Gertz, Elmer, 1906-2000
- Existence: 1906-2000
Elmer Gertz (1906-2000) was a lawyer, author, civic leader, professor, and civil rights advocate. He fought many legal battles relating to the death penalty, police brutality, housing equality, freedom of speech, and other civil liberties. Gertz played a role in some of the most famous legal cases of the second half of the 20th century. He helped secure parole for “thrill killer” Nathan Leopold after more than 33 years in jail for the 1924 murder of Bobby Franks, arguing that he had been rehabilitated and deserved freedom. Gertz successfully defended Henry Miller’s 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer in numerous obscenity trials in the 1960s. He also helped win Jack Ruby (the killer of J.F.K. assassin Lee Harvey Oswald) a retrial after getting his initial death sentence conviction overturned, though Ruby died before the retrial could take place. Gertz made news as a Supreme Court plaintiff by winning $400,000 in damages in a 1983 libel case decision against the John Birch Society, which in 1969 had accused him of being part of a Communist conspiracy to undermine police departments.
Gertz was born on the Southside of Chicago to Morris and Grace Gertz on September 14, 1906. After his mother passed away in 1917, Elmer was sent to live at the Jewish Orphanage Asylum in Cleveland until 1920, and then at the Marks Nathan Jewish Orphan Home in Chicago. He graduated from Crane Tech High School in 1924 and accidentally received a stolen bond as a graduation present. His arrest and treatment in police custody for this misunderstanding sparked an interest in civil rights and sent him down the path of eventually becoming a lawyer. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1928, he went on to the University of Chicago Law School, finished in 1930, and was admitted to the Illinois Bar in the same year. He worked for the firm of McInerny, Epstein, and Arvey until 1944, when he established his own firm. He was involved in education throughout his life, most notably as an adjunct professor of civil rights and 1st Amendment law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
He married his first wife, Cerretta Samuels, on August 16th, 1931 and they had two children together: Theodore and Margery Ann. Cerretta Gertz was killed in a car accident in Evanston in April of 1958. On June 21st, 1959, Gertz married his second wife, Mamie Laitchin Friedman. Mamie had one son, Jack, from a previous marriage.
In addition to his legal career, Gertz led an active literary life and was the author of numerous books, articles, pamphlets, and book reviews. He wrote a biography of the sexually explicit Irish writer Frank Harris and also founded the George Bernard Shaw Society. He wrote books about his most famous cases, an autobiography about his life in general, and published his voluminous correspondence with Henry Miller. Gertz was also an avid collector of books, manuscripts, and presidential memorabilia (with a focus on the life and career of Harry S. Truman).
He ran for public office only once, and was elected to the Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1970, chairing the Bill of Rights Committee. In this role he helped establish one of the strongest protections for civil rights in any state at the time. He also worked to strengthen civil rights and fight racism in both the Illinois and Chicago Bar associations.
He was incredibly active in the community and participated in the administration of innumerable organizations, associations, and causes including: American Jewish Congress; Blind Service Association; Civil War Round Table; Auditorium Theatre Council; Public relations director for the Illinois Police Association; National Lawyers Guild; American Civil Liberties Union; Jackson Park Hospital; the University of Chicago Alumni Association; and many more.
Gertz passed away on April 27th, 2000 at the age of 93. The Elmer Gertz Award was established after his death by the Illinois State Bar Association to honor lawyers each year who have shown a continued commitment to preserve and advance human rights.