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Series III: Censorship, 1950s-1960s
Series IV: Simon and Schuster, 1949-1973
At a Glance
This collection is arranged into five series and seven subseries.
Ephraim London conducted many important First Amendment proceedings during his career. This collection contains substantial records relating to two of his best-known cases. It includes legal documents, clippings, correspondence, and courtroom notes from his 1964 defense of Lenny Bruce, the comedian. This series features letters between attorney and client, which follow the course of an increasingly uneasy relationship. In 1961, London represented Grove Press in its attempt to publish Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer". This collection includes correspondence, legal records, and trial notes from the case. It also features a huge collection of newspaper and magazine clippings related to the topic, which tracks the national debate on issues of censorship and obscenity during this period.
Beyond these two major cases, London's papers include records from his own research into legal and philosophical questions of obscenity and free speech. There are also files detailing his work on film censorship for Embassy Pictures during the early 1960s. At the time, local boards could request edits and prohibit movies from being shown in their jurisdiction. It was London's job to get the films - often the work of famed European auteurs - screened as they had been intended. Among other things, the correspondence here tracks a running, and increasingly exasperated, dialogue between the attorney and Kitty McMahon, of the Kansas State Board of Review, who always demanded the highest standards of cinematic decorum for her constituency.
Another aspect of London's career is also well represented in this collection. For years, he worked as an attorney for Simon and Schuster, the publishing company. Through correspondence, financial statements, meeting minutes, and distribution and sales contracts, his papers offer insights into the company's business practices during the 1950s and 1960s. Simon and Schuster's negotiations with other publishers, especially Pocket Books and Little Golden, are included in these papers. London was also responsible for vetting individual books for possible instances of libel, and handling any legal issues that arose after publication.
Records from other facets of London's work are absent from this collection. There is little here about his defense of Fifth Amendment cases. None of his personal writings, and few of the articles that he penned during his career, are present. The Lenny Bruce and "Tropic of Cancer" cases are well documented, but London's other major censorship cases are not represented.
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Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. The RBML maintains ownership of the physical material only. Copyright remains with the creator and his/her heirs. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.
Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Ephraim London papers, Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.
About the Finding Aid / Processing Information
Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Papers processed Thai Jones 8/2007.
Finding aid written Thai Jones 8/2007.
Collection is processed to folder level.
2008-11-07 File created.
2009-01-13 xml document instance created by Patrick Lawlor
2009-06-02 xml document instance created by Catherine N. Carson
2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.
History / Biographical Note
Biographical / Historical
A prominent defender of the First Amendment, Ephraim S. London spent much of his career challenging conservative distinctions between art and obscenity. He ranked among the nation's leading constitutional lawyers during the 1950s and 1960s, when he litigated a series of major cases pushing for the end of censorship in motion pictures. He also helped shepherd "Tropic of Cancer" to its first American printing - 27 years after Henry Miller had finished writing it. London defended Lenny Bruce, the most controversial comedian of the era. He argued nine cases before the United States Supreme Court, and was successful each time. The simple fact of his taking a case, a reporter for Variety wrote in 1963, was enough "to indicate the importance attached to the subject.".
Confident in his expertise, London once told a judge in an obscenity trial"Now your honor, I must say that I speak with probably greater experience than any other attorney in the United States on the question." His preference was to win cases on constitutional grounds, rather than on procedural issues; thus, he could show that free speech, in even its least palatable forms, was protected by the First Amendment. At times, his determination to litigate on principles got him into trouble with his clients. Nevertheless, he remained firm. In the courtroom - as well as through articles and speaking engagements - London testified to his beliefs. "I consider censorship an affront" he said during a televised debate"the assumption of censorship, the assumption of the censor, is that the people can't be trusted to make judgments for themselves. I don't believe that assumption is proper.".
London was born in Brooklyn, on June 17, 1911. Law was the family calling. Both his parents, and a sister, were attorneys, as was his uncle - Meyer London - one of only two Socialists ever elected to the United States Congress. Ephraim graduated with a legal degree from New York University in 1934, and began his career in the family firm, earning a salary of $12 a week. Five years later, he married Pearl Levison. He served as a captain of anti-aircraft artillery during World War Two; after the fighting, he investigated war crimes in Germany.
His first major First Amendment case involved "The Miracle", a Roberto Rosselini film about a woman who mistook her vagabond seducer for St. Joseph. The movie was denounced by the Catholic Church in New York, and was declared sacrilegious by the state censorship board. Representing Joseph Burstyn, the movie's distributor, London took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1952, the justices sided with the film; their ruling extended to movies, for the first time, the rights of free speech and freedom of the press. Seven years later, London came before the court once more. In this case he represented a French film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover". Again the justices sided with him; ruling that a movie could not be banned simply because it expressed immoral ideas.
In 1961, Grove Press prepared to publish Tropic of Cancer for the first time in the United States. Knowing legal challenges were certain to follow, Grove's editor, Barney Rosset, retained London as counsel. The novel's release did indeed create a national debate on issues of obscenity and artistry; it also produced a surfeit of cases. Eventually, trials involving Miller's book would reach the highest courts in six states. London was involved in the first case, a civil action that he argued in Boston during September 1961. Up against an unsympathetic judge, he concentrated on laying a foundation for appeal. Asking leading cultural authorities - including Jacques Barzun and Norman Mailer - to endorse the book, he hoped their testimony would prove that the novel did not merely intend to arouse prurient interest, but was in fact a serious work with substantial literary merit. As predicted, the first ruling went against Grove Press. Unexpectedly, however, London would not have a chance to argue his case before the Massachusetts high court. Rosset dismissed him shortly after the trial, citing differences in legal strategy. London was not ready to compromise, a character trait that would soon reappear to damage relations with his most famous client.
In April 1964, Lenny Bruce was arrested by police officers just as he was going on stage at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. Charged with indecency and "corruption of the morals of youth and others" Bruce needed an experienced First Amendment lawyer. He contacted London, who took the case. Arguing the trial before three city judges, London used his familiar strategy of calling expert witnesses to testify to the social and artistic relevance of the comedian's routines. Sensing skeptical hostility from the bench, he expected a negative ruling, and looked forward to success on appeal. Bruce - who had already suffered through years of legal persecution - disagreed with this strategy, and threatened to withhold payment when London ignored his suggestions. According to Martin Garbus, an attorney who aided the defense, it had been obvious "right from the start" that the two men "would not mix well." And they did not. Soon after the trial, Bruce wired a telegram that began"Dear Ephram London [sic] you are fired.".
This was the second high-profile client to discharge him, and London did not take it lightly. "Although I deeply resent your letter" he replied to Bruce"I am glad it was sent. It relieves me of the obligation (self imposed) of putting your interests before mine." When the verdict came down - guilty, as expected - some blamed the lawyers. Dick Schaap, of the Herald Tribune, thought Bruce should have been given more say in his defense. The attorneys had lost the case for a general principle, instead of winning it on technical grounds. London denied this. "It has always been my position" he wrote in a letter to the columnist"that one establishes legal principles by winning individual cases. As I told Lenny, I believe the real difference between us arose because I was determined to win his case.".
There were certain other principles of the legal profession to which London also adhered - collecting payment, for instance. One week after being fired, he filed suit against his former client, seeking $13,958.83 in unpaid fees and disbursements. This sum remained unpaid on August 3, 1966, when Lenny Bruce died of a drug overdose in his Los Angeles home. "One last four-letter word for Lenny" Schaap wrote"Dead. At forty. That's obscene." At the time of his death, Bruce "had less than $100.00 in cash, no life insurance and many creditors." A year later, the lawyers gave up trying to recoup their expenses.
London handled hundreds of censorship proceedings and defended more than 70 films against charges of indecency; most of these cases were conducted in the low courts of the land. City and state licensing boards could demand edits or deletions in any movie that was to be screened in their jurisdiction. Fighting these strictures was costly - a case that went to the Supreme Court could cost a distributor around $75,000. No local censor was more censorious - or, for the attorneys, more stubborn - than Kitty McMahon, chairman of the Kansas State Board of Review. London had to handle her diplomatically. In the case of Fellini's 8 1/2, he was firm. "Mr. Fellini" he wrote"is recognized as one of the world's greatest directors (you probably remember his film "La Strada"), and the distributor cannot and Mr. Fellini will not agree to a change in his text." At other times, he was more conciliatory. Always, however, he remained mindful of the importance of remaining "on good terms with Kitty.".
London kept his Socialist uncle's desk in his office, and argued for principles other than free speech. Like other progressive attorneys of his generation, he aided defendants against McCarthy-era excesses. In 1956, he represented Dr. Harry Slochower, a professor at Brooklyn College who took the Fifth rather than answering questions concerning his membership in the Communist Party. The Supreme Court ruled for the professor, who was reinstated. These sorts of cases were rarely remunerative. London's law partner, Helen Buttenwieser, an expert in civil rights and family issues - and a member of the wealthy Lehman family - allowed him the freedom to pursue causes that could not pay. When the firm defended Dr. Robert A. Soblen, a convicted Soviet spy, Buttenwieser had to use $60,000 of her own funds for bail. The money was then forfeited when Soblen fled to Israel on the eve of his trial.
Not all of London's work involved constitutional issues. Through the 1950s and 1960s, he worked for Simon and Schuster, handling publishing contracts and vetting manuscripts for possible instances of libel. This business relationship had a personal element; his wife's mother was married to M. Lincoln Schuster, one of the company's founders. In the late 1960s, London also represented Samuel and Bella Spewack, the playwrights, in a case related to the rights of producers to rebroadcast live performances on television. "I believe the question is an important one" London wrote to the Dramatists Guild"because of the present practise of taping all performances of plays broadcast by commercial television stations.".
His meticulousness, and his talents as a writer, made him a formidable appellate lawyer. His appreciation for the scholarly aspects of legal history was apparent in his two-volume book, The World of Law, which he described as a "treasury of great writing about and in the law - short stories, plays, essays, accounts, letters, opinions, pleas, transcripts of testimony - from Biblical times to the present." For years he taught a class at NYU Law School on literature and the law.
Ephraim S. London died in 1990; he was 78 years old.