I like a story that begins with the discovery of a box full of old, forgotten stuff in someone's attic.
So I was intrigued last week when my friend Dave Kelly invited me to have a look at the contents of an attic in a house he'd purchased in Chevy Chase. Dave is a builder, and he often buys houses from estates. Then he either renovates them or tears them down and builds something larger on the lot.
The house he'd bought was a beige stucco Tudor with a peaked roof on Maple Avenue. It had last belonged to an elderly widow named Ann McLaughlin. Her heirs had cleaned out the first two floors, but they told Dave they were leaving the attic and he could do what he wanted with anything he found there. The attic, Dave discovered, was crammed full. There were old books, some scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, some old toys. There was an academic gown, perhaps a faded crimson. There was a tattered pennant from Yale. And there was a framed certificate. The certificate, dated January 21, 1961, stated that John F. Kennedy, reposing special trust and confidence in the prudence and integrity of one James M. Landis, did hereby appoint him a special assistant to the president. It was signed by Kennedy and by Dean Rusk, then the secretary of state.
It didn't take long, leafing through old passports, to figure out that Ann McLaughlin was James Landis' daughter. A little more research established who James Landis was. And it also revealed a plausible explanation for why the certificate and other items--like the old newspaper cartoon below right--might have been forgotten and abandoned by Landis' descendants. His was a tale of a brilliant American life that ended badly.
Landis was born in Tokyo in 1899, the son of Presbyterian missionaries. He was a bright and studious boy, and one with a keen sense of duty. When the United States entered World War I, he was too young to serve in the military. So he volunteered for a YMCA organization that served the troops in Europe. (I am cribbing much of this information from a biography by Justin O'Brien that was published in 2014.) When the war ended, he did his undergraduate studies at Princeton. He was a near contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and maybe he caught a whiff of the sense of entitlement that Fitzgerald depicted in This Side of Paradise, the sense that the young men of Yale and Harvard and Princeton represented an American aristocracy that was destined to run the world. He would probably have been a scholarship boy at Princeton, so he might not have felt himself quite a member of that aristocracy as yet. But he might have felt, like the title character Fitzgerald would later create in The Great Gatsby, close enough to feel that he someday could be. (That's a picture of Princeton's 1920 football team below left. I don't know if Landis had anything to do with the football team, but he kept the picture and Dave Kelly found it in the McLaughlin attic. The painted letters and numbers on the football indicate that Princeton tied Harvard 14-14 that year, and beat Yale, 20-0. Those, evidently, were the only games that truly mattered.)
Landis went on to Harvard Law, where he compiled a brilliant record. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. By the age of 29, he was a tenured professor at Harvard. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, Landis was one of the people he recruited for his "Brain Trust," the rotating cast of academic advisors who fashioned the New Deal. Landis, along with Benjamin Cohen and Tommy "The Cork" Corcoran, drafted the legislation that established the Securities and Exchange Commission, which was the New Deal's effort to make sure the Crash of 1929 never happened again. In 1934, FDR appointed him to the commission, serving under the first chairman, Joseph P. Kennedy. That was the beginning of an alliance with the Kennedy family that was to last nearly three decades. He was himself chair of the SEC in 1935, and then became dean of the Harvard Law School in 1937.
Landis was established as one of those men who shuttled between the Ivy League and Washington, lending their expertise to government when Democrats were in power and developing new ideas behind ivy-covered walls during Republican interregnums. During World War II, FDR appointed him head of the Office of Civilian Defense. Then he sent him as an emissary to the Middle East, prompting the editorial cartoon at the right in the Washington Star, which also wound up in the attic on Maple Avenue. Harry Truman asked him to lead the Civil Aeronautics Board, the predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration.
But somewhere in the late 1940s, the uninterrupted upward trajectory of Landis' life began to wobble. In 1947, his wife petitioned for divorce on the grounds of desertion. That may have been a consequence of Landis working in Washington while the family residence remained in Massachusetts. But whatever public image of rectitude Landis had was dented the next year when he married a woman who had served as his assistant at the C.A.B. In those days, a divorce was more scandalous than it is now. The desertion accusation may explain why the Landis memorabilia gathered dust in his daughter's attic.
At the end of 1947, Harry Truman declined to reappoint him. Landis maintained it was because he had earned the enmity of the airlines he was supposed to regulate, and the airline lobbyists got to Truman. Maybe it was.
He fell back on his friendship with Joseph P. Kennedy, who wanted someone to manage his family's financial affairs so his sons could pursue careers in public service. That is evidently what Landis did in the 1950s, along with service in the campaigns of John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, he asked Landis to write a plan for revamping the various federal regulatory efforts. Landis did. But then disaster struck. During a background check, it was discovered that he hadn't filed income tax returns for the years from 1956 to 1960.
It's not clear why Landis made such a fundamental blunder for a man in public life. There have been suggestions that he drank too much or that he had psychological problems. The lawyers who defended him said that he'd had a technical problem evaluating some stocks he sold, and then just procrastinated about solving it, with no intent to evade taxes. Landis, upon being discovered, paid his back taxes, plus interest.
If Landis had been just an obscure citizen, that might have been enough to resolve his case. The IRS wasn't then in the habit of prosecuting people who acknowledged failure to file and paid what they owed. But Landis wasn't obscure and John Kennedy chose not to absolve his family's old friend. He told deputy attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach that it wouldn't look proper if his administration appeared to be going easy on one of its own while expecting everyone else to file returns. So Landis was prosecuted.
He received a sentence of 30 days in jail, commuted to a humiliating mandatory hospitalization for a month. He was disbarred. His life was ruined, and very shortly afterward, it ended. In the summer of 1964, his body was found floating in the swimming pool of his house in Harrison, New York, a very Gatsby-esque way to go. News accounts of his death hinted that it was a suicide, but eventually there was a finding that he drowned after having a heart attack. His little trove of memorabilia found its way to Maple Avenue, but not to an honored place of display. It went to the attic.
Landis did not disappear from history, of course. Scholars who study government administration and regulation regard him as a seminal figure, for better or worse, in the creation of the 20th Century administrative and regulatory state. They admire his skill in drafting legislation and respect his opinions about the proper relationship between government and business.
It's impossible to know what caused James Landis to crash and burn. A religious person might take note of the transcript of an oral history Landis recorded. In it, he said that he could never believe in the benevolent God of his missionary parents after the terrible carnage he saw in World War I. So maybe it was the loss of faith that ruined Landis' compass. Maybe it was alcohol. Maybe, despite his brilliance, he just wasn't immune to a mid-life crisis.
But it would be a mistake to say that the life of James Landis ended in total ruin. I asked a presidential autograph collector I know, Doug Wertman, if the framed certificate might have any value on the autograph market. Yes, Doug replied. It might even be worth a couple of thousand dollars, which would be not bad for something left for trash in a Chevy Chase attic.