THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES A. BONDOUX

RENE BONDOUX: BARRISTER



Papa claimed to never have had a calling to the law – he left the house to register at the university, not quite sure if he would attend medical school or law school. It turned out that the bus stop was closer to the law school, and so that was it! But, much as in his fencing endeavors, he attacked his studies with great tenacity and persistence.

He finished his law doctorate in the spring of 1930, and earned the honor of "school laureate". The Paris court required a minimum three-year of apprenticeships with established practices before a new lawyer could be sworn in. Thanks to the knowledge of the courts held by his father (my grandfather "Papi") who was a Supreme Court judge, he was able to serve with a series of star lawyers and gain a wide exposure to the legal system.

The interns making their apprenticeships were required to compete in an annual oratorical challenge, in which they had to deliver a speech to their peers before a panel of judges. About 150 competitors would be narrowed down to 24, and in the final round to 12 winners, who were ranked. The 12 would serve as "secretaries" to the Batonnier of the day. Father came in first, and was thereafter known as"First Secretary". The winners, the "secretaries", thus earned early recognition as rising stars in the profession, and would be advantaged in their later choices, i.e. entering politics, or seeking a judgeship, or competing for the better positions available to assist lawyers with established practices. As always, Papa's formula was "work, work, work", and it allowed to become a leader of the elite. (He would later acknowledge that it was sometime a delicate matter to reconcile this concept of a professional elite with the concept of the equality of all before the law).

Father at the bar

Steely-eyed Barrister at the bar.

Papa was notorious for his rigorous insistence upon total objectivity and independence of mind. He was unbending in upholding the duties and responsibilities of the barrister. He believed that a lawyer's mission, as an auxiliary of the court, is to establish the truth, via his client and via the available physical evidence. He recognized the difficulty of this quest, especially since experience shows that an event, whether it occurred in the most intimate family arena or in the external domain of business and industry, will be viewed and explained in very different ways according to how it was lived or perceived by the parties involved.

In good faith, different individuals can describe different "truths". What’s more, since he is concerned by the interpretation to be given to the event, the client, knowingly or not, may be convinced that his interpretation is the only one that expresses the truth. In this quest for the "truth", client meetings play the major role.

He carried in his wallet an old, wrinkled piece of paper carrying a quote of the illustrious barrister Fernand Labori, who had been the defense lawyer for Emile Zola, and then for Alfred Dreyfus in the pre-WWI rehabilitation case for the latter. The quote is this one: "Any defense lawyer working to impede justice, and who knowingly supports false theories or affirms inaccurate facts may be a skilled debater and an eloquent orator, but he is not a lawyer".

In 1932, as a rising young star, he was called in by the Batonnier (the head of the Bar), who assigned to him the defense of Gorgulov, the anarchist who had assassinated the President of France, Georges Doumer. Father was exhilarated to have this high–profile case, as it was sure to create the foundation for his own independent practice. His proud announcement of the plum to his father led to a serious discussion, in which he was reminded that long-standing bonds of close friendship existed between the Bondoux and the Doumer families. In the event, how could he be sure he could provide the accused the defense to which he was entitled? With a heavy heart, Father had to recuse himself from this first great case. In hindsight, it turns out to have been a boon, as the case was tried concurrently with the 1932 Olympic Games, and Father would not have gone to Los Angeles in that year! And of course, he would not have met, nor wed, Virginia.

Following the end of WWII, Father focused intensely on rebuilding his practice, which had prospered in the 30's but had evaporated during the six-year hiatus. The "work, work, work" formula continued to pay off, and his success was illuminated with a wide variety of cases: a variety of corporate work for the electric company, but also currency counterfeiting, euthanasia, wartime collaboration, murder, the divorce of Arturo Patino, the Bolivian tin magnate, the tussle over ownership of the Monte Carlo Casino for Aristotle Onassis, and so on. The French Government Prosecutor took to referring to Papa as "Bondoux the Magnificent".

By 1963, Father was elected to the office of Batonnier, i.e. leader of the "guild" of Paris lawyers. He became in the words of one of them "Barrister among barristers". He considered it an immense honor, but one that carried an extremely heavy burden of reponsibilities, mostly revolving around disciplinary actions against wayward members of the profession, but also in negotiations with the government on the structure of the courts and management of the judiciary in France.



Grand Officer

President Chirac and Father at the 1995 Ceremony in which he was made Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor.



It was around those years that Father emerged as THE pre-eminent barrister for what he called "Industrial Accidents", involving matters of liability when catatrophes occurred. In 1966, there was the Feyzin affair, when a propane storage tank farm erupted in a huge fireball, near Lyon, with 18 dead and 81 injured.

Then there was the 1970 "Cinq-Sept", a dance-hall fire in the Alps, in which three of the four exits from a cinder-block building had been padlocked during a rock concert resulting in 146 horrible fatalities. In 1972 he took on the Vierzy Tunnel case, in which the combined vibrations of two trains crossing inside an ancient tunnel caused its collapse – 108 dead, 111 injured. That same year there was the case of the contaminated Morange Talcum Powder, in which the neurotoxin hexachlorophene blended into the product caused the death of at least 30 newborn children. In 1973 a school fire in a poorer neighborhood of Paris took 20 lives, a dredge capsized in the English Channel with 10 fatalities... and so on.

In this gruesome parade, Father was retained to defend those deemed responsible for the catastrophe. His role was to ensure that the court maintained reasonable objectivity when confronted with the perfectly understandable bottomless grief of the families of victims and with the needs of the survivors.

Occasionally, Papa would reflect on his career, which he clearly loved and lived intensely. He often said that his files held "untold potential scripts for Hollywood" and that he might someday write them. He wrote these words; "I have led a fascinating life, enriched by the knowledge of the most secret turns of heart and mind of both men and women, so much alike on the surface and yet all so mysteriously unique and different".