Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life of Gladys Towles Root

A Feisty, Much Loved Child

The bundle of unselfconscious contradictions who would grow up to be one of Americas most flamboyant and successful criminal defense attorneys came wailing into the world in 1905 on the anniversary of the day California became a state. She was born in Los Angeles to a housewife named Clara Dexter Towles and a father named Charles Towles who worked for the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Prior to moving to California with her husband, Clara had been secretary to the speaker of the house in the Kansas state legislature.

Gladys was the second of two children, both daughters. She grew up on a wheat ranch. Her Dad was apparently a gentleman farmer type since he made his living with Singer. The ranch has long since been paved over and the area it stood on is today a part of downtown Los Angeles. Gladys enjoyed a happy, secure childhood. Both of her parents were accepting and supportive of her. Clara encouraged her daughters flair for the dramatic in hopes that young Gladys would choose a career as an actress. Charles had had his own aspiration to be an attorney thwarted when he had to get a job. Despite the extreme rarity of female lawyers in those days, he hoped his daughter would go into law. In a way, Gladys fulfilled the dreams of both her parents for she became an attorney who dressed like she belonged in the theater.

Little Gladys attended an elementary school that demanded its students wear uniforms. Gladys despised this practice. At the age of nine, she asked her teacher, Why should everybody dress the same?

Because its a rule, was the teachers simple reply.

Arent teachers supposed to set an example for the children? Gladys pressed.

Why certainly, the teacher said.

Then why shouldnt the teachers wear this school uniform?

In this exchange, Gladys showed her contrary trait. She also made a good point, one the teacher did not bother to address before she went on to the days lesson.

One day Gladys and a pal named Doris were playing with mud. The little girls put mud on each others faces. It caked on their skin by the time they reached their different homes. Gladyss mother washed the dried dirt off of her daughters face, then gave the youngster a spanking.

The tearful little girl phoned her friend, who had been similarly punished. You know, Gladys said woefully, I think we put the mud in the wrong place.

One day, Gladys Dad awoke to find that his irrepressible daughter had painted his car red, white, and blue. The shocked man demanded an explanation. One was forthcoming: Daddy, its the Fourth of July, you know!

At least it proves youre a patriotic American, he said. More than that, it showed she was Gladys.

As a high school senior, Gladys was invited to a graduation beach party. She wore a bathing suit that she herself had knitted; a silk vest served as its foundation. When Gladys plunged into the water, something happened to the bathing suit: it stretched. Salt water decimated the silk vest underneath.

Gladys walked out of the water with huge holes in her bathing suit. She stood on the beach, wet and gasping and red-faced. The assembled group of teenagers laughed and jeered until a kindly boy took pity on her and brought her a blanket.

An equally memorable appearance by Gladys was made just a few weeks later at a dance. She created her own gown by pinning a multitude of stiffened leaves onto a slip. It took her sixteen hours to make this dress. As the dance wore on, the warmth caused the leaves to wilt, then fall off. Gladys found herself on a dance floor, wearing a slip covered with pins! A friend ran to her and gave her a dress, saying, Your mother gave it to my mother to give to you just in case of an emergency.

Later, Root would say that her mothers influence helped her to identify with her clients. My mother told me when I was a young girl that I must be broad-minded toward unusual behavior, Gladys recalled. She told me to think of those people as loose spokes on the wheel of life.

Root attended the University of Southern California at its main campus in Los Angeles as an undergraduate and went to its law school. Tom Tomlinson, an Associate Dean of USC who is writing a history of its Law School, says, She didnt receive a BA, just an L.L. B. In the 1920s and 1930s, in many colleges of law, people could transfer to the law school after three years of college work and that is what she did. The L.L.B stands for bachelor of laws; it was the common degree given by most American law schools through the mid-1960s. Now most law schools award the JD degree: juris doctorate.

Tomlinson elaborates that, Students who were in class with her remembered her for wearing flamboyant hats. She wore the hats but not the gowns that she would become famous for wearing to courtrooms. Theres hardly a person who worked in law at the time who doesnt recall her showing up for court in tight, form-fitting dresses. He adds that there is another reason she is well-remembered: It was highly unusual for a woman attorney to practice criminal law at the time she went into it.



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