Camera Rolls: 314:30-31
Sound Roll: 314:17
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Melvin Belli , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 5, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Can you tell me a little bit about your experiences working as a hobo?
One of the most interesting things about how I got the job, 1933,
right in the midst of the Depression, the dean, Kip McMurry, called me into his office, and he pronounced my name correctly. He said, "Belli, I've got a job for you".
** Well, that was something, to be called into the dean's office at Bold Hall[?] and told that he had a job, so I was very proud of being called in, particularly by the dean, and I said, "What is it?" And he says, "It's being a bum". Well, that took me back a little, but when he told me it was, I think, three, four hundred dollars a month, my spirits were lifted,
** because you weren't getting more than three or four hundred dollars a month for a retired lawyer, or a lawyer for even Old Holy Grail Insurance Company in those days. So, what it was, was to go out and ride the rails, report back
** to some of the alphabetical agencies, for Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Roosevelt, and say what the people
** in the United States were thinking of at that time,
** "the people" being the bums and the hobos.
** So that's what I did. I rode the rails for about three months instead of studying for my bar examination. I took my bar examination, I damn near flunked it because I hadn't studied for it, but I, in no uncertain terms, told the people that were in Washington, if
** they didn't know, and never got their clothes soiled by going out and riding the rails, that the people of America weren't thinking of a revolution,
** they weren't thinking of overthrowing the government, as bad as it was at that time, or is at the present time, or has been in the past. They were the most patriotic of all Americans, even though they didn't have a job, even though they had to "put the town on the stem", which means begging, and going and asking for a butt of yesterday's bread or a piece of old meat, or something like that, which we did. I went into the stores and got these scraps of food, we brought them back and then we put them in a big pot under the bridges, and I ate with all of the other bums.
Can you tell me, were you surprised by—
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Were you surprised by what you saw? Did you have different expectations about life on the rails?
A little bit. I'd seen the movies, of course, and some of them, they categorized pictures of hobos or of bums,
these were ordinary people, these were people that had nothing wrong with them, except that they couldn't work because there were no jobs out there, and they wanted to work.
** As a matter of fact, I was put in jail for vagrancy, which was a crime in those days, and I remember the judge calling me up, and saying, "I'm going to find you guilty of vagrancy," and I said, "Vagrancy, what have I done?" He says, "You don't have any visible means of support," and I said, "I want to work!" I mean, I was playing out the role of the hobo, "I want to go to work, but I can't get a job." He says, "Well, you're a vagrant if you don't have any money, and I'm going to give you six months." So I said I wanted a jury trial, this was down in San Diego, they picked me up off the street as they came into town. I told the judge I wanted a jury trial, and he said to his clerk, "Give Slim Bacigalupi here a jury trial. What's the first date we can give him?" This was, oh, this was about right after the first of the year, and they said "Oh, we got a date in December." Well, they were going to keep me in jail without bail because I had no money until December, so I finally pleaded guilty to vagrancy. Of course, I pleaded guilty to a crime that was wiped off the book because it was held to be unconstitutional, and there's no such thing as vagrancy, state ascribed. The fact that you don't have a job, you can't get a job, that there's no money, you can't be guilty of something as nebulous as that, and how we went for so many years with the crime of vagrancy on the books, now I know, a lot of people, bums, if you will, or hobos, were convicted of vagrancy, and thrown into jail. Well, I got, finally, when I pleaded guilty to vagrancy, the nonexistent crime, rather than wait until December to go to trial, I got some six month's probation, or suspended. I went back two years later and I got the largest award that had ever been given in San Diego, for a hobo who had lost his leg in the railroad yard. I didn't tell the judge at that time that I had a suspended sentence, but I told him after the case was over with, and he was utterly and completely amazed. You know, from that I went to another job, I had almost the same type of people, people without money, the poor, the under-class. I became the lawyer for the priest, Fr. George Romera[?] at San Quentin, and I made about as much, no I didn't make as much money, I got a bottle of [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] '69 for every case that I defended. Well, they were all capital cases, because we didn't have, in those days, an appellate justice, an appellate lawyer, who would represent all of these people.
Can we just stay back, for the purpose of the film we need to stay back on the hobos, if that's OK. Many people used to—the idea that hobos or transients would come into a community, or would be coming into California, was often used as a scare tactic for people. Do you think people were afraid of the hobos, or what was your experience?
No, I don't think so, I think that there were a lot of hobos that went up to doors and neighborhoods, knocked on the doors, and got a hand-out, and I think more of our people were compassionate than un-compassionate [sic], and they took care of the hobos. Maybe some of the hobos burglarized, but then there was burglary done by people who weren't hobos, who were professional burglars. I think that these were very patriotic, good American people, and I wrote in my report that these weren't people that were going to overthrow the government, they were very patriotic. I remember when I heard President Roosevelt say, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself", I was under a bridge, under a railroad bridge, and we were all sitting around there. We had put all the stuff that we'd begged in town in a big pot and cooked it, and we were having our evening meal, and we heard this wonderful voice come aboard there. So, in Congress, and out of place, there's this Harvard, Bostonian accent, "We've nothing to fear, but fear itself", and these people nodded their head, and they were the most patriotic people in America. And here, I felt a little giddy, guilty, I was put out on the road to scrutinize these people and report back to Washington. "These people aren't going to overthrow the government," I said in no uncertain terms, "These are the most patriotic Americans you've got. They believe in their country, and there should be no 'crime of vagrancy.'" These people wanted a job.
From their point of view, from the hobos' point of view, what did, had Roosevelt's New Deal not done enough?
OK. Did they feel that Roosevelt and the New Deal was failing them?
No, they felt that he was trying—
I'm sorry, but, when you answer, instead of "they", could you say "the hobos", or...
The hobos all felt that he was trying, they felt that they had a friend in the White House, very much of a friend, but they just felt that it was something that couldn't be helped. I know there were rumors going around that Herbert Hoover had been captured, captured, I remember the word, and was being held prisoner in one of the big office buildings in New York, wild things like that. It was a thing of the times, that, well, like the Depression, it was cyclic, you couldn't help it. These were patriotic American people, I think they were just as much patriotic as the people in Wall Street at that time, and the people in Wall Street were all selling apples. I can remember down here in San Francisco, that stockbrokers were selling apples on the street, and other parts of the Unites States at that time.
Were you worried at all about your future in 1934?
No, I wasn't. I was damn mad about it and I resolved to do something about it, but that took the resolve of, I guess, going into the part of the law that I'm in at the present time. I've been on the side more of the have-nots than the haves. That doesn't mean that I can't like a bank president as much as a poor man, particularly if he's got some bad injuries and is going to go for a big award, but I think I've done more for the have-nots than I have for the haves.
OK, now I want to talk about 1934, when, the governor's race, and I want to know your experience with the governor's race.
Well, I, there I got into the hypocrisy of politics, because money poured into California from the East and all over the country, and again, I was hired by the law school to go out and make speeches for Merriam, who reminded me very much, did then, does now, of Guy Kibbee, and I think he was just about as fit for being a governor, even though he paid me. I guess I made as much money from him, going out and making those speeches, as I made in the first couple years practicing, but he didn't buy my vote, because I think he was kind of awful. I kind of liked the things that Upton Sinclair was saying, but we were instructed by the people who were sending us out that this fellow's going to send us into communism and everything else, so this is where I began to learn the hypocrisy of, I think, Wall Street, or better still, I think, the hypocrisy of a lot of the haves against the have-nots.
Do you remember much about that campaign, you know, what Upton Sinclair stood for, the kind of program that he—
Yeah, he stood for a division of wealth, he stood for a lot of Socialistic activities, he stood for Wall Street, and he stood for those who have rather than those who want it. It was fairly clear cut. It was one of those things you could feel more than you can specify. You couldn't sit down with a piece of paper and put, except on one side, he's voting for the haves, he's voting for the have-nots.
Was it unusual at that time to be paid as a, to give speeches for a candidate?
They had so much money that they even got kids in law school that didn't want to go out and make speeches.
I'm sorry, can you, can you phrase that by saying who "they" is? The Republicans have so much money?
Well, the "they" is pretty amorphous. It seems everybody was in the campaign. The dean, the politicians, the senators, businessmen, people in the Brookridge Houses, the "they" was, seemed like everybody. I mean, it seemed, if you talked about Sinclair, you kinda had to look around to see if you were being watched. The whole campaign was being directed from the East. By the East, I mean the haves in Wall Street and the haves in Washington, and the rumor's coming out that they had Hoover a prisoner in one of the big buildings in New York. That's the only thing that came close to what the government was wondering about, when they had sent us out on the road to see if there was going to be a revolution. But I saw that it looked like people were concerned with the future of the country.
OK, do you remember what you said in any of the, the kinds of speeches you gave, what you might have said in speeches for Merriam?
Well, I think I did a lot better when I got in before juries, and I was a lot more sincere, and it wasn't much longer, much after that that I started trying cases. When I tried cases representing Fr. Romera[?], I was representing condemned men over at San Quentin, I didn't have much better luck into who to vote for, but at least I think I was more sincere.
But do you remember at all what arguments you may have used, or what kind of audiences you spoke to?
Yes, I can remember very well, we would used to go to factories, we would get people when they came out of manufacturing plants, and the bosses would drive them all out one gate. So here we young people would be, there, and we would use this argument, that it's necessary to bring prosperity, it's just around the corner, that we do these things. You could see that the campaign was thoroughly directed by Wall Street, the haves, the government, against the people who were on the other side, being the other side the socialists, the people who were more idealistic.
Did people ever ask you questions when you spoke, did they ever want—
Not very much, I think that they were showing the boss, if he happened to be looking, that they had come out and they were at least listening to the arguments.
Was this on work time that people did this? Do you remember whether it was like a speech that was given while people were at work, that they were—
Yeah, they would, they would give us ten minutes where they would call them, the whistle would blow, and they'd cease working on the assembly line or wherever they were, and then we would give our ten minute harangue or ten minute speech, which was a canned speech. It would be given to us by the fellas that gave us the checks in the law school, or the people running the campaigns back east. It was more a national thing than a local thing, because, really, the people who were running the campaign were afraid that if Sinclair would get in in California, that would lead to a socialist governor here, a Socialist governor back east, and here would come communism. That's what, that's what "the bosses" or whoever was directing was afraid of, and it was a scary thing, when I look back on it. And it was a scary thing that they got all of us bright-eyed, supposedly intelligent kids to go for this. I think that we were very hypocritical and very insincere, we were only looking for the money on the speeches that we made. I didn't believe a word I was saying.
But I did believe the opposite, because I say again, I didn't vote for the bum Guy Kibbee, Merriam, I voted for the other guy. [laughs]
Did you ever try to find out information about Sinclair, did you ever go to any of his meetings, or listen?
No, no, I didn't. I wasn't particularly sold on the socialist concept at that time. I was more concerned about getting a job and practicing law.
'Cause you remember he was running as a Democrat, that was what it was.
Yeah, well, I was a Democrat and am a Democrat.
OK, you were a Democrat then, when you were giving speeches for Merriam?
They didn't care that you were a Democrat?
They didn't care what I did, what I said, as long as I had a clean white shirt on, just out of law school, and a bright-eyed young lawyer, this one is voting for Merriam, or Guy Kibbee, and they didn't care what political banner I was coming under.
OK, you said in your autobiography that every speech you gave for Merriam meant votes for Sinclair. What do you, can you explain that at all?
I don't remember saying that, unless what I was saying was, my sincerity leaked through, because I know if I represent a man now, in a criminal case, and think that he is downright guilty, I think that would leak through. As a matter of fact, one of the earliest cases that I had, I represented somebody that I thought was wrong. It was a civil case, it was a doctor, and I thought he was wrong, and I felt that this showed through, and he lost his case. So I went to him after and I told him, I think that I was the reason you lost your case, I don't believe in you. I took him on appeal, we reversed him, we got him a new trial, but I didn't try him the second time, I had someone else try him, because I didn't believe him and I couldn't believe him, and maybe that's what I meant, that every vote I urged for Merriam was a vote against him.
Yeah, and please, if you can not wear your glasses, OK?
I've put them on and off, but I thought-
Yeah, if for this question you could keep them off, that would be good.
So, if you remember the newsreels that were used, that were considered to be not real newsreels, fake newsreels that were used against Sinclair, about the hobos.
Yeah, I think that, I think the government was trying to whip up a fervor among the [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , among the have-nots, to make it appear that there was a clear and present danger that the company would be overthrown by these bums. They were trying to show that we, out there, weren't Americans, we weren't sincere, and we weren't patriotic. I think that the most patriotic people at that time were the ones who were riding the rails, they believed in the country, they believed in this President Roosevelt when he talked about America, when he says we have only fear to fear, that was one time when I really saw, I think, the heart and soul and the spirit of America, as I rode the rails, and it's stayed with me ever since then, stayed with me when I went with Fr. Romera[?], and I have it to the present time, that's the reason that I take some of the cases that I do now.