's office after convicting an innocent man. In 1918, he opened an office in partnership with Eugene McGee, a Fordham classmate. Fallon & McGee began with three chairs, a desk, no law books and Fallon's charm and audacity, which swiftly made him a favorite of the sporting and theater worlds.


Fallon soon met Arnold Rothstein. A.R., whose veins flowed with arsenic in ice water, was as charming and polished as Fallon, and, one gathers, considerably more lethal. He was intelligent, self-disciplined, a sound judge of character and apparently a born financier. The gambler might have been a legitimate success but for his obsessive need for an edge, an advantage, an ace in the hole, in every transaction. He became Fallon's client.


At this time, the police sensed some guiding hand in the underworld. A series of daring securities thefts, all with a common pattern, betrayed some semblance of organization. Nicky Arnstein somehow became obscurely involved with the theft of $5 million in securities. He vanished after his indictment, surfacing only to retain Fallon as counsel. Most people involved thought Arnstein, a lightweight with a very thin gloss of charm, was Rothstein's patsy, and Fallon's appearance as his lawyer only clinched it. Fallon negotiated his client's surrender after arranging reasonable bail. Legend holds Fallon and Arnstein drove in Nicky's Cadillac Landaulet in a police parade en route to the D.A.'s office. Fowler states the car was stolen while Arnstein was surrendering to the D.A. Fallon immediately telephoned Rothstein, who then directed Monk Eastman, the gangster, to return the car at once and it was, "with apologies, inside the hour."


On Fallon's advice, Arnstein declined to answer questions because the answers might incriminate or degrade him. It was among the first times a defendant took the Fifth. The state court held Arnstein in contempt. Fallon obtained a writ of habeas corpus and presented it to each United States district judge for the Southern District of New York. None would sign it. He obtained an order delaying issuance of the writ and appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court, which directed the writ issue and reversed the contempt order. Arnstein was then tried on federal securities charges in Washington, DC. The jury deadlocked. Before his second trial, Arnstein's nerve and temper failed him. Insisting Fallon could have won the first trial if he had not been out drinking and womanizing, Arnstein insulted Fallon's professional integrity and, worse, his current mistress. Fallon declined to further represent Arnstein. Fallon's partner conducted the second trial, and Arnstein became a guest of the sovereign people. People remembered only Fallon's brilliance at the first trial, never grasping the irresponsible self-indulgence that had terrified his client.


Most people believed Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series, though he always denied it. Yet one Rothstein associate, Abe Attell, claimed he was acting for A.R. while paying off some of the Chicago White Sox, who then threw the Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Fallon orchestrated Rothstein's appearance before a Cook County, IL, grand jury. He was not indicted. Attell was indicted for conspiracy and arrested in New York. Fallon persuaded a New York judge to uphold a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the Abe Attell indicted in Cook County was not the Abe Attell arrested in New York.


Fallon had been a teetotaler until he was 29. Now he began making up for lost time. His bright insouciance often sustained him. Fallon once appeared somewhat the worse for wear at a federal hearing. The judge asked him to approach the bench.


"Is it possible," the judge said, "that the court smells liquor on counsel?"


Fallon bowed. "If Your Honor's sense of justice is as keen as your sense of smell," he said, "then my client need have no fear in this court."


He harassed prosecutors, once saying as he presented a dictionary to an assistant district attorney, "On hearing you address the court today, I am sure this book can't belong to you. However, take it. I can think of no one who needs it more." In response to the same assistant's closing words, "The People rest," he stage-whispered, "They should."


Reporters found Fallon a genial companion and a good source of copy. But when William Randolph Hearst's editors at his New York daily, the American, noticed Fallon's uncanny knack for hanging juries in white-collar criminal cases, they began investigations. It only takes one dissenter to hang a jury. Publicly, Fallon claimed that he addressed his summations to the one wise man on a panel. In reality, his clients paid off one of the talesmen. A hung jury usually suited Bill Fallon's clients, who were content with that civil status defined by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary: "Innocence, n. the state or condition of a criminal whose counsel has fixed the jury."


Most who knew Fallon and his genius for courtroom work finally concluded that the juror payola was an admission that he feared his powers of persuasion were waning through too many white nights, too much booze and too many broads. (Fowler, who once characterized himself as a battered polygamist, said of his hero "his blanket covered all women.")


Most of the white-collar cases involved bucket shops, crooked stock-brokerage houses run for the enrichment of the insiders and the mulcting of unsophisticated investors. Nat J. Ferber, a Hearst reporter, investigated Fallon's role as defense counsel for numerous bucket boys. He observed a case in which a lone holdout juror, Charles W. Rendigs, defeated the prosecution of 23 defendants for fraudulent use of the mails. Rendigs apparently came into money by the end of the trial. He was indicted and then persuaded to cooperate with the federal authorities.


In 1924, Fallon was tried for jury tampering. With another attorney as nominal counsel, Fallon conducted his own defense, delivering the opening remarks, cross-examining the prosecution witnesses, putting himself on the stand and surviving cross-examination, and concluding with a two-hour summation, to all accounts a triumph of heaven-storming oratory. He argued the entire prosecution was a frame-up engineered by Hearst because Fallon had discovered birth certificates in Mexico for twin children Hearst had allegedly fathered with a movie actress. The jury went out at 5:08 p.m. and returned at 10:10 p.m. The judge was at the theater; he returned to the courthouse within the hour. Then Fallon stood up, and the verdict was read, and he learned they had found him not guilty. He strode over to Ferber. Fallon gazed into the reporter's eyes as they shook hands and said, "Nat, Ipromise you, I'll never bribe another juror."


It was his last triumph. Clients thereafter shied from him in fear that Hearst's reporters might investigate them, too. The Great Mouthpiece died on April 29, 1927. He was 41 years old.


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