Gladys Towles Root – (1905-1982): One Instead of Five

On the American east coast, the gold standard for radical lawyer has always been William Kunstler,  classic show-boater and last best hope to the downtrodden and damned.

No surprise that the west coast should one-up him in the person of Gladys Towles Root.

She got into the mouthpiece business decades before the notion of women lawyers was credible – Adam’s Rib was nothing to her.  Having endured law school and passed the bar, she was unable to join any firms in California.  The woman thing again.  Nothing daunted, she hung out her own shingle, a few blocks away from Skid Row and waited for trade.

Her first client was a walk-in, a cuckolded husband looking for a divorce and came upon her by happenstance.   She took the case.  He called the next day and asked if the divorce was finalized.  She said these things take time.  He called the next day, this time from jail.  He had come back to his house to find his wife in bed with her lover.   The lover bolted, the wife was not quite so quick.  The client had been able to shoot the wife dead.

She got him off a capital murder charge and down graded to manslaughter.

A satisfied client is your best advertising.  Within a week, she had fifteen clients, all of them in jail, all of them recommended by client number one, and soon the boys were singing:

“Root de toot
Root de toot
Here’s to Gladys Towles Root!
Her dresses are purple, her hats are wide
She’ll get you one instead of five.”

Line four here is crucial.  As a woman she could get away with a broader range of proper courtroom attire than could a man. Las Vegas Showgirl seemed to have been her standard, bright purple her color, though this could change as the case required.  And hats.  Always hats.  Long, tall, wide, feathered,  outrageous hats that might have fit right into the the latter days of the French monarchy.

Certainly it was at odds with her general run of clientele.  More than anything else, she defended sex offenders – not least of all because there was not a lot of competition for their trade.  Wretched refuse they may have been, but she took them on with energy and remarkable success.  Police entrapment of gay men was a steady line of business. She also dealt in public cross-dressing,  child molestation and rape.

Clients generally paid what they could,  some in cash, some in chickens.  Enough paid that she could outfit her office with kitchen, bathtub,  all in purple and black and gold (save the law library, which was green).   Sixteen hour days and a trusted coterie of investigators and experts to bolster her cases, whether the client was paying or not.

For the record, she claimed to think that rape was almost never a crime simply because no man could truly force himself on an unwilling victim.  Anything short of knife or gun did not qualify in her view.  She was of the “dress modestly and you will not attract trouble” school of thinking.   Child molestation?  Children lie, imaginatively and often viciously. She was not squeamish about cross-examining small children to tears.  In her defense (so to speak),  she claimed not to take on a client if she were not utterly convinced of his (and it was generally his) innocence, even if others were not.

On the more heart warming side of things, she was instrumental in upsetting the California miscegenation laws. A white woman, pregnant by her Filipino companion asked Root to find a way to get them married, she was able to show that Filipinos did not belong to any of the proscribed races.  A small victory, perhaps, but this was 1931, and the court was the Supreme Court.

On the more comedic side of things, she managed to get off a car thief on the grounds of irresistible compulsion – he only stole Cadillacs.  Instant karma got her for that one.  Within a week, he had stolen her car – well, it was a Cadillac, and he was – what was her phrase?  Irresistibly compelled.

She was just about the hardest working lawyer in the city.   She made as many as 1,600 court appearances a month,  which says a good deal about both her stamina and the amount of strange crime in Los Angeles.

She did have the odd spot of trouble.  In the course of the Frank Sinatra jr. kidnapping case (she appeared for one of the defendants), she was accused of  conspiracy, suborning perjury, and obstruction of justice.  It took a few years, but the charges were eventually dropped.

The same could not be said of her encounter with the IRS.  Losing that one cost her   $230,000.00.

All this was evidence of a slow decline.  The mansion in Hancock Park was sold off, the law office moved to a worse building.  She never retired.  At age seventy seven, she was taken ill while addressing the judge in a sodomy rape case.  Court was adjourned and she died the following day.


A fuller discussion of her life can be found in Cy Rice’s Get Me Gladys! which is basically an update of Defender of the Damned.

2 thoughts on “Gladys Towles Root – (1905-1982): One Instead of Five

  1. I heard of Ms. Root some years ago from an American Indian, Loren Hawk, I hope he does not mind if I mention his name, who worked for Ms. Root. Quite an interesting story he has.

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