Priceless memento of a judge -- and of a young reporter

Neil A. Grauer

March 27, 1991|By Neil A. Grauer

GIVEN the satire and irony that flowed from Aaron Sopher's pen as fluently as ink, most of the Baltimoreans who caught his eye probably did not relish appearing in his drawings.

All except the lawyers, that is.

Like many incisive artistic observers, Sopher was attracted to the legal system, where he sometimes supplemented his income by doing courtroom drawings for newspapers. Attorneys, especially those whose cases Sopher covered, loved the pictures and eagerly sought them. As a courthouse reporter, I had the good luck to sit next to him a few times during what were his final forays into that now-vanishing genre -- and the even greater luck to show up, unwittingly, in one of his drawings.

Baltimore has been blessed with some extraordinary courtroom artists. Among them have been Betty Wells, who can capture an entire courtroom and all its occupants in vibrant color with her bandoleer of felt-tipped markers and a fountain pen, and Charles Hazard of The Sun, who meticulously records the placement of every document on every trial table, as well as every person in the room, in finely shaded ink drawings.

The ever-cheerful Wells graduated from Baltimore's courts to NBC News, for which she covered Congress and the Supreme Court. She drew pictures of senators and representatives in debate before television was admitted to those chambers, and the dignified arguments before the Supreme Court's justices, who still bar the ubiquitous TV eye.

Unlike jurisdictions in many other states, Maryland's trial courts also continue to prohibit newspaper cameras and television coverage of their proceedings, so courtroom artists here remain our visual representatives at exceptionally newsworthy cases.

At one such case 20 years ago, I found myself beside Sopher briefly, watching the gold nib of his pen skip and glide over his pad of paper. Unlike Wells or Hazard, he did not try to encompass an entire courtroom or a large cross-section of it in his drawings, but usually concentrated on spare depictions of two, three or four figures. His aim was not exact portraiture but an impressionistic rendering. Yet if you had been in the courtroom and then saw Sopher's drawings in the paper the next day, you knew how aptly he had caught the body language, the mood, the people.

On another occasion, Sopher made a typically unobtrusive appearance at a trial featuring the flamboyant New York defense attorney William Kunstler. The next day, three Sopher sketches of the trial were printed on The Evening Sun's editorial page. Several weeks later, the judge in the then-completed case called me in the courthouse press room. "Come up to my chambers and see the Aaron Sopher drawing I got from the trial. You're in it!"

Sure enough, in the sketch, which had not been published in the paper, there was a small, bespectacled, note-taking figure sitting at the little table reserved for the press next to the judge's bench. He'd got me, all right, down to the sideburns I had then.

Some months later, I encountered Sopher at a grocery store and told him I had seen myself in the judge's drawing. "Yeah," he said, punctuating his conversation with puffs from an ever-present cigarette. "The judge wrote and asked me for a drawing." Puff, puff. "So, I sent him one." Puff, puff. "All he sent me was a thank-you note!"

The judge, learned in law but innocent in art, did not realize that Sopher received no pay for drawings that were not printed in the paper and needed to make every sketch a revenue-producer, if possible.

Like all too many artists, Sopher never earned for his works the large sums they would fetch after his death. But were he here, he probably would appreciate that the son of that judge cherishes Sopher's sketch as a priceless memento of his father.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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