Remembering E. Barrett Prettyman

On November 4, 2016, E. Barret Prettyman Jr. (1925-2016) passed away. He was a well-known attorney with an impressive legacy that spans international relations, civil rights, literature, and more. He also holds an interesting connection to American author Katherine Anne Porter and the University of Maryland.

You care about Prettyman if you care about important Supreme Court cases like Brown versus Board of Education, the landmark case that desegregated public schools, and for which Prettyman served as on the advisory council for in 1954. You care about Prettyman if you care about the 1962 release of American prisoners taken during Bay of Pigs crisis during which Prettyman successfully negotiated with then Cuban President Fidel Castro for their return and safe release. You care about Prettyman if you are at all concerned with the House Ethics committee, the First Ammendment, and the death penalty. Over the course of his long legal career, Prettyman became heavily involved with all of these areas of the legal system. The obituaries in the Washington Post and New York Times illustrate his storied career and commitment to the legal system.


Portrait of Prettyman inscribed to Porter: “For Katherine Anne, With happy memories of lovely, relaxed, and fiery reminiscent afternoons of good talk in the best of company, and with love, Barrett”

As the one of the repositories of Prettyman’s personal papers, Special Collections and University Archives at UMD holds not only the documents that reveal Prettyman’s legal prowess, but the papers as a whole offer a robust reminder that often a person is much more than the sum of their achievements. Available in the Maryland Room in Hornbake Library, the E. Barrett Prettyman Papers includes personal and business correspondence, primarily between Prettyman and Katherine Anne Porter.

Of the many articles written this week about Prettyman, few have acknowledged his great love of literature and the impact literature and writing had on his legal career. Several mention that Prettyman’s circle of friends included literary elites like Katherine Anne Porter and Truman Capote, but this doesn’t capture how significant these relationships seem to have been to Prettyman.

Prettyman greatly admired Porter and her writings, in part because he was a writer himself. In 1961, he published Death and the Supreme Court, which won two awards: the Mystery Writers of America Award for the best fact-crime book of the year and the Scribes Award for the best expression for the lay reader of the aims and purposes of the legal profession.

His papers reveal Prettyman interactions with Porter and his boundless generosity both personally and professionally with the writer whose work he admired. He met Porter in 1962, when he called her to request an autograph copy of her novel Ship of Fools. Porter and Prettyman’s professional relationship and friendship lasted until 1977, when Porter’s own health deteriorated. What remains from this relationship unfortunately cannot be contained in a blog post or an obituary: the boxes of letters and correspondence are waiting to be discovered by researchers in the archive. However, if you care at all about E. Barret Prettyman Jr., you care deeply about more than just the headlines, you care about the scraps and remainders that challenge them.

Below are photographs from the opening of the Katherine Anne Porter Room at the University of Maryland in May, 1968. Katherine Anne Porter, E. Barrett Prettyman, are University President Wilson Elkins are among the crowd.


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