Charles Burlingham lived more than one hundred years, years that saw some of the major innovations of the modern era come into being, including nuclear energy and motorized transport. Since this exhaustive biography concentrates in the main on the legal career of this lesser known but distinguished New Yorker, we don’t get to find out what he thought about the bomb or the horseless carriage, but we do know that Burlingham was keen to be the last of his Harvard graduating class, and assiduously guarded his distinction to be the last person alive who had seen Napoleon.
Burlingham grew up during the Civil War, and the example of ultimate sacrifice in defense of one’s country was always before his mind’s eye. He was such a New Yorker, a denizen of the city, that when his family lived for a while in St Louis they read only the New York Tribune, and how they survived their stint in Paris is anyone’s guess. When his father lost his job as a Baptist minister, he simply packed the family up and off they went. But as soon as he could after graduating from Harvard, Charles returned to the Big Apple, set up a law practice, and was a major player in local politics.
One of his bailiwicks was selecting judges, Benjamin Cardozo being among the famous names associating with his. He also was a mainstay of the campaign of Fiorello La Guardia and remained that politician’s supporter all his life. The La Guardia regime is credited with wiping out the reign of Tammany Hall and Burlingham, a strictly moral man who honored all his personal obligations to the letter, was determined to clean up the city he loved. The last letter he wrote in a life of prodigious epistolary output was to the minister of his church reminding him, “I need not tell you that I should be ashamed if we gave up any of our activities.” He was 101 at the time he wrote it.
One of Burlingham’s notable legal battles was his defense of the White Star Line, the owner/builder of the Titanic. Living in New York, Burlingham had personal contact with the shocked survivors brought in on the Carpathian, and to him was the task of seeing where the blame lay, but with a lawyer’s mind to save the shipping company a lot of money. Even in a less litigious age (the rich never sued, for instance) the sums involved were staggering and he played his role with the moral correctness that characterized all of his dealings.
In his mid-nineties, Burlingham attended the New York Harvard Club’s annual dinner and used his mike time as “the oldest graduate” to “blast – ‘It’s a scandal that Harvard has not given an honorary degree to a woman’- and with a violent gesture of reproval thrust the microphone from him.” A year later an honorary degree was awarded to Radcliffe graduate Helen Keller.
Many will read this book to plumb the mysteries of judicial appointments, a subject as tetchy then as now. CCB’s words on the subject: “Political experience is an asset for a judge provided he abjures politics on ascending the bench.”