“A Case of Libel” (Part I)

LAW AND THEATER

A Case of Libel, Part I

I’m going to start things off with the 1964 play A Case of Libel, written by Henry Denker. Why, you ask? Well, first, I have a copy of it in my library, and I’m pretty sure that most people are not familiar with it. Second, I think it’s a pretty cool play. And third, I’ve done a lot of research on the background facts of the real case behind the play. In fact, I recently returned from a conference at the University of British Columbia where I presented a paper about the real case, the play, and how they relate.

I’m going to devote the rest of this post to the factual background of the real case. Next week, I’ll discuss the play itself in more detail. There may or may not be a quiz at the end.

The Cast of Characters (Personae Juris)

A Case of Libel is based on a real trial, the case of Reynolds v. Pegler. The principals in this case were well-known journalists in New York City, and their attorneys:

  • Heywood Broun (1888-1939) – Began his career as a sports writer, but later became a columnist and editor. At various times in his career, he wrote for the New York Morning Telegraph, the New York Tribune, the New York World, the New York World-Tribune and the New York Post. In 1933 he helped found the American Newspaper Guild (now known as the Newspaper Guild). In 1930, he ran for Congress in New York as a Socialist (and lost).
  • Westbrook Pegler (1894-1969) – Also began his career as a sports writer, later moving on to general interest columns. By 1942, he was named as one of the country’s best adult columnists. He became the first columnist to win the Pulitzer Prize for a series of columns exposing racketeering in labor unions. By 1944, when he was hired by the Hearst Syndicate, his column was published six days a week in 174 newspapers across the country, with a readership of approximately 10 million subscribers.
  • Quentin Reynolds (1902-1965) – Also began his career as a sports writer. During World War II, he was a war correspondent, covering the German invasion of France in 1940, the Battle of Britain, the Dieppe raid, the Battle for Moscow and the Battle of El Alamein. Between 1933 and 1945, he served as an associate editor at Collier’s, averaging twenty articles per year. He also published twenty-five books during his career.
  • Louis Nizer (1902-1994) – Reynolds’ attorney. A noted New York City trial attorney, Nizer was a senior partner at Phillips, Nizer, Benjamin & Krim. During his career, he represented many celebrity clients, and was listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the “highest-paid lawyer in the world.” In 1961, he wrote My Life in Court, detailing some of his most famous cases (to that point). Chapter One of My Life in Court is devoted to the Reynolds case.

The Facts of the Case

On November 20, 1949, Reynolds wrote a seemingly innocuous book review for the New York Herald Tribune. The book reviewed was The Heywood Broun His Friends Recall, written by Dale Kramer. Reynolds, as one of the people who knew Broun well, was favorably impressed with the book, and gave it a positive review. As part of the review, Reynolds quoted Kramer’s assertions that Pegler’s attacks on Broun indirectly led to Broun’s death. Kramer asserted that “Pegler had called Broun a liar, Broun brooded over this allegedly false charge, and that, although suffering from a cold at the time, Broun couldn’t sleep or relax.”[1] As a result, Broun’s cold turned into pneumonia, ultimately the cause of his death. Reynolds concluded his review as follows: “Broun couldn’t relax. He couldn’t sleep. And he died.”[2]

Pegler apparently didn’t appreciate this characterization, either in Kramer’s book or in Reynolds’ review. On November 29, 1949, in his weekly column published in the New York Journal-American and syndicated by King Features Syndicate, he denied the charges of what he referred to a “moral homicide.”[3] Had he left it at that, the whole episode would probably have been quickly forgotten. But Pegler went on to attack both Broun and Reynolds with “maniacal vituperation,” in the words of one biographer. Nizer counted at least 15 libelous charges in Pegler’s column. Reynolds contacted Nizer, and Nizer agreed to represent him.

The Procedural History of the Case

In reality, there are four separate legal decisions in the Reynolds case. The first decision came at the conclusion of the original trial. The jury awarded Reynolds $1 in compensatory damages, and $175,000 in punitive damages. The second decision involved the defendants’ motion to set aside the verdict for punitive damages (Reynolds v. Pegler, 123 F.Supp. 36 (S.D. N.Y. 1954). When that motion was denied, the defendants appealed to the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals (Reynolds v. Pegler, 223 F.2d 429 (2nd Cir. 1955)). Finally, when the Second Circuit upheld the judgment, the defendants made a final appeal to the United States Supreme Court, which declined to grant certiorari (Pegler v. Reynolds, 350 U.S. 846 (1955).

NEXT WEEK: From Page To Stage.

[1] Reynolds v. Pegler, 223 F.2d 429, 431 (2nd Cir. 1955).

[2] Finis Farr, Fair Enough: The Life of Westbrook Pegler (Arlington House Publishers, 1975), 191.

[3] 223 F.2d at 431.

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About W. Lewis Black

W. Lewis Black is an associate attorney at Dunn & Dunn, P.C., located in Salt Lake City, Utah. His practice focuses on personal injury, employment law, workers compensation, and Social Security Disability claims. He is a past member of the Ensemble at Pinnacle Acting Company in Midvale, Utah. He can be contacted at wlblack@dunndunn.com.
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