Mark Lynn Anderson

 

On his book Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America

Cover Interview of August 15, 2011

A close-up

For me, the key chapter of Twilight is the short chapter on Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

Many people today have only the vaguest notion of the these two young men who, in the summer of 1924, were sentenced to life plus ninety-nine years for the kidnapping and murder of a fourteen-year-old boy who lived in their wealthy Chicago neighborhood.

Three motion pictures have recounted their case from varying perspectives: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959) and Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992).

But the newspaper coverage of the trial of Leopold and Loeb was a self-reflexive demonstration of how the new media situation created by Hollywood’s celebrity culture might involve a mass audience in a process of producing the very terms by which health and disease were to be understood in the modern era.

Because Leopold and Loeb pled guilty and avoided a jury trial, their team of lawyers were allowed to provide evidence that these two young men, while unusually gifted with intelligence and social charms, had committed this crime out of a compulsion that could only be comprehended by considering the myriad circumstances of their respective lives and their unique relationship.

Thus the trial was devoted to hearing testimony from psychologists and alienist who detailed the two young men’s biographies, their fantasies, and their worldviews.  Because of the sustained and extensive attention given to the details of their private lives, Leopold and Loeb quickly achieved the status of celebrities.  While the defendants never took the stand, they were constantly interviewed by the press during the trial and were photographed in and out of the courtroom, usually depicted as deeply interested in themselves, their trial, and the public that paid attention to them.


rorotoko.com A new mode of stardom.  Nathan Leopold, Richard Loeb, and their chief defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, in 1924.  Chicago Daily News press photograph courtesy of Chicago Historical Society.

In many ways, Leopold and Loeb were continually shown to be consuming themselves as media images, with Loeb “confessing” at one point that he didn’t mind spending the rest of his life in prison if he could only have a scrapbook containing all the newspaper accounts of his trial.  This media coverage brought people together, but not as a sham jury waiting to mete out some form of populist justice through public opinion.  Instead, the publicity generated by the trial allowed a mass public to take an active interest in the psychological and social processes of personality formation while simultaneously understanding and expressing their own relations to deviance.

The possibilities implied by the non-directed reception of the star criminals in 1924 had to be contained by closely regulating the representation of the trial’s audiences, making either incoherent or pathological any appeal the killers might have held for the public.

In other words, public opinion had to be constructed.  Yet, even today, the smallest details of the case are capable of producing a powerful fascination, though now such fascination is usually followed by a sense of corrective guilt, a guilt that continually seeks to become collective.