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Compulsion [Secure eReader]
eBook by Meyer Levin

eBook Category: Mainstream
eBook Description: The 20th century was not very old when Chicago played host to what was freely billed "the crime of the century." It happened in 1924, when two rich young men kidnapped and murdered a boy simply to exercise what they believed to be their superior intellectual skills. Both Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were sons of wealthy Jewish families in Chicago, arrogant in their sense of entitlement, sure they were above the law. Their vicious kidnapping and killing of Bobby Franks horrified the world, and the two were spared the death penalty only as the result of an extraordinary appeal by their defense attorney, the legendary Clarence Darrow. Novelist Meyer Levin covered the Leopold-Loeb trial as a student reporter and, some 30 years later, returned to the subject--and the reporter's perspective--in novelized form in Compulsion, published in 1956. Fiction allowed Levin to project himself inside the heads of the murderers (Leopold was still alive and in prison at the time), to explore elements in their behavior--such as their homosexual tendencies--not easily confronted at that time. The novel transforms Leopold and Loeb into Judd Steiner and Artie Strauss, their victim into Paulie Kessler and their defense attorney into Jonathan Wilk. Levin's novel is in two parts, "The Crime of the Century" and "The Trial of the Century." It explores the reasons the young men chose to commit a "perfect" crime--a crime that was otherwise meaningless--and it dramatizes the remarkable summation by their attorney that saved them from the gallows. Interestingly, the publication (and subsequent film adaptation) of Compulsion angered one person--Nathan Leopold, who had been an exemplary and even heroic prisoner, and was paroled in 1958, after Erle Stanley Gardner and Carl Sandburg testified at his parole hearing. (Loeb, who had become surly and violent in prison, was murdered there in a knife fight in 1936.) Leopold was offended by the novel and film, and he sued both Meyer Levin and the film's producer Richard Zanuck for invasion of privacy. The case dragged for over a decade; when it was decided in 1970, Leopold was ruled to be a public figure and not entitled to the protection of privacy. He died the following year.

eBook Publisher: RosettaBooks, Published: 2002
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2002


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Book One:
The Crime of the Century

Nothing ever ends. I had imagined that my part in the Paulie Kessler story was long ago ended, but now I am to go and talk to Judd Steiner, now that he has been thirty years in prison. I imagined that my involvement with Judd Steiner had ended when the trial was over and when he and Artie Straus were sentenced to life imprisonment plus additional terms longer than ordinary human life -- ninety-nine years. And then as though to add more locks and barriers to exclude those two forever from human society, the judge recommended that they might permanently be barred from parole.

Walls and locks, sentences and decrees do not keep people out of your mind, and in my mind Judd Steiner and Artie Straus have not only stayed on but have lived with the same kind of interaction and extension that people engender in all human existence.

For years they seemed to sit quietly in my mind, as though waiting for me some day to turn my attention to them. Yes, I must someday try to understand what it was that made them do what they did. And once, in the war, I believed I understood. At that moment in the war -- which I shall tell about in its place -- those two, from their jail in my mind, and even though one of them had long been dead, rose up to influence an action of mine.

That was the last time, and I thought I was done with them, since Artie was gone and Judd too would eventually die in prison, doomed to his century beyond life. But now a governor has made Judd Steiner actually eligible for parole. He is to receive a hearing.

Somewhere in the chain of command of our news service an editor has remembered my particular rôle as a reporter on this story, and he has quite naturally conceived the idea that it would be interesting for me to interview Judd Steiner and to write my impression about his suitability to return to the world of men.

Now this is a dreadfully responsible assignment. For I am virtually the only one to confront Judd Steiner from the days of his crime. Not that we are old men; both he and I have only just passed that strange assessment point -- the fiftieth birthday. But it was men older than ourselves who were principally active at the time of the trial -- lawyers, psychiatrists, prosecutors, the judge -- all then in their full maturity. The great Jonathan Wilk was seventy. All have since died.

I am an existing link to the actual event. What I write, it seems, may seriously affect Judd Steiner's chances of release.

How can I accept such responsibility? Are any of the great questions of guilt, of free will and of compulsion, so burningly debated at the trial -- are any of these questions resolved? Will they ever be resolved under human study? If I turn at all, with my scraps of knowledge and experience, to the case of the man who has been sitting in jail and in the jail of my mind, if I turn to him now in a full effort to comprehend him, will I do well or will I only add to confusion?

Much, much became known about Judd and Artie through psychiatric studies -- advanced for that day -- of their personalities. Intense publicity brought out every detail of their lives. And as it happened, I was, for a most personal reason, in the very centre of the case. I partly identified myself with Judd, so that I sometimes felt I could see not only into the texture of events that had taken place without my presence but into his very thoughts.

Because of this identification, it sometimes becomes difficult to tell exactly where my imagination fills in what were gaps in the documents and in the personal revelations. In some instances, the question will arise: Is this true; did this actually happen? And my answer is that it needed to happen; it needed to happen in the way I tell it or in some similar way, or else nothing can be explained for me. In the last analysis I suppose it will have to be understood that what I tell is the reality for me. For particularly where emotions must be dealt with, there is no finite reality; our idea of actuality always has to come through someone, and this is the reality through me.

Copyright © 1956 by Meyer Levin


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