Vol. 28, No. 7
Six of the Greatest
Molly O. Edison
by Sandra I. Rothenberg
Sandra I. Rothenberg is a Judge on the Colorado Court of Appeals.
A hundred-and-one pounds of fun . . .
Only sixty inches high,
Every inch is packed with dynamite . . .
Believe me, Sonny,
She’s a cookie who can cook you ’til you’re
"Honey Bun" from South Pacific
Rodgers and Hammerstein might have written that song for one of Colorado’s most fiery and colorful early advocates, Molly O. Edison, who practiced law in Denver for over fifty years. Molly’s diverse career included everything from first-degree murder trials and divorces to involvement as counsel in a huge insurance fraud case during the 1950s.
According to federal district court judge and history buff, John Kane, "There were other women lawyers of her era, but none of them was a rock-em, sock-em criminal defense lawyer like Molly." Just over five feet tall, she was a fixture at the City and County Building, where the state courts were located. Kane can still recall Molly Edison standing in the hall outside the courtrooms "chain-smoking her cigarettes and stamping them out with her tiny foot."
Molly Edison was born Molly O’Smith on August 6, 1907, in Norwich, Connecticut. The family moved to Denver when Molly was young. Her father, a pharmacist, had a drugstore at 12th and Broadway, and he insisted that Molly and her two sisters work in the store. Molly’s sister, Celia, became a pharmacist herself, but for Molly, it was law or nothing.
She spent her days at the drugstore, but five nights a week, she attended the Westminster College of Law (which later merged with the University of Denver College of Law). Tuition was about $300 per year.
Everyone agreed that Molly and Dorothy Thomas (class of 1929), and Estelle Hadley (class of l932) were the prettiest "girls" at the law school. They also were the only female students in the law school at the time.
When Molly was young, she was married for a short time to a man named Edison and kept that name throughout her career, even after she remarried. He second husband, Philip Bert, was a wholesale liquor distributor. They adopted a son, Stephen. By all accounts, Molly was a doting mother and, later on, an even more doting grandmother.
During the l980s, Molly often saw former Denver County Court Judge Patricia A. Madsen at the courthouse. During one of their conversations, Molly reminisced that when a woman came to the bar in l929, her first duty was to call upon Mary Lathrop, who had been admitted in the late nineteenth century.
In 1929, Lathrop still wore skirts of black silk faille [a soft transversely ribbed fabric] which fell below her boot tops, and her advice to younger women in law was to clad themselves likewise, avoiding unseemly jewelry, and to shun make-up, make-up constituting a sure sign of insufficient devotion to the law.1
According to Madsen, "Molly took this advice as she took most advice. She admired Ms. Lathrop enormously, and went her own way."2
The Nolo Contendere Case
In 1929, when Molly graduated law school and passed the bar, women had voted in only two presidential elections, Herbert Hoover was President, and the bulls were roaring on Wall Street. But, there were clouds on the horizon.
Only a few years earlier, between 1920 and 1925, Colorado had witnessed the ascendancy of the Ku Klux Klan, with Klan politicians controlling the State Republican Assembly and the House of Representatives, as well as the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Secretary of State. Denver’s Mayor, its Chief of Police, and at least one Supreme Court Justice reportedly were Klan members, as were many local judges.3
There also were reports that, in some counties, local sheriffs and county commissioners were "active in placing names of members of the Klan in the jury box and getting Klansman on the jury."4 This may explain Molly’s later comment, at a Colorado Women’s Bar Association ("CWBA") dinner honoring her, that she did not feel discrimination as a woman, but that during the Klan years, she and others had tasted discrimination as Jews. Still, Molly was never one for self-pity and she added: "My track record is what counts."5
In the 1930s, a disciplinary proceeding was initiated against her. Although Molly was later exonerated by the Colorado Supreme Court, it was undoubtedly a terrifying and humiliating ordeal for the young attorney.
It began when Ben B. Laska, a Colorado attorney, was indicted for his alleged participation in a 1933 Oklahoma kidnapping. Broadly stated, the prosecution asserted that Laska had been paid by agents of the kidnappers with ransom money and, therefore, was a co-conspirator. Laska insisted he had merely been retained to represent one of the defendants, and that he had received a $3,000 fee at his Denver office.
At Laska’s trial in an Oklahoma federal district court, Molly, who was then a young attorney working for Laska, testified at trial and corroborated his version of the events regarding receipt of the money. Nevertheless, Laska was convicted, sentenced to prison, and ultimately disbarred by the Colorado Supreme Court.6 However, Laska’s disbarment proceeding in Colorado was not without controversy. Many prominent Colorado attorneys and public officials testified on his behalf, including attorney (and later federal judge), Jean S. Breitenstein. One witness, a former lieutenant governor of Colorado, bluntly stated that "Laska was framed," and the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court wrote a spirited dissent opposing Laska’s disbarment.
[T]he consensus among lawyers and newspaper men who had followed the case and were familiar with the record was that the trial in the federal court was very unfair as far as Laska was concerned.7
Molly’s problems arose from that trial. After she testified on Laska’s behalf, she was promptly indicted for perjury in the same Oklahoma court. She eventually entered a plea of nolo contendere there, and then had to defend herself in disbarment proceedings in Colorado. Chief Justice Hilliard of the Colorado Supreme Court described the circumstances that followed:
On the advice of eminent counsel, while insisting she was innocent, Ms. Edison entered a plea of nolo contendere on which she received a suspended sentence. Based thereon, her disbarment at our hands was sought.
. . .
In the course of Mrs. Edison’s trial on the disciplinary complaint, many prominent attorneys testified in her behalf, among whom was Mr. Carr [later Governor of Colorado]. . . . The Governor further testified that he believed Mrs. Edison told the truth in the Laska trial and that she was innocent of the charges preferred against her.8
The district court judge who conducted disciplinary proceedings against Molly concluded that she was not guilty of the Oklahoma charges, and recommended dismissal.9
The Colorado Supreme Court agreed and dismissed the proceeding, concluding that her plea of nolo contendere was based on the advice of her counsel, "themselves believing her to be innocent, but sensing what they conceived to be a menacing prejudice in the community of the forum of her trial."10 The court did not elaborate on the nature of the "menacing prejudice."11 (Emphasis added.)
A dreadful chapter in Molly Edison’s life had ended. Fortunately, the balance of her career would be smoother.
Molly specialized in divorce law (as it was then called) and estate work, but also did a lot of general litigation. According to her, she "tried every kind of case except water law."12 Molly lived the law and was considered by some to be a workaholic.
In 1947, she formed a partnership with Norman Berman that would last for twenty-seven years, ending only when he was appointed as a judge on the Colorado Court of Appeals. Molly reflected fondly on those early times when lawyers did not need to bury their offices in paper, and the word of an attorney was as good as a signature. Her partnership with Norman Berman was founded on a handshake. As she put it, "We never had a written agreement. We never needed one."
Molly was a creature of habit, and every weekday morning at 6:30 a.m. she had breakfast at the same coffee shop across from the Symes Building, usually joined by Joseph Lilly (later Chief Judge of the Denver District Court) and attorney David Michael. According to Michael, they rarely talked about their cases or about law.
At lunchtime, Molly could be found with Norman Berman, Solomon Girsh, and various other lawyer-friends in the Tea Room of the old Denver Dry Building or at the Brown Palace Hotel. Robert Kingsley (later Chief Judge of the Denver District Court), who was then practicing criminal law and officing at the Symes Building, was one of many notables who might join them. Old friends who knew her said she would attract people because she had a big heart and would go out on a limb for anyone.
One of a Kind
By all accounts, Molly was unique. Her manner of dress was only one of many differences she had with the other women lawyers of her era. Frank Plaut, now a Jefferson County District Court judge, recalled her manner of dress and grooming as impeccable, but "very arresting, flashy, not muted. She always wore big glasses that said, ‘Watch me.’" Plaut speculated that "perhaps because of Molly’s size and gender, she didn’t want to be overlooked or underestimated. She wanted to be noticed." Describing Molly’s voice and manner of speaking, Plaut stated: "She was well-spoken with a brassy voice—like polished gravel."
Maxine Berman, widow of Judge Norman E. Berman, saw Molly often in the twenty-seven years during which her husband and Molly were law partners. Mrs. Berman remembers Molly fondly as "an amazing person, a woman of style and substance."
She was a blonde bundle of energy. A fashion plate. She loved to dress and was such a good customer at Neusteter’s Department store that they had a mannequin made up in her size so she did not have to wait for fittings. Molly always looked stunning, well groomed and bejeweled. She loved to surround herself with beautiful things.
According to Mrs. Berman, Molly was also very independent:
She was a man’s man, and yet she was a woman. She attracted men all the time, but never used feminine wiles. She was intellectual, feisty and dynamic. The men respected and admired her because she could give whatever they gave. She got along with them. She was very forthright and outgoing.
Lewis Babcock, now a federal district court judge, was a law clerk for Berman and Edison during his last year of law school, and remembers Molly as "a very sweet" woman. Attorney William Ris describes her as "very intelligent and quite aggressive without being nasty at all." Ris added, "The fact that Molly was a female was ‘of no effect.’" Then again, who could forget Molly’s big hats? According to Ris, "She loved them and often wore them to court."
Molly could be flamboyant, but never took herself too seriously. Mrs. Berman recalls one day when she admired a beautiful, large piece of "diamond" jewelry that Molly was wearing. Molly replied with a smile, "That’s rhinestone. But when I wear it, people think it’s real."
Honors and Special
Molly Edison did not seek special recognition, but her many years as a dedicated and very successful practitioner, plus her sheer longevity and grit made it inevitable. She became a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and was honored by the Colorado Trial Lawyers and the Colorado Women’s Bar Association on reaching her 50th year of practice. Typical of Molly, on the day she was contacted by the Colorado Trial Lawyers for information and anecdotes about herself, she was too busy to comply because she was preparing for a trial. Molly had her priorities.13
On March 18, 1983, the CWBA held a "Silver Women" dinner honoring a number of women lawyers who had been members of the bar for twenty-five years. Molly was one of only three "Gold Women," who had been members of the bar for fifty years! Dorothy Thomas had retired but, amazingly, Molly and Estelle Hadley were still busy practicing.
Molly was described affectionately that evening by Kathy P. Bonham, a founder of the CWBA, as "a high energy, superb model for all women attorneys." When asked to explain what it was like to appear opposite Molly in court, Bonham responded, "Exhausting and instructive. She gives no quarter in the courtroom." But, Bonham added, "She is an incomparably gracious colleague outside of it." After taking the podium and receiving a standing ovation, Molly replied gracefully that Bonham was "no slouch herself."
Eventually, Molly’s many decades of hard work and a bout with emphysema forced her into retirement, and on January 31, 1989, she died at the age of 81. Shortly thereafter, Judge Madsen offered this fitting tribute to Molly O. Edison:
She was tiny, this giant who just left us, tiny and fierce. One heard her heels in staccato march down the hall, a client’s compact army positioning itself for battle. White boots flashing, briefcase swinging, the day in some courtroom was about to be less peaceful than before.14
1. Madsen, "Goodbye Molly," The Advocate 2 (March 1989).
3. Goldberg, Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado (Urbana, Ill.: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1981).
4. Glasson v. Bowen, 267 P. 1066, 1067 (Colo. l928).
5."Silver State Honors Silver Women," The Advocate (March 1983, Special Edition).
6. People v. Laska, 101 P.2d 33 (Colo. 1940) (Hilliard, C. J., dissenting).
7. Id. at 48.
8. Id. at 51.
9. See "Bar Exonerates Woman Lawyer," Rocky Mountain News (April 28, 1937).
10. People v. Edison, 69 P.2d 246, 248 (Colo. 1937).
12. Supra, note 5.
14. Supra, note 1.
The author acknowledges with appreciation the assistance and anecdotes provided by Judge Lewis T. Babcock, Maxine Berman, Kathy P. Bonham, Betty Girsh, Judge John L. Kane, Gary Lozow, Judge Patricia A. Madsen, David L. Michael, Anne M. Murphy, Judge Frank Plaut, William K. Ris, Doris B. Truhlar, and the Colorado Women’s Bar Association.
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