• Letters from John: Getting to Know the Author of Anatomy of a Murder

    By Stephen Winer


    I was a child when hearing the title Anatomy of a Murder became common in my house.

    My father, Elihu Winer, was a playwright and television writer who was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but spent most of his life working in Los Angeles and New York. By the time I was born, in 1953, he was primarily based in New York.

    John D. Voelker, who wrote eleven books, including the 1958 best seller Anatomy of a Murder, under the name of Robert Traver, was born and spent almost his entire life in “the UP”— the Upper Peninsula—specifically Ishpeming, Michigan.

    Voelker became a lawyer in 1928 and eventually was elected Marquette County prosecutor. He became a published author with his 1943 memoir: Troubleshooter: The Story of a Northwoods Prosecutor. He turned to fiction with Danny and the Boys in 1951 and the short story collection Small Town D.A. in 1954. None of these books were especial commercial successes. The next one, Anatomy of a Murder, was.

    And in 1955, John Voelker and my father began a relationship that started as a professional one and became a close friendship that would last for the rest of their lives.

    I learned of that relationship the way children always learn of their parents’ lives: through bits and snippets, overheard conversations, changes of mood as a project rose or fell—fragments that I assembled in my mind as I grew up. I knew my father worked off and on for a decade to try to bring Small Town D.A. to television as a series. I knew that in 1962, he took on a new craft when he flew to Michigan to direct a short film called Trout Madness, based on a book of John’s, following him as he pursued one of his greatest loves: trout fishing. And I knew that in 1963, four years after Otto Preminger’s hugely successful film version, my father adapted Anatomy of a Murder to the stage, with John’s blessing.

    I knew of the great warmth and affection that my father had for John Voelker but I can hardly say that I knew John. He rarely traveled outside of the UP and hated big cities. My father flew out to work with him on the film and for productions of the play, but I, school-bound, stayed behind.

    John Voelker passed away in 1991, my father in 1994. And that, in the normal course of things, would have been the end of it. But recent interest by a talented young director, Henry Wishcamper, in staging a new production of the play, prompted me to revisit this relationship.

    From the Central Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan University Archives, where the John D. Voelker Papers are maintained, I asked for and obtained what turned out to be a massive box collecting the correspondence between my father and John over thirty years. And here I feel I discovered John Voelker the man—gracious, witty, and (this was no surprise) a very fine writer.

    When the correspondence began, in 1955, Voelker was working on the novel that would become Anatomy of a Murder. But their initial discussions concerned the proposed series based on Small Town D.A. John was happy with my father’s ideas for the show and hoped only that it could have a quality he seldom saw on television. After attempting to watch one of my father’s television plays, he wrote:


    I could not get your program last night. Out in the brambles where we live we get one channel, and at the witching hour all I saw was a good guy monotonously shooting a bad guy in the guts. So far as I could determine the bad guy’s crime was that he needed a shave. Life and ethics are so divinely simple on TV. That is probably why so many people seem to endure it.


    In 1957, when Anatomy was completed, it became obvious that Voelker’s life was about to change—something he clearly had mixed feelings about:


    Things have been happening to Robert Traver, but it hasn’t gone to my head yet, and when that starts happening I think I will sink back into obscurity.


    John sent a copy of the book to my father, who wrote:


    It’s a remarkable piece of work, a fascinating story that you have told with all the excitement I expected from reading your earlier books. [. . .] I am positive it will be on the best-seller list as soon as it is published.


    He was right, of course. Anatomy of a Murder spent over a year on the best-seller list and made a star out of John, who had just become a judge on the Michigan Supreme Court.

    But Judge Voelker did not allow himself to be swallowed by fame:


    There are two ways to treat this best-seller affliction: either go everywhere and leap through all the burning hoops; or else go nowhere and learn to say no in seventeen languages. I chose the latter course. I hate travel and dinners and speeches and organized boredom of all kinds.


    In 1959, Otto Preminger released his film based on the book. He filmed much of it in the Upper Peninsula locations where the actual case that inspired the novel took place, and even featured Judge Voelker himself in the trailer. John wrote to my father:


    I am delighted [. . .] that you liked the movie. It is heresy for a writer to say so, I gather, but I am in love with it. It has faithfully captured the spirit of my book.


    A lifelong Democrat, Voelker wanted to resign from the Supreme Court after Anatomy came out so he could focus on his writing, but told my father he wouldn’t until he was certain that the court would have a progressive majority (he did resign in 1959).

    In 1963, he wrote:


    Congress is plodding along at par, I see, making its usual ghastly spectacle of itself. I am frightened at the kind of dreary mountebanks the people keep sending to Washington. When they do “right,” as they mercifully do occasionally, it is almost invariably for all the wrong motives. There is a pervasive moral and intellectual squalor there that chills me, for the country, for the democratic dream itself. And it seems to me epitomized in the posturings of that incredible corseted old (nanny) goat, [Republican Senator] Everett Dirksen. I quake when I see that wet-lipped old ham, so filled with yards and yards of evangelistic bullshit. But then I am always charmed to behold brave old men always so ready for war.


    In 1981, my father wrote John concerning another politician of note:


    As for Ronnie [Reagan] [. . .] I believe you know he acted in a TV script of mine once, back in the days of live TV. He was up against Raymond Massey and Francis L. Sullivan in “The Court-Martial of the Bounty Mutineers,” and the competition was too much for him. But he was then, as he is now, a thoroughly nice, honorable gentleman, as out of his depth then as he is now. I still can’t take the whole thing seriously when I see him as PRESIDENT—it looks like an old Warner Bros. movie.


    To which John replied:


    We seem to be going through an era conjuring up much of both the Depression and McCarthyism, what with the Bible boys moving into politics, banning of books that the banners don’t even bother to read, and prayer breakfasts at the White House that give Ronnie a forum for delivering a few more one-liners. God damn!


    Much of the correspondence traces the vicissitudes of the work my father did, with John or on his own. My father’s story, like that of most freelance writers, was one of hope and sadness, of successes and almost successes and near misses. John, throughout the thirty-year span of the letters, was as admiring and supportive of my father’s writing as my father was of his. John was very aware of the differences in their respective work:


    Good luck on your play. I once was bitten by that bug but gave it up. It is a rigorous discipline, with tremendous artistic rewards for those who can work within its confines, but fatal to those who must—or think they must—range in all directions. Exaltation is the key. A play is like a rocket: most are spectacular duds, but when everything works it outsoars all other forms of literary communication, lifting the human spirit out of this world. Class dismissed. Again good luck.


    Fifty-four years after the novel’s original publication, one might ask why Anatomy of a Murder, in all its forms, survives when so many other creative efforts, successful or not, fade away. Many courtroom thrillers preceded it and many, in every conceivable medium, have followed it, including a million and a half Law and Order episodes, and yet Anatomy of a Murder endures. I think I see in the letters what I see in the fiction: John Voelker was an honest man who wanted to tell the truth as he saw it, without melodrama and without fabrication. Even when the novel’s characters are portrayed by movie stars, as in the film version, reality persists, down to John’s ambiguous ending, which suggests the limitations of the law’s ability to ever know the depths of the human heart.


    Stephen Winer was one of the original writers for Late Night with David Letterman. He has also written for comedians Robert Klein and Dick Van Dyke and the Disney Channel’s New Mickey Mouse Club, among other things.

Leave the first comment