The Man Behind the Myth: Who was the REAL Kunstler?

By Madison McAllister

“Radical Attorney.” “Great American Hero.” “The most hated lawyer in America.” William Kunstler was a notorious defense attorney with many names and a larger-than-life personality that made him a force to be reckoned with both inside and outside the courtroom.

Kunstler was born in New York in 1919, the oldest of three children in a middle-class Jewish family from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. After graduating with honors from Yale University in 1941, he served in the Army Signal Corps in the Pacific during World War II where he rose to the rank of major.

After the war, he returned to the US, earned a law degree from Columbia University, and opened a modest law practice, Kunstler & Kunstler, with his brother, Michael, in 1946. That modest and ordinary civil practice met its end when he was asked to represent Paul and Orial Redd, the African American founders of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, in a housing discrimination lawsuit – his first Civil Rights case.

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William Kunstler and his client, Cynthia Boston, an avowed black nationalist (1981). Photo

Kunstler went on to work with Martin Luther King Jr. and played a major role in many legal battles during the Civil Rights Movement. This included defending Vietnam War protesters, the Catonsville Nine, and the Chicago Seven. He also co-founded, along with three other “radical lawyers,” the Center for Constitutional Rights in 1966.

Personally changed by his new line of work, Kunstler was unable to hold together his first marriage with Lotte Rosenberger. He met his soon-to-be second wife Margaret Ratner, another radical attorney, in New York City. The two married in 1976 and had two daughters, Sarah and Emily. His daughters later directed a documentary about his life titled William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.Kunstler Doc.jpg

In the 1980s, Kunstler suffered intense scrutiny and criticism as he began to take on clients viewed as “less defensible” by his left-leaning fan base. He received frequent death threats and was confronted by protesters outside his home.

Kunstler wrote many books over the course of his career, including two autobiographies, several legal histories, and books of poetry.

“Mr. Kunstler made not just a career but also a life out of representing people and movements that were disliked, even despised,” wrote The New York Times after his death. “His clients’ unpopularity seemed to inspire Mr. Kunstler, who was recognized by admirers and detractors alike as a lawyer who embraced pariahs.”

Today, he is and will remain, known for his unconventional pursuit of justice.

Kunstler died of heart failure on September 5, 1995. He was 76 years old.

FST’s Kunstler, a dramatic comedy exploring the famous lawyer’s most controversial cases, runs in FST’s Bowne’s Lab Theatre through March 13. For tickets and more information, click here.